Sermon: When Jesus is being all too clear

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
25th of September 2022

Luke 16:19-31
1 Timothy 6:6-19

On Monday this week a fund-raiser from Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors without Borders, knocked on my door to ask me to financially support their work. I did a very quick mental calculation of my finances; agreed that, yes, I could give the monthly amount suggested; and signed up. Given that I knew what today’s gospel reading was, I did not feel that I had a choice. Last week’s parable of the dishonest manager might have puzzled Christians down the centuries; today’s parable is if anything too comprehensible.

The Gospel according to Luke is, as I have said repeatedly during this liturgical year, pre-eminently a gospel about and for the poor. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes Jesus pairs the blessings with woes: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’; ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’. (Luke 6:20-26) In today’s parable that beatitude and that warning are given shape in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. This parable is the only one of all the stories that Jesus told in which a character 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 the poor man is called Lazarus. We are being told to truly see the sort of person from whom we would normally turn away.

But before we hear about Lazarus, we are told about a rich man. This man is excessively rich. He dresses in purple and fine linen. He doesn’t just feast – he indulges sumptuously; he does not just do it on celebratory occasions – he does it every day. And just as the rich man is not simply rich, but obscenely rich, Lazarus is not simply poor. He lies at the rich man’s gate, so he has a disability that prevents him walking; he is covered with sores, so he is ill; 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. While Lazarus is not given a funeral, he is immediately carried away by angels to Abraham. The rich man dies, and he does get a funeral, but no angels come to collect him and bring him to warmth and safety. 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 was not 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 now enjoys.

Abraham says that this is impossible. Both men are experiencing the eschatological reversal that is central to Luke’s telling of the gospel. But that is not the only reason, Abraham tells the rich man, ‘Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.’ Nothing can now be done for him.

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 has not 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 do not listen to them, they will not listen even if someone rises from the dead. 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 is 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 complicated parable of the dishonest manager: ‘You cannot serve God and wealth.’ 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 saying, ‘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.

The rich man might not have been punished simply for being rich, but Lazarus has found a place in Abraham’s bosom simply because he was poor. We are not told of any virtues Lazarus might have had. Maybe he was righteous, godly, faithful, loving, enduring and gentle. But I suspect that he was not, because the level of poverty that Lazarus experienced does not ‘build character’. In his case that did not 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 in Greek stories of the underworld on which Jesus was drawing, no one in this story returns from Hades as an otherworldly messenger. Instead, Abraham points out to the rich man that through Moses and the prophets his siblings already have all the information they need. 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 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.[2]

But it is at this point that today’s simple parable becomes so complicated. It is simple for us as individuals to give our spare change to those sleeping rough on our streets, or to charities that care for those living subsistence lives in other countries. But it is not enough for us to wait until someone from Médecins Sans Frontières knocks on our front door. In the parable the rich man was wilfully blind to Lazarus’ need. We must, as followers of Jesus, ensure that our eyes are open to the poverty around us. We need to ask: why are one in six Australian children growing up in poverty? Why are 7,300 people living with cancer on JobSeeker, rather than on the Disability Support Pension? Why is JobSeeker now worth only seventy-one per cent of the Age Pension when in 1997 it was worth ninety-two per cent? Why, of the 46,000 rental listings Anglicare surveyed this year, were only nine affordable for a single parent on JobSeeker?

It is absolutely important for us, as Christians, to donate to the work of Uniting, and FoodBank Victoria, and other emergency relief agencies. But in the twenty-first century it is no longer enough to expect the rich man to share what drops from his table with the beggar at his gate. We also need to use our intellect and our connections and our articulate voices to ask why there is any poverty at all in wealthy Australia, even if that takes us into the realm of ‘politics’. As today’s parable reminds us, Jesus had no hesitation in challenging the economic inequality of his day. Following him, let us not be haughty in our comfort, or indifferent to those at our gates. Let us take hold of the life that really is life, by working towards a world in which the good life is available to everyone. Amen.

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

[2] Daniel Hartnett, ‘Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez’ February 3, 2003.

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