The Rich Man and the Beggar
Sometimes we simply get used to the unthinkable. Familiarity makes the unimaginable seem normal. The film Schindler's List presented us with a very stark contrast. On the one hand there was the Kommandant's sumptuous house: a house where there were parties, feasting, merrymaking and fun - an altogether delightful place to live. Then on the other, outside the walls of the house, in the wider camp area, was the horror which was the life of the Jews imprisoned in the concentration camp: a life of hunger, cruelty, deprivation and sheer inhumanity, never knowing at any moment whether they would become the target for playful retribution when the Kommandant needed an escape from boredom. It was as though the house and its surrounding camp were a million miles from each other. Two sets of lives existing side by side, one oblivious of the other until sport was required and the guns brought out; but neither knowing the other as human beings.
Today's Gospel arose from Jesus noticing those who loved money. Money is not evil but it can turn our love away from God and from others. Today’s parable is more about insensitivity. It presents us with a similar, though less violent, contrast to that of the true story of Schindler's List .
There are 3 separate scenes:
Scene 1 Shows a rich man, clothed in purple and fine linen just like the High Priest. His clothing probably cost about three years’ pay of a labourer. The rich man enjoys every comfort and luxury life has to offer. Jesus never tells us his name, though he is often called Dives which is Latin for rich. At his gate is a poor man, Lazarus, hungry, suffering, degraded, dehumanised and, in this case, unnoticed. After all there are a lot of poor people. Today this scene could be a family tucking into a good dinner whilst watching the starving of Africa on the TV totally unmoved. The rich man's sin was not intentional and purposeful -he simply lived only for himself. He was not deliberately cruel to Lazarus - his eyes and his mind were closed, he just did not notice him. The rich man was not wicked, like the Kommandant - he did not order Lazarus to be cleared away from his gate or treat him unkindly.
Scene 2. The poor man Lazarus has died, and he is in heaven with Abraham. Then the rich man dies and is buried, he took nothing of his rich life with him and found himself in hell and in torment, not because of his actions, but because of his inaction, his blindness, both toward the world outside his own narrow sphere and to the word of God. He was indifferent to both. He was blind and unable to see Lazarus, and deaf, unable to hear the word of God, just like his brothers; unheeding of the warning and instructive words of the prophets, as we heard in the reading from Amos. He was unthinking and uncritical of his own actions, unable to consider and calculate the obvious differences between himself and those around him. He looked up and saw Lazarus and Abraham far away. He issued and request and an order. He asked for mercy and for Lazarus to come with water to cool him. So you see he had noticed Lazarus after all, he even knew his name. The rich man is told this is not possible.
Scene 3. The place is the same as scene 2. The rich man is not all bad after all, even in the agony of hell he loved his brothers, and was thoughtful for their care enough to try to save them from sharing his own fate. He asks for Lazarus to be sent to his 5 brothers to warn them of what might happen to them . Abraham tells him that they have Moses and the prophets they should listen to them as to how to behave.
The rich man obviously knows what his brothers are like and the likelihood of them taking any notice of Moses and the prophets and suggests that if someone – Lazarus – nudge, nudge, wink, wink, goes to the from the dead, they would surely repent. Again Abraham says if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets neither will they be convinced – even if someone risen from the dead goes to them – and the curtain closes.
When we hear this story it is tempting for us in the developed world feel guilty about our lifestyles, for we are the "rich man" in the story. Faced with the complex problems of world debt, hunger and underdevelopment, I am sure we often feel unable to do much except give money to charity. For some people this amounts to paying for the scenes of deprivation to go away as they try to escape from the awfulness and their sense of impotence with a chequebook.
But we do have to take stock and ask - do we even see those who are poor at our own gates, or are we deaf and blind to their needs? Do we recognise the poverty in our own cities: the homeless sleeping rough, or are tempted to cross over the road? Then there are the people trapped in their homes because they have no means of going out, either because of disability or age or lack of money? Perhaps not in this church but in the wider benefice do we recognise the poverty of the people who are perhaps sitting in the pew in front of us? Not just the material poverty, but emotional poverty, the loneliness, the devastation of bereavement, depression, the helplessness of the young mother trapped at home with small children. The isolation of the person who cannot read, the desperation to find a job, the refugee far from home in a hostile and unwelcoming environment.
There is and always will be real poverty at our own gates. Of course we cannot do everything for everyone, but if we choose to do nothing and refuse to become involved then we risk sharing the fate of the rich man. But when we are alert to the needs of the people close by, we shall also become more sensitive to poverty beyond our immediate community. And once seen with the clear vision of Gospel values our blindness will clear, our ears become attuned and the words of Jesus will take on a new resonance and imperative for us all.
As I have said on many occasions I always preach my sermon to myself before I dare preach it to others; this sermon left me falling far short of the goal and issued a challenge once more that needs attention. I wonder if I will be alone?