When I was eighteen, I was lucky enough to go to America on a Choir Tour. After a concert in Chicago we were taken to a restaurant where a buffet had been laid on, before our hosts took us back to our lodgings. I had popped outside for a moment and was asked by a homeless man if I could spare any change. I had no money on me, but I asked him when he had last had a hot meal. He replied, ‘Three days ago’. I asked him if there was anything he didn’t eat, and returned a few minutes later with two plates of food, one for him, and one for me. We sat down on the pavement outside the restaurant, and I ate with him. People were amazed and shocked, they asked me what I was doing, ‘eating with a bum’. I replied that he was a human being, and it was my Christian duty to feed the hungry. The man was thrilled, tucked into the food with relish, and enjoyed being able to eat in company. There was so much food at the buffet, and they didn’t mind me giving some away. I was shocked that people could see someone poor and homeless as being not worth bothering with.

St Luke’s Gospel contains several warnings about wealth. Wealth itself is problematic, and what matters is how we use what we have. Are we generous? Do we use what you have to make other people’s lives better or are we selfish? These are questions which apply to us today, and everyone attempting to put the Christian Faith into practice in their lives.

These are not new concerns. The prophet Amos in the first reading this morning issues a stern warning:

“Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp” (Amos 6:4-5)

The prophet warns those who are comfortable, those who feel secure, and he is speaking to us. Should we be concerned? Yes, we should. If we are comfortable, then God calls us out of our comfort-zone, to help those in need. This message is consistently expressed in the Old Testament:

‘He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8).

The care of the poor is stressed by the cancelling of debts, and the leaving the edges of fields unharvested to allow gleaning, so that people can live with dignity. Our donations to foodbanks and letters to MPs may seem small by comparison, but they demonstrate that we are trying to show love towards our neighbours in need.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is continuing his discussions with religious authorities on wealth and its use:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Lk 16:19)

Purple cloth was a sign of wealth in the Ancient World. The cloth was dyed with a dye prepared from the secretion of sea snails, and was very expensive indeed. To wear purple was to say that you are able to wear the most expensive cloth available. You are displaying your wealth. Likewise linen is extremely comfortable under the hot Mediterranean sun. The rich man in the parable not only wears comfortable and expensive clothes, he eats extremely well. 

Then Our Lord makes a comparison:

And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Lk 16:20-21)

Here we have the opposite end of the spectrum. Lazarus is destitute, and unwell. His skin condition puts him outside polite society: he is viewed as unclean, and the fact that dogs lick him only reinforce this fact. These are not pets, they are strays. The two men are poles apart: one has everything, the other nothing. In earthly terms the rich man is at the top of the heap, Lazarus is at the bottom.

There follows a dramatic reversal:

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” (Lk 16:22-23)

Jesus has been criticized for welcoming the poor and outcast, and now we see that God shares His concern for the marginalized. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like: care for the oppressed. The rich man begs for comfort, but having enjoyed it in his earthly life, his enjoyment is now over. Jesus’ words are a warning to a well-off religious elite that they should be generous and care for the poor. Scripture is littered with examples of how we should live, the Pharisees can hardly claim ignorance, and nor can we. 

The rich man then asks that Lazarus may be sent to warn his brothers, so that they may not face the judgement of God. In the parable Abraham replies that,

‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ (Lk 16:31)

In Chapter 11 of John’s Gospel we see the last of Jesus’ signs, in Bethany. The brother of Mary and Martha dies. He has the same name, Lazarus, and a few days later Jesus raises him from the dead. It is hard not to see a connection between the two passages. Jesus’ teaching may be aimed at the Sadducees, Jewish religious leaders who denied the resurrection. Scholars have even claimed that the rich man in the parable is a Sadducee. In the end both Sadducees and Pharisees are not convinced by the raising of Lazarus, or Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Their hearts are hard, they have forgotten the teachings of the Jewish Scriptures, and appear to care only for wealth and power. 

Thankfully as Christians we know that the Old Testament points to Jesus, and finds its true meaning in Him. Our Lord proclaims the Kingdom as a place of love and generosity, a place of healing. We know that death is not the end, and that God offers eternal life to those who turn to Him in love and faith, and who live lives of generous love, putting that faith into practice. Whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say the words ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ ‘deled dy deyrnas, gwneler dy ewyllys; megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaear hefyd’. There is a good reason why the Church has repeated these words for two thousand years before we receive Communion: so that we may bear witness to them in our lives, strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ, sharing a foretaste of His Risen Life, here and now. May we proclaim the Kingdom and  sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Poor Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Door [Brooklyn Museum]

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