Power, wealth and self-deception (a sermon on Luke 16:19-31)

I’ve read two books recently by Nabeel Qureshi, who is an Islamic-Christian convert – that is, he was a Muslim who has converted to Christianity – and I’ve gained some real insight from his work. One area though where I find that I don’t agree with him is with regards to his fear for the future of Islam.

In the last book of his that I read – “Answering Jihad” – Qureshi distances himself from the popular belief that Islam is in need of a reformation on the basis that a reformation, by definition, involves going back to your roots, and the roots of Islam (namely, the Qur’an and the Hadith), he believes, are consistently violent.

Qureshi is concerned that, due to the Internet, more and more Muslims now have their own direct access to these violent texts and hence he fears that, over time, sincere believers will be rationally compelled to either renounce their faith or incorporate greater violence into their religious practice.

As I say, I disagree with Qureshi, not because I pretend to have a greater knowledge than he does when it comes to the sacred texts of Islam, but rather because I question the extent to which rationality is ever likely to be the key factor determining someone’s religious belief!

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”  (Luke 16:19-21)

This is one of Jesus’ parables, I assume. I say ‘I assume’ because Luke’s Gospel gives this story no introductions such as ‘Jesus told them another parable’, let alone that ‘He told this parable to … (a particular group of people)’ or anything like that. We don’t know when this parable was given or who the audience was.

This has never been one of Jesus’ most popular parables, though it is a very straightforward one, opening with a confronting scene where we meet two figures – a poor man named Lazarus and a nameless businessman who might have been his benefactor except that always he had more important things to attend to

These two figures are representatives of the extreme ends of the polarized society that Jesus lived in, where a privileged minority enjoyed a life of luxury while countless others struggled to survive. We would be foolish to compare 21st century Sydney with the subsistence society that Jesus was familiar with. Even so, the enormous gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is still with us.

I am probably not the only person in our congregation to have read Thomas Picketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ but I may be the only one to have read it, cover to cover, twice (and I still struggled to grasp it)! Picketty’s basic thesis though is straightforward enough – that we live in a world where, broadly speaking, the wealthiest 10% of the world’s citizens own about 85% of the world’s wealth, and the top 1% own close to 50%, and, according to Picketty, this gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing!

I struggle to make complete sense of all the figures, but what I do know is that there are an increasing number of food-insecure people in our streets in Dulwich Hill! How do I know that? Because we’ve been doing a food distribution here for more years than I can remember, and the number of persons who line up for food here has increased three-fold in the last twelve months!

A gulf between rich and poor has always been with us, and it is still with us, and the figure of Lazarus is someone who is on the wrong side of that gulf.

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abrahams side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’” (Luke 16: 22-24)

The abruptness of this second scene comes as a shock. We might have expected, if there was going to be some mention of the fate of these guys after their final judgement, that it might have taken into account something of the characters of these two persons?

Are we meant to assume, by virtue of the rewards and punishments meted out, that poor Lazarus was, despite his horrible appearance, really a very saintly man who would have been spending his days making strawberry jam for orphans had it not been for his unfortunate struggle with the bottle? And are we likewise to assume that the rich man was rich because he had spent his life treading on his colleagues and grinding his competitors into the dirt?

No, there is no mention of the moral character of either of these two players in the drama, and this second scene is introduced without explanation or apology. What we see take place here is though entirely consistent with the coming of the Kingdom of God as Jesus has been describing it in Luke’s Gospel.

You’ll remember Mary at the beginning of this Gospel, prophesying of a God who ‘brings down the mighty from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly’ (Luke 1:52). Jesus subsequently inaugurates His ministry by saying that He has come to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), and He goes on to say ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.’ (Luke 6:24) “The first shall be last and the last shall be first!” (Luke 13:30), and this story is consistent with this great reversal.

And so the rich man pleads with Abraham, to warn his family as to where things are heading. He says, ‘Father, I beg you to send [Lazurus] to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replies “‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He says, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [Abraham says] ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:28-31)

Here endeth the reading! The story finishes as abruptly as it starts and we’re not told how Jesus’ audience reacted to it.

I would love to know how this story affected the group that first heard it. If Jesus was directing this parable at a group of rich people, the message would be clear– ‘You’re all going to hell unless you start sharing what you have with the poor!’

Is that the message? It’s a straightforward and rational way of understanding the text. Interestingly, not many Christians interpret this parable as being about caring for the poor at all!

There have been some. The blessed St Anthony of the Desert, for instance (251–356). I think it was this text or the one where Jesus said “Go and sell your possessions and give your money to the poor” (Luke 18:22). Anthony heard this read in church one day, went home, gathered up all his possessions, sold them, gave the money to the poor, and went and lived in the desert as a monk, (much to the shock of his sisters who were suddenly put into the care of a monastery)!

St Anthony wasn’t the only one to take texts of Scripture like this literally. St Francis was another, and St Benedict. Oddly, they all had the same first name – ‘Saint’. What I think is ironic, though, is that amongst those I know who pride themselves on taking every word of the Bible literally, these sorts of passages never seem to lead to these sorts of dramatic changes in behavior!

People say to me “it says in the Scriptures that ‘I allow no woman to teach’ (1 Timothy 2:12). How to you get around the word of Scripture?” My comeback is generally “it says in the Scripture that you go to hell if you don’t share all you have with the poor! How do you get around that?”

Most commentators who reflect on this story focus on the final verse – “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). That makes sense, as it is the punch-line of the story, and we predictably associate this statement about ‘someone’ rising from the dead with the resurrection of Jesus, even if the original audience would not have made that association as Jesus’ resurrection hadn’t happened.

It is one of the extraordinary things about our species, at any rate, that we have developed the extraordinary ability to avoid the truth by lying to ourselves! The very concept of lying to yourself is problematic, for in order to tell a lie you need to know the truth, but if you’re lying to yourself and believing the lie, this means that you both know the truth and don’t know the truth at the same time!

Freud came to our aide in this regard by giving us the model of the different layers of the mind – conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious – and by suggesting that one layer could lie to another. The unconscious mind believes one thing but it lies to the conscious mind so that we hold one view on the surface and another one deeper down.

Of course it’s worth noting that Soren Kierkegaard wrote extensively about the practice of self-deception a generation before Freud was even born!

“All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will”, says Kierkegaard (in “The Sickness Unto Death”). In other words, when we don’t know something, it’s partly because we don’t know it and partly because we don’t want to know it.

The struggle for truth is a ‘dialectical interplay’ – it’s a ‘back and forth’, it’s an internal wrestle between knowledge and will. However we conceptualise self-deception, it’s something we are all practised at in daily life!

I notice pieces of jewellery and clothing turning up in the bedroom of my teenage daughter that she couldn’t possibly afford with her pocket-money. Of course this couldn’t possibly mean that she’s stolen these things because she’s daddy’s little girl and she would never do anything like that, and she’s of an age now where I really shouldn’t be going into her room now without her permission anyway!

Then I hear that one of her friends has been arrested for shoplifting, but that only shows that she makes friends with everybody, even those who are wayward and struggling. Indeed, she probably made a special effort to befriend that girl because she was wayward and struggling.

And then I hear that she’s been arrested, but of course I know that it has to be a case of mistaken identity, etc. … All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will, and if we really don’t want to believe something, we’ll find ways to avoid facing the truth, no matter how obvious the truth may seem to be.

I said at the beginning that this has never been one of Jesus’ most popular parables, and there’s no prizes for guessing why. This is not a story oozing with good news.

This parable can impact you in different ways. You may take it as a sobering reminder of the way we deceive ourselves into believing what we want to believe, or you may take it as a very specific sobering reminder, that you’ve been fooling yourself if you think you’ve really been sharing with the poor! Either way, this is not a piece of Scripture that’s going to leave us with a spring in our step and a song in our heart! It’s just not that kind of parable!

So where’s the good news? There is good news, of course, and the good news is that what’s presented in the parable is not the whole story!

What we get in the parable is a painful story of neglect and suffering and rough justice, and of the battle between knowledge and will. And yet the truth is that the Lord God does not simply leave us to our own devices when it comes to the quest for truth. He gives us His spirit.

Personally, I think that if the world depended on us being honest with ourselves, the future would be bleak. We simply don’t have the courage to face the truth a lot of the time, but God gives us His spirit, and that Spirit, Jesus promises, will lead us into all truth (John 16:13).

That’s why I have hope, and that’s why I disagree with Nabeel Qureshi about the inevitable growth of violence in Islam. I think he only looks at it at a human level and fails to take the Spirit of God into account!

For God is moving in our world, helping us to interpret Scripture in a way that brings light and life to the world, giving us the strength to be able to let go of our worldly wealth so that we can truly share with those who are poor, and giving us the courage to move beyond rationality and to face the truth!

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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