Sermon - 29th September 2013
Dives and Lazarus
Scripture - Luke 16:19-31
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Jesus’ parable is hard for us to listen to. Like Jesus we live in a society where there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor – though I suspect that Jesus’ society didn’t have as many super rich and as many incredibly poor people. For most of us the parable makes us feel uncomfortable, just as the picture of the beggar on the street makes us feel uncomfortable.
We all have different responses when we see the contrast between the absolute poverty of the beggar and the rich society who walk past. We may feel guilty, we may feel angry, we may feel that society is unfair to allow someone to be so poor in our midst, we may feel that the beggar is feckless and has brought his demise on himself – maybe through addiction, we may feel we are being conned – that the beggar isn’t really poor but is taking us for a ride. We may feel we should do something, we may not know what to do, we may feel something should be done, we may not know what should be done. We may feel incredibly blessed that we are not in that situation, we may feel incredibly scared that we may get into that situation.
We don’t know how the rich man in the parable felt about Lazarus coming to his gate every day. We know he didn’t give him food or scraps and that dogs came to lick Lazarus’ sores, but we don’t know much about the rich man’s attitude. Maybe he didn’t know what he should do, maybe he felt that Lazarus was to blame for his own poverty, maybe he was greedy, maybe he was blind to the need around him. We don’t know much about the Rich Man. Traditionally he has been named Dives – which simply means Rich in Latin. But there is something uncomfortable about the scene that is painted as it sounds a bit familiar – the rich living in luxury with the poor at the gates.
Much political debate at the moment concerns topics of the rich and the poor. The concern about fuel bills is almost as high as the anger about the vast profits that the fuel companies make – which is why Labour’s announcement last week was so popular – it remains to be seen if it will stay popular once people reflect on it and once the fuel companies put their side of the argument. We live in a rich society but most of us don’t think we ourselves are rich. We struggle with rising bills, frozen, or decreased, salaries, changing rules about pensions, insecurity about jobs or huge difficulties in finding a job. So it’s hard to feel that we’re rich – yet compared to Lazarus who had nothing most of us are quite well off. We live in a society where we don’t directly pay for medical care, where there is a safety net for most, but not all, of us and where we have an expectation that society will look after those who are the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable. Maybe our expectation that society does it makes us a bit distant from the plight of the poorest.
In Jesus’ age there was no welfare state. Taxes were paid but there was no sense that the state would provide health care or security for the poorest. Instead Jewish people were instructed by the Law to care for the poor and the destitute. We see the concern for the poor coming up again and again in the Old Testament. The Jewish Law clearly taught that the poor had to be treated with dignity and not oppressed. Farmers had to leave crops at the edge of the field for the poor to glean, debts had to be forgiven after 7 years, clothing could not be taken as security on a loan, and interest could not be charged. The prophets, time and time again, warned the people that they were ignoring the Law and allowing the poor to get poorer. Much of what Amos, Micah and Isaiah wrote concerned a people who were rich, who thought they were obeying God by bringing their offerings to the Temple, by taking part in wonderful worship services yet were ignoring the demands of the Law by ignoring the poor.
We see this all at play in Jesus’ parable. Dives asks Abraham for relief but he can’t get it. He asks for warnings to be sent to his brothers who have, presumably, inherited his wealth and his attitudes but Abraham is very clear that they know what is required of them because they have the Law and the prophets.
This parable unsettles us, it makes us reflect on our own attitude to money, the poor, our society, and responsibility. These are all issues very much in the public debate at the moment which adds to the complexity. I think the parable leaves us with three questions.
How do We Use Our Money?
The first is how do we use our money? Do we give some of it away – Dives is an extreme example of the one who hoards his money for himself, who treats himself to a life of luxury with no thought to the human cost of that. He isn’t criticised as much as for being rich but for not using the wealth he has been given to make a difference. Most of us have the financial resources we need, most of us don’t have to worry about if we can eat, clothe ourselves or pay our bills so how we use our money becomes a key issue for us. What is luxury for us and how does that luxury stop us seeing the world as it really is? I love my Apple computer and my iphone but I am more than uneasy about the condition of the people who made these things, the dodgy ethics of the companies that supplied the metal and the human cost to these little luxuries. So do I forsake the technology? Probably not – so I am watching with interest the development of a FairPhone which seems to be a good move and I try to give a proportion of my money away so that it does some good.
How do we see the best way to create a more equal society?
And then the parable makes us ask how we see the best way to create a more equal society. Once we may have answered this by arguing about how best to vote – now there is great cynicism about political parties. We are suspicious of politicians who often seem to say one thing and do another, or who are whipped to vote against their own consciences or who just don’t speak about and care about the things that we do. Interestingly, however, our society does care about important issues which are political but which seem to attract people from outside the traditional activists. The internet allows us to sign petitions, send letters or emails to politicians and leaders and make a huge difference. Christian Aid long ago realised the power of sending postcards to politicians as most people grumble but do nothing. MPs realise that a few campaign postcards or letters represent a large body of public opinion. A few weeks ago I send an email to my MP urging her not to vote for military intervention in Syria. It’s not that I think Assad doesn’t deserve justice – I just thought that carpet bombing Damascus would cause more problems than it solved. My MP, happily, agreed as did many politicians in both major parties and world history was changed. Britain wouldn’t back President Obama’s plans, then Congress in America indicated, from both parties, that they didn’t really want military action either. That seemed to give impetus for a diplomatic route – diplomacy is messy, frustrating, allows much room for manoeuvre, it’s slow but less people will be killed. Creating a more equal, more just, society is about raising our voices, telling our leaders what we want as well as voting.
How do we deal with the poor at our gates?
The parable makes us ask how we deal with the poor at our gates. The poor surround us, the poor are part of us. The poor are poor for a range of different reasons – some do battle with issues of mental health and addiction. Some struggle with education and literacy making it difficult to work, some lead chaotic lives, some are poor are a result of public policy. None are poor by choice. When confronted by a beggar I tend not to give money but prefer, instead, to offer to buy them food. I personally am interested in help that changes things rather than the help that keeps people poor but I never want to get into the easy and dangerous habit of blaming the poor for their own poverty.
Abraham, in the story, makes clear that Dives knew, from the Law and the Prophets, that he had to help the poor. Doing nothing wasn’t an option. We share the same faith, the same Scriptures and we know that doing nothing isn’t an option, that we have to react to the call of God in our lives to make a difference and that this involves how we use our money, how we create a better society and how we deal with the poor at our gates. Doing nothing isn’t an option.