Sermons from Rev Julie Wagstaff
Sunday 25th September
Today’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus isn’t simply a moral tale about riches and poverty, although it certainly doesn’t do us any harm to look at it that way.
Because when we use the expression ‘some things never change’ it usually refers to something negative .... we rarely make the comment about a good characteristic or situation do we and my thoughts on reading today’s gospel were along those lines .... nothing seems to have changed when it comes to the suffering of the poor - we still see abject poverty living at the gates of unbelievable wealth.
And it’s not even something we can easily dismiss and simply lay at the feet of the super wealthy – we may not be as rich and life may not be as luxurious for us but there are many who would be only too pleased to swap places with .... many indeed living on our own streets. It’s rarely possible to walk through town without passing somebody sitting on the pavement, destitute and wretched. We hear of many reasons to walk on past:
· it’s got to be their own fault why don’t they get a job
· there are agencies to help them
· we must be careful, they may be violent
· they’ll only spend the money on drink or drugs
· best not to get involved .... and
I can’t help everyone can I?
Well, in response to that last one, Fliss, my daughter, made me take stock a while ago when I was with her in town quite early one morning and just ahead of us was a guy sitting on the pavement who had obviously slept rough and there was I was dithering and making up my mind what I should I do and working out how much cash I had on me that I could give him – but she just walked up to him and asked ‘fancy some breakfast mate?’ and I then trotted behind her as she strode off to buy him a Big Mac and a coffee ... and I thought yes, it is as simple as that really, we do what we can where we are. It’s not going to solve the world’s problems but for that one person it makes a difference.
Something our harvest festival helps us to do each year when we not only give thanks for what we have but we also remember those who are struggling, and help in a small but practical way by donating gifts which literally come from the fruits of the harvest.
But, if today’s gospel story was only about riches and poverty, it could easily be used – and often is - as an excuse not to worry about keeping the poor in poverty because they are going to enjoy good things in a future life. From the point of view of the rich ... well riches and a comfortable lifestyle often provide a sense of security in our own ability to decide what happens in the future.
No, today’s story is once again a parable and Jesus is, as Tom Wright explains, using picture language to show us what was going on in his own work as he lived in obedience to his Father’s will.
Remember the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, he was very like the rich man, he didn’t want to acknowledge his poor, ragged brother anymore than the rich man wanted to acknowledge the beggar at the gate – people who in their minds were undeserving and they wanted to keep them out of sight and therefore out of mind.
Jesus, on the other hand, was being criticised for going out of his way to welcome outcasts and sinners .... Jesus is putting into practice in the present world what, it was widely believed, would happen in the future one .... ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. .... Tom Wright explains it as ‘the age to come must be anticipated in the present’ – I like to say we have to prepare ourselves for living in God’s kingdom by practicing now.
The point of the parable is, then, that the Pharisees, themselves being lovers of money and status, were behaving towards the very people who Jesus was welcoming, exactly like the rich man was behaving towards Lazarus. So Jesus was urging them and anyone else tempted to take a similar line, to change their ways while there is still time - just as he was warning in the parable we heard last week about the steward who was to be dismissed but took action in the nick of time by giving back to the people all the interest that had been added onto their loans.
The Pharisees who claimed to be so righteous should have realised that all Jesus is asking them to do is what Moses and the prophets would have said. Indeed it is exactly what our Old Testament reading from the book of Amos is saying.
As Luke makes clear throughout his gospel Jesus’ kingdom-mission is the fulfilment of the whole story of Israel. Anyone who understands the law and the prophets must, therefore, see that Jesus is bringing them to completion.
And, if they don’t, then not even someone rising from the dead will bring them to their senses. For Luke’s readers from that day to this, the last sentence of the parable, speaks most powerfully of Jesus himself.
Jesus who died, was buried and rose again because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
There are different arguments and firmly held beliefs about heaven and hell and the afterlife as it is sometimes called and but eternal life doesn’t begin when we die, we already have eternal life. It is here and now, in the present, that we, as Christians, are called to emulate Jesus with his love and compassion towards those who are considered outcasts and unacceptable and to beware of falling into the trap of being so caught up with ourselves and our own lives that we can disassociate ourselves from the plight of others either by being judgemental and self righteous, or self focused and self indulgent, which is what had happened to the Pharisees – and is portrayed by the elder son and the rich man - and which effectively distances us from God and from being truly human, from being God’s true children.
As the letter to Timothy reminds us ‘There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment for we brought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it;’ The past is irretrievable and the future is in God’s hands.
As I said ‘some things never change’. The teaching of Jesus flew in the face of the accepted wisdom of that ancient world and sadly it still does so in the world in which we live today.
But we can rest assured in the knowledge of God’s grace and steadfast love for each one of us, we can put our trust in Him who has all things in his hands and just as there were then, there are today, those who seek God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.
All we need do is take to heart the words of the prophet Micah who said ‘what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’. Amen.