Monday, 27 September 2010

Trinity 17: The rich man and Lazarus

A sermon by Kevin Bright

Luke 16.19-31, 1 Timothy 6.6-19

Today’s readings have a lot to do with money, something we spend a lot of time thinking about, yet a subject that often sits very uncomfortably within the Christian faith. It’s often hard to feel certain whether you are doing the right thing with money and keeping to Christian values at the same time.

If you or your family have adequate money it can make you feel good, you don’t have to worry whether you can pay the mortgage, replace your car when it wears out, have a holiday, go for a nice meal and turn the heating up when the cold weather arrives. All our expectations of a civilised western lifestyle are taken care of and it should therefore be easier to find the’ godliness combined with contentment’ referred to in the letter to Timothy. But we also hear that ‘if we have food and clothing we will be content with these’, just food and clothing? And does it matter if this is Waitrose or Aldi, Prada or Primark?

In this parable Jesus invites us to see if we are in the story.When we think of rich people do we think of ourselves or do we automatically look at people who live in bigger houses in nicer roads than us. Perhaps it even goes a stage further and we only think of premiership footballers like Wayne Rooney earning £140,000 per week or Simon Cowell earning £55m per annum as rich.

Who are the people we think of as being poor? If we are behind with our mortgage or rent, overdrawn at the bank and can’t afford to go on holiday we might feel poor.

In Luke’s gospel we heard of Lazarus described by Jesus as ‘a poor man’, clearly unwell and covered with ulcerated sores unable to even fend the street dogs away which pestered him.

In our own society we can see such people everyday, living on the streets, homeless and helpless. Virtually every town in England has homeless people visible on its streets. Perhaps the greatest contrast is in the richest areas of central London where the cardboard and blankets of the rough sleepers lay adjacent to the entrances to multi million pound apartment blocks.

The rich man in Jesus parable was seriously rich. William Barclay reckons that his robes would have cost about 1000 days of the average wage at the time. If you think this is an unrealistic comparison check out how much some of the richest people now pay for watches and jewellery, bags and shoes.

Yet like most beggars Lazarus isn’t expecting much from the rich, just what Jesus describes as ‘what fell from the rich man’s table’. In the wealthiest houses at a time of no cutlery or napkins after eating food with their hands they were often cleansed by wiping them on chunks of bread which were then thrown away, probably to the dogs, this is what Lazarus was hoping for.
I don’t know about you but to me it seems pretty tough justice to throw the rich man into hell. After all he doesn’t insult or assault Lazarus, there is no record of him stopping his scraps being thrown to him and he doesn’t even get him moved on from his gate.

I have to say that the part about the rich guy going to hell sounds more likely to have been written by a team about to embark on a modern day stewardship campaign than a loving forgiving Jesus. We know that Jesus was able to forgive crooked tax collectors and help them change their ways so can you imagine how hard done by an honest rich man would feel looking across a chasm to see not only the poor people he ignored but the man from HMRC who deliberately overcharged him! Something here doesn’t quite make sense.

The church addressed in the letter to Timothy are not told to give up all their wealth but are cautioned against it distorting their values and dulling their compassion. Apart from using money to help others they are reminded that money does not equal status.

It’s important that we hear that the real message from Jesus is not that he is prejudiced against people who have money but that he has a big problem with us seeing injustice and suffering yet accepting this as just the way the world is, this is what he came to change and this is his wake up call.

The rich man simply came to accept Lazarus as part of the landscape, he felt no sense of grief or pity, no anger at the injustice because he was too caught up in his own self indulgent life.

It’s not very often that we will find a poor and homeless person on our doorstep but we do need to think how we would respond. On the one occasion it happened to me, being a good Christian I called the police to have him removed.

In my defence it was 3.00 am, he’d left his pit bull dog sitting in the lane and started wandering out of sight around outside my neighbour’s house. Yet when I saw the man face to face he was a pitiful figure and I felt it would have been more appropriate to give him a sandwich and a cup of tea than call the police.

So it turns out that many of us know of or regularly see a ‘Lazarus’. Chances are we would be horrified to share his life for a day. So if we hear this parable of Jesus and feel moved to examine our own response to these issues what should we be thinking about?


Have we become self indulgent and accepting of suffering and injustice as just the way the world is. If we want to change this what can we do?

Firstly we can consider what money or time we are able to give to the organisations best placed to help those in greatest need, charities like the Children’s Society do fantastic work with homeless young people.

Secondly though we may want to help the professionals deliver support in an organised way we can also remember that the poorest among us are also fellow human beings and treat them as such. When you hear the stories of how many have got to this point you realise that these are real people just like us, many are victims of abusive relationships, failed business ventures and an increasing number are now ex servicemen.

Money itself doesn’t have to cause problems unless we become more dependent and comforted by money than by God. Perhaps it should have a warning across the currency like cigarettes and booze ‘PLEASE ENJOY RESPONSIBLY OBSESSIVE ATTACHMENT TO THESE NOTES CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR SPIRITUAL HEALTH’! Americans have an advantage over us in this respect as they have ‘In God We Trust’ written as a reminder on their money.

Jesus would have known that his message would apply to many more than the Pharisees who first heard the parable though they especially should have been able to see themselves in this, treating the people Jesus was welcoming in the same way the rich man treated Lazarus, it was time to change their ways. They would have been intimately familiar with Moses and the prophets and they were being asked to listen to their teachings. If they would do this then they could also see that Jesus was to bring them to fulfilment. If not then even someone rising from the dead could not help them change.

The parable leaves us with clear messages about how we are to treat each other if we are serious about sharing God’s love as Jesus gave us an insight into what God’s kingdom is like, offering hope to the poor and outcast.

Contrast the scraps of soiled bread that Lazarus hoped to receive with the loving generosity of him who sent Jesus to bring us back into relationship with God and each other and now invites us all to share at his table. We give him thanks that we will be able to share with Emma, Lucy and Ethan for the first time today.

If we can grow more responsive to the pain, hopes, and needs of others we also become more aware of our common humanity, our own shortcomings and our need for God’s grace. There follows a real possibility that in doing this we will obtain a glimpse of the lasting security which God offers us, more precious than silver or gold, something all the money in the world cannot buy.


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