Big Idea: If you ignore the poor now, God will ignore your supposed faith later.
Sometime this week you passed two very different people.
The first person lives just across the road in the Toy Factory Lofts just one street over. He’s got a beautiful place there. He drives a car that’s worth more than what your parents paid for their house. His loft is 3,100 square feet, plus a 700 square foot rooftop terrace. He has a gourmet European kitchen, top of the line appliances, exposed bricks and beams, 15 foot windows, 21 foot ceilings, and all the premium finishes. He’s got a stunning southern exposure for maximum sunlight, a gas connection for his barbecue, and a custom designed walk-in closet and ensuite. He eats meals everyday that you only get to enjoy when you go out to a really nice restaurant. He’s got a pretty nice life for himself.
The second person you passed lives a little further away, just about a kilometer, in a derelict long-stay hotel on King Street. He pays about $700 a month in rent for a dingy room with maid service that comes once a week. Many of his neighbors are on disability or low-paying jobs. Some of them struggle with addictions or mental illness. One of his neighbors only clears $656 with his welfare check; he makes up the difference in rent by collecting bottles and saving up tax refunds.
What do you think about these two very different people? One lives the Liberty Village dream; the other lives the Liberty Village nightmare. They pass each other on the streets sometimes, and they live close to each other, but that’s about all they have in common. What do you think about these people? More importantly, what does Jesus think about these people?
We don’t have to wonder, because in the parable that we just read, Jesus tells us exactly what he thinks of two people who are just like the ones I described.
The first isn’t given a name, but we’re told that he’s rich, “clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). He’s wearing the finest and most delicate linen known in the ancient world. The average diet back then consisted of soup, bread, and fruit. But this man eats feasts every single day. He has everything that you could want. He’s the ancient version of the man living in the $2 million loft in the Toy Factory.
And then we’re introduced to a poor man. Interestingly, Jesus gives him a name. He’s the only person to be given a name in any of Jesus’ parables, besides Abraham, who also appears in this parable. We read, “And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores” (Luke 16:20-21). He’s obviously very sick. It even seems that he can’t even move. He’s hungry, and he’s reduced to wanting to be a scavenger for food scraps, but he can’t even get that. Dogs are licking his sores. Don’t think of a cute puppy; think of ravenous street mutts.
Jesus gives us the extremes of wealth and poverty in his day. Not only that, but one lives in ceremonial purity, while the other wastes away in filth. Back then, many in Jesus’ audience would have seen riches as a blessing for obedience, and suffering as a punishment for sin. One person has it all, and the other person has nothing. The rich man has what we want; Lazarus has everything that we want to avoid.
I want you to see what Jesus is doing here.
One of the most personal and private areas of our lives is our money. You can talk about a lot of things, but when you get to talking about somebody’s financial situation, watch out. If you want to test this out, try walking up to someone after the service and saying, “I was just wondering: how much money do you make a year?” Or, “How much of a raise did you get last year anyway?” We keep our finances private, and most of us don’t even talk to our own families about it. But Jesus is putting our money on the table as something that he wants to talk about. It’s the theme of the entire chapter.
One of the most intimate areas of our financial lives are our financial dreams. We just got back from vacation, and at the end of the vacation we stayed at a beautiful house just north of Montreal. It was huge and had the pool, hot tub, landscaping. While we were there, we talked about the Porsche 918 Spyder. It’s called the Porsche 918 because they only made 918 of them, and they each cost about a million. I have to admit that I could get pretty interested in all of that. I like five star hotels. I like gourmet dinners. I like nice cars. And so do you. I don’t know what your particular financial dream is, but I know that you have one.
Jesus wants to talk about our money. Not only that, he wants to talk about our financial dreams. And he has three things to say to us in this story.
First lesson: Don’t limit your financial dreams to this life.
Now, this is a very interesting parable for a few reasons. One of them is that this is the only parable that Jesus told where the action continues into the afterlife. We read:
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. (Luke 16:22-23)
Notice that the poor man dies, but Jesus doesn’t say anything about a burial. He was probably thrown in a pauper’s grave. The rich man also dies, but he gets a burial, most likely one that befits someone of his wealth and stature. If you had to measure their lives at this point, you’d say that Lazarus lived and died a poor man, and that the rich man lived and died well.
But Jesus shows us that there’s more to life than this life, and that this changes the financial equation completely. You can be rich in this life, and poor in the next. Conversely, you can be poor in this life, and rich in the next. The poor man, Lazarus, dies, and he’s carried to Abraham’s side. Luke uses an interesting word for carried. The word has the sense that something is being put in its right place. In other words, it’s like Lazarus is carried to where he belonged in the first place. He dies, and he gets the royal treatment. He’s in the seat of honor at a feast. He was never invited to a feast in this life, but he’s escorted by angels to a feast in the next one. He was bankrupt in this life, but a billionaire in the next.
But look at what happens to the rich man. He is in Hades — in Hebrew tradition, the place of the dead — and he’s in torment. “The rich man, once healthy and wealthy and enjoying nothing but the finest in life, now suffers the worst torment in death, his last two requests denied” (David E. Garland).
What Jesus shows us here is this: it’s okay to have financial dreams, but make sure that your dreams will make you rich in eternity. If you’re not careful, you will enjoy all that this world has to offer. You may even reach the top 1% in terms of wealth, and yet be completely bankrupt in the next life.
If you believe that this life is all that there is, then go crazy. Accumulate all the wealth you can. Buy the nicest house or condo. Live the dream. But if you believe what Jesus says here, then go crazy differently. Accumulate all the wealth you can in the next life. Live not for here and now, but for eternity. Build your portfolio so that you’re truly rich, not in this life, but in the next. Live the dream of being rich with God. Nobody put it better than Jesus:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
A couple of years ago I came across this quote by Randy Alcorn, and it’s stuck with me ever since:
Financial planners tell us, “When it comes to your money, don’t think just three months or three years ahead. Think thirty years ahead.” Christ, the ultimate investment counsellor, takes it further. He says, “Don’t ask how your investment will be paying off in just thirty years. Ask how it will be paying off in thirty million years.”
If you get this — really get it — then it changes everything. Whatever you treasure now, you’ll treasure forever. If you treasure money and wealth and status, then you will get that for eternity, but it won’t be worth anything in eternity. If you treasure God, you’ll get that both now, and for eternity, and it’s worth anything. Be careful what you want, because you’ll get it — but worldly wealth won’t be worth anything in the next life at all.
Second lesson: Choose your identity carefully.
I mentioned something before: this parable is unusual because Lazarus is given a name. There’s no other parable in which this happens. In every other parable Jesus ever tells, nobody has a proper name. It’s always a sower, a shepherd, a man, a widow, a Samaritan, or something. There’s never anyone with a proper name. But here, one character is given a proper name. It has to be significant. Jesus does this for a reason.
What’s the significance? Lazarus has a name that means “God is my help.” It was a name that had a rich history in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a good name, one that you’d want for your son if you lived back then. But what else does this name mean? It means that “though unrecognized by people, the person and fate of Lazarus is known by God” (Darrell Bock).
On the other hand, the rich man is given no identity other than his riches. Who is he? He has no real identity except his riches, and now his riches are gone. They’re no good to him anymore. Tim Keller puts it well:
The reason the rich man doesn’t have a name is that’s all he is. He’s a rich man, or he’s nothing. He has built his life on his wealth so that if his wealth is gone, there’s no one there…
Lazarus had nothing, and he had a self; he had a name. Lazarus went through the most incredible change of all, death, which is a very big change, and he was still him. Interesting. The rich man is different. Why? He doesn’t have a name…
That’s the reason why Jesus says if you build a self on anything but God, you don’t really have a self; you don’t have something that’s there no matter what. There’s not a you that’s there, a sustained core identity, a sustained core self that’s there no matter what the situation, no matter what the circumstances; you’re gone. If you build your life on anything but God, you don’t really have a name. You’re just a rich man.
There’s a problem especially with money. Randy Alcorn says:
Seeking fulfillment in money, land, houses, cars, clothes, boats, campers, hot tubs, world travel, and cruises has left us bound and gagged by materialism—and like drug addicts, we pathetically think that our only hope lies in getting more of the same.
When you build your identity on money, then it’s a never-ending quest to get more money. But the more you get, the more you want. It’s never enough. There’s a big danger in basing your identity on money.
Let me ask you: Who are you? You are you really? There’s a danger if you define yourself by your career, your accomplishments, your wealth, your reputation, or your family. If any of those are taken away, then you will lose your identity. There is only one identity that will last. You may be a lot of things in this life, but the one think that really matters is that God knows you, and that you are in relationship with God. That’s the only identity that truly matters.
There’s one final lesson that Jesus has for us.
Third lesson: If you have money, be generous.
If you are here today, you are probably rich. You don’t feel rich, but you are. If you are anywhere near the average income in Toronto — which isn’t that high by Liberty Village standards — then you are in the top 1% of the richest people in the world by income. You may not have the wealth that the rich man in this story did, but you and I are rich.
When the rich man enters eternity, it becomes clear that he knew who Lazarus was. He calls him by name. His attitude hasn’t changed, either. He still acts entitled. He wants Lazarus to run errands for him, coming to bring him water. He doesn’t get it. He wasn’t generous to the poor in this life, and his attitude still doesn’t change in the world to come.
He’s suffering. He suffers so much that he wants Lazarus to go back and warn his brothers. But Jesus says that it won’t do any good. They have the Scriptures; if they won’t believe the Scriptures, then they won’t believe someone who comes back from the dead either.
What’s interesting in this passage is that Jesus ties the way they live to their spiritual condition. He’s saying that there’s a direct correlation between self-absorbed, self-indulgent people, and those who lack any spiritual life. If you live for yourself, then that will show up in the way you use your money. It’s a good barometer of your spiritual life as well. 1 John 3:17 puts it bluntly: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)
But the opposite is true. When you see what Christ has done for you, then you’re free to be generous with others. If you know how generous Jesus has been with you, by giving his life for you, then you will be generous in giving to others. When Paul was encouraging a church to be generous, he reminded them of the generosity of Jesus. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Here’s what I think Jesus is telling us through this parable: If you ignore the poor now, God will ignore your supposed faith later. So don’t ignore the poor.
A team of researchers in the States has discovered that $30 to $50 billion a year could meet all the essential human needs around the world. “Projects for clean water and sanitation, prenatal and infant/maternal care, basic education, immunizations, and long-term development efforts are among the activities that could help overcome the poverty conditions that now kill and maim so many children and adults.”
That sounds like a lot of money — $30 to $50 billion dollars. But then they calculate that if church members in the United States alone increased their giving to 10% of their income, then there would be more than $65 billion per year for overseas ministries, as well as $15 billion a year for local needs, on top of maintaining current congregational programs and building projects. The problem is that the average evangelical gives only 2-4%. Ron Sider says:
For Christians in the richest nation in history to be giving only 2.43 percent of their income to their churches is not just stinginess, it is biblical disobedience—blatant sin. We have become so seduced by the pervasive consumerism and materialism of our culture that we hardly notice the ghastly disjunction between our incredible wealth and the agonizing poverty in the world. Over the last 40 years, American Christians (as we have grown progressively richer) have given a smaller and smaller percent of our growing income to the ministries of our churches. Such behavior flatly contradicts what the Bible teaches about God, justice, and wealth. We should be giving not 2.4 percent but 10 percent, 15 percent, even 25 to 35 percent or more to kingdom work. Most of us could give 20 percent and not be close to poverty.
Scripture after Scripture tells us to be generous with what we have. This is especially important because we have, relatively speaking, so much. Jonathan Edwards, the famous philosopher and preacher, said, “Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms, and in a more peremptory urgent manner, than the command of giving to the poor?”
So these are the challenges for us in this parable:
- Don’t limit your financial dreams to this life, because if you do, you’ll be poor in the next life.
- Choose your identity carefully, because the only identity that truly lasts is your identity in Jesus.
- If you have money, be generous, because a generous heart reveals that you know the generosity of Jesus.
- If you ignore the poor now, God will ignore your supposed faith later.
We’ve covered a lot today. This is heavy stuff. This isn’t the kind of sermon where you can finish up and say, “Well, I’m glad I have all that figured out.” But I’ll tell you what will help you know if you’re on the right track or not. Craig Blomberg says:
The point, however, is not the percentage of one’s giving but one’s attitude. Does a parable or a sermon like this make you ask yourself, ‘How can I do more?’ or do you start to do a slow boil and get upset with the preacher (or perhaps even with Jesus) for having raised the topic in so pointed a fashion?
This is the real test that will get down to the heart level. If you leave today wondering how you can be more obedient, you’re on the right track. If you leave today feeling defensive and possessive, it’s a sign that Jesus’ message isn’t getting through, and that you’re in serious danger.
He has been phenomenally generous in giving us eternal life, and when he has blessed us with material abundance on top of that, how can we not share generously from it if his Spirit truly dwells in us and guides us?” When we see what Jesus has done for us, why would we build our identity on money rather than on him? Why wouldn’t we be generous with others?