Saturday, 24 September 2016

On Dives and Lazarus

A sermon for tomorrow, at Welshampton and Coedway . . .

We’ve just heard the story of Dives and Lazarus, maybe the original rich man in his castle and poor man at his gate - to borrow from the verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful that we don’t sing any more. The rich man doesn’t have a name in story in fact; the name we give him, Dives, really just means ‘Rich Man’.

Those who first heard Jesus tell this story would have thought that to be a rich man was proof of God’s blessing. Surely God was smiling down on people like that. Some people of course became rich in bad ways, like the tax-collectors who worked for the Romans and were cheats and anyway outside the Law and out of God’s favour; but so far as we know Dives wasn’t like that; he probably did all the right things - kept the feasts and fasts, went regularly to the temple and the synagogue, prayed at the proper times each day. I think Dives was a man other people looked up to.

And when Jesus went on to tell his disciples that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, they’d have been staggered to hear him. A pious and obedient rich man who lived according to the Law was surely already on a fast track into heaven. Everyone could see such a man was richly blessed.

Not so, says Jesus to them. The problem is that things we think we own can end up owning us. A rich man can be made short-sighted by his wealth, so that his wealth becomes an end in itself; so the wealth of Dives and the comfortable life it bought him had made him blind to what was really happening in the world around him. Blind to Lazarus begging by his gate. The way I see it, a man like Dives, who was surely very conscious of his civic and religious duty, he’d have tossed a coin or two to Lazarus there at his gate if he’d seen him. But he didn’t; he was too wrapped up in his own affairs to notice him. These days such a man might sweep past in his stretch limousine with its tinted windows, not seeing the bums begging on the street. No limo, but otherwise it was much the same back then.

Maybe Jesus told this story to help his disciples tackle an issue that must have been nagging them: why it was that while people abandoned and rejected by the religious elite came to hear Jesus preach, pious and godly people other folk looked up to hardly gave him the time of day, and often briefed and plotted against him. Surely a teacher of God’s word should be heard gladly by holy folk like the Pharisees, so why, instead, were these people constantly trying to catch Jesus out, and trip Jesus up?

In the story both Dives and Lazarus die, and Lazarus is carried into the bosom of Abraham, while Dives ends up in the flames of hell. At first read that sounds like karma in Buddhist or Hindu thought - a sort of payback time, where the unfairnesses of this world get set straight. The wealth and success Dives enjoyed in this life has destined him for a next life full of torment. But in fact it isn’t for his wealth that Dives gets punished: to be wealthy is fine. But Dives had allowed his wealth turn him blind, he’d allowed what he owned to own him instead.

And he finds himself in an unreachable place where no-one can even get across to soothe his parched lips with a drop of water. So Dives says, even if you can’t help me, then at least don’t let my brothers go the same way - send someone to warn them. But they’ve been warned already, he’s told. It’s all there in the scripture you read every day, the word you hear expounded every Sabbath in the synagogue or the temple. But, says Dives (as I imagine him, anyway) you can’t expect them to listen to that - that’s just the stuff we get in church. I mean, I always went, and I sang the hymns and said the prayers, but you know, it was always mostly so I was seen doing the right thing. I never listened all that hard to the sermon so I don’t suppose my brothers have either. So please, do something big and flash so they can’t help but notice. Hey! Send Lazarus back, that’ll do it - they’ll surely pay attention if someone comes back from the dead!

It’s then we hear that chilling phrase: "If they’ve not listened to Moses and the prophets they’re not going to listen; they won’t even listen if someone should rise from the dead.”  There’s none so blind as those who will not see; there’s none so deaf as those who stop their ears to the word. The summary of the law, all the Jewish law and prophets rolled up into one, is this, and we know it well: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.’

So what might that mean for Dives, and maybe for us? To love our neighbour we must first seek out and find our neighbour; our neighbour isn’t just the person who happens to come our way or knock on our door or live down our street, though of course to be generous to them is important. Our neighbour is anyone we could help, and some of those people don’t present themselves well, they may be hard to like, they may be hard even to see. Dives never noticed Lazarus. If he’d noticed him, he might have helped him. He didn’t though - they just didn’t move in the same circles.

Then we’re to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. It’s OK to love ourselves; it’s fine to enjoy life; we don’t have to wear hair shirts all the time. God made us, and he made us to be beautiful, both inside and out; God made the good earth and its fruits, and he wants us to enjoy them. Religious folk don’t need to be solemn and sour-faced, we’re allowed to have fun. Jesus himself loved a good party! What’s wrong is when we enjoy the earth at the expense of others; and when we squeeze charity down into “what we do with the stuff left over once we’ve spent all we want on ourselves”. That’s when we lose focus, lose the Jesus touch. My neighbour may be no more important than me; but they’re certainly no less important.

For all the our Brexit worries, we still live in a prosperous part of the world. We’re blessed with more than others have. Some of those others are beating at our doors, are floating across the Med or trying to board trucks in Calais. We could feel threatened, even besieged; many people do feel that way, but what about us?

For the person of faith, wealth carries with it responsibility - Dives may not have realised that, but we should. So it’s not just a sign of God’s favour upon me, the fact that I’m not too badly off; it’s an opportunity to do something useful, it’s a chance to be of service. Put simply, what God gives me remains his, even though it’s also mine. As we approach the season of harvest, in Church we remind ourselves again that God is the giver of all good things, and that we should use and employ what he gives us in the spirit of the giver. And in doing that, give a lead to others. God loves it when our eyes are open to see as he sees, so we interpret and respond to what we find there with compassion and love. God loves it when we recognise our neighbours, and when with generous hearts we set ourselves to provide for their needs, as well as for our own.

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