Sunday, September 30, 2007

The rich man and Lazarus

Amos 6.1 and 4-7
Psalm 146
1Tim 6. 6-19
Luke 16.19-31

No missing the point in the readings this week, then: What will it take for us to get the message that the choices we make and the lifestyle we adopt will have far-reaching consequences? That’s always a timely and generally challenging issue for Christians in the West, isn’t it?

In our religious scriptures, from Abraham via the life of Jesus to the earliest Christian communities, we confront over and over again the requirements of our discipleship and the role of money in our lives. “Alas for those who are at ease…who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches…who drink wine from bowls” says Amos. I don’t know about the ivory beds, but I’ve a mental image of me lounging on couches and drinking wine on a number of occasions. I’m quite good at that. I could even lead the British olympic wine drinking team - if I could stay standing long enough!

Maybe too much about me there.

Today’s psalm (146) advises us to place our trust in God, who alone "gives justice to those who are oppressed…food to those who hunger…sets captives free...gives sight to the blind...protects strangers...sustains the orphan and the widow".

So, what’s the bottom line here?

That only in God can we ultimately trust and the other stuff that gets in the way, that maybe gives us status and a sense of well-being are dangerous things to put our confidence in. They give us a false sense of security.

On to the Epistle: As Timothy and Paul discovered in their experience with the early Christian church, clinging to God in the face of life's realities is no easy task. Paul warns Timothy against the dangers of wealth, for "Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires which plunge them into ruin and destruction" (v9).
Note: its not the fact of being rich, but the desire to be rich when we aren’t already and I include the desire to be richer in that too, not just rich.

Ever dreamed of winning the lottery?

Oh dear!

Me too.

Paul assures Timothy, though, that "godliness with contentment is a great gain" (v6). "Contentment," might be better understood as a detachment from worldly goods.
There’s a challenge then. I don’t know about you but when it comes to worldly goods, I’m a hoarder. Hannah is always saying to me: “new shirt/pair of jeans/shoes in: old shirt/pair of jeans/shoes into the charity bag.”

As if!

I just have a very full wardrobe.

I don’t know how it is with you. It’s possibly not clothes. Maybe it’s C.D’s? Flat screen T.V? The car?

A detachment from worldly goods eh?

A scary challenge.

Finally, we have Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man where Luke also highlights the dangers of wealth, a theme which he comes back to both in his Gospel and in Acts. For Luke, possessions are a sign of power. Wealth is a great danger to those who possess it in these books, for they have a tendency to rely on money rather than God.

This parable is one of the most striking indictments of the corrupting influence of wealth and its consequences in the gospels. It has its origins in a traditional Egyptian story that made its way into Jewish folklore: in this legend, a husband repents after his wife sends him a warning from the underworld.

Not so in Jesus’ reworking of the tale.

The rich man in this story lives a life of comfort, while Lazarus suffers right outside the gates of his house. (Symbolically, the name Lazarus means “God is my help”). The rich man's preoccupation with wealth prevents him from acknowledging Lazarus or reaching out to ease his suffering during his lifetime.

Now I need to make this parable real for me otherwise it will remain as a story without the power to touch me. I need to find an application to my daily life: I don’t have a starving beggar living on my doorstep but I do find beggars in general, winos and junkies, often all rolled into the same person, a problem.

How about you? Who is it that you don’t see? Who is your Lazarus? Is it about race, sexuality, gender, age, disability, social class, weight, political affiliation? What?
In the strange synchronicity of these things we started to look at mission and Praxis at college this week. This parable is about praxis - the way we reach out to others in the name of God and that doesn't have to be evangelism (which is a good thing because I am pretty bad at evangelism, but I can make a good stab at standing in solidarity with people). The uncomfortable warning here is that in ignoring Lazarus, the rich man creates an unbridgeable chasm after his death.

Both men die: Lazarus likely of starvation and the rich man? Well, it’s tempting to imagine his cause of death as an over-indulgence linked heart attack or stroke. Lazarus goes to heaven; and the rich man to Hell and in the afterlife their roles are reversed, with Lazarus resting in the "bosom of Abraham" and the rich man suffering the torments of Hell.

"Send Lazarus," he cries out, "to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames" (v24).

No. Lazarus has found rest.

And there is of course this insurmountable problem of a chasm between the two men that cannot be crossed.

Then, in an apparently uncharacteristic burst of altruism, the rich man worries about his five brothers and asks that Lazarus be allowed to go and warn them about what has happened to him.

No, again. If they aren't willing to listen to the prophets' calls for justice, scaring the hell out of them (or into them, as the case may be) won't do any good.

As Lazarus was stuck with his lot in life, so the rich man is stuck with his lot in death. His sin? He refused to cross the chasm between him and Lazarus in their first life. His inability to walk outside his gate, to share his abundance, doomed him forever. He kept himself apart, and such is his sentence for eternity.

Now, there is an irony in this story isn’t there? Jesus would rise from the dead and in doing so would bridge the chasm between God and humankind that is caused by our selfishness and greed. What the rich man had begged for would come to pass. And there is an application for our own time and our own lives – well, two actually:
Firstly, if we want to follow Christ, we must struggle seriously with issues of wealth – or perhaps it’s fairer to say relative wealth - in our own lives.

Secondly, we need to examine our relationship with those marginalised groups around us. Let’s be clear: In not doing so, either by choice or omission, we don’t create an unbridgeable chasm after our death like the rich man in the parable: Jesus has dealt with that. But we, who are disciples of that same Jesus, can reveal him in our lives by crossing the many chasms that divide today’s society - between rich and poor, sick and healthy, powerful and powerless, straight and gay, black, white and Asian, you name it - to help bring to the world the fullness of life in Christ. Yes, and for me that includes the beggar, the wino and the junkie. I have to take it on board too.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, then, who did you instinctively identify with as you heard it? Jesus’ disciples probably identified with Lazarus, because most of them were poor, too. When we read the story today, we should probably identify with the rich man and that should make us all feel pretty uncomfortable.

We are all the rich man to some extent, content with our life style, indulgent, wanting to move up: the better job which really means more money; the nicer house and so on. Many Christians today buy into the culture of consumerism with gusto, so that it is difficult to tell us from our non-Christian neighbours.

But we are all Lazarus too: beggars, poor and dependent on God. As we confess every week we cannot by our own reason and strength please God by ourselves or come to him worthy in our own right.

So, to wrap it up: God calls us to be different from the crowd around us, and God specifically calls us to care for the poor.

Let’s be clear about the motive here. This isn’t about currying favour with God. It can’t be, we know we can’t earn God’s approval. This issue of “good works” is about discipleship and obedience: we do it because that is what God wants us to do. And when we do it, we demonstrate that we have been truly transformed by our contact with Christ. Our dependence on God for life, for making some kind of sense out of our chaotic world, for the blessed assurance that our follies, mistakes, errors and self-indulgences will not keep us from crossing the chasm - and all this through Jesus Christ - should have a humbling effect on us, and move us to a lifestyle that sees all people as children of Abraham.

Amen.
Or alternatively, visit Reverend Boy on my blogroll for a better version.