Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Calling the oppressed by their names: Lazarus & the rich man

Sermon preached at Stamford United Reformed Church, 25 Sept 2016. Texts: Luke 16:19-31, 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

It is said that the Conservative politician Sir George Young, when he was minister for housing in 1990, said that “the homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera”. Quite rightly, there was and still is widespread public condemnation of this phrase. No doubt he regrets it now. But it shows up a certain attitude among the rich, exactly that of the rich man in Jesus’ parable – that poor people have no identity of their own, no sense of agency, no name. Don’t kick them, but do step over them. The parable warns those who are rich of the dangers of doing so.

I’m going to be very plain here. One of the questions with any parable is “where do I see myself in the story, who do I identify with”. For myself, this has to be with the rich man, or perhaps one of his siblings. I wouldn’t say our family are wealthy at all, but I found an online income distribution calculator and discovered that we’re just within the top 20% of households in the country. Moreover, in the world we’re in the top 4% of households. That puts me alongside the rich man not Lazarus. It puts me in the category of the rich who’ll be sent away with empty hands, not the hungry who’ll be filled with good things, in the words of the Magnificat. I don’t know you folks here, but I did check up on the income and deprivation stats for Stamford, and while I’m sure there are people struggling to make ends meet, many people here will be in the same boat as me.

I say these things not as a matter of breast-beating, but as a help in looking at the parable. A scholar of the parables, Amy-Jill Levine, observes that “Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting.” So let’s get afflicted, sisters and brothers!

Image: Illuminated manuscript, Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
N├╝rnberg (via Wikimedia Commons)
It’s a really interesting parable, that of Lazarus and the rich man, on so many different levels. To start with, Lazarus is the only character, in any of Jesus’ parables, to be given a name. Think of all the best-known parables – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Sower, the Lost Sheep and the rest of them. They all contain little portraits of people, sometimes vividly drawn – Jesus was an excellent storyteller. But the people mostly appear as Mr and Ms Anybody – any old farmer, or traveller, or woman tending a house. More literal translations often have phrases like “some person was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho”. This is important, because it’s the universality of the parables that make them work so well. Absolutely the wrong question to ask is “what town did the prodigal son go to?” or “what was the name of the sower’s dad who worked the land before him?” Irrelevant details. The people in the parables could be anybody. They could be the listeners to the stories. They work so well that if you can translate the 1st century Middle Eastern context to today and here, they could be us.

But we know that names matter. Naming someone in ancient times had real power, as it continues to in many ways. So often in the Bible, we’re told not just someone’s name but the meaning of that name. It continues today. We often close our prayers “we ask it in the name of Jesus”.

So for Jesus to give Lazarus a name in this parable is to make a very clear statement. This is not just some everyman. This is not just a poor man. This is a story about a real human being. Like Job, who he resembles in many ways, he was poor, he was sick, he was suffering, but he had a name. His name was Lazarus. That means ‘God has helped’, by the way. Giving Lazarus a name was part of Jesus’ way of giving him back his dignity, which must have been lost in all that suffering. In his life, he might well just have been known as ‘that poor soul who sits by the gate’. Perhaps his name was unknown to those nearby. Perhaps he was like the character in one of the Beatles’ saddest songs, Eleanor Rigby, who “died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.” But Lazarus got his name back. Jesus gave it to him.

The rich man, by contrast, doesn’t get a name. There are medieval traditions which call him Dives, that call this whole parable Dives and Lazarus, and that name appears in the folk song on which Ralph Vaughan Williams created his beautiful variations. But there’s no biblical basis for that name, it’s simply the Latin for ‘rich’. And to give the rich man a name is to miss the point, that Jesus is telling this story as part of the upside-down kingdom. In life, the poor man had no name, no power, no identity; while the rich man had a well-known name, with power in society, and a familiar identity. In death, just as their material circumstances are reversed, so are their identities. Lazarus is the one who has a name and a secure place resting against the chest of Abraham (the traditional word ‘bosom’ is a much better translation than ‘sitting at Abraham’s side’), while the rich man is stripped of his identity and become simply a suffering soul in Hades. Lazarus was held and cared for - cuddled even - in death as he wasn't in life.

And it was the rich man’s failure to do this, to recognise Lazarus as a real individual, a human being with a name, which is one of the worst things that the rich man did. He wasn’t cruel to Lazarus, he didn’t refuse him things, but to him Lazarus was a non-person. Even in his torment in Hell, he sees Lazarus as inferior, as somebody he can order around, first to bring him water, then to travel to earth to warn his siblings.

It’s that failure to recognise Lazarus as an individual which was the real sin of the rich man. And it goes on today in so many places. Some people may have heard the shocking words this week of Donald Trump Junior, comparing human beings seeking asylum to being like a bowl of Skittles, a few of which are poisonous. That’s precisely the rich man’s attitude, it is to condemn millions to death in Syria, and they have names and identities (like the little boy Alan Kurdi whose dead body on the shores of the Aegean Sea moved so many last year). Or the people of Aleppo, who are bombed by those who think of them not as human beings but as targets, faceless parts of the enemy. Or, nearer to home, those who are sanctioned and lose their benefits for minor or non-existent misbehaviours. This is all a failure to look upon the people as individuals.

In small ways, I’ve done this myself. I catch the train to Milton Keynes three days a week, and cycle to my office. My cycle route takes me through one of the town’s many underpasses, just near the train station, and recently a homeless person has started pitching a tent there. I’ve not stopped to do anything to help that person, I’ve never seen them. I know that they’re in suffering, but I’ve passed them by. Perhaps others here have done things like this too, out of fear or busyness or belief it wouldn’t help, but it’s not treating people in need as individuals.

There are alternatives to this behaviour. There are plenty of churches and church groups working with those in need, and seeing them as individuals, and loving them as individuals. To pick two examples. In a project in Northampton called Street Church, homeless people are provided with food and basic help such as haircuts and with a sense of community on a weekly basis – but just as importantly they’re known by name, and referred to not as ‘clients’ or ‘service users’ but simply as ‘friends’. Christian Aid do this really well – whenever they have campaigns, they take the stories of real people, and tell them vividly and powerfully, complete with names and a real sense of recognising them as individuals. At the Greenbelt Festival last month, Christian Aid had three rather lovely giant puppets, much bigger than life-size, walking around the site – each was based on a real person, with a name and a history, who Christian Aid had been able to help through their work. And their stories were told.

We’re not told that the rich man was condemned because of his wealth, but rather because of what he did with his wealth. I worked at Durham University for three years. It’s a beautiful city, but I lived in a former mining village and took driving lessons round a whole set of even poorer ex-mining villages. And the disparity of the wealth between the university and the cathedral, on the one hand, and the surrounding area on the other, really got to me. I’m sure the cathedral did its best, but it felt like an island of privilege simply ignoring the sea of poverty around it. More recently, visiting the United Arab Emirates and seeing the disparity between the wealth of the local people and Western workers on the one hand, and the slave-like conditions of the immigrant workers from Asia on the other, was really sickening to me.

There’s a link here to our second reading. Evil doesn’t come from money. It comes from the love of money, from its elevation to something disproportionately important. Paul is clear: “Command [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share with others. In this way they will store up for themselves a treasure which will be a solid foundation for the future. And then they will be able to win the life which is true life.” Of course the rich man didn’t have that message, but it’s present in the words of the Torah and the Prophets in abundance, as Jesus has Abraham say towards the end of the parable.

This is not just an individual story. The parable condemns not just a lack of generosity, but implicitly condemns income inequality, that someone could be so much richer than another. This is a real problem in many Western countries, and it’s getting worse and worse. Supposedly in our society we’re ok with that. We should not be.

So let’s talk about heaven and hell. I think it’s a mistake to take this passage as a literal portrait of hell from Jesus’ mouth. As I said earlier, parables are seldom intended to be taken literally. And the images of hell in this passage are those from Greek culture rather than Jewish culture. Moreover the later parts of the parable have a close resemblance to the kind of writing, like the books of Daniel and Revelation, known as apocalyptic, and this kind of literature is always to be read symbolically and not literally.

To quote the American preacher Rob Bell: “What we see in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are many kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next. … There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”

The closest passage in the gospels to this one is perhaps the judgement of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, when the Son of Man separates out those who helped ‘the least of these, my brothers and sisters’ from those who didn’t help them. And of course the message of Matthew 25 and this parable are similar. They speak mostly to our actions in this world, and say very clearly that your actions in this world, the way you treat others, matters right now. To be a Christian, to follow Christ, is to be one who is on the side of justice rather injustice, in everyday ways and in big ways. And whatever you think about the life to come, and whatever you think about justification through faith, this might matter to your chances in heaven. Because, like Abraham said of the five siblings of the rich man, we have this message in abundance from the Law of Moses, from the witnesses of the prophets, and from the teachings of Jesus himself.

Those of us who are rich, in national or global terms, are confronted in this parable with a very strong question. Can we see the needs of others? Can we respond when they are sitting at our gates, under our noses? Or will we hide away from them? Jesus shows us clearly that there is only one answer to that question. May he give us the grace and the courage to respond to those in need, to treat them as individuals, and help them in the ways that we can.

Amen.