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The rich are strangers

1st Sunday after Trinity BCP

18 June 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

The Pharisees and their successors have been the target of the lead up to today’s Gospel passage from St. Luke, having just been told you cannot serve both God and Mammon. Comfortable people who follow a so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ (whereby good things are understood to be a reward and blessing for righteousness) are in the sights of Jesus. What is worrying and disturbing about the story is that the rich man did nothing wrong – but ended up nevertheless in hell. He’d not wronged or defrauded Lazarus – he’d simply lived alongside him accepting the status quo in negligent co-existence. He was content enough to have a starving man at the gate of his property.

There is indeed a ‘great gulf’ fixed between the rich man and Lazarus, and this is a gulf that the wealthy man in this life dug by his failure even to notice. He was a man who, after all, feasted sumptuously every day, whilst others prayed in earnest just for the bare necessities. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ for one, ‘give us this day our daily caviar’ for the other. I am a little nervous to tell the story of the Jesuit and Franciscan lunching together, especially since Jesuits have staffed both my local Catholic churches for the past 15 years, and Farm Street get their meat from Allen’s I think! There were 2 fillet steaks – one large and the other small. The Jesuit helped himself to the large piece and put the small steak on the Franciscans plate. ‘Is this what people call Jesuitry?’ asked the Franciscan. ‘What do you mean?’ said the Jesuit. ‘Well, its just that we all have vows of holy poverty, and had I served up the steaks you would have got the bigger one and me the smaller’.

‘So’ said the Jesuit. ‘What’s your problem – that’s exactly what you’ve got isn’t it?’

Returning to the rich man from whose comfort zone issues this wilful ignorance of the needs of others. Anyone who lives so well must take care – because death can be upsetting. Spiritual stiffness and withering encroaches on he who is unable to accept the call to change his ways.

Rather amusingly the bossy rich man, so used to dealing with top people is still in role when he speaks to Abraham rather than to Lazarus. ‘Send Lazarus to cool my tongue with water’. Send the little lad on an errand old chap!

The Psalms are striking when you add up the number of times the poor man turns to God pleading for justice. Justice, notice, not charity. The Father is the one who has ‘scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts…put down the mighty from their seat…exalted the humble and meek…filled the hungry with good things…and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ If the rich shut their hearts to the poor, God will be angry. Indeed, scripture tells us that the sharpest condemnation is reserved not for prostitutes or fornicators, but for righteous and virtuous people who claim religion, but who in practise despise and patronise the poor. There is no need for supernatural fireworks to reinforce this message, as it has been there consistently throughout the Bible.

Moses and the prophets give plenty of teaching about the poor and vulnerable…Jews were not to mistreat the widow, stranger or orphan…were to leave gleanings for the poor…cancel debts every 7 years and be open handed to the needy…pay tithes to support the welfare system (though of course this is what our present tax system is designed for)…Jews were not to exploit workers, and were warned about using dishonest weights and measures. Here, throughout the Old Testament, there is more than enough to listen to and be warned about regarding the poor and needy, and of the requirement to campaign relentlessly to Make Poverty History. This was not just a summer 2005 fling.

Alas for the rich – but can they be saved? Thanks to the poor, they can be. On earth it is the poor who petition the rich, whilst in heaven it will be the rich who beg the poor to remember the friendship, support and assistance they gave. ‘In the Church’, Bossuet remarked, ‘the rich are strangers. It is the poor they serve who grant them citizenship’.
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