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20th May 2001

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Scripture Reference

LUKE 16:19-31

During this week, I was a Keynote speaker at the Homelessness Summit held at Parliament House Syd-ney. The Summit was a joint venture between people who are homeless, community organizations, peak bodies, government agencies, unions and Members of Parliament, who in a non-partisan environment, wanted to take a fresh look at issues affecting the growing cri-sis of homelessness and assisted housing, with a view to making policy recommendations.

In my speech, I made reference to Wesley Mission's recent report, THE FACES OF HOMELESSNESS, and also to a letter received in the last week from South Sydney Council, asking welfare agencies to stop giving food and blankets to the homeless who sleep in the parks and reserves of South Sydney. Wesley Mission does not hand out blankets and food, instead we invited people to come in and use our beds and dining room. But the philosophy of not giving blankets or food in the hope that this will force the homeless and hungry to move on to some other place is typical of those ratepayers who do not want to see the homeless. For three days we were busy on dozens of radio programs, even from overseas, and most of the TV news programs. I was delighted by the strong support we gained on behalf of the homeless from citizens of South Sydney. The letters to the newspapers supported our stand. The South Sydney Mayor, Councilor John Fowler, was caught between some of his wealthy ratepayers who both pay rates and vote, and the homeless who neither pay rates nor vote and he chose to support the wrong group. Thank God there is a strong streak of compassion for homeless women, children and men, in the Australian society.

Jesus once used a well known story of his day, changed it round, and gave it a new ending and new meaning. He spoke about a rich man, known simply as Dives (the Latin term for "rich man".) and Lazarus, a poor man who was homeless and hungry. 

The first part of the story contrasts a poor rich man and a rich poor man. Luke 16:19-21. "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores." The scene is so vivid I am sure of exactly where in Sydney is this wealthy home. The house has plenty of rooms, because the rich always have plenty of people around them. You saw the houses of an insurance millionaire in the papers this week. He needed ten bedrooms for his friends! The poor are on their own. The rich man has plenty of food, bedlinen and clothes. Every day he lived in luxury. The poor man at his gate was covered only by sores. He longed for food scraps. Jesus adds a realistic touch. The street mongrel dogs licked his sores. This was the last indignity. As Mayor John Fowler said, "The regular provision of food creates an impression of permanency.. and creates problems of vermin and rubbish, concerns for the residents and Council." Quite so. Food and blankets only encourages them. These poor and homeless breed! Keep them cold and hungry and they will go away! Remove the hospital beds and no-one will get sick! Close the cemeteries and no-one will die! Stop feeding the hungry and the problem will be solved! It will just pass away. That is how many of our poor and homeless are treated in this city.

But Jesus gives a different perspective. The poor man died. God now reverses their fortunes. Luke 16:22-25 "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side." When the poor man died the angels carried him to Abraham, the great father of the nation Israel. Despite his homelessness and poverty, he is now treated with dignity and comfort. "The rich man also died and was buried." There is a contrast between the poor man carried to Abraham's side, and the rich man who was just buried. Pomp and ceremony, but he was still buried. There is a sense of permanence when you have great possessions. But the fact is that "man is destined to die once and then face the judgement". Heb 9:27 We all die. Possessions make no difference. We cannot take them with us. 

Luke 16:23 "In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side." For the first time Dives actually saw Lazarus. The homeless understand that. They see people avert their eyes when they approach them in the street. People never really look at a homeless person. They are afraid eye contact will lead to the poor person asking for money. Most find it hard to really look at the homeless. Dives swept out his gate every day with his friends, and he never really saw Lazarus at the gate. The dazzle of his riches had blinded him to the needs of the homeless. Now without his riches, he saw Lazarus for the first time. Luke 16:24 "So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.' Old habits died hard. Dives is still ordering Lazarus around for his own comfort. Wealthy people always order others around to serve them.

"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony." This is the heavenly reversal. Dives, the rich man had received all he desired while Lazarus had no choice over his circumstances. Now Lazarus was comforted and Dives was in misery. Luke 16:26 "And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us." Here is interesting teaching: after death we still have consciousness, memory, recognition of others and choices to make. You will know yourself, the choices you made in life, the wrong acts you have committed. That is hell! In death there is no communication between the living and the dead. When we pull ourselves away from the homeless and the poor, we are starting to dig a chasm between ourselves and God. We dig the gulf between us.

We should ask an important question: does this mean that all homeless and hungry people automatically assume their destiny lies in the comfort of heaven? This parable has been used to teach that message. It has encouraged wealthy people to do nothing about the poor and homeless on the basis that they will get their reward in heaven: "pie in the sky bye and bye." Jesus, in praising Lazarus, gives us the picture of a righteous poor man. His righteousness, not his poverty saves him. That is why Jesus added a different ending with a surprising twist, that is both as true today as when He first told the story. There may be a reversal of fortune, but there will certainly be deep regret by those who haven't cared for the needy in this life.

The second part of the story starts with Dives, the rich man, still ordering Lazarus around: Luke 16:27-29 "He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' "Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'" Lazarus thinks about his family and wants to spare his five brothers from the anguish he brought upon himself. He wants Lazarus, to go from the dead to warn his brothers to change their lives and start thinking about helping the poor and the homeless. 

Jesus bluntly says there is no communication from the dead, but there are the Scriptures. If people will only read their Bibles they will learn how to behave towards others. They will see the homeless and the hungry on the streets and show compassion towards them. The South Sydney Mayor, does not need the ghost of some homeless person who died of hypothermia last year to haunt him in a dream - if he wants to know how to behave, then he has the scriptures and he should read them. Jesus becomes even more personal. Dives says: Luke 16:30 "No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent." Jesus said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Even Jesus coming back from the dead, does not convince some people of how they should live! Neither the terrors of hell nor the presence of someone raised from the dead make some people look beyond their riches with eyes of compassion. If we do not heed the Scriptures and the resurrected Christ we shall not be saved.

This powerful parable teaches: many people are so fixated with their houses and possessions they do not see the poor and homeless at their gate; if we do not show compassion to the powerless, then we are digging a great chasm between ourselves and God; God has a special care for the poor and homeless; the day is coming when we will all be judged and then our worldly achievements will not count for much, neither will our lack of them; it is not possible to communicate from the dead to those who are still living; those people still living have the Scriptures to guide them in their way of life and it is imperative that we are obedient to the teachings of Scriptures and the resurrected Christ.

Today in Sydney, we have more poor than at any time in our history. While all of us are better off than ever, there are plenty of people who do not have the basics for reasonable living. Fifty-four percent of homeless people in Sydney are women. Most of these have children. Over seventy percent of homeless people are mentally ill. These people have no control over their circumstances. They cannot break the cycle of poverty. They just sit at the rich man's gate hoping they will be noticed and given some blankets and food. Their greatest need is for affordable housing. The suburbs where they have lived are being populated by young gentry who are willing to pay much money to do up old houses and landlords who prefer tenants who pay more and city councilors who will follow the dictates of the ratepayers and move the hungry and homeless on. This is not just a problem, it is a scandal. That is why I speak to Parliamentarians with forthrightness and call the requests of a local Mayor heartless and lacking compassion.

God knows what these poor and homeless feel like. In Jesus God identified Himself with "the poor and mean and lowly". Jesus also was homeless with nowhere to lay His head. He also was a refugee from a murderous tyrant. He also owned no property other than the cloak round His shoulders which powerful men took from Him and threw dice to see who should get it. He too knew what it was to be rejected, derided, imprisoned and thrown outside the city walls. When the wealthy pick upon one of the least of His brothers and sisters, He still hurts with them.

He calls upon those who follow Him to have a special care for the powerless, the rejected, and the poor, the homeless and the hungry. We are to speak a Word of hope to them and hand them a cup of cold water in His name in summer, and hot water in winter with a tea bag in it! When we do, God smiles! We are environmentally responsible. We do not give out mattresses to people to sleep on in parks or leave food where it encourages rats. But instead we provide buildings where people can with dignity sleep and eat and be dry and warm. There is much more still be to done. We need more people to identify with us as members of Wesley Mission. We want people to be committed Christians to care for the needy, and who will be part of the answer, not part of the problem. Do not just hear me speak about this. Decide to join with us as a committed Christian.

Jesus gave us the example by identifying with the poor. Why not identify with Him as Saviour and Lord? Accepting Him as Lord and Saviour means you stand at His side when you show compassion and help them.

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes


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