To Help or Not to Help?
by Bishop Chris Giesler
Preaching text: Luke 16:19-31
We often look to Matthew 25:31-46 as the definitive teaching from Jesus on how we will be judged in the afterlife. This is where Jesus talks about the separation of the sheep from the goats, and he tells us in no uncertain terms that those who will find their home in the kingdom of heaven are those who have given drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, and have visited those who are sick or in prison. While those who have shared in these acts of kindness will be unaware of their good deeds, Jesus will remind them that when they did it to the “least of these,” they were doing ministry to Jesus himself. At the same time, those who have not seen fit to extend hospitality to others will be cast into the outer darkness. It is hard to miss the point here. Still, somehow we Christians have confused the appearance of being a Christian (church membership, giving to a budget, taking communion, showing up for worship now and then) with what Jesus teaches as the essential features of fulfilling the primary tasks of being a Christian.
I am not saying that church attendance, giving, or receiving communion are not important parts of the Christian journey, because they are! But Matthew 25 reminds us of what Jesus tells us is most important. But Matthew 25 is not the only place where Jesus teaches us this plain truth. Here it is in our text from Luke assigned for this Sunday.
In this story, Jesus tells us the story of a rich man and a poor beggar. The descriptions of both characters help us envision how different these two men are, both in their present life here and in heaven. We are told that the rich man wore purple and fine linen and ate his fill of nothing but gourmet food. Purple was the most expensive dye for clothes, so it would have only been worn by the wealthiest of people. And not only did this man eat the best food, but he did so every day.
The poor man lives a very different life just outside of the rich man’s gate, and it would have been impossible for this poor soul to be missed. Scholars often note that the poor man is actually given a name, and this is the only time that Jesus gives someone in a parable a name, Lazarus. Jesus’s description of the conditions under which Lazarus lives is striking. He is hungry, covered with sores that the area dogs lick, and wants only the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. The mental picture here is jarring, which is precisely what Jesus wants.
When the two of them die, their fortunes change radically. Now it is Lazarus that has found comfort in the arms of Abraham, and the rich man is left in the burning torment of hell. Jesus’ message is clear to the pleading rich man who now begs for relief, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here (in heaven), and you are in agony.
As we have discussed, Luke, most especially, stresses that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. This parable graphically gives us a case study.
So what does this mean for us today as we take in Jesus’ teaching here? Must we give to every beggar that approaches us? Must we respond to every appeal to aid those suffering from hunger, natural disasters, and ethnic conflict? Of course, we do not. We live in a very different world from that of Jesus. Most folks in these small towns would have understood plainly who has deserving of charity and who was taking advantage of others. That is hard for most of us to determine today. However, this text calls us to heed the adage to live simply so that others can simply live. We can advocate for and provide support to those who have been thrust into poverty by structural racism and discrimination. We can follow the call to give to organizations that provide aid to people suffering from natural calamities. It is essential that when we do give to these organizations, we check to make sure they are using most of what we give to the cause that they claim to support. Web sites such as Charity Watch can give you an idea of how much of your donation goes to cover overhead, and how much goes to the cause.
I used to volunteer for an organization that helped clients pay utility and rent bills when they struggled to make ends meet. We would sit down with these clients and make calls to ensure they did need the money they requested. The checks were then made out to and sent directly to the utility or landlord to pay what was needed. We tried our best to help deal with the underlying circumstances that brought about this shortfall in cash to see if we could get them back on track. We also limited the number of times a family could request aid. These days, these are things that we should all be doing when asked to help others.
Underlying all of this, however, is a matter of the heart. The rich man’s sin was not lying, cheating, or murdering anyone. For all we know, he might have been on the front row each sabbath day to hear the rabbi’s sermon each week. His sin was that of ignoring the needs of another human being when he could have done so much to alleviate that person’s suffering.
The good news is that grace abounds with Jesus Christ, and it is never too late to begin paying attention to the needs of those around you. Where can you help? How can you support those who are helping others?