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.
I don’t know how many of you were at this year’s annual ‘Smith Lecture’, but it was a good night – highly stimulating and intellectually challenging – and afterwards Ange and I got into a discussion over dinner where she made the comment that the older she got the more impressed she was at how intelligent the people around her were, to which I responded by saying that I had been coming to the opposite conclusion!
I wasn’t thinking of my friends of course (while Ange quite possibly was) but of the vast mass of persons in our society and across the Western world who seem to have been suckered in to believing that most of the problems we face in our communities are really the responsibility of either the Muslims or the gays or some combination of the two.
I notice that on the side of a house in nearby Enmore this week someone has painted a large and confronting ‘no’ sign, by which I mean one of those large red circles with a stroke through it, like a no-smoking sign, except that in this case, instead of having a cigarette in the circle there’s a picture of a woman in an Islamic head-dress. In other words, it’s a ‘No Muslims’ sign, signifying that ‘we don’t want any of their kind around ‘ere’!
And it does make me feel like throwing my hands up in the air. I can appreciate of course that it is in the interests of any number of power-brokers and media magnates for our population to have a minority group to focus their frustrations on (lest we come to the conclusion that it is these power-brokers and media magnates who are really the source of our frustrations) but what I can’t understand is why so many people buy in to this garbage. I really had thought that most people were simply too intelligent for that. I was wrong!
Of course though it’s not it’s not really just an issue of intelligence, is it, for in the end people believe what they want to believe, and it’s just far too convenient for most of us to believe that the problems we face are not really our responsibility but that somebody else is to blame – Muslims, gays, gay Muslims, etc.
“All obscurity”, Kierkegaard said, “is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will”. In other words, when we don’t know the truth, it’s partly because we don’t know it and partly because we don’t want to know it. That’s just the way it is, and it’s the way it always has been, and when we go back to Jesus’ day we find that things were exactly the same then as they are now.
“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 has to be one of the most straightforward stories Jesus ever told, though it has never been one of His most popular. It opens with a familiar and yet still confronting scene, where we are introduced to two figures – a poor man named Lazarus and a nameless businessman who might have been his benefactor except that he found he had more important things to attend to.
These two figures are representatives of the extreme ends of the polarised society that Jesus lived in, where a privileged minority enjoyed a life of luxury while countless others struggled to make ends meet.
We too in Australia live in a polarized society of course, where. according to the last figures from the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) the richest fifth of Australian households each have, on average, forty times more wealth than the poorest fifth of the population!
When we look at things on a global scale we see that the disparity is even greater, such that North America, for example, which accounts for just over 5% of the world’s population, possesses more than 27% of the world’s wealth, and Asia, where more than 50% of the world’s population live, accounts for less than 30% of the world’s wealth (according to Wikipedia).
Of course, behind these statistics lie countless numbers of homeless and helpless persons like Lazarus – a character who is not unfamiliar to us. There he plants himself, outside the wealthy man’s gate, hoping to pick up on some tasty left-overs from the rich man’s table when the garbage is taken out each night. His presence spoils somewhat the beautiful symmetry of the well-manicured lawns that encompass the rich man’s mansion. His clothes are old and dirty, his speech is slurred, and he reeks of alcohol. We know him well, and he makes us uncomfortable, for we are never quite sure what to do with him!
Do we give him the money he is asking for, knowing full well that he will almost certainly not use it to buy a train-ticket to Dubbo so that he can visit his dying grandmother (as he says he wants to) but will buy another drink with it, or do we just leave him where he is? Do we go and find him something to eat from the pantry or have we just not got time for that right now? The man seems to need medical attention (as he is covered in sores) but do we call an ambulance or do we call the police, or do we just back away because we ourselves don’t want to risk being infected? Do we offer him a bed in our spare room, even knowing that he will probably wet it, or do we tell ourselves that we couldn’t possibly trust him in the same house as the children. In the end, most of us, most of the time, for one reason or another, do exactly what the rich man did. We do nothing!
And as we do nothing we tell ourselves that there’s really nothing that can be done for the man anyway. There are solid and inescapable reasons that things are the way there are. There are economic laws that necessitate there always being some people being forced to live this way, and we know full well that it’s just the genetics of some people such that they are always going to be getting themselves into trouble, and, even so, we know too that in the end this guy needs to take responsibility for his addiction and that it’s not our fault that he is the way he is. Only he can ultimately help himself! In the end we cannot really do anything at all for him, so what is the point of doing anything?
“The poor man died”, Jesus tells us, “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.'” (vs. 22-24)
It’s interesting to note that this is not the conclusion of the story. This is not the punch line (so to speak), and that in itself is surely significant. For us 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. Yet what we see take place here is entirely consistent with the coming of the Kingdom of God as Jesus has been describing it in the Luke’s Gospel.
For in the Kingdom of God everything is turned upside-down. ‘The first are last and the last are first’! It is as Mary had prophesied, God ‘brings down the mighty from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly’. It is as Jesus warned, ‘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)
A great sorting-out is taking place, and life as we know it is being turned on its head! The tears of the suffering are being wiped away, while those who have smirked at the misfortunes of others are having those smirks wiped from their faces! The long-suffering poor and oppressed are finding comfort at the expense of the fat and the comfortable. All-powerful kings, queens, emperors and Presidents are loosing their positions of power, to make way for the much-reviled and crucified Prince of Peace, who will reign for ever and ever!
A great shaking-up is taking place, and those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo are never going to acknowledge what is coming! Hence the rich guys 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.’ (vs. 28)
But Abraham knows the mindset of this guy’s family better than he does.
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (vs. 30-31)
This is the punch line of the story, and there’s a prophetic allusion here, of course, to Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. But note that the allusion is not simply to Jesus’ resurrection as such, but to the complete failure of that resurrection as a means of proof for the validity of Jesus’ claims about Himself and the truth of His Gospel!
Those who have ears to hear, hear, and those who believe are those who are ready and willing to believe. For in the end we will believe what we choose to believe and we refuse to believe what we cannot afford to believe, and no amount of solid argument or existential proof will convince us to do otherwise!
In responding to some emails yesterday I did spend some time looking over (yet another) Muslim hate-site that someone had directed me to, and I do try to look over these sites when people in good faith send me links to them, as I’m often able to spot fraudulent stories and misleading photographs that I report back on. This particular site though was a ‘genuine’ one (if that’s the right word). It did at least have a large collection of articles, written by a variety of authors over some years, all reflecting on the historic ‘clash of civilisations’ between the Muslim East and the Christian West that has been going on for the last 1,500 years. What hit me though, as I browsed through this archive of these numerous articles was that none of them had been written before September 11th 2001! And I thought, “can’t these people see that they are being played?” The answer is, “no, of course they can’t – not if they don’t want to see it!”
“All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will”. In the end we can’t believe more of the truth than we are willing to believe of the truth. If we choose to live in fear then we will find ourselves an enemy to live in fear of, and if we choose to live a life of selfish indulgence then we will never notice Lazarus sitting at our gate, just as we will fail to notice any particular challenge in the Bible, demanding of us that we share all that we have with the poor and oppressed! Even if someone should come back from the dead in order to convince us, we won’t accept anything that we are not ready to hear!
God grant us the courage to believe the truth, to acknowledge the resurrection, to hear the cry of Lazarus at our gate, and so to follow Jesus!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 2010.