by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Repentance, according to the Bible, is an essential part of the process of salvation. Biblical repentance and conversion involve radical transformation of our relationships both with God and neighbor. “Repentance is much more than a private affair between the individual and God. It is the complete reorientation of the life in the world… in response to the work of God in Jesus Christ.” Ron Sider, quoting René Padilla
The Invisible Man
I would imagine that some of us have had the experience of driving in an unfamiliar area and turning the wrong way onto a one-way street. It’s unsettling when you realize that you are going one direction, and everyone else is going the opposite way, right at you. Even if you have never driving the wrong way on a one-way street, we’ve all had times when we were going the wrong way. That is what sin is all about, heading away from God. We need to turn around, back toward God.
There is a biblical word for what we need to do. It used to be a popular concept, but over the past fifty years it has fallen out of favor. I still believe it is an essential part of the Christian life. It is the word “Repent.” At the Ash Wednesday service I talked a little bit about repentance. I mentioned that the Old Testament word for repent means to turn around. I invite you to look with me at our parable this morning, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It is a call to repentance.
The parable starts with life in the present. There is a rich man who has had life handed to him on a silver platter. He wears purple cloth, which was very expensive, and only the wealthiest people could afford it. He also wore fine linen. In other words, he wore designer suits by Gucci and very expensive underwear. I actually did a Google search for expensive underwear. A five-pack of Hanes underpants cost about $15. An expensive pair of underwear can cost $50 - $100 each. I even found one place that had one pair of cotton boxers for $470! The rich man would have had a drawer filled with those. He also “feasted sumptuously every day,” which suggests that he never observed the different fasts that were part of his Jewish faith.
Lazarus is the other character in our story. He is the only person in any of Jesus’ parables who is named. His name means “the one whom God helps,” which is rather ironic. His life is described as if God never helped him. Certainly the rich man didn’t. Every day someone carried him to the rich man’s gate and laid him there where he would beg for food. He could probably hear the rich man feasting and smell the food, but he didn’t get much for himself.
2000 years ago in the Middle East people didn’t use napkins. They would eat with their hands. When their hands were dirty they would take a piece of bread, wipe their hands off on the bread, and then throw the bread on the floor, where the dogs would eat it. The dogs were probably guard dogs that protected the rich man’s estate. However, Lazarus was such a helpless and gentle person that the dogs didn’t attack him. Instead they licked his sores which might have had a healing effect.
At some point in time both Lazarus and the rich man died. That is when the great reversal takes place. Lazarus is carried by the angels up to Abraham – literally “to Abraham’s bosom.” It was a place of honor, at Abraham’s right hand. When the rich man died he went to Hades, where he was tormented and in agony from the flames. [5:30]
At that point the parable is a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man started by telling Abraham to send Lazarus to help him. He is as self-centered as he was in this life. Abraham responded by describing the great reversal. “When you were alive on the earth you had everything and Lazarus had nothing. Now, Lazarus is comforted and you are going to struggle.”
The rich man didn’t give up. “Send Lazarus down to warn my brothers so that they can avoid the agony that I’m experiencing.” Abraham said that his brothers have Moses and the prophets. That is the Jewish Scriptures. Everything that his brothers needed for salvation could be found in the Bible.
The rich man came back at Abraham a third time. “The Bible isn’t enough. Show them a miracle. If Lazarus comes back from the dead they will repent and turn their lives around.” At that point there may be a connection with the story in the gospel of John in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. If you read through John’s story you will see that the Pharisees don’t respond to Lazarus being raised from the dead with faith. Instead, they start planning how they can kill Jesus. Abraham suggests the same thing. “Even if they see a resurrection they won’t believe.” In other words miracles don’t produce faith. It takes faith to see miracles, to see God at work.
We usually call this story the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. However, neither one of them is the main focus. The focus is on the five brothers. Let me explain. Earlier in chapter 16 Jesus made a statement about money. “You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). The Pharisees loved money and made fun of Jesus and his teaching.
In response, Jesus made several comments and then told this parable about the rich man and Lazarus. This parable is directed at the Pharisees. It’s too late for the rich man and Lazarus. They have already died and their destiny has been decided. The question is how will the five brothers respond? Will they repent? Will the Pharisees repent? Will you and I repent?
I want to share with you two ideas about repentance, two ways that we can repent. Both of these ideas come from our parable. However, before I talk about those two ideas I want to make one comment about repentance. Repentance is not a condition for being forgiven. We don’t repent so that we will be forgiven, or even hoping that we will be forgiven. Instead, repentance is a response to the belief that we are already forgiven. We repent as a way to respond to God’s grace, as a way to receive the forgiveness that is ours through Jesus Christ. Please keep that in mind as I share with you two ideas about repentance.
First, to repent means to pay attention to the Scriptures. Abraham is clear that everything the brothers need for their salvation is found in the Bible, in Moses and the prophets. The problem is that the rich man and his brothers, along with the Pharisees, didn’t pay attention to God’s word.
Oh, they probably paid attention to some scripture passages. They would have loved the passage that Jeanne read from Deuteronomy. It talks about God rewarding obedience. “If you obey, you will be blessed,” which the Pharisees interpreted that they would be rich. There are preachers in our world today who proclaim that message. It’s called the prosperity gospel. I saw an article this week about a prosperity gospel preacher down in Atlanta who told his church that God wanted them to buy him a $65 million jet. I’d be more than happy with a used Chevy!
If you only focus on the passage in Deuteronomy, along with a few other passages, the prosperity gospel makes sense. But to do that you have to ignore many other Scripture passages. Leviticus 19 talks about not collecting all of your harvest for yourself, but leaving enough for those who are poor. Isaiah 58 claims that true fasting, true religion, involves sharing your bread with the hungry, caring for the homeless, and clothing those who have no clothes. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes Jesus says “Blessed are the poor.” We need to read all of the Scriptures and listen to God’s word from Genesis to Revelation.
Let me tell you a couple of stories. The first happened in June, 1940. Hitler’s army had cornered the British army on the beach at Dunkirk and were about to destroy them. The British people waited anxiously to hear what would happen. The British army was able to send a message across the English Channel. It was three words long – “And if not.” It was a biblical reference. Does anyone know where it comes from? I didn’t remember. It is from the book of Daniel, the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They stood before the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar. This is what they said. “Our God is able to save us… and if not, we will remain faithful to him anyway.” The message caught the hearts of the British people. Thousands of people crossed the English Channel in their own boats and rescued their army.
The second story happened in January, 2001. During George Bush’s inaugural speech he included several biblical references. Dick Meyer, of CBS News, said this about the speech. “There were a few phrases in the speech I just didn’t get. One was, ‘When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.’” Again, a biblical reference. Do you recognize that? It is the story of the Good Samaritan.
Two stories about two very different generations and two very different cultures. One was grounded in the biblical story. The other doesn’t know the Bible. Our culture may not know the Bible, but as God’s people we need to know the Scriptures. We need to study the Bible. We need to repent and pay attention to God’s word to us.
There is a second thought about repentance. To repent is to pay attention to the invisible people of our world. Lazarus lay at the gate of the rich man. The rich man obviously knew Lazarus. He’d probably walked by Lazarus countless times. The guests at his parties walked by Lazarus. They just ignored him. They might even have made fun of him during their parties. Even after they had both died the rich man still looked down on Lazarus and saw him as nothing more than a slave or a messenger. Lazarus was invisible to the rich man, an object to be ignored or used.
When we see people with needs again and again and again we tend to develop what is sometimes called compassion fatigue. It overwhelms us so much that we become numb and stop noticing these people who need help. They become invisible to us.
Eugene Peterson tells the story of Karen. She was a journalist for a newspaper in Baltimore. She got the assignment to go down to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and cover an exhibit about King Tut. Karen borrowed a wheelchair and had her husband push her through the crowded exhibit. For five hours they wandered through the hallways of the Smithsonian, surrounded by thousands of other people. During that time no one ever looked at her or talked with her. She was invisible.
Who are the invisible people of our lives? I started to make a list of people who might be described as invisible – people with disabilities, poor people, lonely people. Probably there are members of this church, of any church, who are invisible. But the question of who is invisible is an almost impossible question. If they are invisible we don’t know who they are. I’d like to suggest that the challenge for us, as individuals and as a church, is to repent by noticing those who are invisible. Probably the place to start that is by asking God to open our eyes to those who are invisible. Every day, in any setting, take a few moments and look around you. Who are the invisible people? Who needs to be noticed? Who needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ? Who needs to hear you say “Good morning. I’m glad to see you. How are you?”
“Repent!” Repent because God loves you and wants the best for you. Repent by reading the Bible. “This is the Word of the Lord!” Thanks be to God. Repent, by asking God to open your eyes and noticing the invisible people of our world.