Holy Actions Are What Matter
A sermon based on: Luke 16:19-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 29, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A preacher looked out over the congregation from the pulpit at the start of a sermon and said “Someday every member of this church will die!” A man from out of town (wearing blue and maize) whispered to his son he’d come to church with “Ha! Good thing I am not a member of this church.”
Regardless of what church we join we are, of course, all going to die someday– the overwhelming evidence bears this out. Death is a reality we can be sure of. This side of death– life– is a reality that we can also be sure of. What happens on the other side of death is a whole lot less certain. Yet many religious people focus their faith on the great by-and-by and end up living to die to live in heaven. A number of Christians cultivate this focus arguing that belief is a means to an end, and that the results are exchanging the purported default of hell for others’ beliefs for the purported reward of heaven in the afterlife for their belief. To this way of thinking salvation becomes a reward dolled out at death for how we believe in life. But that is a far cry from how Jesus tells it in today’s Lectionary reading. In Jesus’ story the passkey to heaven is not getting the right belief.
As Jesus tells it right religion is not what even opens the pearly gates. We know that the rich man in Jesus’ story had the right religion. He called Abraham “Father,” meaning he was Jewish. Meaning to Jesus’ listeners he had the right religion. Meaning to us today that he had the very same religion as Rabbi Jesus and all of the Apostles and the vast majority in their community. Having the right religion did not get the rich man into a good afterlife. His beliefs did not get him to heaven. In Jesus’ story belief does not open the gates to heaven. The rich man had the right religion and beliefs, but he did not listen and do what needed to be done.
As Jesus tells it: long ago God sent Moses and the prophets . . . and people did not listen. We know now that God even sent the risen Christ, yet just as Jesus tells it, there are those who still do as they want and don’t listen to him. If Jesus’ parable illustrates anything it is the obvious fact that it is too late after death to get it right in life. Afterlife is not the place to start working on living a good life. We need to work on it now. Jesus’ teaching can be understood to be about living the life we have to the best of our ability in every moment of now that we get. Jesus’ Way is not about living with right belief. It is about living with right actions.
This morning’s Lectionary text starts at verse 19, but if we go back to verse 14 we discover that Jesus directed today’s verses to what the Greek calls “philargurus” (fil-are-goo-ros), which literally means “lovers of money.” 1 Jesus is telling lovers of money that they are in great trouble, that there is a great role reversal waiting for them. And if we go even further back to the first chapter of Luke we find Jesus’ mother Mary describing the great role reversal Jesus teaches. Mary sings in The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55):
” [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. . . “
Jesus’ parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” is a study in the contrasts and role reversals that Mary sang about. In Jesus’ story the rich man is covered in purple and fine linen. The poor man is covered in sores. The rich man feasts. The poor man longs to eat what scraps fall from the table. The rich man gets a proper burial. The poor man has no burial.
The only good thing that happens while living to the poor man is he has a name – and one with great meaning. The rich man in contrast has no name. The poor man’s name is Lazarus, which means “Whom God helps.” God always helps the oppressed and the poor. While it may appear that the rich man has it all, the name Lazarus signals he is the one who actually has what we all want, God’s help. Lazarus is the one whom God helps.
That seems odd since Lazarus lays at the rich man’s gate in such bad shape that he cannot stop the dogs from licking his wounds. Degraded. Disabled. Hungry. Humbled. Lazarus. This is whom God helps. The rich man in sharp contrast is “dressed in purple and fine linen,” the purple indicates he is connected to royalty. And this rich royal fellow keeps have-nots like Lazarus (those whom God helps) at a distance. He does not help those whom God helps. Safe in his home away from the gate where Lazarus lay, the rich man “feast[ed]s sumptuously every day.” The rich man lived in the lap of luxury. In life he seemed to have it all. And he did not even grant Lazarus’s lowly desire to have his garbage, the scraps of food from his table. Lazarus was left longing in life for those scraps and the nameless rich man did nothing. He did not even notice Lazarus – a man he walked by every day in need at his gated home. The rich man did not help “whom God helps.” That is his folly, his do nothingness, he fails to help those whom God helps.
The way God helps is through humans who can help with what blessings God has given them. The Lectionary readings for a number of weeks have focused on the reality of that. Whether we like it or not, God depends on us to be holy agents. We are meant to live up to being made in the image of God. We are meant to be God’s human arms on earth reaching out to help. Leviticus 19:2 puts it like this: “ You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. Saint Augustine put it like this “God without us will not as we without God cannot”.
The rich man was God’s agent, God’ image, God’s hands and he chose to do nothing with his blessings and that glorious Holy power to help those whom God helps. When the nameless rich man dies his fate is set. His selfish lap-of-luxury life without help for his neighbor led to his own everlasting thirst. His life story echos through time as empty as his hands were empty for Lazarus and the poor. The slate marking his deeds as God’s agent is as blank as his name in the story. That empty life and the memory of it are blessings to no one. It was an un-Holy life. The reward for un-Holy lives is Hades.
And even there in Hades the rich man is stuck continuing to act like a snob treating Lazarus – whom God and Abraham honor– as a person beneath him. This is true even though it is the rich man who occupies the low-as-you-can-go station in eternity. The rich man tries to get the honored Lazarus to serve him water, and to run a message of warning to his brothers, not to his neighbors, just his own family. In Hades he still does not love his neighbors. He still does not want to help those whom God helps.
The rich man lived and died not getting it, and wants a dead guy to show up and warn his brothers. But Abraham tells him that “If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Moses and the prophets set out God’s clear command to love neighbors as self, and to be Holy as God is Holy. The rich man failed to do it. He did not live God’s dream for humans. He did not heed God’s call. He did not do God’s work. His failure to love his neighbor –as Jesus tells it– dooms him to everlasting unquenchable thirst.
Humans are to act as instruments of God. In Jesus’ story God expected no less of the rich man, and God expects no less from us. This is God’s call to us. Moses and the prophets make this clear. Jesus makes it clear. In life we are to live for life; and not just our life, others’ lives. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ and neighbors’ keeper. We must live FOR now, FOR us and FOR others; and this is at least as important today as it was two thousand years ago. The Feasting on the Word commentary on this text puts it like this:
The ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor is one of the most important issues of our day. The intrepid “moral of the story” expressed in this parable is that if you do not cross the gaping chasm between the rich and the poor in this life, you will surely not be able to do it in the next. At least for now those who hoard and have more than their share on this earth, there is no respite to be offered in the life to come. Warnings and messages come in every form, but they remain unheeded. In the final day the chasm cannot be crossed.
Then commentary adds:
There is no escaping this indictment. Those who help create the economic divide by greed and selfish-ness will not be able to right themselves in any other life than this one. This is a parable urging “the haves” to do justice now, for there will be no opportunity later. The saying “Justice delayed is justice denied” extends even further through this teaching of Jesus that seems to imply that redemption delayed is redemption denied. 2.
The commentator is right, this is an important issue. A document called the 2018 “State of Poverty in Knox County” makes that certain indicating (and I am quoting),
Out of 15.6% of [the county’s] persons in poverty 22.1 % of those persons are children. 58.7 % of Knox County children are living in households receiving some kind of . . . public assistance. 4
Just a year earlier a 2017 Knox Community Survey indicated that there are approximately 2600 children in our county living in poverty and that the number of all ages experiencing poverty in Knox County is 7,900. Those whom God helps are here now. 4 Jesus’ lesson before us today is to his followers and addresses a single person in the parable, but the lesson to help in life those whom God helps applies to not just Christian individuals but churches too.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it like this “Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.” How might we fair? I can tell you this, in addition having a modest amount of money to provide to individuals and projects for those in need now and then, our church supports with other monies and volunteers a number of local non-profits wrestling with the reality of local poverty.
This fall we are even amping up our efforts. We will continue to host Hot Meals on Tuesdays and make and serve the meals every other week, but our Mission and Service team has made Hot Meals a top priority and we are working to solidly sustain that great mission. Our church also contributes finances and people power to Interchurch Social Services, Hope Now, New Directions, Our Churches Wider Mission and Habitat for Humanity. I know some of our members work at elementary schools and the Mission and Services Committee is working on a mission to adopt Dan Emmett Elementary as a place for us to go and work and help with fiances too when available and needed. One website I saw indicates that 97% of students there qualify to receive free or reduced lunches. 5 As your pastor I serve on the Winter Sanctuary board, a number of you work at their homeless shelter and provide financial help too. And this year we have retooled our church theatre ministry Community Family Players to partner with the Winter Sanctuary to put together the Holiday play A Christmas Carol as major-fund raiser for the homeless shelter. I know many of you help out financially and otherwise with non-profits that help fight poverty that I did not mention.
We are doing a lot to help those whom God helps. We do all of this work for those in need because we have to be God’s agents working on this issue. We have to be God’s hands reaching out to those whom God helps. WE must be Holy, the Holy hands of God; because, “God without us will not as we without God cannot.” We must live in the now and heed the teachings of Moses and the prophets and most especially Jesus. Those whom God helps depend on it, now. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it like this “God wants all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and has left in this universe ‘enough to spare’ for that purpose.” We can help. God has given us the resources to do that.
The good news is there is enough to go around. The good news is the poor are whom God helps. The good news is we are how God provides that help. The good news is WE, you and me, are honored to be God’s very own agents. The good news is WE are alive and we can make a difference and there are plenty of us to do just that. We can be Holy as God is Holy. We must be Holy as God is Holy. We must continue to help those whom God helps. Thank you for doing just that as church and as individuals. And may we never stop until all have enough.
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010.
1. BibleWorks 8, KJV with codes definition of term at Luke 16:14 translated in KJV as “covetous,” but translated in the NRSV as “lovers of money,”
2. Nixon, G. Penny, Feasting on the Word, commentary on Luke 16:19-31, page 121
3. State of Poverty in Knox County,
4. KNOX American Community Survey 2017. https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=CF
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