The Deserving Poor? (A sermon on Luke 16:19-31)

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers–so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'”


I had a guy at my door on Friday night who asked rather aggressively, “where do I go to get a meal around here?” I said back to him, equally aggressively, “where do you normally go for a meal?” He said, “I want a meal.” I said, “mate, it’s outside hours, I don’t know you, and I’m not giving you any money.”

I can be a hard bastard when I wanna be! Mind you I get lots of calls like this. Most of the guys who come to the door like this take one look at me, catch the expression on my face, and say,“buddy, can you find the priest for me?“

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I don’t look like the person they were hoping for. Who did they expect? Admittedly, on one occasion I did answer the door in my boxing gloves, so I could appreciate why, even when I told them that I was the priest, they figured I was covering for somebody else

In truth, I’m not really a hard bastard, and we did give him a meal to take with him, but I’m not confident he ate it. We may yet find it, as I’ve found lots of stuff we’ve passed on to apparently needy people, disposed of discretely in the church grounds. You see, you cannot trust ‘these people’ – people who hover around your house, looking for a handout – people like this Friday night guy, or people like Lazurus, who Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21)

I don’t know why Jesus had to insert that last tasteless detail about Lazarus. Do I really have to feel sympathy for him, as well as give him a meal? For in truth, I know enough about poverty in this country already. You don’t need to rub in the facts. I know diabetes affects members of our indigenous population 25 times morn than it does the rest of the community, but I don’t need to hear details of how this leads to gangrene and amputations, and I certainly don‘t want a description. I really don‘t want to think about these things too much. After all, I‘ve got work to get on with and a family to look after!

In truth, I don’t think we need to hear any more about Lazurus at all. Do you? We’ve read the statistics. We saw him on the news and we gave at the office! And it’s not my fault that Lazurus hangs out with the dogs, and it’s not as if I was the one who covered him in sores. And if he’d just get himself a job, he could get some proper medical treatment for his skin anyway. After all, it’s no good me just giving him a handout. He’ll just take my money down to the pub and drink his way through it and be back at my gate by sunrise!

Ain‘t it the truth? People like Lazarus are professional beggars, aren’t they, and they don’t generally get that way through bad luck! Indeed, in Lazurus’ case – covered in sores and the dogs licking his wounds – we know full well what his problem is. He’s on the needle! There’s nothing more certain!

Am I being a hard bastard again? It’s just the way things are. If you abuse your body with drugs for any length of time, your skin problems will be a give-away. And it makes sense to me that Lazarus has a problem with the dogs. He’s probably too out-of-it most of the time to shew them away!

You see, you can’t trust people like Lazurus, and you’ve just gotta be a bit bloody-minded about these things because the fact is that we have limited resources and unlimited demands on those resources, which means that we have to save our welfare reserves for those who truly deservethem.

Surely this is the essence of any good Christian welfare program – the all-important distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Why waste your scraps on Lazurus when your hard-earned excess wealth could be given to someone whose painful situation was not their own fault:

  • The poor young mother with the three children, whose wretched husband who took off with the secretary and left her penniless!
  • That sad young boy whose mum and dad are both in gaol. It’s not his fault, is it? What chance does the poor lad have?
  • That refugee couple, who fled their violent homeland to find a better life here and now can’t get a visa and or access to public health services.

These are the deserving poor, surely? These are the ones we should be angling our meagre welfare budget towards! These are the people who deserve our love and respect! What makes Lazurus think he should get a slice of that pie? Has Lazurus got a good story? If he has, I’d like to hear it!

Curiously, Jesus doesn’t give Lazarus’ story, does he – just his name? Indeed, as I thought about this, it occurred to me that in all the Gospel stories of all the people that came to Jesus for help, I don’t think we ever hear much of the backgrounds of any of them, such as would suggest that any of them had earned Jesus’ attention either through their meritorious lives or through them being innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control. On the contrary, you get the impression that Jesus simply didnguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor at all!

People did try to draw Him in to making that distinction. The disciples see the man born blind and ask, “who sinned, Lord – this man or his parents – that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) but Jesus just doesn’t buy in to the debate.

The religious leaders drag an adulterous woman before Jesus and ask Him to pass judgement on her, but Jesus is not interested in doing that!

A guy who had been dudded out of his inheritance pleads with Jesus that He might convince his brother, that he deserves a better deal, but Jesus replies bluntly, “Buddy, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14) Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in making judgement calls over who deserves what!

So was Lazarus a good guy deep down, and was the rich man a greedy, money-grabbing, tight-fisted, slave-driver? Don’t know, not interested, find somebody who cares, because Jesus, it seems, doesn’t!

Of course, many students of the Bible assume that Lazurus must have been a good man, and that the rich guy, conversely, must have been a heartless bastard because, in the second scene of the story, Lazurus is depicted as enjoying his Heavenly reward, while the rich guy is suffering in hell!

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ “

It would appear that the characters are reaping what they had sown in life, but in truth, the language of reward and punishment is noticeably absent!

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” (vs. 25)

There is indeed an implication here that the rich guy didn’t help Lazurus when he had the chance, and so perhaps deserves what he is getting, but in truth, the focus is not really on the piety (or otherwise) of the individuals involved but rather simply on the great reversal that takes place in the Kingdom of God.

In the Kingdom of God everything is turned upside-down. The first are last and the last are first! It is as Mary said at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: God ‘brings down the mighty from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly’. It is a fulfilment of what Jesus prophesised earlier, ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.’ (Luke 6:24)

A great sorting-out is taking place! Life as we know it is turned on its head! The tears of the suffering are wiped away, while those who have smirked at the misfortunes of others will have those smirks wiped from their faces! The long-suffering poor and oppressed find comfort, but the fat and the comfortable will struggle. All-powerful kings, queens, emperors and Presidents will loose their positions of power, to make way for the much-reviled and crucified Prince of Peace, who will reign for ever and ever!

A great shaking-up is about to take place, but those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo are never going to acknowledge that it is coming! Hence the rich guys pleads with Abraham, to warn his family as to where things are heading. He says, ‘Father, I beg you to send [Lazurus] to my father’s house – for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

But Abraham knows the mindset of this guy’s family better than he does.

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

There is an allusion here, of course, to Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead, but not simply to the resurrection as such, but to the failure of the resurrection as a means of proof for the truth of the Gospel.

After I first was converted, I went to university and studied philosophy. Within a year I had marshalled the most sophisticated collection of arguments for the existence of God that had ever been assembled since the foundation of the world! I was ready to convert everybody with the irresistible force of m fiery intellect, but somehow I failed to convert anybody. What went wrong? I forgot that nobody can be convinced of anything that they don’t want to believe!

No force of logic will do it. No display of miracles will do it. Even someone rising from the dead in front of you, will not convince anybody of anything that they really don’t want to believe!

It’s just the way the human mind works. As Kierkegaard said, “all obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will”. When we don’t know something, it’s partly because we truly don’t know it, but largely because we don’t want to know it!

No sceptic is ever going to become convinced of the presence of God purely through a good argument. No damaged soul is ever going to find the love of Christ solely through some flashy miracle, and none of us rich people are ever going to be convinced that it’s time to truly shed our wealth and share it out with the Lazurus’ of this world, unless we are truly ready to take that step – not even if someone rises from the dead and screams at us and warns us to our faces of what will happen to us if we don’t let go of our earthly stash. If we don’t want to believe it, we won’t!

This is why, I guess, Jesus so often concludes his stories with the line, “he who has ears, let him hear!” For the truth is that unless we have the ears to hear these things, they are never going to get through to us.

And this is why it is quite possible for us to become hard bastards in our treatment of the Lazaruses of this world. We don’t have to pay attention to the things that are destroying the poor in our community. We can change the channel when this stuff comes on in the news. We can create a policy that governs our treatment of the poor and hide behind that. We can restrict our compassionate action to business hours and set up an impenetrable distinction between our public and private lives. We can latch on to the Biblical mandate of giving ten per cent and make sure we keep the ninety per cent safely locked away for ourselves. We can create a solid distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, and on that basis we can slam the door in Lazarus’ face every time!

For in truth, nobody is going to convince us of things that we really don’t want to accept. And yet … the Kingdom of God is at hand. Perhaps the time has come to repent and believe!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 2007. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.
www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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