The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
November 7, 2021
Not everyone does…so what persuades some of us to believe in God, seek to know Him and commit to serve His purposes?
We might hope for such overwhelming evidence of God’s reality and goodness as to leave no possibility of doubt and no decision to make. But God shows no interest in leaving us with no choice in the matter of faith. That is one of the reasons why Jesus often refused requests for miracles. Though He longs for a friendship with everyone, He wants friendships based upon love – and we’re only free to love if we are free not to love. And we are free not to love God by the lack of there being overwhelming evidence to force our recognition of God’s existence and grace. We have to choose whether we will love God, and others for Him. Though the head must sign off on the truth claims of faith, having faith is determined by the heart; and the inclination of the heart toward God is inextricably tied up in its inclination toward neighbors. If we close our heart to others, we close it to God; if we open it to others, we open it to God.
Jesus told today’s parable to help us examine the state of our heart, especially those of us who are well-off (which, in a worldwide perspective, all of us are).
The rich man in the parable – whom tradition calls “Dives” (Latin for “rich one”) – wore only the best clothes, ate sumptuously, and lived in a gated mansion. By contrast, the poor man – whom Jesus called “Lazarus” (Hebrew for “God helps me”), in the only instance of His naming a character in a parable – lay in the street, covered with undressed sores that the dogs licked and dreaming of eating food scraps fallen from Dives’ table.
Dives had everything, and spent it all on himself – and thus not at all on a near neighbor who had nothing.
The two men died about the same time. In a reversal of fortune, Lazarus found himself in heaven comforted in the bosom of Abraham; while Dives found himself in Hades “tormented” and in “agony”. Looking up to Abraham, Dives begged him to make Lazarus his errand boy and have him bring his old neighbor some water. Even in Hades, Dives held on to his sense of privilege and saw others as there to serve him.
But Lazarus could not reach Dives. For while before their passing the distance between them was but a few feet, only made a long way by Dives’ self-absorption and apathy, now a great unbridgeable chasm separated them.
In resultant despair, Dives showed for the first time concern for someone other than himself (though one might wish his concern reached further than his closest relatives). At any rate, Dives pleaded for Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers lest they suffer the same fate as he. Abraham responded by noting that they’d already had plenty of warnings: from Moses – who urged them not to be “hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor” – and from prophets like Isaiah – who urged them to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house”.
Dives countered that if his brothers wouldn’t repent with a new prophetic word, they still might repent with a mighty miracle such as the resurrection of a dead man like Lazarus. But Abraham retorted that Dives was over-estimating the persuasive power of the supernatural, and that those who’d long resisted being convinced by God’s word would likely resist being convinced by a miracle. Truly, there is none so deaf as those who will not hear; and none so blind as those who will not see.
Hence, whether we trust and obey God depends less on the evidence in front of us to convince us than on the willingness within us to do something with it. If we let our heart grow cold to the needy, it grows closed to God; and if we open our heart to love’s claims upon us on their behalf, it grows open to the God who is love and who on their behalf calls us to do justice, practice compassion and bear witness to the good news about Jesus. We answer that call as we commit our time, talent and treasure to meet our neighbor’s needs.
We’ll have an opportunity to answer that call with our money this coming week when, in worship or from home, we make faith promises of financial support for God’s work of love through this one church. So, these next few days, please listen in prayer to hear what God wants you to pledge for 2022; and, as you do, please remember that how generously you respond to the needs of your neighbors is more decisive for your spiritual life than seeing some miracle. Your love can set the stage for your becoming a miracle: a person who keeps acting more and more like Jesus!