22 Oct 2017
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

15 Oct 2017
This Too Shall Pass

8 Oct 2017
The Simple Truth: Head, Heart and Hands

1 Oct 2017
Humility – Staying close to the ground

2 Jul 2017
Welcoming the Silence

25 Jun 2017
Always Uniting…

18 Jun 2017
Are you ready for harvest?

11 Jun 2017
Don’t Blame it on the Snake

4 Jun 2017
Words Beyond Words: Breath Beyond Breath

28 May 2017
Seeing with new eyes

14 May 2017
Grace, Gracious and Graceful

30 Apr 2017
A Time for war and a time for peace

23 Apr 2017
Faithful Doubting

16 Apr 2017
God became human so that we could become divine!

12 Mar 2017
Wind of the Spirit

12 Feb 2017
From the Mountainside: The Impossible Dream?

22 Jan 2017
Grounding our Life and Faith

25 Dec 2016
That Humanity should become Divine

11 Dec 2016
Joy is for Everyone

4 Dec 2016
The Mingling of Water and Spirit

27 Nov 2016
Living Fully in the Present Moment

16 Oct 2016
Persistence and Justice

9 Oct 2016
Gratitude and Thankfulness

2 Oct 2016
Standing in the Tragic Gap

25 Sep 2016
Rich Man, Poor Man

4 Sep 2016
The Gift of Freedom

21 Aug 2016
A Hidden Wholeness

14 Aug 2016
We all need wise words to live by

31 Jul 2016
When Less is More

24 Jul 2016
Developing Healthy Relationships

17 Jul 2016
Died Wise

10 Jul 2016
Meeting Strangers on the Road

3 Jul 2016
On the Road Again

29 May 2016
Faith is the Answer

22 May 2016
The Way of Wisdom

15 May 2016
Icons and Stained Glass Windows – Inner light

8 May 2016
Unity and Oneness

1 May 2016
A Hidden Wholeness

24 Apr 2016
Lest we forget: What?

17 Apr 2016
God became human so that we could become divine!

3 Apr 2016
Thank God for St Thomas!

27 Mar 2016
Living life’s great contradictions

20 Mar 2016
Message of Peace

13 Mar 2016
Living Fully, Loving Wastefully

6 Mar 2016
Come Home, all is forgiven

28 Feb 2016
Simply, leave it alone

21 Feb 2016
Why do we “kill” our prophets?

7 Feb 2016
Keeping your Head in the Clouds

Sermons

Rich Man, Poor Man

25 September, 2016 Luke 16:19-31 Pentecost 19 By Rev Dr Christopher Page

 

Introduction
I borrowed the title for this address from Irwin Shaw’s novel Rich Man, Poor Man. If you have read it, you will know it is a rather rambling novel and story of over 600 pages published in the early 70s. The book tells the story of a post-second world war family striving and surviving in modern America. What interested me when I read the book some 30 years ago was the relationship between two of the brothers; hence the title of the book. The contrasting natures between these two men reflected the turmoil of post-war America. Rudy is the rich man. He is a romantic who would let no one stand between him and his success. Tom on the other hand is the poor man - the black sheep of the family on the run from his violent past. 1

Novels can often draw us into a world of stark opposites. They can create characters who are unredeemable. Or the opposite can be true, a person can be filled with light and glory and not display human flaws. But we know that life is seldom like that. Beauty can be found in the most desolate places and among the most flawed people. And fear, failure and loathing can be a characteristic of some of our moral giants.

But by creating a dualistic world we can often see truth clearer and with more precision than by gazing at the real world around us with its blurred edges and opaque values and morality. This division between good and bad, right and wrong, heaven and hell, has always been the preserve of parables, novels, myths and legends.
For example, we see it in the story of Cain and Abel. Brothers who share the same blood which was spilt in Cain’s act of violence toward his sibling. And this clear distinction between rich and poor is also seen in the story Isobel read earlier.

Here they were not brothers, well not brothers in the traditional sense, but they are brothers in the human sense.

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 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.

It has always been difficult for many of us to see the relationship between the rich and the poor. A myriad of philosophies and economic theories have littered our imaginations as they attempt to discover why there is such a chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Our enlightenment theories of economics were built around this dilemma. Sadly, modern economics savours the creation of wealth… but I’ll leave that for the economists to comment on. Of course this division is not a new phenomenon. It far preceded the invention of the Protestant work ethic and the great Marxist/Capitalist debate.

The Story of Lazarus
The prevailing social theories of Jesus’ day were that the poor were poor because that’s the way God wanted it. A very harsh analysis that most would turn from today. But in a highly structured society in which social and economic mobility was not only discouraged but barred, as in Jesus’ day, social order was set by the High God who was on top!

I’d like to suggest this morning that the message of Jesus stood in grand opposition to that world-view. It is not difficult to see in the gospel stories that Jesus not only showed preferential treatment to the poor; he had compassion for them, and he loved them. He showed his love even to the unlovely.

Perhaps, since Christian faith became the religion of Empire in the Fourth Century, the hardest idea we have had to swallow is that the founder of our religion was more comfortable with the uncomfortable than with those who were most comfortable. The image of Jesus sitting with the poor man Lazarus at the rich man’s gate has motivated followers throughout history. One particularly powerful story is that of Francis of Assisi and his encounter with a leper:

One day while Francis was riding his horse near the town of Assisi, he met a leper. And, even though he usually shuddered at lepers, he dismounted, and gave the man a coin, kissing his hand as he did so. After Francis accepted a kiss of peace from the leper, Francis remounted and continued on his way. As he did he began to consider himself less and less, until, by God’s grace, he came to the complete surrender of himself.

After a few days, he moved to a hospice of lepers, taking with him a large sum of money. Calling them all together, as he kissed the hand of each, he gave them money. When he left there, what before had been bitter, that is, to see and touch lepers, was turned into sweetness. For, as he said, the sight of lepers was so bitter to him, that he refused not only to look at them, but even to approach their dwellings. If he happened to come near their houses or to see them, even though he was moved by piety to give them alms through an intermediary, he always turned away his face and held his nose.

With the help of God’s grace, he became such a servant and friend of the lepers, that, as he testified in his Testament, he stayed among them and served them with humility. 2

But the story we have read this morning isn’t placed in a welfare society, it is imaged in the life hereafter. If fact, it is a parable that is designed to put the fear of God into the heart of those who are ungenerous, uncompassionate, mean and miserly. The story continues:

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me…’

Now remember, this is not a literal construction of the afterlife. This is the ancient world view where retribution and punishment was pushed into life after death. It is representative of a three-tiered earth. Heaven above earth in the middle, and the place of the dead, Hades, below. I think the story is a bit like the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol. You know the story. Scrooge is given three visions of his life: past, present and future. The final vision is of his death and his funeral. He discovers that nobody attends his funeral! He is devastated and comes to the realisation that he has lived a miserable, selfish and cruel life.

Death can give us a vision of This Life
What was the point of that vision? Surely it was the fact that when you catch a glimpse of the legacy you will leave behind and when you become aware that life is an adventure in relationships of care, justice and compassion, then you change how you live in the present.

There is little point in punishing people for eternity. It is better to live life fully in the present moment. And that’s the point of this parable of the rich man and the poor man. As an aside I am presently reading Clive James’ translation of The Divine Comedy by Dante. Perhaps one of the greatest pieces of religious imagination ever written. And remember it is just that - a remarkable story/parable/allegory. It is a poem that describes Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. But at a deeper level, it is an allegory of the soul's journey towards God. 3 Towards discovering the true meaning of life.

And here is the power of story, parable and allegory. It can change us and call us toward living a better and richer life. And that life is about how I/we treat each other, and as this story illustrates, how we live our lives toward the poor and the dispossessed.

It is not easy to find simple answers here. Also it is not difficult to see how we can identify with the rich man. If anything, then the first step to find some direction is to be aware. Aware of the suffering of others in our community and around us. Not to turn away from the difficulties of poverty and deprivation. And if there is a second step, it is to move toward the impoverished and not just with charity but also with justice and compassion and friendship.

Let me finish with a question. If we assume that we have some identification with this rich man dressed in purple and fine linen feasting sumptuously every day; then who is, or rather who are the poor? Who is the Lazarus, lying at our gate covered with sores, longing to satisfy his or her hunger with the crumbs that fall from our tables? Who are these people in our world in the 21st century?

 

______________________________________

1 Adapted from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/315519.Rich_Man_Poor_Man

2 Adapted from http://www.custodia.org/default.asp?id=1445

3 Adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Comedy

Keep up to date with the latest Toorak Uniting news