We could turn this parable on its head, and say that we are beggars and God saves us though we deserve nothing, while punishing the rich man because he was stingy. It is true that those who have wealth should be generous to those who are ill-fed and ill-clothed. But the message of this parable would be missed if it teaches only that the rich should help the poor.
The parable says the poor man became comfortable because of God’s help, and the rich man was eternally afflicted. This reversal of roles is one of the most disturbing of all the teachings of Jesus. Most of us would not identify with the rich man, or would not admit it if we did. Even so, the story does not end with switching in eternity the places they had on earth. There are other characters in the story.
The rich man has five brothers and they are not an afterthought or footnote. Jesus did not add unimportant details to his stories. Rather, the story points to all six brothers. In his torment, the rich man says to Abraham, “Send Lazarus.” Until now, there’s no hint that he knew the name of the beggar.
Now he can call him by name and asks Abraham to send him, of all people, to warn his brothers. “If someone from the dead goes, they will believe.” But his brothers are like the ungodly people when Noah started building an ark. They said, “Why are you building an ark?” They laughed at him until the rains came, the water rose, and the ark floated to save those inside. Jesus gave a warning that must be heard, a warning to be written on our hearts.
Jesus came saying the kingdom of God is at hand, not outside the door waiting to come in, nor 90 days or five years away. The kingdom is in our midst right now, at work in us and all our fellow believers. Like unseen yeast in bread or salt in our food, the kingdom is vital but not pushy. In his preaching and teaching, parables and stories, Jesus urged his listeners to be ready for the kingdom.
We never know when or where the kingdom may break out, and bring us an opportunity to do God’s will in one situation after another. Too often, we think we can become worthy, we deserve the good life, or we can bring light and goodness into the world by being in control. It isn’t true. We cannot worship ourselves, which is what much of modern culture urges us to do. Buy more goods. Take your ease. You deserve it. Just so, we worship ourselves. There’s never been a more insidious campaign than the idea that we deserve this or that, most of which is terribly insignificant in view of the world’s real problems.
The great American obsession with things has got it all wrong. Do we covet things, and the power of money? Do we think we deserve the good life? We indulge ourselves with pleasure, but truth to the contrary is spoken here in worship. What the world says is not true, and in our heart of hearts we know better.
The letter to the Colossians tells truth. Paul writes, “Jesus Christ has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Here in worship we believe that loving service to others is the high road of life. Here we know our real citizenship is in God’s kingdom. Here we declare that Jesus Christ is the head of the body, the church, that he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might have first place in everything. But not the brothers.
They are living a careless life in regards to God, totally consumed with their own comfort, their own pleasure, taking their ease in Zion with a world of beggars at the door. As the prophet Amos said 3000 years ago, “Woe to those who anoint themselves with the finest oils but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”
The five brothers — and their kin — are still at the fork in the road. They have time, precious time, in which to hear Moses and the prophets. We are the ones who have the obligation to be sure that they hear the word of God. Moses and the prophets take many forms today, but the message is always the same. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.”
And if somebody does not hear the Gospel that God so loved the world that he gave his own son, then they will scoff at the supernatural, or the miraculous, even though it be a resurrection from the dead.
The story, then, is about the ultimate limits of life, and the patience of God. The limits of life are heaven and hell. Finally, it will be one or the other. The patience of God continues to the end of this life, the end of opportunity. St Paul told the church in Rome, ” the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And he later wrote, “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
No one can ever get past this story of the six brothers, one in hell and the other five, without a ringing in the ears that says, “This night your soul will be required of you.” Who are you and where do you stand?
Here at this fork in the road stands the cross, and on it, Jesus Christ. There he died for you and me. The door to his great banquet hall is still open. The time is now. The hour of his visitation is always upon us. The Father has lit a candle in the window for us, and running down the road to greet us as we come home.
He is our Father now; he is our Father in the hereafter. If we live, we live in him. And if we die, we die in him. The world says the right order of events is first life and then death.
But in the church we say the right order of events is that the treasure of baptism means we die to self, and then comes new life in Christ and resurrection into all eternity.
Therefore whether we live or we die, we are in Christ. Nothing can snatch us out of the hand of God.
The days of this life grow short and ever shorter. Time is running out and shades of night are faster falling. If, this night — will your companion in eternity be the rich man? Or will it be Lazarus, Abraham and Jesus?
We know what our answer must be. Are we paying attention to God? Our spiritual ancestors in this family of God kept alive a community of believers, this congregation of saints.
Now it’s our turn, so that generations yet unborn can become part of this community of believers and with us to be alive in Christ.
And for eternity, thank God, his mercy keeps heaven open for us where we shall be welcomed in the greatest church banquet of them all, the final feast of victory.