Missed opportunities

Luke 16:19-31

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

            Have you ever missed an opportunity and afterwards you were just like, “Oh man, if only…”  If only I had asked that girl out on a date before she met him.  If only I had saved my money for college instead of buying a fancy car in high school.  If only I had spent more time with grandpa before he passed away.  If only I wouldn’t have done this or did do that.  Yeah, we all know what that is like.  We have all missed opportunities to do great things.  We have all missed opportunities to love and be loved.  We have all missed opportunities to show the love of Christ to others.  We know what that is like.

            Today’s scripture is another tough passage from Luke.  I say at it is tough because we often soften it a bit and make it nice and say things like We need to take care of the poor.  That is a good message, and one that I think that scripture teaches us again and again.  And surely today’s passage does teach us to care for the poor.  But the thing that makes this such a tough passage is that it seems to be saying that if you ignore those in need that you will suffer for eternity in hell.  And if that is the message of today’s scripture, then is there really any hope for any of us?  We have all turned our backs on people in need.  We have all neglected the Lazaruses at our doorsteps.  If this rich man is going to be eternally punished for not helping Lazarus, then we too are destined for punishment.

            Thankfully, this is not how I read today’s scripture.  I can’t imagine that everyone at Staunton Mennonite will be thrown into hell because we have failed to reach out to certain people in need.  So what is Luke teaching us by including this story in his gospel?

            Our text begins by telling us that there was a rich man that dressed in very expensive clothing and ate expensive food every day.  He has more than the bare minimum needed to survive and he spends that money on himself.  At the gate of this rich man’s home was a beggar named Lazarus.  He was homeless; he had no food.  The text says that Lazarus longed for the food scraps that would fall from the table of the rich man.  All he wanted was the food that the rich man would throw away at the end of the day.  He doesn’t ask for much.

            Now I think that we need to point out that Lazarus was not simply a lazy man.  He is not a mooch and he is not simply trying to get a free meal.  No, our text says that Lazarus was covered in sores.  We don’t know what the cause of the sores is, and the word here is different from the word used to describe leprosy.  But whatever the reason for the sores, the message seems to be that Lazarus is not able to work because of the sores or perhaps because of whatever has caused the sores.  Lazarus isn’t simply lazy and doesn’t want to work.  Lazarus has a physical problem and he is not able to work.  So he must rely upon the kindness of family, friends, and strangers to provide him with his most basic needs.

            Now at the end of verse 21 we read that even the dogs would come and lick the sores of Lazarus.  Different people have interpreted this in different ways.  Some people have said that Jesus said this to show that even the dogs had compassion on Lazarus, that they came and licked his sores to try to give him what relief they could while the rich man chose to ignore him.  Others have said that to have a dog lick your sores within the Jewish culture with all of its purity laws and restrictions would have left Lazarus ceremonially unclean as it was even against the purity laws for a dog to enter into Jerusalem.  So this may have simply been adding insult to injury.  He would have been doubly unclean.  Unclean for having open sores and unclean for having been licked by a wild dog.

            So Lazarus would sit at the gate of the rich man’s home, just looking for his most basic needs to be met.  But the rich man doesn’t seem to help Lazarus at all.  He probably walked right past Lazarus every day, maybe even having to step over him from time to time.  He always seemed to look away when he was passing by Lazarus.  He didn’t make eye contact with Lazarus.  Instead he looked the other way, perhaps thinking to himself, “Maybe if I don’t look right at him he will get the message that he is not wanted around here and leave.”

            Well both the rich man and Lazarus die and they go their separate ways.  Lazarus goes to heaven, and the rich man goes to Hades.  Some translations simply say that the rich man went to hell, but the word is Hades in the Greek, and when the New Testament talks about a place of eternal punishment, the word used to describe that place is Gehenna.

            Regardless, the rich man is tormented.  He looks to heaven and he sees Lazarus at the side of Abraham.  I am not sure how he recognizes Abraham, maybe people wear nametags in heaven, but he does.  So he calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to give him just a drop of water to cool his tongue.

            So it would appear from this text that Jesus is trying to teach that the rich will be punished and the poor will be exalted in the life after life.  In verse 26 Abraham even says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”

            Is this Jesus’ way of saying that all rich people, all people that live in comfort here on earth, will have to suffer for eternity, that perhaps there is this reversal of roles where those who enjoy comfort on earth will be punished and those that endure pain on earth will experience eternal comfort?  I don’t think so.

            Let me ask you two easy questions.  Who was the rich man talking to?  And where was this man that was having this conversation with the rich man?  That’s right, he was talking to Abraham and Abraham was in heaven right beside Lazarus.  Abraham was a very rich man.  He had many sheep, many goats, many servants, he had many of everything.  And here is Abraham in heaven with Lazarus.  The amount of money that you have does not determine your eternal destination.  The grace of God does.

            Let’s make a quick comparison between Abraham and the rich man from today’s scripture.  Abraham acquired a lot of stuff during his lifetime, but one thing always seemed to elude him: Abraham wanted a child.  And after some misguided efforts to provide for himself a child, Abraham was given a son by his wife Sarah and they named him Isaac.  There was nothing in the world that was more precious to Abraham than his son Isaac.  And one day God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him.  And Abraham agreed to do this if it was truly God’s will.

            Thankfully it wasn’t God’s will, but it was God’s test.  It was a test that Abraham passed with flying colors.  When Abraham, a rich man by all means, was asked to give up his most valued possession to God, he complied.

            So it is not by accident that the person who is called in to be the mediator between the rich man and Lazarus is a rich man himself, albeit a rich man that proved that he would give anything for his Lord.  The rich man, however, refused to give even the scraps of food from his table to Lazarus, even though the Bible repeated calls us to take care of those that can’t take care of themselves.

            In our text we find the rich man asking for Lazarus to give him a drop of water.  And I think that there are a couple of things that we should see here.  One is that the rich man still sees Lazarus as being beneath him; he sees him as some type of servant.  “Send Lazarus to me” is his request to Abraham not “Let me go get a drink of water.”  Even in his state of punishment he still sees himself as above Lazarus and worthy of being waited on hand and foot.

            The second thing that we need to see here is that the rich man is doing exactly what he had refused to do for Lazarus every time that he walked by him.  He refused to give Lazarus the very simplest of things that he needed to survive, and now he was asking those things of Lazarus.

            I feel that the point of this scripture is not to scare us with eternal punishment if we do not help those in need.  Yes, we need to be helping those in need.  Yes, the Bible repeated instructs us to help those who can’t help themselves.  But we aren’t to do it out of fear of punishment.  We are to do it out of love.  I think that the point of this scripture is to point out to us that every time that we fail to help someone in need we are missing an opportunity to show the love of Christ to those people.  And we will never get that opportunity back again.  We shouldn’t have to pray that God gives us more opportunities to serve him.  We should pray that God helps us to not miss the opportunities to serve him that are around us every day.

            If we look at the way that this passage concludes we find that the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to the home of his father to tell his brothers of what has happened to him because he did not take the opportunities before him to help neighbor in need.  But Abraham is a little tough on the rich man and he says that they have Moses and the prophets and that these men have been saying for hundreds of years the same thing that the rich man is now asking of Lazarus.  And the rich man says “Yes, but if someone comes back from the grave, then they will believe!”  But again Abraham is tough on the rich man and he says in verse 31, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

            Once you are dead, you have missed the opportunity.  You cannot return to a situation to serve someone as Christ has served his people.  And furthermore, you can’t return to a situation to tell someone the way that Christ has called us to live.  When an opportunity has passed, it has passed.

            I have been doing a bit of driving over the last week.  I drove Sonya and Paxton to Richmond two Fridays ago.  I made a trip to the Draft last Saturday.  I drove out to the Washington National Forest twice this week.  I made a trip up (or down) to Harrisonburg one day this week.  And each time that I made a trip, I saw something spectacular.  It is officially fall and the leaves are just starting to change color.  In another couple of weeks there will be brilliant oranges, reds, browns, and everything in between bursting through reminding us of the glory of God. 

            My parents are coming to Virginia next month, mostly to see their grandson, but they are coming with friends who are not coming so much to see Paxton, but for the opportunity to drive through the beauty of God’s creation in all of its splendor.  West Virginia and Western Virginia are two of the most beautiful places in the world to see the fall foliage.  I have even heard that the fall is the busiest time of the year for the state and national parks in Virginia for the simple reason that people are coming to look at the fall colors.

            But here is the thing about the beauty of the fall: If you walk around with your head down or your eyes closed, you will miss it.  Part of what makes the fall so beautiful is that it is only temporary.  It lasts for about a month, and then it is gone.  And once it is gone, it is gone.  You have missed the opportunity to experience something so beautiful.

            Maybe you are the kind of person that says things like, “Yeah, I didn’t get out to see the leaves this year, but that’s okay.  I’ll catch them next year.”  And there is definitely truth to that statement.  I have no reason to believe that the leaves won’t be just as beautiful next year, and the year after that, and so on.  But consider for a minute the fact that we only get so many falls. 

            This is exactly what the rich man did.  He walked around with his head down, not looking at the beauty around him, not looking at his neighbor Lazarus, who was created in the image of God just as he was.  He missed an opportunity to share the love of Christ with Lazarus because he was too busy or just didn’t want to.  Or perhaps ever worse, he didn’t think that Lazarus was a person worthy of being loved.  So he walked on by.

            The average US life expectancy is 78.2 years of age.  That means that the average person will only see the beauty of the fall 78 times, and you probably are not going to remember the first couple.  I don’t say that with the intention of being depressing.  I say that with the intention of encouraging you to get out this year and experience the beauty of what God has placed before us.  And that beauty is not limited to the changing color of the leaves.  That beauty includes the beautiful people that God puts right in front of us every day.  The people that God loves, the people that God came to this earth for, the people that God was crucified for.  Those are the people that we are called to show the love of Christ to.

            Just like we fail to lift up our heads to see the changing color of the leaves, we too often fail to lift up our eyes to see the beautiful people that God has put in our midst.  God has called us to love and serve others, people like Lazarus whose closest companions seemed to have been the dogs that licked his wounds.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the rich man, as he stepped over Lazarus said to himself, “Tomorrow I will help this man.”  But we only get so many tomorrows.  We only get so many times to show the beautiful love of Christ to the people all around us.  My prayer today is that we not miss those opportunities, because like the leaves, they too shall pass.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Thomas A. Edison
US inventor (1847 – 1931)

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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