IMAGE: Rich man and Lazarus. Illustration from the eleventh-century Codex Aureus Epternacensis. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rich_man_and_Lazarus
This post is part of the ON THE WAY sermon series at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Casino: July/October 2022
Last week we heard that the manager facing dismissal felt that he was too weak to dig and too proud to beg.
As we unpacked that story and tried to read it through first-century eyes, we noted the entrenched wealth discrepancy between the top 15% of the population and the other 85%, including those reduced to begging or forced labour.
In today’s Gospel we zero in on that wealth gap.
However, before we can really hear what Jesus was trying to say, we need to set aside some common misconceptions.
Most importantly, this parable is not a lesson about the afterlife.
It teaches us nothing about the structure of the afterlife, but only about how some Jewish people in the time of Jesus imagined it to be. This is rather like a modern preacher using the metaphor of the “pearly gates” or “streets paved with gold.”
On the contrary, it is very much a parable about obscene wealth and abject poverty.
Our final hymn today [Together in Song, 473] has been selected as a call for us all to take this aspect of the Gospel seriously. I will just cite verse 2 at this stage, but the whole hymn (video) is worth reading several times this week:
Community of Christ,
look past the Church’s door
and see the refugee, the hungry,
and the poor.
Take hands with the oppressed,
the jobless in your street,
take towel and water, that you wash
your neighbour’s feet.
[Shirley Erena Murray, 1931–2020]
In this Gospel story—and in this song—we find the spiritual wisdom that underlies our St Mark’s Downtown project.
We meet Christ in the people who enter the OpShop, and they meet Christ in us.
As we discern what the Spirit of Jesus might be saying to the church through this passage this morning, I want to focus on two often overlooked parts of the Gospel: the dogs, and Abraham.
That may sound like an odd selection, but stay with me.
They are linked.
At least in my little brain!
And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. [Luke 16:20–21]
The dogs are the only creatures that display any compassion towards Lazarus.
Like our own dogs, they tended his wounds and tried their best to heal his sores. In the end, their efforts failed and the man died. But at least the dogs cared.
Again, we need to go back in time to hear this element of the story with first-century ears.
For this I am indebted to a colleague and friend, Kenneth Bailey, who immersed himself in Middle Eastern culture over several decades and has helped so many of us to see the Gospel through peasant eyes.
In the Middle East, dogs are not household pets or personal companions. We will miss the significance of the dogs, if we think of them as being like our “fur babies.”
The dogs were strays and scavengers.
The dogs were even more outcasts than the beggar.
But the dogs reflect more of God’s compassion than any human being in this parable.
He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus … (v 24)
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house … (v 27)
He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ (v 30)
This heartless rich man turns out to have some religion (not that it ever made him compassionate) and it seems that he even knows the name of the beggar who had died outside his mansion after years of seeking some assistance without any success.
At least in the story, and it is only a story.
How quickly we forget that!
Father Abraham, … send Lazarus …
Abraham is a hugely significant character in the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Indeed all three faith communities are sometimes described as the Abrahamic tradition.
Compassion is a core virtue in all three religions.
Compassion is seen as a central attribute of God’s own self.
Compassion is the ultimate test of our faith.
Not our alms (financial contributions)
Not even our prayers.
None of those good things count for anything if we are not first and last compassionate people.
Compassion is assumed to be in the heart of Abraham by the rich man’s questions.
He appeals to Abraham’s compassion.
If not for himself, then at least for his family who have not yet died.
Even the rich man discovers a vein of compassion, at the end of the story.
As children of Abraham our hallmark is compassion.
As followers of Jesus, compassion is our core virtue.
As we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, compassion is the pathway we walk.
Along with the dogs.