A Word for losers
The term "loser" is often used to describe certain kinds of people. A person who has been warned against doing something but goes ahead and does it anyway, with the end result of trouble and disaster. That person is a "loser". A person who can’t do a thing right – a football player can’t kick straight, a driver receives one speeding fine after another, a thief can’t stop stealing – that person is a "loser". Someone who does something really stupid is called a "loser".
Like the young woman sitting in the first class section on a plane, heading for Sydney. The flight attendant approached her and requested that she move to economy since she didn’t have a first class ticket. The young woman replied firmly, "That’s too bad. I’m here now, I’m going to Sydney and I’m not moving." Not wanting to argue with a customer the flight attendant asked the co-pilot to speak with her. He went to talk with the woman asking her to please move out of the first class section. Again, she replied, "That’s too bad. I’m here now, I’m going to Sydney and I’m not moving." The co-pilot returned to the cockpit and asked the captain what to do about her. The captain said, "I know how to handle this". He went to the first class section and whispered in the young woman’s ear. She immediately jumped up and ran to the economy section mumbling to herself, "Why didn't anyone just say so?"
Surprised, the flight attendant and the co-pilot asked what he said to her that finally convinced her to move from her seat. He said, "I told her that the first class section wasn't going to Sydney."
In the gospels, we find story after story about losers. Just prior to our text from Luke 16:19-31, there is the story about the son who demanded his inheritance. He went off and lived it up until his money ran out and a famine struck the land. He ended up living in pig manure and eating with pigs. Only a loser would end up living with pigs. A Jew would find it hard to choose what was worse – living with pigs or the fires of hell.
There is whole parade of losers in the gospels - lepers, the blind, the poor, the paralysed, the possessed, widows, tax collectors, Samaritans, and beggars. They were people who were not highly valued. Whether their present circumstances were of their own making or not, they were losers. They were not worth paying any attention to.
What was behind this kind of an attitude that so many people were regarded as losers? It seems that the Old Testament was misunderstood. It was commonly believed that if you were rich and healthy this was a blessing from God. It’s clear that your life of good deeds and devout religion were really paying off and God was rewarding you with prosperity. If however you were poor and suffered from bad health, maybe leprosy, blindness, epilepsy, or perhaps you had lost your husband or a child, these were signs that you had been terribly wicked, and this was your punishment.
It was clear then if a person was wealthy, God was blessing him/her and if a person was poor, this was God’s punishment. If a rich person saw a poor person begging on the side of the road, he/she had no conscience about walking right past – after all who would want to interfere with God’s punishment for these people.
And so we come to the story that Jesus tells us today. We hear of a rich man, wearing the expensive robes and fine linen underwear of royalty. For this man life is a banquet, feasting at a table groaning with the weight of so much fine food. Jesus was telling this story for the benefit of the Pharisees whom we are told were very wealthy (Luke 16:14) and saw their wealth as a sign of God’s blessing for their careful observance of the law.
At the rich man’s back door there is beggar named Lazarus. He is gaunt, hollow eyed, famished and dressed in rags. He is hoping just for a few scraps to be thrown into the garbage. He is so weak he can’t even brush aside the dogs that are licking his running sores. If scraps are thrown out, most likely the dogs got to them before he did. Lazarus is a real loser. His condition is obviously a sign of God’s punishment.
Both men die and those who were listening to Jesus (the Pharisees) expected him to say that the rich man went to heaven and the poor man went to hell. The beggar is a loser in this life, and they expected to hear that he was a loser in the life after death. Most likely, the body of Lazarus was thrown into the burning rubbish dump outside the city, that’s how much he was regarded as a loser. But Jesus shocked his listeners when he said, "The poor man died and was carried by the angels to sit beside Abraham at the feast in heaven. The rich man died and was buried, and in Hades he was in great pain". The loser becomes a winner; and the rich man becomes a loser. The situation is reversed – during this life Lazarus begged for scraps from the rich table; now the rich man begs for a few drops of water to cool his tongue.
How come the Pharisees were so surprised that the loser, Lazarus, ended up in heaven, and the rich man in hell? How had the Pharisees come to such a wrong conclusion that wealth was a sign of divine favour, and poverty and sickness a sign of God’s judgement?
The rest of the story tells us. The rich man wanted Lazarus to go back and warn his brothers that they had it all wrong. Like the rich man, they too were reading God's Word selectively – applying only those parts of the Scriptures that justified the selfish use of their wealth and the ignoring of the poor, the disabled, the widows, and the lepers. Like the rich man, his brothers were overlooking God's Words spoken through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, "Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear …. Then my favour will shine on you like the morning sun …. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you…." (Isaiah 58:7-8).
Ezekiel recorded what kind of person God regarded as righteous, living according to God's will. He doesn’t worship idols …. He doesn’t seduce another man’s wife…. He doesn’t cheat or rob…. He feeds the hungry and gives clothing to the naked. Such a man obeys my commands and carefully keeps my laws. He is righteous, and he will live," says the Sovereign Lord (Ezekiel 18:5-9).
The rich man can now see that he had it all wrong. He had believed that his wealth was a sign of God's favour and so could use it selfishly, ignoring the beggar at his back door. He can now see that God had blessed him so that he could be a blessing to others. He can now see that the person who lives a truly God-pleasing life is the one who feeds the hungry and clothes the naked. He can now see that to have true faith means doing something for those whom everyone else regards as "losers". He can now see all this spelt out so clearly in the Scriptures. Why hadn’t he seen this before? His brothers are going down the same track as he did. They think they are winners whereas in actual fact, they are losers. He begs (notice who is begging now) that Lazarus be sent back to warn them, but his request is refused. Abraham says, "Your brothers have Moses and the prophets to warn them; your brothers should listen to what they say". It’s all written in the Bible; they don’t need anyone to return from the dead to warn them.
You see, this parable is not so much about the fact that it is hard for rich people to go to heaven, or that being rich is wrong. It isn’t about the nature of hell and the torments that await the sinner. This parable is primarily not a condemnation of the rich and a command to care for the poor. This parable is, however, about understanding and accepting God's Word and letting that Word then determine what we do in our everyday life. The rich man wasn’t condemned for his moneybags, but he was condemned for his failure to let the Scriptures show him what is God's idea of a good life and to let that Word then guide him. He was condemned for his failure to use his money to help others.
Jesus’ story comes to its conclusion without telling us what happened to the five brothers. Did they listen to Moses and the prophets and change their ways? This is another case where Jesus leaves a parable unfinished in order to draw us into the story. He leaves us wondering not just about the five brothers but about us and our relationship with God. He leaves us wondering about our attitudes and actions; about whether they have been motivated and guided by the Word of God. He leaves us wondering about what losers we have been in carrying out God's Word in our everyday lives.
And at this point, we are jolted back to the one who is telling this story, to Jesus, who is God's Word in human form. He came to give us his saving message! Jesus, regarded as a loser himself by others, came to die for losers who fail to read his Word; for losers who think that it isn’t all that important; who read it and fail to understand its implications for everyday life; who read it, try to carry it out and still fail. Jesus came to give losers eternal life.
This story about the rich man and Lazarus calls us to hear God's Word and then to put it into practice. This story challenges us to use the material blessings we have to bring a blessing to those who are suffering. This is a story that challenges our complacency, our dishonesty, our self-satisfied pride, and our refusal to see those who are suffering. This is the story about the one who walks steadily towards the cross for us all. No loser is regarded as a hopeless case. This story challenges us to see no one as a "loser".
The Rich Man and Lazarus - E W Bullinger
Finding Jesus in the Storm – John Swinton
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Lazarus Strategy – Dr Norman Lazarus
The Rich Man and Lazarus – Jeffrey Smith
Seal of God – Chad Williams