If you recall our gospel passage from last week, Jesus shared the parable of the dishonest manager followed by a series of teachings regarding our relationship to wealth, the poor, and ultimately God. Jesus urged people to use the resources at their disposal in this lifetime to care for the marginalized. Jesus even goes so far as to suggest the decisions we make regarding our resources and treatment of the marginalized, to some extent, impacts our place in the kingdom of God. While it may be uncomfortable for us to consider that our personal choices impact our eternal destiny—especially since we believe we are saved by grace through faith and not by our works—it is still important for us to feel the gravity of our personal choices and acknowledge they are not inconsequential. God has always cared deeply about how his people live in this world and he continues to do so.
Jesus concluded last weeks passage with an unmistakably straightforward admonition, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk 16:13b, NRSV). As Jesus explained it, you can’t serve two masters because eventually you will begin to favor one over the other, begin to love one and hate the other, begin to devote yourself to one and despise the other. To use Old Testament language, you might say that your heart becomes hardened toward the other master. If you serve wealth, therefore, your heart will become hardened toward God. And throughout the biblical story, we see that things tend not to end well for those whose hearts have been hardened toward God.
Our gospel passage this week is another one of those stories that illustrate the effects of a hardened heart and warns of the consequences. If the beginning of Ch. 16 lays out the teachings regarding our relationship to wealth, the poor, and God, then the story of the rich man and Lazarus at the end of Ch. 16 provides the visual representation of those teachings and their implications. Our passage this week is an object lesson.
In the parable, it is clear which master the rich man is a slave of. His fine linen and purple garments is a sure sign of his privilege and prestige. Not only did he dress well but he also ate well as a sign of his wealth. It says he “feasted sumptuously every day.” To say that he “feasted” would be enough to communicate that the rich man was able to eat in excess. He could eat until he was beyond full and then some. But the parable doubles-down on the rich man’s excess and says he “feasted sumptuously.” Not just a lot of food, but the best kind of food. As if that were not enough, it adds to the end, “every day.” The rich man didn’t eat like a king just on special occasions; he ate like a king every day! The point of piling on this language of excess is to show, without a doubt, the rich man was a slave above all slaves to wealth.
The result of the rich man’s slavery to wealth, then, was a heart hardened toward God. We see that hardened heart in the way he relates to the poor man named Lazarus. The rich man, being Jewish, would be familiar with the Torah and the sayings of the prophets—this is made explicit at the end of the parable when Abraham makes mention of “Moses and the prophets.” A central mandate throughout the Hebrew scriptures is justice, mercy, and care for the marginalized. We can be fairly certain that even if the rich man were the most nominal of all Jews, he would still be familiar with that core mandate.
Yet with the marginalized right outside his gate, represented by Lazarus, the rich man did nothing. It’s not as if the rich man didn’t want to invest the time and money to travel half way around the world in order to help the marginalized. Lazarus was right in front of him! All the rich man needed to do was open his eyes and respond. But he was unable to because his heart had become hardened. He was a slave to wealth and had become blind to God and God’s ways. In other words, the rich man had become completely indifferent toward God and God’s mandate to care for the marginalized. As far as the rich man was concerned, Lazarus didn’t exist; he was nothing. While we may not think of ourselves as wealthy like the rich man, how often do we still act as if certain people—or kinds of people—don’t exist?
But the balance of power shifts once both the rich man and Lazarus die. The rich man finds himself being tormented in Hades while Lazarus is being comforted in the arms of Abraham, with a great chasm separating the two. The roles have been reversed as now the rich man is the lowly one, begging Lazarus for what seems like a small thing, just a drop of water—though that drop of water would be more than the rich man had ever offered to Lazarus. Once it became clear there was nothing the rich man could do to change his fate, he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them so they too would not end up in Hades.
The rich man’s fear for the fate of his brothers indicates they too were living a life of excess and indifference toward the marginalized. His brothers also were slaves to wealth and the rich man knew their actions would lead to a similar fate as his own. Like the rich man, their hearts had been hardened and they were blind to God and God’s ways. In fact, they had become so blind, their hearts so hardened, that not even the appearance of a dead man could break through!
As a pastor, it is important to remember the heart of some people is so hardened they simply won’t accept the good news of a dead man from Nazareth raised to life in order to save the world. There is nothing in our power we can do about that. But we also remember God’s promise that he will take away our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. The Spirit can and will breath new life.
As a pastor, it is also important to remember that having “Moses and the prophets” means nothing unless we “listen to them.” Knowing about God is not the same as knowing God and following him. We must continually call our faith communities to love God and others in every aspect of our life. Our faith is to be lived out tangibly in the world. God’s mandate to care for the marginalized is absolutely central to the life of our faith communities because it forces us to ask the hard question of whether we are a slave to wealth or a slave to God. Are we willing to give what God has entrusted us with for the sake of the other? Or do we find ourselves looking for reasons to hold back for our own sake?
In the end, the issue isn’t simply a matter of being responsible with our material resources. It’s a matter of the heart and whether we are actively helping to usher in the coming kingdom of God as we embody the generous character of God in our own lives or are hindering the coming kingdom of God as we embody the self-centered and indifferent attitudes of this world. Remember, “both/and” is not an option.