Good morning church! It’s been a while since I’ve delivered the message. Everytime I had to do it, everytime I had to prepare it, it takes such an effort to look at scripture, think about the message, think about writing and delivering it in the best manner possible. But its all worth it. Its worth it when you have truly dug up a gem that can be shared with everyone here today. I am very excited to share with all of you about my thoughts and ideas. First, let us pray.
O Lord of Heaven, merciful and compassionate. Great is your faithfulness and love. We thank you today for our lives and being alive. What a privilege that is! Morning by morning new mercies we see! As we seek to understand You this morning, send down your Holy Spirit that will give us new revelation to the Scriptures. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be wholly pleasing to you. Amen.
Today I’ll be sharing the message from the Lectionary, from the Gospel of Luke. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Let us read.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
This parable is quite a significant parable of Jesus. It’s probably the only parable that Jesus gave that allowed us to glimpse into The Beyond. The Afterlife. Since the dawn of civilization, mankind has always been concerned with the afterlife. Where do we go after we pass on, what does that place look like, what will we do there. And with whatever picture of the Afterlife that we have painted, we have created materials to help us get there. The Tibetan Buddhist have the famous Book of the Dead. Some Christians would say we have the definitive God’s guide to heaven in a compiled book called the Bible. Its an instructional book, follow the steps as described and you will be heaven.
But I’m here today not to talk about metaphysical things. Such debates should only be encouraged in after-service fellowship and luncheon. I really loved Su-lin’s sermon last week though. I hadn’t the opportunity to listen to it in person, but I could feel the conviction in every word of the sermon she wrote. She describes a theology known as Process Theology, an understanding of God and the world that is kindred to me as well. I will give a summary.
Process Theology makes us realise our responsibility in God’s ongoing act of creation, healing and teaching. God persuades us into a relationship with Him and we in turn in relationship with others to participate in breaking his kingdom of love, joy, peace, gratitude, justice and so on, on earth.
I hope I did justice to it in that summary. The parable of the Rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 came after the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. In essence, Jesus’ giving of the Rich man and Lazarus was in response to the Pharisee’s reaction to his earlier parable. Jesus’ point was about money and spirituality. Man must love God and use Money, instead of using God and loving Money. Because the second one is no different that the Cai Shen Ye, the Chinese call it the God of Fortune. The Pharisees were doing it in those days, and many Pharisees continue to do so today, though they will not call themselves so. The Pharisees scoffed at Jesus in verse 14.
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He (Jesus) said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”
In response, Jesus countered with another parable. Our Lord Jesus is a master teller of tales. If he were with us today, he would mostly speak in stories. Illustration of a principle through a tale is an excellent persuasion and criticizing technique. It doesn’t speak directly at anyone, yet can get the point across, bypassing the ego to deal with attitudes and beliefs. We should all learn the art of speaking in parables.
So anyway, Jesus said, there was this rich man, who wore purple linen and ate sumptuously every day. Purple linen is something of interest. The dye is made from the mucus of a certain expensive aquatic snail called Hexaplex trunculus. You gotta go all the way to the Mediterranean to find this special snail, kill it and process it into purple powder to dye your clothes. So this man, is obviously rich, you can take it from my understanding of ancient dyes and snails, or you can take it from Jesus’ parable. So! Counterpoint to this rich man is a poor man, Lazarus, his name means “God is my Helper”. This Lazarus is not the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead ah. Don’t confuse. He’s poor and his body is covered with sores. He laid near Lazarus’ gates and desired only for the crumbs that fell from his table. His only sympathy was from dogs, who came and licked his sores. The rich man would not take notice of him at the gates at all when he left his house.
Then Chapter 2, fast forward a few years, the rich man and Lazarus are dead. Lazarus was brought to Abraham’s side while rich man was cast into Hades. The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to bring some water to cool his tongue because the rich man was tormented by the flames. Then Abraham said No. Your life is spent enjoy a lot of things but Lazarus has only suffered. So now, he is in a place of comfort and you are anguished. Just to drive the point across, Abraham added that the divide between him and Lazarus was too great that neither can pass across.
How do you all feel about this story so far. Most people I speak to will have this reaction. Serves him right! That’s the way it should be. Divine Retribution! A part of us feels pleased that this rich bastard got what he deserved, for all the opulence and enjoyment he had in life. And a part of us feel good, that the poor man Lazarus could have his reward in heaven. We see heaven as the Ultimate Balance Sheet. It keeps scores of enjoyment and suffering, indulgence and denial in life and then after we die, it meets out the comfort and anguish to compensate for the present life. Sorry to say this, but if that is how we feel about it, then we are all very wrong.
Strangely though, we were somehow co-opted to understand heaven like that. Karl Marx said something about religion. Can anyone tell me what he famously said?
Religion is the opiate of the masses. Wrong. It’s “Die Religion ist das Opium des Volkes“. Karl Marx is German, of course he said it in German.
Anyway, he’s onto something. This Divine Balance Sheet concept satisfies the poor and disenfranchised. It is an understanding that is implanted in us to keep the underclass happy until the next life, whether it comes or not is another thing. So, this understanding of heaven as the Divine Balance Sheet is problematic. And Mr Karl Marx had the right idea. It keeps the underclass from rebelling and rejecting their lot in life.
But we, as FCC Christians know something else Mr Karl Marx overlooked. The rich man was not in hell because he was rich and the poor man is not in heaven because he was poor. Heaven and Hell isn’t God’s Balance Sheet. What it is, is hinted somewhere later in the parable.
Continuing the parable, the rich man at this point, after Abraham’s rejection and in full recognition of his own fate, asked Abraham to send Mr Lazarus to his house to warn his 5 brothers of their fate. In the acceptance of his fate, he feels concerned for his brothers to want to warn them of their lifestyle so they don’t end up like him. A noble spirit, if only it took the horrors of Hell to realize.
But Abraham this time said No too! He said that his brothers have Moses and the prophets already. They can listen to them. The rich man replied, “but they will believe and repent definitely if someone from the dead goes to them and tell them”. Abraham continued, “if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, they will never be convinced if someone rose from the dead to tell them.”
So how do you all feel at this point here? Can you imagine what torment feels like? To know someone you care about is heading for the rocks but being unable to warn them?
Does it feel unfair? Shouldn’t God want more people to avoid going to hell by warning them? You know, like in the Old Testament, send pillars of fire, earthquakes, angels etc etc. When I was a young Christian, I used to doubt the existence of God a lot. I ask him, give me a miraculous sign! And I will be yours forever! I will devote my entire life to your work. Why doesn’t God do more? Why doesn’t He open the heavens and speak to all of creation? Just give me a miraculous sign! Have you felt this way before?
The truth is, as Abraham had said to the rich man, if we did not hear Moses and the prophets, then not even someone coming back from the dead will convince us. Not even a miraculous sign. How many of the people who saw miracles in the Old Testament still believed in God at the end? Many still turn to false gods, religious practices of the Gentiles. How many saw the miracles of Jesus and yet still doubt his anointing? How many of them actually stayed with Jesus around the cross?
Very few indeed. And the other Lazarus in the Bible, he was raised from death but the Pharisees plotted to kill him again because this Jesus was taking away their followers. Even when Jesus himself returned from the dead, men still do not believe.
Abraham is right. If you do not hear Moses and the prophets, then it makes no difference whether God shows you a miracle or not. The rich man became rich because he did not hear Moses and the prophets, of their principle teachings. He listened but he did not hear. He chose to be self-centered, indulgent and selfish. He went to hell because of it. But he is not in hell just because he is rich.
Lazarus is in heaven because he believed Moses and the prophets. He listened and heard them, and fulfilled a life in closeness to God, in dependence of God, Lazarus means “God is my Helper”.
I would like to remind you here that all this is still a parable. And Jesus’ choice of character personality and names are meant for illustration of a story moral.
Similarly, Lazarus is not in heaven or Abraham’s side because he is poor. There will be poor people in hell too, and rich men in heaven too. I don’t know. Lazarus is in heaven because he believed in Moses and the prophets.
Here in FCC, sometimes, we give sermons that are very challenging, and introduce concepts to our congregation that is very counter-cultural. Do we all abandon the ways of the world immediately and follow Jesus, Moses, the prophets wholeheartedly. Who here will sell all his possessions and give to the poor? Who here are willing to take the homeless into your homes? Who here can have that truly selfless heart for God?
But you know, this is the parable that is speaking to us now. We are the 5 brothers living in the rich man’s house. We head to our doom without knowing it. Even if God shows us signs and miracles, we would not recognise it. Are we hearing Moses and the prophets? Are we hearing God? Are we waltzing through life being self-centered, indulgent and selfish? Enjoy as much as we are now, let the afterlife take care of itself then.
What happens then, is determined by what is done now. We are like the 5 brothers living in the rich man’s house. Jesus has in no small way reminded us so. Recognise the voice of the Lord and his prophets. The purpose of our lives is to learn, to discern and to hear God and his prophets, that we understand the realities of life, love, suffering and the commonhood of all creation towards this same purpose.
So to close off, I want to bring out Process theology again.
Process Theology makes us realise our responsibility in God’s ongoing act of creation, healing and teaching. God persuades us into a relationship with Him and we in turn in relationship with others to participate in breaking his kingdom of love, joy, peace, gratitude, forgiveness and justice on earth.
We are co-partners with God in bringing into our lives the love, joy, peace, gratitude, justice, forgiveness. Share it with the people around us, love our neighbours, help someone in need. Share a joy and it is multipled, share a sorrow and it is divided. As we go on our lives, remember this important thing, remember God in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come. Fear the Lord and walk in obedience to his commandments. This verse from Ecclesiastes 12:1 I leave with you. Let us pray.
Lord of Heaven, merciful and compassionate. We thank you for the words spoken through your Jesus and your prophets. Lord, in our days to come, let us always remember you, and to keep your commandments of love, forgiveness and healing close to us. You have called us to work together, with you to bring your kingdom into this world. Lord we humbly ask for strength. In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.