Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
I read recently of a congregation singing the hymn ‘Lord, for the years’. We sing it ourselves sometimes. In the third verse, it prays – at first sight, quite intriguingly -for ‘spirits oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care’. A woman in the congregation whispered to her friend that she wouldn’t mind trying the ‘oppression of wealth’! Today’s readings continue to wrestle with the ethical and spiritual ambiguities of material prosperity which have been under consideration for several weeks now in this cycle of the lectionary in Luke’s Gospel. And again, the prevailing message is that, although money and possessions are not bad in themselves, they can fatally blind their owners to other measures of value.
Talking of hymns, we all know Cecil Frances Alexander’s 1848 composition, All things bright and beautiful, still quite popular at baptisms, weddings and even funerals, and also in schools. Some of you may remember that in its original version the hymn contains this verse:
The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.
Not surprisingly, this verse has long since been deleted from the version we sing nowadays. The Gresham College Professor of Rhetoric, Rodney Barker, explains why this verse is so unpalatable today:
For the Victorian writer, he says, ‘… the relative positions of the rich man and the poor man were as immutable, natural, and God-given as the purple-headed mountains or the river running by. God made them what they were, high and lowly, and ordered their estate. But there is an equally interesting assumption in the verse that is less noticed: rich and poor are synonymous with ‘high’ and ‘lowly’. Social status is not only fixed and God-given, but it is measured, equated with, determined by material wealth.’ How very different from our Gospel reading today, which challenges us about privilege, poverty and religion.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus was, in fact, already a well-known story is Jesus’s time, probably originating in Egypt and popular among Jewish teachers as a depiction of the fate in store for the good and the not-so-good after death. It describes the dramatic reversal of fortune which comes from sheer selfishness and the neglect of an obligation to the poor. The rich man fails to see that his self-centred use of his money will have consequences for eternity. Having ignored Lazarus lying at his gate day after day, he is nevertheless able to recognise him across the gulf that separates Hades from the place inhabited by Abraham. Still unburdened by self-knowledge, he sees a useful contact who can act as Abraham’s messenger and alleviate his suffering. But Abraham ruled this out for two reasons: the first is a seemingly vast oversimplification that sees earthly wealth and poverty changing places in eternity. The second is the impossibility of any traffic between one side in the division and the other. But still the rich man doesn’t give up, turning instead to his five brothers: perhaps Lazarus might still assist by urging them to change their ways. But Abraham is once again firm: people who have heeded the teaching of Moses and the prophets need no extra warnings, and nor would the inattentive be impressed by someone who rose from the dead. This latter comment must be directed at the Pharisees, whom the Gospel writer portrays as rejecting Jesus. In doing so, they do not move closer to the faith of Abraham, but further away. What Jesus offers to all of Abraham’s children – Jews and Gentiles – is the freedom imagined in the well-loved antiphon In Paradisum from the Requiem Mass. Fauré’s version immediately comes to mind: ‘May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest’.
The rich man fails in two ways – by the use of his wealth and also his religion. Because his mind was closed to the revelation of God, his heart was closed to the demands of compassion. So what does this parable imply for to us? We could see it as a portrayal of events if we do not live a life of generosity. Indeed, just two chapters later in Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus telling a rich man to give away everything that he owns to the poor, and then to follow him.
Others would argue that in this parable the rich man stands for the Jewish nation, who enjoyed God’s favour and blessings, while Lazarus represents the people who lay at Judah’s gate – the Gentiles, those who were outside the covenants and promises of the Jewish people. The only benefits they enjoyed were the crumbs they might be fortunate enough to gather. So the parable contains within it a prophecy that the two characters mentioned are to change places: the rich man is to suffer rejection, pain, poverty and punishment, while Lazarus will enjoy comfort, peace and honour with Abraham. The Gentile nations are represented by Lazarus the beggar, who now, by faith, is able to be blessed in Abraham’s bosom.
If this interpretation is correct, what Jesus is saying – as a Jew, let’s not forget – is radical, overturning centuries of Jewish history and theology. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners that the Jewish nation had been privileged to enjoy the instruction of ‘the law and the prophets’ and, since the ministry of John the Baptist, they have also been blessed with the added light of the gospel. He then shows them what will be the consequence of not taking advantage of these opportunities during this life.
Just two verses before this story in Luke, Jesus is reported as saying: ‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed.’ So Jesus is relating to those around him that since John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, a new kingdom of God has been brought in and those people in Jesus’s presence are witnessing to it. In the next chapter, Jesus explains that, even though this kingdom might seem illusive, it has an exact location. Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’, or ‘There it is!’ for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ The implications of that are just as demanding for us today as for those original hearers of the parable.
I don’t believe in a physical location called ‘hell’, because I believe the God who is love wouldn’t sanction it. But I do think we human beings have the capacity to create our own hell, and that our history has proved it time and time again. Today’s story is a warning to us, as much as it was to Israel, that a failure to prioritise the poor – those lying outside our gates – and to heed the divine call to justice and mercy, has serious consequences.