Many of you have heard me speak about the housing estate my wife and I lived on in London. It’s nickname was Alcatraz – it was a rough place to live and most of those who lived there were very poor. Our next door neighbor was a lady called Rita. She was a frightening looking lady – 6ft tall, skin covered in blotches and sores – blood shot eyes. She was an alcoholic, with a teenage son who was constantly in trouble with the police and a husband who had cancer. Her house stank – rancid from human and dog mess on the floor – sparsely furnished with old and flea ridden sofas.
She would regularly knock on my door when drunk to ask for some help – her husband would fall out of bed and she could not get him back in – or she would want to talk about something. I tried to give her the gospel. We even took her to church a number of times.
Looking back, I am ashamed to admit that while my Christian duty was to respond to her requests for help my heart was not right and I did the minimum necessary to make sure the interaction with her was over as quickly as I could politely make it happen.
Did I ever cook her meals to make sure her only diet was not beer? No. Did I ever go and clean her house so that she might not live in the filth she was in? No. Did I try and get her help for her addiction? No.
Most Bible studies and seminaries do not prepare you for this.
It is often our natural instinct to keep our interaction with poverty, real poverty at arms length.
If I were to ask this morning, “what is our attitude to the poor” I wonder what we would say? What is your attitude to the poor? Does it, somewhere, include love and compassion?
How we treat the poor, the weak, those who have nothing, matters. It matters because it matters to God.
We cannot call ourselves Christ centered and never get involved, hands on involved, with the poor. If our Bible studies and sermons and theology and reading of books never lead us to get out and leave our homes and churches to stand side by side with the poor then we have utterly lost sight of Christ.
How the nation of Israel dealt with the poor was one of the basis of God’s judgment on them. It was part of the judgment God pronounces in Amos – chapter two verse 7 God says that Israel has committed covenant transgressions; that is they had disobeyed God; one of which was trampling upon the poor and pushing the destitute away. And in our passage from Amos this morning we see the arrogant living in luxury without any concern for the state of the nation.
It matters what our attitude is to the poor; it matters how we treat the poor. We tend to have the same attitude that was around even in the first century – that prosperity was one of the marks of a good man blessed by God. The Pharisees believed this. The Jews believed this. Even the disciples believed this when they ask Jesus incredulously ‘who then can be saved if not the wealthy’. Wealth, prosperity is not necessarily a mark of a good man blessed by God. Quite the opposite may be true according to the Apostle Paul.
Our epistle reading begins in the middle of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy about godliness. In v6 of chapter 6 Paul encourages Timothy by saying that godliness with contentment is a great gain. Be content with what you have. Then in v9 he says that those who desire to be rich and pursue wealth puts you into spiritual danger and can even lead you to stray from faith. In fact, Paul says that to long for wealth and riches will lead people into temptation that will plunge them into ruin and destruction.
The Apostle Paul implores Timothy to pursue not wealth but godliness and faithfulness; to obey Christ’s commands because Christ is coming back – Christ is eternal – wealth is not. And finally Paul tells Timothy to encourage the rich to the do the same – pursue godliness and faithfulness and obey Christ’s commands.
An example of what happens to someone who pursues wealth is the Rich man in the gospel reading. The story makes no direct assertion about his, or for that matter Lazarus’ overall morality or faith.
The glaring, fundamental charge against this rich man is not that he is rich but that he ignores a man who is in desperate need. The bottom line is that the rich man is condemned for doing NOTHING to help the poor man on his own door step. Matthew Henry, the puritan Bible Scholar writes What was the attitude of the rich man towards Lazarus? We are not told that he abused him but it is implied that he slighted him. Here was a real object of charity and a very moving one, which spoke for itself: it was presented to him at his own gate. And that reveals something of the hardness of this rich man’s heart. He was not moved to give this beggar a meal from the abundance of his table – indeed he does not even give Lazarus the scraps that are reserved for the dogs.
Such behavior, by a Jew to another Jew, (for only a jew would say ‘father Abraham’ as the rich man does when he has died) is a covenant transgression. Of the many passages in the Old Testament which could be cited one is sufficient – Deut 15:7-9 says If a fellow Israelite from one of your villages in the land that the LORD your God is giving you should be poor, you must not harden your heart or be insensitive to his impoverished condition. Instead, you must be sure to open your hand to him and generously lend him whatever he needs. Be careful lest you entertain the wicked thought that the seventh year, the year of cancellation of debts, has almost arrived, and your attitude be wrong toward your impoverished fellow Israelite and you do not lend him anything; he will cry out to the LORD against you and you will be regarded as having sinned.
The rich man had indeed hardened his heart and his hardened heart continued into eternity for even there he saw Lazarus as simply a stooge to do his biddening.
Whether or not Edmund Burke truly said “For evil to triumph it is enough only that good men do nothing” we must realize that the option of doing NOTHING is not Biblical. We are not called to just have knowledge of Christ; or to Worship in a building once a week; we are called to LIVE OUT faith amongst our community BEING the Church, BEING Christ to those who need help.
Again, Matthew Henry writes Those who are not able to help the poor with their purses should help them with their difficulties. Those who cannot lend them a penny should lend them a hand.
The opportunity for the rich man to use what God had given him in a way that would please God ended when Lazarus dies. As the apostle Paul reminds us, we come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing. Despite the vivid contrast between the rich man and Lazarus at the beginning of the story, the one who had everything compared to the one who had nothing, death brings us all onto one level and Divine, Heavenly wealth takes no notice of what kind of earthly wealth or social status you may have had.
In eternity it was the rich man outside the gate and Lazarus was on inside. And have you noticed that the rich mans tongue, the tongue that tasted all the fine and sumptuous food, is burning. As one commentator said, He who denied a crumb, is denied a drop of water.
The rich man realizes that he is separated from God and realizes that his family are in eternal danger and so he asks for a message to be sent to them. But this is denied him. Why? Because the issue is not one of knowing what to do, the rich man knew what he SHOULD DO. The family, the rich man knew the law of Moses and the prophets – they simply ignored it. If God’s prophetic word cannot convince and put a crack in a hard heart, neither will miracles!
The irony and joy of this story is that what is denied the rich man’s brothers; a word of warning from the grave, is given to the reader of the gospel. Do we hear the warning?
So my challenge to us as a Church and to each of us individually is what are we going to do? By that I don’t mean that that we should go and organize a trip to Hatti or the Dominon Republic – as wonderful as such trips are. What I mean is who are the poor that God has placed at our gate and what will we do about it? God was not asking the rich man to go FIND the poor to help. Just to help the poor at his own gate.
Who are the poor at your own gate? Maybe God has sent them to you and I so that we will help them. Or are our hearts so hardened that we can no longer even recognize the poor in front of our eyes? If so we must repent and plead that God would give us compassion and mercy for those around us who need our help.
This is not a call to social action so much as a call to live a Christ centered life. We are not to elevate feeding the poor to the ONLY action of Christianity but we are not, as some have, to minimize or relegate it to a secondary activity behind bible study and theology.
We are to do this because Christ commands us to and we should be utterly desirous to please Christ in every way we can. This is about living life as one who loves and knows the living, Trinitarian God. This is about living life to complete fullness, living life as it should be lived.
The call of one who has meet with and committed their life to Jesus Christ involves many things – prayer, studying scripture, fellowship and worshipping together, growing in godliness and faithfulness, proclaiming the Lordship of Christ and his grace to those around us, helping, loving and caring for the poor, the widows and the orphans, the rejected and the outcast.
Put simply, it’s about being a Christian. So, unlike the rich man, let use what we have been given by God in a way that is pleasing to God, pursuing godliness, faith, love, steadfastness and gentleness.
It matters what we do about the poor in our community. It matters what our attitude is. It matters because it matters to our Lord Jesus Christ.