The man who thought he was in control

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- As my Dominican tutor in New Testament studies used frequently to remark, awareness of the original context of a story, and of those to whom it was delivered, is essential for a good understanding of Jesus’ intention in giving us the material before us. I suspect that this is very true of our Gospel for today (Luke 16:19-31). For many years, and particularly since Victorian times, we have tended to read our Bibles as a set of moral imperatives. Now this is fine in its place, but deeply embedded within its ethos is the sense that enough ‘good works’ will guarantee our place in the kingdom. The point about the Incarnation, of God the Son becoming human and sharing our lives, was however that he thereby intends us for divinity, a sharing in his eternal life with God the Father, and this has nothing to do with our morals. Where then on this staggering spectrum of the mercy of God do we place our good works, and what are we to make of those who do many and of those who don’t? How in short are we to understand ourselves in relation to God? Will he give a better seat to Bill Gates and a lesser one to the likes of Donald Trump?

You see, moralistic as the story of Lazarus and the rich man may appear, I think it is not in reality about that so much as about of our attitude to our relations with God. What is so shocking about the rich man is his apparent total failure even to notice Lazarus! The poor wretch seems to have become invisible to him. Indeed the house dogs, fierce guard dogs as they would have been, not pets, did not chase him away but had become so used to his daily presence that they, who were fed on the left-overs from the daily feasting, actually befriended him and licked his sores, thereby providing some healing remedy to his ailments in their saliva.

The rich man, in our story significantly unnamed and who is so used to calling all the shots, is oblivious of the presence of Lazarus at his gate when he could so easily have given him food. Indeed, according to the ancient patronage system he would have been expected to do so, and it would have cost him nothing. When in rapid succession both men die, what we find is that the rich man assumes, even from Hades, that he can still control the situation. He addresses Abraham and instructs him to send a servant, here Lazarus, to ease his suffering, and when that fails further attempts to control the situation by giving Abraham orders for the instruction of his siblings. In this piece of black comedy it never seems to occur to the man that he is no longer in charge, that he has finally and irrevocably missed the boat, and in so doing we see that he finds the notion of eternal life with God entirely beyond his comprehension.

The fact is that it is God who has always called the shots, and within the parameters of our created existence has given us the freedom to respond to his love and grace in the world as we will or no. Heaven, life with God eternally, is not going to be more of this life in some hyped-up existence. It will be about life mirroring God’s deep and enduring love for his creation brought about in the self-emptying of the Son for us. All our doctrines of the Trinity hinge on the shared giving of self to other which is the life of God himself : lives explored, offered up and divinely poured out for other in which there simply is no sense of ‘mine’ or of superiority.

In our 1st Reading from (1 Timothy 6:11-16) these are surely the qualities explored in the search for Christian pastors, and clearly this was at a period of the Church’s development when such matters were up for grabs and things could easily have gone horribly wrong, and when there were arguments about the kind of qualities to look for in pastors. The fact that the writer concentrates on such people being “Religious, filled with faith and love, patient and gentle” rather than other qualities is very telling, and that, in his reminiscences about Jesus, neither morals nor wealth feature is surely significant.

Quite clearly Amos (6:1.4-7) was similarly agonised about the religious and political rulers of his day in the mid 8th century BC just prior to the Assyrian invasion of Samaria. His complaint is not fundamentally that those in charge in both Northern and Southern kingdoms were wealthy, but that, like our rich man in Luke, they were oblivious to the needs of the kingdom, and ignored others and others for whom they were in positions of responsibility. Archaeology has uncovered relatively little of the glories of ancient Jerusalem, but finds in Samaria, which include finely worked objects in ivory, speak volumes of its splendour and luxury. Nevertheless, Samaria was destroyed by the Assyrians and its population taken off into exile. It was the staggering failure of its leaders to be on the alert, observant of the situation and responsible for their right governing, which was so fundamental to the downfall of the state. In their greed and luxury, its rulers failed to function as they should and the whole nation paid a heavy price.

Our Readings in Luke’s gospel at present trace various patterns of what it is to be divine in a series of powerful vignettes, from the Father in the Prodigal Son, through the Master and the Unjust steward to this one, the story of Lazarus – a man apparently emptied of his whole humanity, dumped outside a rich man’s gate, who dies neglected and despised and unloved, but who is raised up to God. We need to reflect on Lazarus, he has much to impart to us about being Godlike.