Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sunday Sermon: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16.19-31

Three friends die in a car crash, and they find themselves at the Gates of Heaven. Before entering, they are each asked a question by St. Peter himself :
"When the funeral service is taking place and your friends and families are talking about you, what would you like to hear them say about you?" asks St. Peter to each in turn.

The first man says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor and a great family man."

The second man says, "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and a teacher who made a huge difference to our children."

The last man replies. "I would like to hear them say.... LOOK !!! HE'S MOVING!!!!!"

No, I’ve not gone mad. I start with that as an illustration: given time, I suspect each of you could come up with a joke about the afterlife and today’s Gospel reading illustrates that there were stories about the hereafter at the time of Jesus too.

What we need to recognise straight away is that the parable teaches absolutely nothing about the nature of the afterlife and it was not intended to; it does not document either heaven or hell, although it may have been the foundation for many of the erroneous beliefs about "hell" within some branches of Christianity. No, Jesus is merely playing around with a folktale. The difference is that we tell our afterlife jokes to amuse: Jesus told his to challenge a group of people – The Pharisees. The passage tells us: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling…”

Now the nature of a parable is that it has two levels of meaning: there is the literal meaning – what you see is what you get – but there is always another level, often more obscure and it is this level that carries the real punch. It’s a story with a hidden message: a spiritual nugget for those who understand. “I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” we hear from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. (Ch 13)

But this time it seems that the Disciples and the other “ordinary” folk – tax collectors and sinners - didn’t get the meaning but the Pharisees did.
But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.

Let’s consider the literal meaning first.

The rich man in this story lives a life of ostentatious comfort, while Lazarus suffers right outside the gates of his house. The rich man's preoccupation with wealth, and their different social status, prevents him from acknowledging Lazarus or reaching out to ease his suffering during his lifetime. 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 Hades and in the afterlife their roles are reversed, with Lazarus resting in the "bosom of Abraham" and the rich man suffering the torments of Hades. As Martin Luther wrote on this passage: “He lived to himself and served only himself….and by these dreadful and wicked fruits of unbelief, he covers them over and blinds his own eyes by the good works of his Pharisaical life.”

Just because this is the literal story and Jesus’ message is really to be found in the hidden meaning doesn’t mean that we can’t take a moral from this level of understanding. We can. We can talk quite reasonably about a practical application to our attitude to wealth and status, or at least relative wealth and status. I need to make this parable real for me otherwise it will remain as a mildly interesting religious 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, as it happens, I do find beggars in general, alcoholics and addicts, often aggressive and all rolled into the same person, a real 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? Be quite clear that in those terms you can take a valid personal application from this understanding of the story.

So the parable works on that level because there is a challenge there to living the Christian life and serving the outcast and the marginalised out of obedient discipleship and we can read the parables in this section of Luke as illustrating faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the injunction to compassion, and see the possession of wealth as a stumbling block to that compassion. The Rich Man wasn't even a little merciful to Lazarus in his lifetime; he was blinded to the needs of compassion by his own wealthy lifestyle. Lazarus, by contrast, was forced to live a life relying on mercy and compassion.

Now this is the third in a series of parables which Jesus told to the same audience: the others were the Prodigal Son and the Unfaithful Servant and this idea of compassion versus wealth seems to work equally well for all three. Well, the ending of the parable in this interpretation is a little problematic but some scholars say that the latter verses are not original, so we could put them on one side, just concentrate on the folktale element and we have a perfectly valid application of a Biblical story which is that it is not sufficient merely not to do evil and not to do harm, but rather that one must be helpful and do good.

One is tempted to say that what happens in the death of our protagonists is a role reversal except that such a conclusion would be too literal an interpretation and would lead us down all sorts of misleading and unhelpful roads in relation to the afterlife.

Or, we could struggle with the hidden meaning where the latter verses are vital to the whole, addition or not. One of the keys to unpicking this level of understanding is to recognise that the key characters almost always stand for someone else. Well, we only have three – unless you include the dogs – The Rich Man, Lazarus and Abraham. (And it seems we should include the dogs because many scholars don’t think they are there are there as a throw away detail).

Actually, let’s start with the dogs, as they may be the key to unlocking the puzzle. Do you remember the account of Jesus meeting a gentile woman: a woman from Syrophoenecia? The story is found in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is initially very harsh with her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He just called her a dog, which was how the Gentiles were seen, so who are the children in that story? The Jews.

It is the same in this parable. Lazarus, unclean because of his sores, is comforted by and associated with, the dogs: unclean animals in Jewish belief and the Rich Man would certainly not have had one in his house. Lazarus is being presented as the outsider, the Gentile. At the same time the Rich Man is being identified with the Jews. The references to his clothes as being purple with fine linen identify him symbolically with the priestly caste of Israel. So, on his death it would be only right and proper for him to go to the bosom of his father Abraham and take the seat of honour beside him. But no, it is the outsider, Lazarus who takes the place of honour at the spiritual banquet hitherto reserved for the Jews, while the Rich Man is cast away. Note too the reference to the Rich man’s five brothers, another important symbolic clue to the Rich Man’s identity: Judah, the father of the Jews had five brothers. This detail cements the identity of the Rich Man as the House of Judah – the Jews.

You and I may not have spotted that without help but the Pharisees knew their history and were proud of their heritage. They got the references alright and they didn’t like it.

Yes, well, very interesting but so what? What has this to do with me?
Well the stories of the Syrophoenecian woman, the Centurion with his Servant, the parable of the Good Samaritan and a number of others, open up the prospect that Gentile believers would become “sons of Abraham” through faith in Christ. The Jews had been Abraham’s physical descendants, but after the crucifixion the place of honour and blessing would be given to the people represented by Lazarus. That’s you and me and potentially most of the people we know.

The self-righteous, accusing Pharisees and scribes, who were the religious authorities, should have been the ones telling these people of God's love for them. They should have been the ones teaching the sinners, exhorting them to return to God and receive His love and forgiveness. However, because of their faith in their own righteousness and their contempt for these common people who didn't measure up to their standards, the Pharisees and scribes excluded them and considered them outside the scope of God’s grace. Jesus had already warned them in Ch 3.8: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’

And what of the ending which didn’t get much attention in the literal understanding of the story? It’s key here: the ending points beyond the parable to Jesus. The Pharisees will not believe even when Jesus is raised. Remember, the disciples were themselves sceptical initially.
Not even the proverbial visitor from the dead would convince the elite to recognize the needs of the poor. Neither does Jesus’ resurrection have the power to create faith, if one does "not listen to Moses and the prophets”, which consistently direct us to caring for the poor, not being greedy and to giving alms.

Now this is quite a different understanding of the story to the first and yet in many respects the outcome is the same in terms of its practical application: in either understanding of this parable we need to talk about our obedient discipleship in the way we relate as Christians to others. From the literal understanding of the story we can legitimately talk about understanding our own prejudices and recognising the other in our society to whom we need to express the love and compassion of God. We can then work out ways in which we can be servants of those people in our charitable giving, in our volunteering of time and in our attitudes when we meet them.

If we consider the hidden meaning of the parable we are confronted again with issues of obedient discipleship in the way we relate to others. This time, though, our responsibility lies in recognising that it is not for us to seek to put limits on God’s grace. The task here surely lies in our being willing to see God in those we come into contact with, regardless of who they are and to trust the Holy Spirit that those same people will see God in us. This is our Christian witness and the Spirit works through us to convict others of their sin and to bring them back to God – whoever they are.