Sermon: A terrifyingly simple parable

Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
29th of September 2019

 Luke 16:1-13
1 Timothy 6:6-19

Last week, if you remember, I had to confess that I didn’t understand the parable of the dishonest manager; I have no idea why Jesus told a story about dishonesty that included apparent approval of it. I don’t feel too worried about my ignorance, though, because no one else seems to know either.

This week’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke is different. Today’s parable is equally hard. But not because it is in any way difficult to understand. If anything, today’s parable is too comprehensible.

The Gospel according to Luke is pre-eminently a gospel about and for the poor. We see this when Mary sings in her Magnificat of God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. (Luke 1:53) We see it in the beatitudes; while in Matthew’s version Jesus talks about the ‘poor in spirit’ and those ‘who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (Matthew 5:3-11), in Luke’s version those who are blessed are simply the poor and the hungry. In Luke’s version, unlike Matthew’s, Jesus pairs the blessings with woes: woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now. (Luke 6:20-26) And in today’s parable, uniquely, a poor man is given a name. In all Jesus’ other parables people are described by their wealth, occupation, or relationship: rich man; father; guest; shepherd; widow; poor woman. In this parable alone is a character named; the poor man is called Lazarus.

Before we hear about Lazarus, we first hear about a rich man. This man is excessively rich. He dresses in purple and fine linen. He feasts sumptuously every day; he doesn’t just feast – he indulges sumptuously; he doesn’t just do it on celebratory occasions – he does it every day. He is the equivalent of a tech billionaire or a Gina Reinhart. And just as the rich man was not simply rich, but obscenely rich, Lazarus is not simply poor. He lies at the rich man’s gate, so he probably also has a disability that prevents him walking; he is covered with sores, so he is ill, probably from malnutrition; dogs lick his sores, so together with being an outcast he is unclean. Lazarus is distressingly poor.

Both men die, and instantly their situation is reversed. Lazarus is carried away by angels to Abraham. The rich man just dies and is buried. No angels come to collect him. Instead he is now tormented in the flames of Hades, the Greek place of the dead. From there, he sees Abraham with Lazarus in his bosom. Lazarus is in a place of safety; the rich man in a place of danger. Lazarus, who once longed for the crumbs from the rich man’s table, now has everything he needs; it is the rich man who is now desperate for the merest drop of water that falls from the poor man’s hand. And then comes the most shocking part of this shocking tale.

The rich man cries out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ The rich man knows Lazarus’ name! He knows who Lazarus is. And yet, every day, as he feasted sumptuously in his linen and purple, he ignored the hungry Lazarus at his gate. His sins were not simply those of omission; it wasn’t because he was unaware of Lazarus’ need that the rich man ignored him. The rich man knew exactly who Lazarus was, where and how he was living, and did not send him even the scraps from his table. And now, when their situations are reversed, he expects Lazarus to do for him what he did not do for Lazarus; bring him scraps from the abundance that Lazarus enjoys.

Abraham says that this is impossible. This parable illustrates those beatitudes and woes: blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled; woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. But it’s not just because of this Lukan reversal that such a visit is impossible. Abraham says: ‘Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.’ Nothing can be done for the tormented rich man.

But perhaps something can still be done for the rich man’s siblings; still alive; still redeemable. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them, to warn them of the fate that awaits them in the afterlife. He hasn’t yet completely understood the reversal that has taken place; he still thinks of Lazarus as someone to be sent at his request. Again, Abraham refuses. The rich man’s brothers have Moses and the Prophets; if they will not listen to them, they will not listen even if someone rises from the dead. (Of course, Luke’s first audience, like us, knew the identity of the one who did ultimately rise from the dead, even if the Pharisees who were listening to Jesus telling this parable did not.)

It’s the context in which Jesus told this story that tells us that the rich man is not condemned simply for being rich. Jesus told it in response to the ridicule of the Pharisees, who Luke describes as lovers of money. Their ridicule had been prompted by Jesus teaching one very simple moral after the very complicated parable of the dishonest manager: ‘You cannot serve God and wealth.’ So, we can assume that the rich man was not simply wealthy, he was also a lover of wealth who served wealth. In today’s reading from the First Letter to Timothy we hear the often misquoted, ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ and in the parable we see the evil to which the love of money has led the rich man. Despite his extreme, even obscene, wealth, he did nothing to help Lazarus who lay at his very gate.

Lazarus does seem to have found a place in Abraham’s bosom simply because he was poor. We’re not told of his virtues. Maybe Lazarus was righteous, godly, faithful, loving, enduring and gentle. But I suspect that he wasn’t, because the level of poverty that Lazarus experienced does not ‘build character’. In his case that doesn’t matter; Jesus’ good news for the poor did not distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving. As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes:

God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally and religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves, but in God, in the graciousness and universality of God’s agapeic love.[1]

Who are we in this parable? We are unlikely to be either the rich man or Lazarus; we are neither obscenely wealthy nor miserably poor. We, I suspect, are among the rich man’s five siblings who are still alive, who still have the chance to mend their ways and escape the fires of Hades. One of the things that is fascinating about this parable is that unlike Greek stories of the underworld on which Jesus was drawing, no one in this story returns from Hades as an otherworldly messenger.[2] Instead, Abraham points out to the rich man that through Moses and the prophets his siblings already have all the information they need. After all, it was from the prophets that Jesus quoted his ‘Nazareth manifesto’: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. (Luke 4:18-9)

Today’s reading from the First Letter to Timothy tells those who are rich in the present age what they can do in order to receive ‘the life that is really life’: do good, be rich in good works, be generous, be ready to share. Even for those of us who are only relatively wealthy, not obscenely rich, that should be easy. Like the rich man with Lazarus at his gate, we already know the needs of others. To again quote Gustavo Gutierrez:

It is no longer possible for someone to say, ‘Well, I didn’t know’ about the suffering of the poor. Poverty has a visibility today that it did not have in the past. The faces of the poor must now be confronted. And we also understand the causes of poverty and the conditions that perpetuate it.

It’s at this point that today’s simple parable becomes so complicated. We know what causes poverty in Australia. It is primarily the appallingly low level of social security payments. Most people living below the poverty line in Australia rely on social security as their main source of income. The lowest of those payments are the Youth Allowance and Newstart. When single parents were moved onto Newstart from the Parenting Payment in 2013 the rate of poverty among unemployed single parents rose from 35% to 59%. Poverty in households relying mainly on Newstart rose from 61% in 1999 to 78% in 2015. Yet our current Prime Minister has ruled out any increase to Newstart as ‘unfunded empathy’.

Australia is a wealthy country, more than able to adequately support all its citizens. There is no need for any Australian to live in poverty. As economist Richard Dennis writes:

Australia … is rich beyond the imagining of anyone living in the 1970s or 80s. But so much of that new wealth has been vacuumed up by a few, and so little of that new wealth has been paid in tax, that the public has been convinced that ours is a country struggling to pay its bills.’

This is why today’s parable is so complicated. It is no longer enough to expect the rich man to share what drops from his table with the beggar at his gate. Today, the rich man must be told to hand over a greater share of his wealth in tax to allow the Newstart Allowance to be increased. And that is not the way philanthropy generally works. It also takes the church out of the safe realm of biblical interpretation and theology into the scary realm of economics and politics. We could quite easily be told that questions of taxation and social security are none of our business. But we are in the Year of Luke and Luke, as I’ve already said, had no qualms about bringing socioeconomics into religion. Maybe we can too.

[1] Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings, Orbis Books, 1996, p. 313.

[2] Josh Stigall, ‘”They have Moses and the Prophets”: The enduring demand of the Law and Prophets in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus,’ Review and Expositor 2015, vol. 112 (4) pp. 542-554.

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