It’s easy to think that all we are being told today is that rich people must look after the poor, and that all of us must help feed the starving. But if we do, we have missed out on a rather more important point. It is revealed to us in this story (Luke 16:19-31) not whilst the two men are alive, but after both of them have died.
Now before I explain what this is, I think I need to remind you that this vision of life after death is not to be taken literally. As St Paul says (1 Cor 15:44) once we die, we no longer have a physical body. Jesus says this too, when he says that when we die we are like the angels (Matt 22:30) ; in other words we have existence and identity but not the flesh and blood identity we have at the moment. So when the rich man in Hell shouts across to Abraham in heaven, this is only a story that Jesus uses to make a very important point, and that very important point is what the rest of this Homily is all about. OK?
You see this rich man’s sin is the classic problem for many of us, whether we’re rich or not. We want to be in control. This story by Jesus would have really got his audience laughing you know. Here is this rich man who called all the shots when he was alive, somehow assuming he can still order people about now he’s dead. Jesus emphasises this point by having him shout across at one of the most revered of all the figures from the Old Testament : the patriarch Abraham. He is trying to tell Abraham what to do! What’s more we discover, that even though he appeared to ignore the poor man at his gate while they were both alive, he actually knows his name! He calls out “Send Lazarus… to cool my tongue” It must have amazed those listening to Jesus, that Abraham didn’t call back rather more sharply, and put this silly pompous man in his place.
Instead, Jesus has Abraham answer gently but firmly to his demand, because he wants us to hear the answer. There are some people, he points out, who will never hear God’s message, even if someone were to rise from the dead. In other words, there are some people who have got their lives so organised, and their thoughts so settled, that nothing will change the way they want to go. The idea, so central to our faith, of being sorry for our failings, of being aware that we need God’s love and mercy, just does not occur to them. They are so busy either making money, or enjoying spending it, or with their own little hobby (their obsession with whatever it is they are obsessed by); that they do not see the need to be challenged, to grow, to change; and even if they do want to change, they think they can change themselves.
This can be our problem too. I meet quite a lot of people who say that they cannot see the point of making their confession, either before a priest or in their times of prayer, because they simply find themselves confessing the same things over and over again. They say, “I have tried and tried to stop .. getting angry.. or eating or drinking too much.. or some other sin.. and I never get any better!” We all need to remember that our faith is not about turning ourselves into perfect people, but about accepting and being open to the love and mercy of God. The wise confessor, or counsellor or psychologist, will tell someone struggling with some failing, that they will never get anywhere by getting obsessed about putting themselves right.
Maybe you know of the great work of Alcoholics Anonymous? One of their major points is that no-one should claim that they are cured. It is by admitting that they have this craving within them, and that they need help, that they learn to cope.
It’s the same with us. One of the great spiritual writers, Julian of Norwich, tells us that God delights in those who “seek” perfection, not in those who think they have reached it. As St Paul says (2 Cor 12:10) admitting our weaknesses and our need for God is at the heart of being a Christian. Of course, this doesn’t mean we give up, and just sin more; but it does mean that our attempts to be better people do not end up making us self-satisfied. It is those who say “I can cope, I don’t need help” – least of all God’s help – who are most likely to fall. As the story tells us, prayer is is not about giving God a list of things that we want him to do. Prayer is about opening ourselves up to God, allowing God into every part of our life especially those areas where we struggle and really need his love.