On Sunday 25 September Rev Caroline spoke about the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
In our gospel reading today, we have the well-known parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Our rich man, we are told, was clothed lavishly in purple, feasted every day, appeared to be self interested (not noticing Lazarus at his gate). He appears privileged beyond measure – man that society would have viewed as having status (but, for the purposes of this account, he has no name which suggests, perhaps, that his status was more in his own rather than God’s eyes.
By contrast, we have Lazarus (whose Hebrew name translates to “God is my help”).Here is a man who is as destitute as any human could be. With no food, he is suffering the physical symptoms of sleeping rough and the dogs are licking his sores. To the listener, the man may have been repulsive for this and ritually unclean, and yet, despite society shunning him for this, he is known personally by God and loved.
Judaism, at the time, would have seen the Rich Man as blessed by God (as we see in the book of Job) and Lazarus’ situation as, somehow, a punishment for sin, and yet we find that it is Lazarus and not the Rich man who is spiritually rich.
Commentators tend to agree that this story is not intended to depict the afterlife but is filled with exaggerated contrasts to make a very serious point; and that is, when Abraham calls the Rich Man “child” he is reminding him that being a child of Abraham is not all that is required to bring him salvation and that he needs to live out that faith in word and deed.
Instead, the Rich Man seems incapable of understanding what Abraham is saying to him and shows this by talking to Abraham as if he is his equal and still wanting Lazarus to behave as his inferior (even though he is clearly in a different place). He assumes that Lararus’ role is to comfort him and pass a message on to his relatives to ensure their salvation.
Abraham’s message is clear. The man’s remaining siblings have eyes to see the poor in their midst, ears to hear the Word of God and hearts with which to respond by loving God and their neighbours. Generations on, we are those siblings with the scriptures to read and eyes to see what is in the world around us and make a loving response. The importance of this parable is great, and it clearly shows God’s heart for the poor is something that Jesus’ followers should mirror.
In 1998 Aidan and I, newly married, moved to a housing estate in Kingston upon Thames where Aidan was commissioned to start a Church Plant. It was an Urban Priority Area consisting of high and low rise flats surrounded by stark concrete areas and no greenery worth mentioning. Some residents described it more as “a place to exist rather than live”. The estate was surrounded by leafy millionaires’ homes. Very few people from the estate would cross the busy road to attend the parish church. It was considered locally to be a place of poverty on many levels and was often described as “unclean” and a “no go area”.
OUR experience, however, only reflected some of this image. Yes, there were some in financial poverty, others whose lives were challenged by chaotic home lives, the lives of some were oppressed by addiction and there was (most definitely) an environmental poverty in the ambience of the estate and service provision there. For a significant number, a flat on a housing estate was their only chance of getting on the housing ladder in Outer London and to do so would stretch their finances to the limit – creating a different aspirational sort of poverty that was largely hidden.
By contrast, we also found wealth there in the most profound ways. There was a strong community spirit along the landings with people looking out for each other. We met many Christians who were beacons of Christ’s love in their section of the estate, serving others and the community (including an amazing lady who ran retreats in daily life from her 13th floor flat – a most unexpected but well used retreat centre!). There was a generosity of spirit and resources from many who didn’t have much to share. It was a remarkable and life changing place to live.
In our 5 years on the estate, we were there to spread the gospel and reveal signs of God’s kingdom in that place by living amongst those considered poor, and yet, at the same time, discovering the richness of life and community that was there – learning the gospel incarnationally amongst our neighbours.
And this is where Jeremiah’s actions can speak deeply into ministry and mission in our local context. Jeremiah shows an extraordinary act of prophetic faith in publicly buying land that was being sacked by the Babylonians. In one action that must have seemed insane, he was communicating to God’s people that God would restore the land to his people and that they should keep going even when times were so harsh. This fearless act in the midst of fear around him had grown out of deep prayer and listening to God’s voice.
Sometimes, as Christians, we are called by God to be that prophetic voice amongst those around us. On the Housing estate the church planting team got involved in setting up an After School Club and collaborated in building Community Garden (offering some green space in which to relax or play) whilst some scorned saying such efforts would come to nothing or be ruined. Nevertheless, these projects were part of a wider and more crucial message to those we were amongst that God cares about the details of our lives and our daily needs whether those be practical or aesthetic. God yearns for more than us simply existing in a concrete jungle. He yearns to bring us fullness of life to know his abundant love for us.
As Christians, Paul reminds us in his letter to Timothy, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
The rich man had been storing up earthly treasures and not looking outwards at the needs of his neighbours that he was called by God to love. He could have chosen to respond in love towards Lazarus and shown compassion and mercy. To invite him to one of his feasts would have been a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that was his hope.
I wonder, what would be the equivalent message of hope in our community? In what places in our society say there is no hope that we can speak and act prophetically into?
Throughout the accounts of the prophets, God asks them to take symbolic actions that reveal something of God’s nature to the community. Our hope in Christ means that, like Jeremiah, we do not need to live in despair and we do not need to hide our fears and anxieties with false hope or waffle. Times of trial call us to put into action and claim the hope that God has given us through Christ and to have confidence that the God of miracles has been with us in our pasts, our present and continues into our futures. He is yearning for all to be embraced into his kingdom and to live lives of love, compassion and mercy that are prophetic to the world.
Last Wednesday we had the privilege of launching the Drop In for Asylum Seekers and Refugees. That first session was well attended and much appreciated. It struck me during the course of the session that, whilst all of those who volunteered to help that day were there to welcome and serve our visitors, we were as much being welcomed into the community of those attending. It was a humbling and prophetic experience that gives us a glimpse of just one aspect of God’s kingdom in this place. It was a wonderful witness by all concerned.
As we move forward in discerning how God is calling us to serve our community here in this parish, let us be inspired by the faith and witness of Jeremiah to be prophetic voices of God’s abiding love for all if his children in this place and, in so doing, reveal the wonder and glory of His kingdom to those around us.