“He couldn’t afford to pay attention”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Amos 6:1-7
1 Timothy 6:1-6
Luke 16:19-31

Are there any real, live people right around you that you do not see? Are there sounds, even cries, that you do not hear? Let’s all be very careful how we answer. I know that I have consciously, ubconsciously and unconsciously ignored persons and things that I did not want to see or hear. Parents occasionally ignore the pleas of a child, or respond with the world-famous parental phrase “Not now,” only to find that the child’s need WAS urgent.

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson contains another of Jesus’ parables. It is known as “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” Lazarus’ name is the only proper name that we can be certain Jesus ever used for a character in His parables. Some translators have given the name “Dives” to the other character, but it is a transliteration of his description, “Rich,” rather than a proper name. Another ancient tradition calls him “Neves,” but the truth of the matter is that Lazarus the poor man is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who is named. I think there are good reasons for this–not the least of which is the fact that his name means: “Helped by God” or “One whom God helps.”

Jesus begins the story by describing the rich man and He leaves no doubt that this fellow had it all– way more than enough. In contrast, Lazarus had nothing. He lay (perhaps even crippled) at the rich man’s gate, with sores on his body and nothing in his stomach. He longed to eat the scraps of bread that the folks inside used as napkins to wipe their hands. These “crumbs” probably went to the dogs. It appears that the closest Lazarus got to them was when those unclean animals came up to him and licked his sores. We might perceive that as animal compassion, something the rich man lacked, but in their day it was adding insult to injury.

Up to this point, the parable is similar to an ancient Egyptian story. That old tale concludes with the funerals of both men–one, a sumptuous affair, and the other, as it had been in life, a bare bones committal. The Egyptians, as you may know from the discoveries of great wealth buried with its original owners, thought that you could “take it with you.”

Jesus knew better. Life after life for these two men is the exact opposite of what had been before. Now, the rich man is aware of Lazarus, residing “in the bosom of Abraham,” but Lazarus doesn’t even know the other fellow exists. The rich man still thinks Lazarus is somehow beneath him. He asks Abraham to send him (“Hey, boy!”) with some water. As one author put it, “It’s too late; the toothpaste is already out of the tube.” Abraham said, “There is a great chasm … none may pass.”

The rich man still thinks that Lazarus can be sent around as an errand boy. He wants him to go back to the living and warn others. Abraham answers that the rich fellow’s brothers have the Law and the prophets. If they don’t listen to God’s Word, they won’t listen to a resurrected person either. At this point the proper name of the beggar comes to mind once again. Another Lazarus, himself reasonably wealthy and bearing no other resemblance to this beggar, was also “Helped by God.” As a matter of fact, Jesus raised him from the dead!

If we look back a few verses from this Sunday’s parable, we learn that Jesus told it to “the Pharisees, who loved money.” When Jesus raised His friend Lazarus from the dead, the Pharisees immediately plotted to kill him again! Paul reminds us in Sunday’s Epistle, “The love of money is the root of all evils” and so it is.

The rich man’s love for his money prevented him from loving, even noticing, the beggar at his gate. He thought wealth was his privilege, not his responsibility…his property, not his opportunity. It consumed his attention and it eventually consumed him. My dictionary says that attention is: “The act of attending or heeding; the application of the ear to sounds, or of the mind to objects presented to its contemplation.” One of its more interesting facets is that attention is “paid.” I guess…at least where Lazarus was concerned…the rich man couldn’t afford it.

Some needs and persons are deliberately ignored because they annoy and offend us. Some are ignored “accidentally” because we are busy and distracted, but people of God are called to pay attention. Many, perhaps most needs and persons catch at least a corner of our notice, but we delay responding. One pastor has noted that if all the great philanthropy that has been delayed had been performed immediately, the world would be dramatically changed.

His observation began when a member in a convenience store, buying $5.00 worth of lottery tickets, said to him, “When I win the lottery, I’m going to give half of it to the church!” The pastor had heard similar expressions from many others. When he returned to his office, he didn’t remember how he had responded to that member. Sitting at his desk, thinking about the whole exchange, he suddenly wrote across a piece of paper, “NO YOU WON’T!” No one else was in the room, so he continued speaking aloud to the member he had left behind at the quick shop, “If you don’t even give a tenth of what the Lord gives you now, there’s no way you’ll give half of anything later.”

He also wrote, “It is the nature of lotteries that, for all the millions you hear about people winning from them, more than twice that amount has been paid in. If all the money that has been donated to the lottery had been donated to churches instead, there would probably not be one church still in debt in the whole state of Illinois. People are always talking about what they will do “after”–their mortgage is paid, they get out of college, they get back on their feet, they get this next raise or promotion–
whatever. The trouble is that there was something before and there will just be something else after.”

In Sunday’s parable, Jesus reminds us that a time comes when “after” is too late–there is a great chasm fixed…after. Following the parable, Jesus teaches about forgiveness. He paid attention to our needs, ignoring His own, and that “paying” was as costly as it could be. For 30 lousy pieces of silver Jesus was betrayed and yet, the blood of Christ cleanses us even from our greed. Let us remember, however, that there is another great chasm between forgiveness and approval. At great cost, God forgives and forgets our sins. In no way does He ignore them or let them just slip from His attention.

God is concerned about our greed because it costs us so much. Desire for the good life destroys the life that is good. Fools look at offerings to church, charity and relief of the poor as though God wants to take their money. God wants us to have love, charity, peace and oy–none of these things are ever taken, only given. By the grace of God, forgiven in Christ and empowered by His Spirit, we can afford to pay attention.

The command to tithe appears in the law, but it is a sign of God’s grace. He invites us to return a tenth of what He grants us this year. If it were all law, He would simply grant us ten times what we returned last year.

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