Seeing the Woods for the Trees

by Sep 29, 2019

Luke 16:19-31

Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus

When I was 17 I went to a summer camp specifically aimed at secondary school students with an interest in Science and Technology. We were put into groups
and told to create a proposal for a new product. We had to develop a prototype and
at the end of the month we would have to pitch the associated business to various judges. There were stories of some projects from earlier years resulting in starting a new business. My group decided to develop a pen with an eraser. But not an eraser, rather a tippex nib. We split the team into sub-groups and each took on roles. I was part of the sub-group designing and building the prototype. I remember at one point,
part way through the month being asked by somebody from one of the other subgroups, how we were getting on, and telling them we were making good progress. We weren’t, we were struggling. When she found out, she was understandably annoyed. I was so set on the objective of creating the product, and convincing the others that we could finish it, I completely missed the point of the project. Which wasn’t to make an amazing product that we were actually going to bring to market. The actual point was to work together as a team. It’s easy to get caught up and miss the point.

You could say that the political attempts of the last 20 years to respond to environmental emergency we face was more caught up with winning votes or looking like the environment was a priority than actually to make real progress in stopping global warming. I remember 30 years ago watching Earth Day special on television, where we were told how little time there was left not to act – and in the last two weeks it seems the next generation has stood up to say the same thing. 

Jesus’ parables are fantastic teaching aides. They are rich and layered. Often offering new insights, even to those who are most familiar with them. They are also, I think, often more entertaining and funny, using irony to make a point. Today’s parable, of the rich man and Lazarus, is no exception. Jesus tells us this story, and we quickly jump to conclusions. We think we know what the message of the story is. Lazarus is a poor man, covered in sores, who sits outside the gate of the rich man. The two both die – the rich man goes to Hades, and Lazarus is carried away to Abraham. The rich man sees Lazarus with Abraham across a great chasm and asks Lazarus to be sent to him and offer him some respite from the flames that torment him. Abraham notes that it isn’t possible for Lazarus to cross the chasm. So the rich man asks if Lazarus couldn’t go and tell his brothers that they need to be mindful that all their wealth will only lead them to the flames of Hades. Abraham notes that the rich man’s brothers have the scriptures, the Torah, to guide them. Surely we should all be able to learn from them. The rich man says, oh but it will take somebody to rise from the dead to help them see, and reflecting the fate Jesus has in store, Abraham says, but if you can’t learn from all that Moses and the prophets wrote, then you won’t learn from somebody rising from the dead. And the irony appears complete.
Or is it. What perhaps we need to know is that: This parable is not about the reality of heaven and hell. What perhaps we need to know is that: This parable is not about what we have to do to get into heaven.

By all means, this parable is a reminder that we shouldn’t idolise our selves, our wealth, our health, or anybody else. It is a reminder that Moses and the prophets call us to be compassionate and caring for others, for those most in need. That we shouldn’t ignore the poor person suffering at the gate, because he or she may not have anything now, but they are owed the same respect as any part of God’s creation, and they are known to God by name. But the irony isn’t just that Jesus does come back from the dead and still people, meeting him face to face, deny he is there or the message he brings. The real irony is that Jesus has told us he comes to bridge this chasm between those who are damned and the kingdom of God. 

The irony is that while for Lazarus it is impossible to quench the flames the rich man is being tormented by. For Christ it is not. And that we can, therefore, recognise the things we have done wrong, and turn from those mistakes. I have sadly heard that some Christians take the view that this world is doomed and so we should not try and stop global warming or the reduction of biodiversity. In reality, what the Gospel teaches us is that we should have hope, we can accept that we have failed in many ways, individually and corporately, to do what is needed. But it is not too late to turn from that and have the compassion, and the concern that Moses and the Prophets call us to have, not just for the poor person at the gate, but for the whole of creation,
which we are called to steward. That we shouldn’t get distracted by our concern just for ourselves and our personal needs, but for the needs of all.

The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams

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