One of the hardest parts of preaching is trying to give you appropriate context to the scripture we are reading. Most of you haven’t studied the Gospel of Luke extensively—maybe you have done a Bible study on it—or maybe you’ve never read a word from Luke’s Gospel apart from Sunday mornings at church. It’s hard enough if you read the Bible every day to piece together the context, let alone if you never read it at all. But no matter what you know you need to know this: Context matters. You wouldn’t pick up a copy of Gone with the Wind, read a paragraph, and imagine you’ve got the picture. So how much more important is it with the Bible? We need to constantly be wondering: Where is Jesus in his ministry? Who is he talking to? Where has he been… where is he going? Is this story part of a bigger series of stories?
These are important questions to ask, because Jesus was not the brothers Grimm or Aesop. Their stories were distinct and universal; you can pick up a single Aesop fable and easily understand the moral. On the other hand, Jesus’ parables were specific and contextual. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan immediately after being rejected by the Samaritans. He points to Jerusalem immediately following the Transfiguration, saying that Jerusalem is where something big is going to go down. The context helps us to understand the meaning; everything after the Transfiguration is downhill to the cross and everything should be read accordingly.
One last example of contextual reading for you: In our men’s Tuesday morning Bible Study leading up to Lent we read through the book of Romans. Romans is the perfect example of a book that has to be read in whole; if you read it in part you will miss the point. If you read verses from anywhere in the first few chapters of Romans it is easy to see that Paul’s purpose in writing this book must be to convict people and strengthen the importance of the law. However, if you read anywhere from about chapter 8 on in the book of Romans it’s easy to see that Paul wrote Romans to obliterate the law. If you read all of it you will find something infinitely more interesting: Paul laid out the importance of the law to give weight to our sinfulness. Then he obliterated the law under grace’s power. But you cannot get there from reading only a single passage.
So it is with readings like today’s. The rich man and Lazarus: A parable of Jesus that, if we’re honest with ourselves, should scare us half to death, especially when read on its own. This parable better get us thinking, “What does it mean to be rich?” How much money does it take to be rich?