I spent some time this past weekend meditating on the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Jesus told this story because He was addressing some Pharisees who were lovers of money (v. 14). In the story both the rich man and Lazarus died. Lazarus had been poor and sick and begged for scraps at the door of the rich man. When they died, Jesus said the rich man was in torment, but Lazarus was in paradise. Now the thing that caught my attention is that this is a pretty graphic story, and one in which Jesus gives us a rare, behind the scenes, view of what takes place after death. For all that is revealed in this story, there is no mention of faith, or receiveing Christ, or any number of things that often are touted as the way of ensuring that we will inherit eternal life. Instead, the whole issue boils down to money and what was done, or not done, with it.
The rich man went to hell, not because he was an evil man, or even because he didn't believe in God, but because he ignored the poor and used all his wealth for himself. Lazarus was blessed, not because he had a marvelous conversion experience, but because he was poor. Let me inject here that I think I am on safe ground by assuming that poor in body is synonymous with poor in spirit in the worldview of Luke. So I am not trying to say that people can go to heaven merely because they are poor. However, what catches my attention more is what caused the rich man to go to hell.
In spite of whatever religion he may have had, the rich man's religion did not reach the practical level of helping his fellow brothers of the human race. If we truly love God, we cannot help but love our neighbor. In fact, the only way we can truly show God how much we love Him is by loving our neighbor. Prayer, attending church, reading the Bible, and a host of other religious activities do not demonstrate how much we love God as much as our attitude toward the poor. Even though the others are important, this is where the true state of our hearts, and our religion, is revealed.
Think for a moment about all the places in the Bible that refer to the poor. Jesus said He was anointed to preach the gospel to the poor (Lu. 4:18). Paul said the apostles of Jerusalem were most concerned that he remember the poor, which was also of utmost concern to him (Gal. 2:10). John emphasizes that ministry to the poor is how we practically demonstrate our love of God (1 Jn. 3:17). James uses our ministry to the poor to demonstrate that faith without works is dead (Jms. 2:14-17), and reminds us that pure religion involves helping widows and orphans (Jms. 1:27). That's just a brief summary of some of the New Testament writers. If we examined Moses we would find numerous laws to help the poor. In addition we could hear the voices of the prophets calling for justice for the poor.
Why is God so concerned with the poor? I'm not sure I know the answer. I just know He is. I also know that more than anything else, this is how we will be judged. No more evidence for that is necessary than to look at the famous passage of final judgment found in Matthew 25. There we are plainly told that we will either inherit eternal life, or eternal damnation, based on whether or not we took care of the least of Jesus' brothers- the poor. I used to hear it said that judgment would be like a theological exam. God might ask us something like, "Why should I let you into heaven?" To this we were to reply that Jesus had purchased us at the price of His own blood, and we were counting on His merits alone. Now that is true, but that's not how God will judge us. Instead, He reveals in this passage of Scripture that we will be judged by our works, specifically our works done for the poor. These reveal the true state of our hearts before God.
Now I've done a number of things for the poor. I've given money, I've fed the hungry, I've donated clothing, I've visited the sick and the imprisoned. But I've also bypassed people in need more times than I can count and that scares me to death. It's not that I'm bound by some warped sense of working my way to heaven. It's because I understand that true faith demands obedience. It's because I'm seeing my heart revealed in ways that it never has been before, and I'm not entirely pleased with the picture. I can't offer my "scraps" of good works to God when He knows my heart is still selfish and in love with my stuff.
So if you're like me and beginning to realize that our attitude towards the poor says a lot more about our salvation than how much Scripture we've memorized, then I'd like to invite you to a challenge that I'm forming in my own heart. It's this: the next time some stranger asks for money, give it to him. Don't worry about what he's going to do with it. Don't try to figure out if he's conning you. Just give it away. In this instance, if you're like me, this has more to do with what God is doing in us than about whether or not we are being conned, or ripped off.
In addition, begin praying for how you can be actively involved in the ongoing effort to help the poor, both here at home and around the world. Look for something that allows you to get personally involved and give of yourself rather than just sending money (but do be sure to send money as well).
I hope that very soon, if you're like me, we will find ourselves finally being freed of our self-centered, materialistic prison. And lest this begins to sound like it's all about me (or you), it's not. It's about God and the people all around us who are made in His image. It's about Jesus and ministering to Him when He shows up in the poor who are with us every day.