A poor fella wants to attend church on a Sunday morning, but when he arrives, he sees that everyone is all nice and clean, but he’s a bit dirty. They’re wearing nice clothes, but his have holes and are patched. They’ve got nice shoes on, but his are so worn that his big toe sticks out on both shoes. So, when he tries to gain entry, he’s told he’ll need to clean up a bit first and put on some nice clothes. He’s told that he’ll need to be proper, and then the door is closed on him. As he sits on the front steps, listening to them sing songs about the love of Jesus, he complains to God about not being allowed in. Then he heard God say, “I know how you feel. They won’t let me in there either.”
From our Psalm this morning:
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live…
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed,
and food to those who hunger.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
Have you ever read passages of scripture like this and wondered what all those types of individuals think? I mean, the scriptures say God will give justice to the oppressed, but there are so many who are still oppressed. It says he’ll give food to the hungry, but there are still so many who hunger. I suppose those who don’t believe can’t complain, but what about the believers—those who call on the name of the Lord but who are still oppressed, blind, hungry, and so on? If I found myself in such a position, I might be one to say, “Excuse me, Lord, but would you fulfill some of those promises in my life?” I know you’ve done these kinds of things before.
I read about the crippled woman bent over (bowed down); you healed her. There was the blind man you restored sight to. You cared for plenty of strangers: the ten lepers, the guy whose friends lowered him through the roof, the crippled man in the temple. And you fed the hungry: feeding of the 5,000. Feeding of the 4,000. The miraculous catch of fish. Yes. You’ve done all these things before, so, yeah, I’ll take some of that, but… nothing.
At such a point, we can say, “To heck with all this God business,” or we can look more deeply and discover what is really being said. We can listen, not just to the parts we want to hear, but to all of what scripture says. And that understanding begins at the inauguration of Jesus’ work when he said,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“He has anointed me to proclaim.” There’s also the time he got up early in the morning, after healing many the day before, and went away alone into the wilderness. Later, Simon finds him and reports that everyone is looking for him and Jesus said, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” “The reason I came was to proclaim the Kingdom of God.”
As we’ve discussed before, the miracles were not the reason for Jesus’ coming. They were signs of his authority in proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. Remember when he healed the paralytic? Jesus said to the man, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven,” but the scribes became angry, so Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’”
The message—the proclamation of the gospel and the forgiveness of sins was his primary purpose, and even his death upon the cross announced it. This is part of what made Jesus so unpopular with religious leaders. He was proclaiming the Kingdom of God was available to everyone—tax collectors and sinners and all, but the religious leaders believed you would have to pay for your sins. You couldn’t be forgiven just because someone said you were, so when Jesus declared that all who repented were welcomed into the Kingdom… well, the religious leaders got their knickers in a twist. He pointed this out in the parable of the prodigal son.
You know the story: a father with two sons. The younger son asks for and receives his inheritance, then goes out and squanders it. When he hits bottom, he says, “Self, you should go home and work for your father; at least there, you’ll have something to eat.” So he returns home. Dad sees him coming and orders a party to celebrate the return of the lost sheep—his son. However, the older brother—and keep in mind the attitude of the religious leaders who object to Jesus—older brother throws a snit fit and refuses to go to the party. The father implores him, but the son replies, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”
The religious leaders complained to Jesus: we are the ones that are following God’s ways, yet you declare the forgiveness of sins to those who are furthermost from God. That’s not right, they said.
Now, come forward to our Gospel reading for today, which was told almost immediately following the parable of the prodigal son.
We can understand today’s parable in terms of a moral teaching, which it should be. We are called on to care for those in need and we will be partially judged by how we do, but there is more being said, and it relates to the prodigal son and the attitude of the religious leaders.
The poor man, Lazarus, begs at the city gates day and night, and the dogs are more compassionate toward him than the rich man. Eventually, they both die and receive justice: Lazarus to heaven and the rich man to Hades. Seeing Father Abraham, the rich man asks if Lazarus could bring him one tiny drop of water to cool his tongue, for he was in agony in flames. That, of course, is not possible. Hence, the rich man asks if Father Abraham would send someone to his brothers to proclaim the truth so that they might repent and not be punished as he was, but Father Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
This is a story about the proclamation of the Kingdom of God: the tax collectors and sinners were the ones, not at the city gates, but at the Temple gates, crying out daily for a single drop of cool water to cool their souls—some sign of hope, compassion, mercy from those who were supposed to be rich in God’s word, the religious leaders, but those religious leaders wouldn’t even look at the sinners, associate with them, or speak with them. Jesus is saying to the religious leaders, “Because, in this life, you refused to give the tax collectors and sinners a single drop of the Good News to cool their souls and help them gain the Kingdom of God, then you will receive punishment in the next.”
The parable is a morality story, but more importantly, it is a message for the church. We are the rich. Within us is not just a drop of cool water, but Jesus tells us, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” When that poor man complained to God that they wouldn’t let him in church, God said to him, “I know how you feel. They won’t let me in there either.” You are not that kind of church, but let us always be on guard against it. Like Jesus, we want to be about the business of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. As the church, that is our job, so as His church, let us continue to be a place where all who are thirsty and in need of forgiveness and repentance can come and receive Jesus, the Savior of us all.
Let us pray: Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.