I feel like I need to admit something to you today. It is something that may come as a shock to many of you, but I feel like I need to get this off my chest.
That is this: I really do not like Christian niche decorative items. OK, I feel better now that I have said that.
I really get uncomfortable when I walk into a store and see these items for sale. There is the “Jesus Fish” car magnet often used to alert drivers that you are a Christian when you cut them off in traffic or berate the Starbucks employee for getting your order for a pumpkin spice latte you had to have in the middle of a heat wave wrong. The T-shirt that says, “I am a Pastor, because hardcore devil ninja fighter is not a job title” which, while it provides a smirk, I have no desire wearing in public. And, of course, the multiple decorative Bibles designed to attract your personal preferences and lifestyle, such as the Athlete Bible, the parent’s bible, and, multiple other titles to convince you that you are not growing in faith without this “perfect” bible.
If I named anything you owed, please known that I am sorry. This is just my own struggle at what is often the commercialization of Christianity. I personally struggle with seeing faith as an industry and institution more than a life-changing movement of God. We’ve turned faith in Christ into a status symbol and static religion that is more about being born into a life than it is about changing the world. We’ve done this to the point we believe we are strong follower of Christ merely if we were born in the church, show up a few Sundays a year, read the Scriptures once in a while, and give a few dollars to church.
Is that really what this life is all about? Is Christianity really about a cultural experience more than it is a powerful, life-changing, movement of God that calls us to make disciples and change the world?
I ask those questions, because I believe our passage, this morning, requires them to be asked. Luke 16:19-31 offers us another in a series of passages intended to challenge our understandings of how we often see following Christ. The story calls us to look at ourselves to see where we might fit into the story. While we may want to immediately associate ourselves with the poor of the story, it is imperative that we look at the rich man, his desire for status, and ponder upon how Jesus calls us to live in response to our faith in God.
The story comes as Jesus is challenging the religious leaders in their understanding of Scripture. It follows the parable of the dishonest or shrewd manager that we looked at last week. If you remember, we said Jesus calls us to be careful stewards of the resources God entrusted us with and not to be servants of money.
That was a parable Jesus shared with his disciples, but listening in to the conversation were a group of Pharisees. They immediately spoke up and chimed in on how Jesus was not speaking about them and their love of money. They had been known to twist Scripture in order to justify themselves, especially when it comes to money.
They were doing the very same thing that we do sometimes. Have you ever read a piece of Scripture and think, “There is no way Jesus is speaking about me with these words?” If you think that, you’re already missing the point of passages that call us to deeper ways of Christ and examine what it means to follow the Lord. In response, Jesus offers this story to the Pharisees and to us when we try to justify our own actions and status. He wants us to see what we are called to do in response to our faith in God.
He does so, once again, through the use of a parable that is unique in its composition. It is the only time we have proper names given to two individuals: Lazarus and Abraham. Lazarus could be a reference to the Lazarus of John 11 or a common name of that time that meant “God has helped.” Abraham is a reference to the Abraham of Genesis. There was a Jewish belief that Abraham would be at the gates of Hades making sure true Israelites did not get in.
The story, though, focuses on the actions of the unnamed rich man. He is defined as being dressed in purple, which was an expensive color of royalty and privilege. He would host feasts that almost like those that Herod Agrippa would host on a daily basis. All while Lazarus, who was defined as a poor man who longed for the scraps of these meals, sat outside of his gate with no concern given for him.
This rich man likely believed, as did the Pharisees, that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. It was a twisting of Scripture of God’s blessings to place it upon the material wealth of individuals. At the same time, the condition of the poor and sick were seen as divine punishment and disfavor. In these ways, Scripture was taken out of context in order to justify and affirm the acts of the privileged and powerful.
Do we do this? Have we ever tried to justify our own self in regards to faith? Perhaps this is why the rich man of this story is unnamed, so that it gives us space to see ourselves within his story. To see how we claim being a Christian as a power and status symbol of privilege where simply being born a Christian is everything. We claim faith as a status symbol, often, because it enables us to have an advantage, both in getting into heaven and in the world. The church, in the post-World War II era through the early 1990s, was the dominant place in our culture not so much because our witness was strong, but because being in the church was necessary to have the right job and to be elected for office.
In order to carry this on, we’ll twist Scripture and faith to fit it into our comfortable boxes. We’ll make it fit our desires, our culture, our partisan politics, and our livelihoods. All in an attempt to make our status as a Christian be the symbol of power and privilege, instead of the witness of humility and servanthood Christ calls us to embrace. In doing so, we make faith into what we want and not what God desires.
This parable invites us to see how God calls us to live in response to our faith in Christ in the world. That is what all of these stories ask of us. Parables call us to find ourselves within the Scripture and see the life Christ calls us to embrace in response to our faith in God.
As such, let’s take a look at Lazarus. Whereas the rich man believes he is justified by what he has and, even, who he is, when the rich man dies the expected blessings of eternal rest is not waiting for him. Instead, we see the focus turn towards Lazarus and his death. When he dies, he is carried off into the divine presence. We don’t know anything about Lazarus other than he was a poor man who needed help that he never received. What we do know is that the rich man never gave help to Lazarus, even though he stood begging at his doors for crumbs.
Pay attention to what happens next. The roles are now reversed. Lazarus is received into the place of blessing, where he is now dining at the heavenly banquet. The rich man is now begging for a drop of water to cool his tongue. More than that, he is also begging Abraham for help. He wants messengers, even Lazarus, to warn his family who were likely doing the same things he did.
Abraham tells him that help was already there for him, as it was for him. It was found within the Scriptures, in the law and the Prophets. If they really wanted to know what this life was about, what it meant to truly be a child of God, then they should pay attention to the very Scripture they claim to value, love, respect, and honor. They very Scripture that announces how God is at work in making all things new, of humbling the powerful, and raising up the poor and forgotten.
That is the same for us. If we are to be true witnesses of Christ, then we have to pay attention to the whole of Scripture, in its proper context, and not try to cut out the passages we don’t like or do not fit our worldview.
So, what does Scripture tell us? Those who seek to follow God are called to be holy as their heavenly father is holy. What does this mean? Our lives are to be a reflection of God’s very character. We are to have a faith that is deeply connected with God to where we express his love, hope, justice, and grace in our lives. At the same time, we are called to live that out in how we respond to the needs and concerns in society, especially in our community.
Throughout Scripture, we see God call the people of faith to be compassionate and caring, especially towards those who are vulnerable. God continually reverses the tables upon the rich and powerful and raises up the poor. This is the activity we are called to take part in through our faith. Exodus calls those of faith to care for foreigners, because they experienced the hardships of being a foreigner in Egypt. Exodus announces that we are not to deny justice to the poor. Deuteronomy says the people of faith are to give food and clothing to the poor and, even, cancel their debts. Isaiah proclaims that the people of faith are to loosen the chains of injustice, set free the oppressed, share food with the hungry, and provide the poor with shelter. Amos chimes in by sharing how we are to hate evil and love what is good. He even shares that our acts of worship are not acceptable to God if we are not living out our concern for others.
Scripture paints a picture of how offering hospitality and care to the poor is an essential part of what it means to follow Christ. We are called, even still, to claim a faith that is not a status symbol, but a living, breathing, call to a mission to sharing the love of Christ with not just our words, but our hands, our feet, and our lives.
And, yet, it is easy to twist that to say, “Well, those are the passages of the Old Testament. We’re New Testament people.” Jesus never came to abolish the Law or Prophets. He came to point us to how we are to live them out in response to our life in Christ. The calling to care for the poor, the forgotten, and oppressed is for the church today a required aspect of living the life of Christ. We cannot miss that, because a faith that is missing a life lived out in concern for others is a faith that is more about ourselves than it is about Jesus.
Jesus shares these parables with us, so that we may pay attention to what it truly means to be a follower of Christ. It is not about sitting in pews, putting money in the offering plate, posting a few words on social media, or having a few favorite Scripture passages. It is about a life that participates in the dawning of God’s reign in the here and now by seeking to live out our faith with our words, actions, and deeds.
How might we do this? Perhaps by paying attention to Micah 6:8. A word for us as we seek to be a church that is not about status, but about a living, breathing, powerful movement of God’s grace in this community. It says, “This is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”
Faith is not about status. It is about living the life of Christ out. It is about doing what is right by having our entire lives defined not by things of this world, but of Christ and Christ alone. It is to share mercy and grace in our actions towards others by meeting the needs around us. It is by making this life less about ourselves, and all about God.
If we can pay attention to that life, what a difference this world will be. We’ll share Jesus in a powerful and relevant way that reaches the lives of those who are, today, begging for the church to notice them. We’ll change the world and our corner of it.