Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 18 Sunday 25 September 2016
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Amos 6,1a, 4-7; 1 Tim. 6.6-19; Luke 16.19-end
Last Sunday we heard Jesus say, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon; God and money.” Today, he continues to speak about wealth and its dangers, but now his audience is no longer the disciples but a group of Pharisees.
They have scoffed at this distinction between the worship of God and the worship of possessions. Theirs is a theology in which God and mammon co-exist. It is often associated with the Book of Deuteronomy. There we hear the message: obey God and you will be blessed. “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your beats, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock.” (Deut. 28. 3-4). The equation for them is quite clear. Godliness results in riches; prosperity is a clear sign of God’s favour.
But the other side of this coin is that poverty and failure are seen as signs of divine disapproval. What some of our Victorian forebears called the “undeserving poor,” those who have more recently been labelled the “underclass,” were or are so because of their moral failure.
The rich man might even have felt able to justify not helping Lazarus with the argument that we should not interfere with God’s punishment of a person. There have been people who refuse to help the hungry and homeless on such grounds; who interpret Matthew’s parable of the Last Judgement, “In as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” to refer exclusively to fellow-Christians and not to the poor and needy in general, as if they are not his brothers and sisters.
There is some truth in the Pharisees’ stance which we should not ignore. It is undeniable that observance of the rule of law helps makes individual and general prosperity possible. We see, too, ample evidence of the effects of corruption and abuse of legal procedures in countries which have become virtual kleptocracies: nations run by mafias who own politicians, policemen and judges. In our own society, the Prime Minister has recognized that there is a widening gap between those at the top and even ordinary people, let alone the poor; one which leaves people believing that they have no stake in that society; one which endangers the commonwealth, the common good.
Hard work and thrift, what social scientists used to call the “protestant work ethic,” can result in economic and social betterment. There can be “”great gain in godliness,” but this is not a universal law. That bad things happen to good people, is recognized even in the scriptures where we find an internal debate with Deuteronomy. The system can be rigged to ensure that the rich become richer and the poor remained trapped in poverty.
The Pharisees found in Deuteronomy and other texts a gospel of wealth; what is now known as a “prosperity gospel.” Jesus sees this as a misinterpretation of the law. Whatever confirmation and support the rich man and the Pharisees found in the Scriptures for their love of wealth, the situation in the parable is a clear violation of the same scriptures. The Law of Moses specifically required that the harvest be shared with the poor and the transient (Leviticus 19.9-10), and the law spelled out other ways to fulfill this fundamental obligation, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the need and to the poor, in the land.” (Deuteronomy 15.7-11).
The prophets hammered home this message offered to those whom Amos denounced in today’s reading,
“they who are at ease in Zion….
who lie on beds of ivory
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sings songs to the sound of the harp
,…who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”
Jesus dramatizes this with the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. This is the only parable of Jesus in which characters with names appear: Lazarus and Abraham. He is the only person who is named in any of Jesus’ parables: his name, from the Hebrew, Eleazar, means “(He whom) God helps”. The name makes a sad sense, God had better help him because no one else will. Covered in sores, he is so weak that he cannot even ward off scavenging dogs. He makes a pitiful sight at the gate of the rich man’s house. Lazarus has been trained by life and experience not to have high hopes. He does not expect to dine at the rich man’s table; all he can hope for is to eat the pieces of bread on which the guests wipe their fingers.
The name Dives, often applied to the other character is simply the Latin Bible of the Western Church’s translation of “rich man.” He is portrayed as a figure for whom life is a constant round of self-indulgent luxury: of designer clothes and fine dining, not just on special occasions, but every day.
Jesus is not just telling a folksy tale suitable for simple country folk. He is engaging in a sophisticated theological argument. In the description of the rich man, there is a subtle theological message here which we might miss but his Pharisee audience would not. He is probably a Sadducee, one of their theological opponents, not only because these rich priestly aristocrats were among the few who could afford such a lifestyle, but because we hear later that he and his brothers did not believe in an after-life which was connected with life on earth. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in the resurrection, but in the Old Testament idea of Sheol, the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Hades. This was a shadowy underworld where everyone, good or bad, went after to death. It was a neutral place in which there was no pain, but no hope either. It was a place of no accountability; just blankness. Given this convenient belief, the rich man in the parable believes that his present life is the only one, and that he will not have to answer for his life when he dies. But a surprise awaits him.
Lazarus and the rich man both die and the scene shifts to the next world. There we see a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Lazarus dies and is escorted by angels to the heavenly banquet. There he is given the place of honour next to Abraham. He is no longer the outsider, forgotten and ignored, but a favoured guest.
But the rich man now discovers that Hades is not the neutral territory he had believed.
The promises of Luke’s beatitudes,
Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisified.
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
And the woes:
Woe to you that rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
Woes to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep,
are being fulfilled as the poor man is now in happiness and the rich man begs for a drop of water. The one who has shown no mercy is calling out for mercy.
The rich man recognizes Lazarus and refers to him by name – so he did know the identity of the beggar at his gate. But he utters no word of apology to the man whose plight he had ignored. His first instinct and thought is for his own comfort. He arrogantly assumes that he can call on the services of Lazarus to minister to him.
The rich man addresses Abraham as “father” and is in turn addressed as “son.” He is one of God’s people, but as John the Baptist had warned his hearers, being a “son of Abraham” was no guarantee of salvation. They had to bear the fruits of repentance rather than boast that they had Abraham for their father. And Abraham spells out to him the great reversal: “My son, remember that during life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus; now he is being comforted here while you are in agony.” He points out the great gulf that cannot be crossed.
When his first plea fails, he thinks of his brothers; his first unselfish thought. They share his assumption that they will not be called to account for lives spent in self-indulgence; heedless of the poor at their gate. He hopes that Lazarus will tell them that they are wrong. But Abraham replies that they have more than enough information in the scriptures and in the needs of their fellow-men. The law and the preaching of the prophets insist repeatedly on the obligation of the rich to look to the needs of the poor.
The rich man responds that if only someone rose from the dead they would listen. The punch line comes in Abraham’s response: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen if someone rises from the dead.”
During his earthly life, the rich man had taken for granted that the poverty, pain and isolation, which was the lot of Lazarus, was an acceptable part of the human landscape. He knew Lazarus by name, but he did nothing to alleviate the affliction that was in front of his nose. Oh, he did not assault or abuse Lazarus: send his servants out to chase him away. He did nothing, and that was his crime. He treated Lazarus as if he were already dead. He forgot about Lazarus; and Lazarus died of his forgetfulness. It was the rich man’s apathy, his insensitivity, which provides ground enough for his condemnation.
This is an uncomfortable parable for all of us whose beds may not be of ivory but who live in relative ease and comfort, who do not have to wonder where our next meal is coming from or where we will sleep tonight. It is a challenge to us as we eat lambs from the flock or calves from the stall and drink wine at Carluccio’s or Cote in Market Place.
It challenges us to ask: Who is the Lazarus at our gate, or on our television screen? The rough sleeper at the church gate, the mentally ill, the refugee, the woman or child trafficked into sexual slavery? The housebound and lonely old lady next door, or the single mother across the street struggling to bring up her child?
This is a challenge to us as individuals, but – just as it was for Israel listening to the prophets – it is a challenge to us as a Christian community and to us as a nation in the ways we order our common life for the common good.