26th September 1998
St Stephen's, Lewisham
Dives and Lazarus
Week 26: Amos 6: 1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 5: 11-16; Luke 16: 19 - 31
When we hear the parables of our Lord being read to us in the Mass they generally come one that time
That's fair enough as long as we manage to grasp the central message of what Jesus was saying in a particular place. There's not time for more than one.
All teachers, however, including Jesus Christ, realise that all their sayings, however wise, needs some qualifications or corrective if they're not going to mislead people. The worst thing that we as disciples can do is to take one saying of our nothing Teacher and make it out to be the only thing he said that really matters.
If we do that we shall certainly and up with a lopsided understanding of his teaching. To take a simple example: stretch the proverb "many hands make light work" and you'll soon have snug your helpers falling over each other and spoiling the job; so against this proverb we have to remember that "too many cooks spoil the broth"
So let us now take this morning's parable of the rich man and the poor man at a and held it up against some of the sayings of Jesus.
For whilst the main point of the parable is that worldly riches may be a handicap, and poverty an advantage in becoming what God has intended us to beat, the truth lies much deeper than this.
Think for a moment of the Good Samaritan. This answers the question "who is my neighbour?" you will remember, and the answer was "anyone who is close enough to to enable you to minister to their most immediate needs". The Priest and the Levite simply failed to make the connection between the concept of a Neighbour and the wounded Jew by the roadside - even though one of them "went near to him". Lazarus, the Beggar lay at the rich man's gate so that he must have seen him every time he went into or our of it. Yet somehow he, like the Levite and the Priest, failed to connect him with the word "neighbour" in the commandment he had learnt as a child "thou shot love thy neighbour as thyself".
Now let's turn to another of St Luke's parables - the rich fool. The "man who had everything" could not conceive any other goal in life than getting more. Yet that very night - he laid his plan to increase his storage space, he died and lost everything.
Something of the sort seems to have happened to the rich man in today's parable. All the security he enjoyed vanished in an instant, whilst for the Beggarman , the security he had no never known was suddenly his for ever.
To the Jewish mind, riches and plenty were a sign of God's favour towards a man who was righteous and contrarywise misfortune was to them a sign of God's displeasure towards someone.
So deeply was this idea engrained in their minds that well-to-do people seldom paused to ask themselves the question "what have I done to deserve this?". They just assumed that it meant they enjoyed Gods goodwill.
Equally, if the beggarman asked "what have I done to deserve this?" he would most like to get the answer given to Job by his comforters: "well we don't exactly know what you've done wrong but you must have done something or you wouldn't have landed up in the mess that you're in". Not a very unhelpful remark and almost certainly untrue!
So the second lesson we can also learn from today's reading is that wealth and poverty are no reliable guide to our moral worth in the sight of God.
Now turn to the parable of the sheep and goats in Saint Matthew "I tell you that inasmuch as you neglected to minister to one of the least of these my brethren you failed to minister to me" says Jesus. "Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels".
It was precisely the failure of the rich men to connect the beggar with a principle of great importance namely "your neighbour" in the rule "love your neighbour as yourself" which led to be his downfall.
We are as equally to blame for the things we have failed to do as for the things we have done wrong. The expression for this is "sins of omission" and it's summed up in the confession by the words "we have left undone those things we ought to have done" or "we confess that we have sinned through negligence".
We've heard an awful lot these last few weeks about one particular prominent man's sins, his lusts and his lies; and we may have been tempted to suppose that because we haven't done anything as bad as that we can rest assured that God will look be at us with approving faith.
Don't let's deceive ourselves. That's precisely the mistake the rich man made. His tragedy was that he failed to recognise the importance in God's eyes of the beggarman at his doorstep or of his relationship with him.
Let me tell you in conclusion about something which happened yesterday. I was sitting by a pub in the middle of London having lunch with some friends.
At the next table there was an elderly woman, quite severely disabled. Seeing my dog-collar she started telling me her life history, which seemed to be one long chapter of misfortunes.
Well, the temptation was to ignore her and go on talking with my friends; but something told me I should listen to her as best I could.
She rambled on for about ten minutes. She became quite cheerful in fact though her narrative was sometimes a little difficult to follow, since it seemed she was closely in touch with what she called "the Spirits of the World".
Then at the end of a few minutes she opened her bag and gave me her visiting card. One glance at this told me that she was someone I had met and worked with nearly 50 years ago in Vienna. "
"You don't remember who I am, do you?" I asked her, and then when explained it all came flooding back and we spent another ten minutes reminiscing with each other. Then she hobbled off on her two sticks looking much more cheerful then she had done to begin with.
Now it all may have been just a coincidence. But I can't help feeling that somehow it wasn't anything of the kind; and I'm heartily glad that I didn't follow my first instinct which was as I said to ignore her; else how could I have preached the sermon about the rich man and Lazarus with a straight face to you this morning!"
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