Saving the Rich Man’s Soul


A sermon preached on September 30, 2007 based upon Luke 16:19 – 31, entitled “Saving the Rich Man’s Soul.”

In 1928, an unusual case came before the courts in Massachusetts. It concerned a man who had been walking on a boat dock when suddenly he tripped over a rope and fell into the deep water of an ocean bay. He came up sputtering and yelling for help and then sank again, obviously in trouble. His friends were too far away to get to him, but only a few yards away, on another dock, was a young man sprawled on a deck chair, sunbathing. The desperate man shouted, “Help, I can’t swim!” The young man, an excellent swimmer, only turned his head to watch as the man floundered in the water, sank, came up sputtering in total panic, and then disappeared forever.

The family of the drowned man was so upset by that display of callous indifference that they sued the sunbather. They lost. The court reluctantly ruled that the man on the dock had no legal responsibility whatever to try and save the other man’s life.

Legally, the man was without guilt, but morally, we instinctively feel that he carries great guilt. He had the ability to save another person’s life, and he chose not to exercise that ability, and that was just plain wrong.

A person who stands aside and does nothing while another is drowning is repugnant to us.

One of the arguments put forth for belief in God arises from this observation that there is such a deep-seeded sense of morality in human beings. Though we may often fail to live up to this sense of right and wrong, certain behaviors have so consistently been recognized as good and others as bad, that we can’t help but feel that this belief arises from something far deeper than mere social convention, and that “something deeper” is the God who created life in this context of good and evil.

Put another way, if there is no God, than what we call “right and wrong” is, in the final analysis, nothing more than the majority position at any given moment of time, subject to change should the dissenting point of view pick up a few more votes in favor of their opinion of appropriate behavior.

And so we intuit a God who creates us within these two poles, good and evil, with the intention that in the course of our lifetimes we would make our way towards goodness. From this we further extrapolate that there must be another life beyond this one in which the wrongs of this world are righted — where there is some final justice. Otherwise, to be designed with such a strong sense of good and evil, only to have those who suffer from evil’s cruelties never finding any ultimate compensation, would seem to render life into some kind of cruel joke on the part of the creator.

The story we just heard this morning spells out that ultimate justice that is beyond this life. The poor man, Lazarus, who got such a raw deal in this life, is rewarded with sumptuous blessing in the life to come. The rich man who was given so much in this world, but did not use any of what he was given to help others in their desperate need, is punished in the afterlife.

The story provides comfort for all those in this life who get a raw deal, but for those of us who consider our lot in life to be closer to that of the rich man than to that of poor Lazarus, it can be quite disturbing. The story goes out of its way to portray the eternal torments that are in store for those who fail to show mercy and compassion. We all know that we could have done more to help those less fortunate than ourselves. At what point, we can’t help but wonder, does the rich man’s punishment become our fate?

What are we to make of this Bible story?

It has been said that every sermon is heretical, in the sense that given the limits of time and the need to make certain points clearly and strongly, every sermon contains only part of the truth, not the whole truth. Every sermon drives home a point, and in doing so, neglects the points that would come under the category, “And yet on the other hand…”

This story gives the sermon that drives home the point that God cares deeply for the poor of this world and that we have an obligation to care for the poor as well. (I think that under the category of “poor” we can also include all others who seem to get a raw deal in life as well — people, for instance who suffer from early on with brutal physical and mental illnesses.)

This sermon needs to be heard, but there is another sermon that also contains a part of truth that tells of the shepherd described just one chapter earlier in Luke’s Gospel — a very good shepherd who goes out into the wilderness seeking out the one lost sheep, searching, searching, searching, never giving up, until — not if — until he finds that one lost sheep. And though the rich man eating sumptuous meals in his comfortable accommodations may not initially recognize himself as such, he is in fact a doomed, lost sheep if ever there was one, and there is hope for him in the knowledge that the good shepherd doesn’t give up the search for him as well.

But let us save that sermon for another day, and listen to what this story would have us hear, which is that the poor are precious to God, and we are to share God’s concern for them in their plight. That despite what the world may lead us to believe, the poor truly are of equal value to the rich in the eyes of the Lord.

We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture. A lot of these celebrities, despite possessing the coved fame and fortune, live out lives that I can say with some confidence always end up being pretty miserable. (Think Brittany Spears or Kobe Bryant.) Our Gospel story tells us that those to whom much is given, much is expected.

“Brittany and Kobe, you weren’t put on this earth just to bask in your own glory — and whoever led you to believe that this was your sole purpose did you and the millions that emulate you a great deal of harm.”

There are, fortunately, a few celebrities who have used their fame and fortune to help others. Unfortunately, it seems to me, they are few and far between, and these celebrities need to be lifted up so we can emulate them rather than Brittany and Kobe.

One of these celebrities is the rock star Bono, lead singer of the band U2. This guy is major cool, and, get this, he’s very publicly a committed Christian who has devoted himself in recent years to helping the plight of the poor in Africa. A couple of years ago Bono was invited to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC at which President Bush was present. He started off by saying,

“If you’re wondering what I’m doing here, at a prayer breakfast, well, so
am I,”

describing the whole setting as extremely weird. But what he went on to say was quite remarkable, and I want to quote portions of his prophetic speech:

“Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives.
Check Judaism. Check Islam. Check pretty much anyone.
I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill. I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff.
Maybe, maybe not. But the one thing on which we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

Bono went on to point out that…

“It’s not a coincidence that in the Bible, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times. It’s not an accident. That’s a lot of air time, 2,100 mentions. (You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of the poor.) ‘As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, (he said), you have done it unto me’ (Matthew 25:40).”

Bono went on to point out that…
“Sixty-five hundred Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about justice and equality…
“There’s no way we can look at what’s happening in Africa and, if we’re honest, conclude that deep down, we really accept that Africans are equal to us. Anywhere else in the world, we wouldn’t accept it. Look at what happened in South East Asia with the tsunami: 150,000 lives lost… In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every month. And it’s a completely avoidable catastrophe.”

Last week I talked about how the great lie of our society is that money brings happiness. It doesn’t. Life can’t be lived without a strong sense of purpose and meaning — without a strong awareness of the purpose and meaning God has knit into life, and eventually this fact becomes all too clear. Life becomes unhinged. Eventually hell gets experienced right here on earth.

It falls apart in shallow relationships where everybody is ultimately looking out for number 1. It falls apart when the body beautiful that the culture placed on such a pedestal begins its inevitable deterioration. It falls apart in the anxiety that descends in the awareness that nobody gets out of this life alive, and no amount of money and comfort can alter that fact, and in a panic leads one on a desperate search for the meaning of life beyond all the glitter.

To the rich man, Lazarus at his door step appears like an inconvenience to be avoided in his quest for pleasure and comfort, but what the rich man doesn’t realize is that the poor man, is, in fact, his salvation, for he represents the meaningfulness and purpose of life that he has avoided recognizing. To truly encounter Lazarus is to encounter the savior: “If you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”
“This guy with his wounds licked by the dogs matters!
And my life finds its meaning as I embrace the call to do
something to relieve his burden.”

What the rich man needs is face up to the fact that he was put on this earth for something far greater and more wonderful than merely stuffing himself. He was placed here to bring the compassion of God to bear in a wounded world.

I read that Paris Hilton came forth from her brief stay in prison with the desire to travel to Rwanda to help call attention to the plight of the people there. Who knows what God may do next?

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