Sermon at Parish Mass, Ordinary 26 2010
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:11-16
A dentist and a priest died and presented themselves to St Peter at the pearly gates. St Peter asked them to introduce themselves.
The first said, “I am John Driller, I’m a very successful dentist famous for the number and speed of my tooth extractions.” St Peter replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Have this silk robe and golden crown and take up your residence for eternity in this luxury villa with swimming pool and landscaped gardens.”
The next said, “I am Father Jim Studious, I’ve been a faithful pastor of St Mary’s church for 47 years and I’m famous for the length and erudition of my sermons.” St Peter replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Have this cotton robe and paper hat and take up your residence for eternity in this small hut with an outside loo.”
“Hang on a minute!”, said the priest. “Why does the dentist get a better deal than me, when I’ve devoted my life to the church?” “Well,” said St Peter. “Up here we judge by results. When you preached, you sent people to sleep, but when the dentist was trying to put people to sleep, they prayed!”
There are lots of jokes and stories about people being surprised by what they find in the afterlife, and there were at the time of Jesus as well. What we’ve heard today is probably a story that was already in circulation and which Jesus took and adapted to teach his own lesson.
The story as used by Jesus and told in Luke is on one level a moral fable. It speaks of the “Great Reversal” which is one of Luke’s key themes: the humble are exalted, the rich and powerful cast down, as Mary announces in the Magnificat at the beginning of Luke. It also enlarges on a pair of Luke’s Beatitudes and Woes from earlier in his gospel: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven”; “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
The rich man’s purple and fine linen indicate that he was a member of the ruling classes. As such it was his responsibility to use his power and wealth to do good, to seek justice and equity, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. The Old Testament prophets are quite clear about that, and it’s a tradition in which Jesus and Luke firmly stand. Riches and power are not something that indicate God’s special favour. They are rather a gift to be used for others, a test to see how we will use what has been given to us.
But this rich man uses his wealth in idle luxury. The description of him is extreme to the point of being comical: he does nothing except eat enormous banquets of rich food, stuffing himself with delicacies every day.
Meanwhile, Lazarus waits outside the gate, starving and ignored. Dogs lick his sores, unclean animals which further identify him as an outcast.
But when they die their situations are reversed. The rich man is buried – not a dignity that we’re told was afforded to Lazarus – but finds himself in torment in Hades. Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham, an expression which may mean that he is reclining at a heavenly feast.
But the rich man still doesn’t get what the problem is. Even in Hades he conceives of Lazarus as no more than a useful slave, someone who can be ordered to come and quench his thirst, or carry a message to his brothers. But now there is an impenetrable barrier between them, where once there was a gate, which the rich man could have passed through if he had wanted, though Lazarus could not.
So there is a warning here about social justice and the right approach to wealth.
But this is of course a parable, so there’s more to it than appears on the surface. For a start, as a parable it can’t be taken as a literal description of conditions in the hereafter. The Greek reference to Hades or the underworld is not part of Jewish or Christian belief.
As with many parables, the twist in the tale comes at the end, when the rich man wants his brothers to be sent a warning by means of Lazarus. And Abraham says, “if they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”
Beyond the basic lesson of the moral tale, this parable is about the Resurrection. Jesus, like Lazarus, was counted as nothing by the world which rejected him and put him to death. The rich man simply didn’t see Lazarus when he was alive, or if he did just assumed that he was getting what he deserved.
So too Jesus was treated as a criminal, a blasphemer, one who was under the curse of God, by people who really believed that this was true. They simply couldn’t see that Jesus was innocent. The resurrection was God’s vindication of that innocent victim. The resurrection reveals that God is for the victim and not against him.
The resurrection therefore also reveals the wrongness of the way human beings tend to live. Human society tends to seek its own security by creating victims and scapegoats, people who “don’t count” and so can be excluded and ignored.
A few months ago the Evening Standard launched a stirring campaign about the dispossessed in London which you may have seen. It revealed that all over London, on run down council estates and elsewhere, people are living in debt and poverty, without opportunities for jobs or education, trapped on the margins of society. And so often this is within a few hundred yards of posh houses, expensive restaurants, swish nightclubs.
This isn’t news to the Church which has been ministering in these areas all along, and it won’t be news to us here in Camden. But it’s amazing that it took a front page journalistic campaign to bring this to the notice of Londoners in general. So many people simply didn’t know, couldn’t see, what life was like for hundreds of thousands of people in the capitol. We don’t see the excluded people, the victims, so long as we are comfortable and safe.
The resurrection reverses all that. The humble and meek are indeed lifted up, raised even from the death that human violence inflicted. The resurrection is God’s judgement on a society which survives by creating victims. But it is also God’s inauguration of a new society, of his kingdom. The old order of sin and death gives way as God exposes and reverses the extent to which we have been complicit in it.
The Church always looks to Jesus. She is continually being taught by the Lord who was put to death for our sins and raised for our justification, and who sends his spirit to inaugurate his kingdom, his new life, in our lives.
The Church in this society in which there is so much exclusion, so much need, must be continually proclaiming and living the Gospel of the risen victim. Jesus risen from the dead alone undoes the sinful ordering of human society and makes new life possible for everyone – for the poor and dispossessed at our gates, and even, if they can but believe, for the rich and powerful.