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Revd Jonathan Cain: On Ambiguity

25 September 2016, Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Jonathan Cain
Jer. 32: 1-3a, 6-15; Lk. 16: 19-31

Today’s gospel reading continues to wrestle with the ambiguities, both ethical and spiritual, of material prosperity. Once again, Jesus’ audience is the Pharisees.  We read that this particular group were ‘lovers of money’ who possibly associated wealth with divine favour; poverty with divine chastisement.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is unique because it is the only one of all the parables in the gospels to name one of the characters. We are used to hearing tales of “a certain man” or “a widow” or “a ruler”, but here Jesus names Lazarus, meaning ‘God has helped’.  By contrast, the other character is just ‘a rich man’.  The naming of Lazarus and the anonymity of the rich man, in a reversal of the prevailing outlook, is a strong clue that once again Jesus is teaching something radical and urgent.

For us to begin to understand the parable it is helpful to note that the opening of the story derives from well-known folk-material in circulation in Jesus’ time; material that concerned the reversal of fortune in the after-life. It is the same material that forms the basis of the parable of the great dinner found earlier in Luke, and it is material that would have been familiar to both Jesus and the Pharisees.  Scholars have traced the origin of this material to an Egyptian folk-tale which ends with the words: ‘He who has been good on earth, will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead, and he who has been evil on earth, will suffer in the kingdom of the dead.’

Now, the description of the afterlife given in the parable is not consistent with the Christian understanding of death and resurrection that we derive from all of Jesus’ teaching and the New Testament witness. The parable is probably not therefore about life, death, heaven and hell, but about something else.

The reversal in the parable exemplifies the words of Mary’s song, the Magnificat …

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.”

… and the Beatitudes …

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

So is this parable for the poor and against the rich? Well possibly, but there may be some further clue in the naming of Abraham.

The placing of Lazarus at Abraham’s side, a place of the highest honour, emphasises his reversal in fortune; but the naming of Abraham has other significance. God’s call to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12 includes the following words: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing”.  God blesses Abraham with the purpose of blessing others.  The naming of Abraham, the common ancestor, testifies to what we read and observe in Genesis as Abraham’s own obedient walk with God.  The naming of Abraham points to the significance of the Law and the Prophets as the God-given, and unmistakably clear instruction on how people should exercise justice and mercy.

The rich man may have been considered by his contemporaries as manifestly enjoying the blessing of Abraham, but he is not walking as Abraham did. He feasts sumptuously every day while poor hungry Lazarus lays at his gate; this is not the way of the Lord that Abraham, the Law and the Prophets demand.  The rich man is not using his many blessings to be a blessing to others.

Lazarus, laying at the rich man’s gate, hungry, and with dogs licking his sores, is not obviously enjoying the blessing of Abraham. And yet, there is a way in which we might see Lazarus as a blessing to others; as a blessing to us.  His utter dependence on the charity of others points to his (and our) utter dependence on God; a contrast to the rich man’s apparent, but illusory self-sufficiency.

By naming of Abraham in this parable, Jesus is reminding his hearers of the imperative to practice justice and mercy. And so we move on to the rich man’s five brothers.

The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of what lies ahead; to call them to repentance. Abraham refuses.  He knows that he who will not submit to the Word of God, will not be converted by a miracle.  The demand for a sign is an evasion; response to the Word of God, to Jesus, is independent of miracles, but requires an open and penitent heart.  Notice that Jesus gives the poor man in the story the name of his friend; Lazarus, the one that Jesus raises from the dead; Lazarus, the one that the Pharisees subsequently plot to kill.

So is this a parable for the poor? Undoubtedly.  Lazarus is one of the very few people maned in the requiem mass; in medieval times particularly, he was a figure of hope for the poor.

But is it a parable against the rich? I don’t think so.  There is nothing here that says money and possessions are evil in themselves, but the parable serves to warn and direct about the perils of neglecting the needs of the poor; to warn about the perils of attachment to money, that most powerful and persistent of idols; and to warn about the illusion of self-sufficiency.  Ultimately, we are all dependent on God, utterly.

As I continue my own wrestling with the ethical and spiritual ambiguities of material prosperity, I’m not sure that categorising this or any parable as for the rich, or for the poor, or for any one particular constituency is helpful. If we as hearers identify with just the rich man, or just with Lazarus, we may become defensive, we may harden our hearts, we may remain unmoved by signs or miracles, we may fail to respond to Jesus, the incarnate Word of God.

Perhaps it is more fruitful to recognise our own ambiguity, and to recognise in ourselves both the rich man and Lazarus.