An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 26, 2010.                                  

Psalm 91:14-16; Luke 16:19-31

You don’t need me to tell you that you can make scripture say just about anything you want it to say. People often turn to the Bible to back up their arguments, as if that is what the Bible is for. It is there to serve primarily as a proof-text for one’s already predetermined biases. Happens to me all the time, especially when someone disagrees with me or takes issue with something I’ve said, either in the pulpit or in private conversation. Just quote a little scripture and the argument is made.

Evidently, it happens to some of you on occasion too. Last Sunday, one of our church members, who will remain unidentified, told me to look up a verse of scripture, that it had been recommended to her by some friends (she put the word “friends” in quotation marks) who knew her political views lean a particular way. The passage is Ecclesiastes 10:2. Don’t go looking it up. You don’t have to. I’ll tell you what it is. It says, “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of a fool to the left.”

Even if you agree with that – and I know some of you do – it doesn’t make it right to lift it out of context and use it to impose your political viewpoint on someone else. That’s not what the Bible is for! But people do it with scripture all the time, all the time. For some folk it just seems like its their full-time vocation.

Even Jesus is quoted in this way. I remember a sociology class at Ouachita back in the days when the earth was still cooling. A reference was made by the professor to alleviating poverty, and one of the students remarked, obviously looking for a personal loophole, “Yes, but didn’t Jesus say, ‘The poor will be with you always’?”

Here’s another one… In a series of short statements recorded by Luke, Jesus remarks, “For those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away” (8:18). Boy, you can take that and run with it in just about any direction you want. If you’re inclined to think that people ought to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves, regardless of their personal or economic circumstances – or even if they can’t afford boots – you could take that statement and use it to support your view. If you think the status quo should remain the status quo, you could do the same. Forget the context. Just lift it and use it for one’s own purposes.

Look at Deuteronomy 28 and you will find that fertility, prosperity and victory are promised to those who obey the Lord. Psalm 1 makes it clear that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but those who are wicked will perish. Put those two sentiments together and you’ve got a biblical formulafor believing that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Watch a little TV, especially on Sunday morning, and you’ll find plenty of preachers who are hawking that stuff on a regular basis. Let the poor pick themselves up, get on their own two feet, dust themselves off, and move on.

Yet, the Bible also says , “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). And how about, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (Proverbs 14:31). Put your trust in those passages and you will come away believing that God doesn’t judge the poor, God identifies with them.1

You see? You can make scripture mean just about anything you want.

But if you really want to know where Jesus comes down on an issue, if you want – as much as is possible – to know the heart of Jesus, where do you turn? I think I can tell you. Listen to his stories. There you will find what Jesus really and truly thought. Which brings us to the parable he told about the rich man and the poor man named Lazarus.

“There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

“Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap” (The Message).

“Father Abraham… Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue.” He’s still giving orders, isn’t he? He was so used to doing that on earth with his servants he thinks he can still get away with it in Hades. Do this, do that.  Fetch this, fetch that. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I’m in agony in these flames.” Even in his torment he views poor Lazarus still as nothing more than an errand-boy. It’s a wonder he even knew his name.

In the old TV series Have Gun Will Travel, the protagonist is named Paladin. Some of you remember, don’t you? Paladin lives in a fancy hotel in San Francisco, and when he needs anything – a newspaper, an errand to be run or a favor to be done – he calls on the hotel’s Chinese bellhop. Do you remember his name? It was Hey-Boy.

“Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Hey-Boy to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”

This is how Abraham responds… “Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Hey-Boy… er, Lazarus got the bad things. It’s not like that anymore, not here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented.”

“So? What difference does that make? Father Abraham, have mercy on me…”

“Don’t interrupt me, son. I wasn’t finished. I’ve got something else to say. In all these matters there is a huge chasm between us that would make the Grand Canyon look like a little ditch. No one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.”

Now that’s what you call being between a rock and a hard place. Kind of like when I pleaded my case to that Kentucky state trooper years and years ago. You want to know what his response was? “Buddy, it’s a world’a hurt.” That’s all the sympathy I got from him.Well, the rich man isn’t exactly getting a shoulder to lean on from Abraham, is he?

When our daughter Emily was just a little thing and we were living in Bristol, Virginia, her best friend was Andy Robbins. Andy’s mom and dad, Patti and Phil, lived just up the street, so Emily and Andy spent a lot of time together. They were about the same age, and since both were blond-haired and blue-eyed, strangers often took them to be brother and sister, twins even since they were about the same age. Sometimes they fought like they were siblings.

Andy, who was a few months older, just loved to provoke Emily. And when she did retaliate, usually with her little fists, he would cry big crocodile tears. When Emily apologized, Andy would stick his chin up in the air defiantly and say, “Too late. Too late.”

That’s what Abraham is telling the rich man, isn’t it? When it finally comes time for the unnamed rich man in Jesus’ story to beg for mercy, not only for himself but for his brothers who were still living on earth, he is told it is too late.

“All right, all right, I understand. It is too late for me. But I have five brothers. Send Lazarus to them that he may tell them the score and warn them so they will not suffer my fate and come into this place of torment.”

“They have the scriptures; let them heed the scriptures.”

“No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!”

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.”

“Too late. It is too late.”

This story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, does it? Not like in Jesus’ other parables, anyway. But wait a minute, do Jesus’ other parables always have happy endings? Let’s see, there’s the prodigal son. Yes, he does return home to a happy reunion, but Jesus ends his story with the dispute between the father and the older brother who isn’t very happy about the situation. Jesus leaves the story open-ended as to whether the older brother ever comes around to his father’s point of view, so we don’t know if it had a happy ending for everybody. The younger son and the father come out okay, but we aren’t sure about the older brother.

And what about the Good Samaritan? Yes, the man who was accosted by thieves on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem was taken care of through the generous mercy of the Samaritan, but the lawyer to whom Jesus directs his parable doesn’t appear to come away from all this convinced of what he needs to do in response.

Mercy comes too late for the rich man in Jesus’ story, and it appears the same is going to be true for his equally sinful brothers. Jesus doesn’t tolerate those who live sumptuously in a world filled with beggars and “Hey-Boys” when God wants us to see them as brothers and sisters.2

So who is this story for? Does it relate to us? We’re not rich, not like the man in Jesus’ story. Are we? And we do what we can. When we stop at the end of the exit ramp off I-630 at Fair Park or University, and we see the inevitable beggar with the cardboard sign asking for help, don’t we often slip them a buck or two? And look at what we do here through our church. It’s not like we live sumptuously and are callous toward the poor, not like the man in Jesus’ story.

But is it enough? Do you ever worry that perhaps, because of your wealth (and by the world’s standards, we are all rich) – and even more, your desire to hang on to it – that when eternity comes for you, you might hear the same message? “Too late. There is a great gulf fixed between thee and me.” Do you ever worry about that?

Perhaps it can best be explained by means of… yes, of a story. A certain spiritual master from the East became so pleased with his disciple’s progress that he left him on his own. The man lived simply in a mud hut. He begged for his food. Each morning after his meditations and prayers, the disciple washed his loincloth and hung it out to dry.

 One day the man came back only to discover that his loincloth had been torn apart and eaten by rats. He begged the villagers for another, and they gave it to him. But the rats ate that one, too. So the man got himself a cat. That took care of the rats, but now when he begged for his food, he had to beg for milk for his cat as well.

This won’t do, he thought. I’ll get a cow. So he got a cow and found that now he had to beg for feed for the cow. So he decided to till and plant the ground around his hut.

Soon, the man realized he was turning into a farmer and had no time for his spiritual devotions, so he hired servants to tend to the farm. Overseeing the laborers became such a time-consuming chore, though, that the man got married in order to have a wife to help him.

After a while, the disciple became the richest man in the village. His teacher was traveling that way one day and was shocked to see that where there had once been a simple mud hut, there was now a palace surrounded by a vast estate with many servants.

What is the meaning of this? the master asked the disciple. You won’t believe this, replied the man, but there was no other way I could keep my loincloth.3

Cecil Sherman was a no-holds-barred Baptist preacher from Texas. If you ever met someone who told you the way it is, or how it ought to be, that person couldn’t hold a candle to Cecil Sherman. A lot of preachers are uncomfortable preaching about money. Cecil wasn’t, not at all. “I take it as my sacred duty,” he once explained, “to deliver people from that which, if held too tightly, will send them straight to hell.”3

Did that wake you up? Probably enough, so that there is little else that could be said about this parable Jesus told to his disciples, and to you and to me. In fact, I could quit right now. So I think I will.

Lord, we are rich, all of us. Help us not to cling so tightly to the things of this world that we neglect the things of your world. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

 Notes

            1Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1997), pp. 110-111.

            2Taylor, Ibid., p. 112.

            3Russ Noland, Homiletics (Sept. 2007): 41, quoted by George Mason, “Doing Well By Doing Good,” unpublished sermon, September 30, 2007.

            4Mason, Ibid.

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