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October 14, 2018

When Is It too Late to Change?

By Rev. Dr. Dave Cassel

Hanover Presbyterian Church

10/14/2018

Luke 16:19-31

 

PRAYER

INTRODUCTION

Late last week, a terrible tragedy occurred near Albany, New York when a stretch limousine roared through an intersection, plowed into a parked car in a lot across the road, and then careened into a ditch. The New York Times reported “The limousine accident in Schoharie, N.Y., on Saturday took 20 lives almost instantly. It devastated families, killing siblings and leaving young children without parents. The victims were friends and relatives — including four sisters from one family, and two brothers from another — who were celebrating the 30th birthday of one of the group.” I am sure that all of us have seen pictures of devastated family members, friends, and acquaintances whose faces register shock and grief. Looking at those people’s faces, I wonder how many of them wish that they had taken the time to apologize for a biting comment or an unnecessary argument. How many wish that they had taken the time to tell the deceased how much they loved and appreciated them? How many wish that they were not so preoccupied with their own lives, desires, and goals that they didn’t have time for those who were so suddenly taken from them? How many people realized that no matter how much they want to change their attitudes, words, and behaviors, it was now too late to change?

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke, the story of the rich man and the pauper, Lazarus, is also focused on a man who found out in a devastatingly vivid way that it is sometimes too late to change. By means of this story, Jesus is reminding us in no uncertain terms that WE MUST DO ALL THAT WE CAN TO CHANGE BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. I would like to approach this text and its challenge for us in three stages: First, I would like to suggest that the parable reminds us that WE CAN NEVER TURN BACK THE CLOCK; Second, I would like to reflect on the reasons WHY PEOPLE DON’T CHANGE WHEN THEY HAVE THE CHANCE?; and Third, I would reiterate Jesus’ CHALLENGE TO EACH OF US THAT NOW IS THE TIME TO CHANGE.

I. We Can Never Turn Back the Clock

The parable that Jesus tells is clearly a lesson about time and when people can and cannot change their behaviors. The rich man, during his life time, was dressed in magnificent clothes, and he feasted sumptuously every day. At the same time, there is a pauper covered with sores lying in agony by the rich man’s gate hoping in vain to eat even the scraps that the rich man threw away. Even the very dogs that gobbled up the rich man’s scraps accosted the poor man and licked the pus from his oozing sores. Jesus does not give us any indication of the rich man’s motives or even if he was aware of the plight of the poor man at his gates, but he dies, and in his afterlife he clearly understands that he should have been compassionate towards the poor man. The poor man is safely ensconced in the comforting arms of Abraham in heaven while the rich man is burning in the blast furnace of Hades. After hearing the rich man’s plea for even a drip of cooling water, Abraham informs him that he is suffering because while he was living he had his fill of good things while the poor man suffered in agony outside the rich man’s villa. Abraham continues saying that the abyss between heaven and hell is fixed and that neither the rich man nor the poor man will ever be able to cross that gulf. The full extent of his disastrous situation suddenly overwhelms the rich man. He is doomed forever since he can never turn back the clock and do now what he should have done during his life. It is too late to change.

Shaken to his core, the rich man realizes that his friends and family are just like him in failing to act with love and compassion to those around them while they have the opportunity to do so. He doesn’t want them to have to feel the fires of hell to understand what they should have been doing, so he asks that Abraham send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his family and to give them the opportunity to change their attitudes and actions before they end up with him in Hades. Abraham responds by saying, no, everyone has the option to do the right thing before it is too late, but there comes a time when people’s chances are gone forever. Even if they finally realize that they should have lived differently, they can never turn back the clock to correct the problem.

II. Why Don’t People Change when They Have the Chance?

I imagine that in his torment, the rich man asked himself repeatedly why he didn’t change his behavior when he had the chance. This is a question that Jesus intends for us to be asking ourselves as well. Many of us engage in inappropriate behaviors, and Jesus wants us to recognize these behaviors before it is too late to change our behavior. Perhaps we intellectually realize that a traffic accident, a stroke, a heart attack, or simply old age will forever take away the opportunity for change, but we still don’t make the effort to change our behavior. Why is that?

One reason might be that we live with blinders on. Like a race horse that has blinders so that it is not distracted from running its best race by what’s going on beside it, it may be that we act inappropriately because we are wearing blinders that prohibit us from seeing the results of our poor actions. I suppose that the rich man had a high fence and when he travelled he rode in a carriage with curtained windows. He simply didn’t see the poor man suffering outside his gate. There are all sorts of blinders that are in place in our lives. We live in affluent neighborhoods and don’t ever venture into the parts of town where there is poverty and addiction. It’s too dangerous. We live in air-conditioned homes and ride in air-conditioned cars. We don’t experience the devastating effects of global climate change. We vacation in Bali rather than in the other devastated areas of Indonesia or the slums of Delhi or Bangladesh.

A second reason we might not change when we have the chance is procrastination. We know that there are things that we are doing (or failing to do) that are not right. We know that we should change, but we are too lazy to make the effort to change today. We’ll do it tomorrow. Just one more trip to the casino; just one more glimpse at that forbidden web-page. Just one more … and then I’ll change.

A third reason we might not change is habit. Over the years we have become accustomed to doing things our way and harshly criticizing those who do things differently. We get snippy with those we love, and expect them to get with the program when we should be thinking about what changes we could make in our actions that would make them feel loved and supported.

A fourth reason that prohibits us from changing is that we perversely enjoy what we are doing even though we know it is neither right for us nor for those we love. That seems to be the case for addictions like gambling, food, alcohol, drugs, and inappropriate sexual behavior. I remember an incident many years ago when I was a pastor. A wife of a very successful real estate developer came into my office in tears. She said her husband was ruining their lives by losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in Las Vegas. He enjoyed the comps, where he was treated to free suites, unlimited food, and other perks, and while he enjoyed the way that the casinos were fawning over him, his family was being destroyed. He apparently forgot to look closely at his wife and kids to see how much he was hurting them. Many of us are in the same situation. Perhaps for us it is not gambling but other activities that we know are not right; we keep doing them because we like them even if they are hurting us and those we love.

Finally, we may be hiding from our bad actions and their consequences. I suspect that a good number of us do or think things behind closed doors that we would be ashamed of revealing to other people. Perhaps in hiding our actions from others, we are trying to hide them from ourselves. Unfortunately, doing things in secret does not remove the consequences of our actions; it may, in fact, intensify them and prohibit us from doing what it takes to change.

Whatever the cause be it blinders, procrastination, habit, perverse enjoyment of inappropriate actions, or the effects of bad behavior in secret, many of us have the tendency to refuse to change when we have the opportunity. And that is where we stand when we finally realize that it is too late to change.

III. Jesus’ Challenge to All of Us Is that NOW Is the Time to Change

  1. all of the parables Jesus told, there is a direct challenge to the hearer. telling the story of the rich man and his devastating experience after death, Jesus is reminding us that we all have areas in our lives where we need to change our behavior and we have a limited time to deal with these problems. Because there will inevitably be a time when it is too late to change our behavior, Jesus is challenging us to change NOW. Jesus is declaring that although we avoid dealing with our inappropriate behavior by means of simply acting oblivious or by engaging in a variety of excuses and avoidance behaviors, our problems are still with us and they are damaging us and those we love. The challenge Jesus is giving is clear. NOW is the time to change our behavior.

How exactly are we supposed to go about changing? I have several suggestions. First, we must admit to ourselves that we are engaging in bad actions that are hurting us and those we love. I once spent several weeks in training at an in-patient rehabilitation center for alcoholics. I learned rather quickly that alcoholics are master dissemblers who do everything they can to conceal their problem from themselves and others. Even though their lives are often in shambles, they refuse to admit that they are out of control. If they are ever going to fight through their addiction, the first step that is necessary is to admit that they are alcoholics and that they have no control over the condition. I once knew an alcoholic who was going to a counselor regularly, but failed to admit the extent of his dependence on alcohol. Unable to handle the feeling that his life was out of control, he spiraled downward and eventually ended his own life causing immense pain to those who loved him. Whatever our problems, I think that many of us are like alcoholics. We somehow manage to live without acknowledging our problems even though they are hurting us and those we love in many ways. In order to change, we must first admit our problems.

Second, I suggest that we commit ourselves to change. This means that we must be fully honest with ourselves by recognizing our tactics for avoiding change, and promising ourselves that we are going to do everything possible to change. This may mean writing out a contract for yourselves of what we intend to do, and how we intend to do it, or it may mean simply making a mental commitment to the intended change.

Third, it may mean enlisting the help of a friend or a group so that there is someone who is sharing our burden and who is willing to support us in our commitment to change. Many of us have seen miracles occur through Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization where those whose lives have been controlled by alcohol are able to live up to their commitment to change their lives because of the support and encouragement of others. It takes a lot of guts to admit to others that our behavior is badly out of control and that we are committed to change. Nonetheless, for many of us, admitting our difficulties to others and asking for their support in the process of healing is a crucial step in being able to change.

Fourth, we need to submit ourselves to the indwelling and life-changing presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Daily prayer acknowledging our struggles and seeking God’s rejuvenating strength is a way of confessing that we are not able by means of our own strength to fight the battle with our own particular problems. Submitting to anyone is hard for most of us, but it is only by consciously submitting to God that the Spirit is able to transform us. In our Sunday morning group, we recently read the novel The Shack. The book is about a man lost in pain and the desire for revenge because his young daughter was abducted and murdered by deranged killer. The book describes in an unusual and provocative way how Mack, the main character, meets God (who appears in the guise of a lovable black woman) and how he eventually opens himself up to be changed by the Holy Spirit (who appears as an ethereal Asian woman). Despite God’s warmth and love, Mack finds it very difficult to give up his rage and guilt, but as he gradually opens up to God, the Holy Spirit is able to reshape his attitude, and he becomes a new person. The process of change was not easy for Mack, nor is the process of changing our attitudes and behavior easy for us. One of the keys to this change, however, in both Mack’s case and in ours, is a willingness to submit to God and the life-changing presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

In this parable, Jesus is challenging each of us to change now, before it is too late. In order to do this, we must openly admit our failures, commit ourselves to changing, seek the help of others, and submit to the life-changing presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives through daily prayer.

Conclusion

  1. Jesus’ parable, it took the flames of Hades to force the rich man to see how poorly he had behaved towards the poor man outside his gate, but, by the time he realized the extent of his poor behavior, it was too late for him to change. The focus of the parable, however, is not on the rich man who lost his opportunity to change, but rather it is on those of us who are listening. For us, it is not too late to change. We must realize that if we don’t change now, we might never be able to change because no one can ever turn back the clock. stead of avoiding the necessity of dealing with our problem areas, we must put aside all of our excuses, admit that we are have difficulties in our lives. And, finally, with the aid of others and by submitting to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit we must commit ourselves to change NOW. AMEN