26th Sep, 2010

The Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity

by The Rev. Fr. Ian Elliott Davies

Lections
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
I Timothy 6:6-19
St. Luke 16:19-end

On hearing this Gospel reading I’m always reminded of that great exemplar of peace, of change through non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi identified seven “sins” as the root of injustices, destruction and violence: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice and politics without principle. Gandhi was a Hindu, yet his observations are in profound agreement with Christian faith.

Unlike other parables we have explored in these last few weeks from St Luke, this one does not stay in the realm of first century village life. It spans this life and the next. It is realistic in its portrayal of the vast gap between rich and poor. The phenomenon of the poor waiting for crumbs at the doors of the rich is a detail taken straight from first century life. It is strange in that the reversal of fortunes it depicts contradicts the widespread, yet mistaken, belief that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and poverty & suffering a sign of sin. Today’s Gospel reflects the ancient Wisdom tradition that even the righteous suffer in this life.

The background of this parable is a tale from Egyptian folklore about the reversal of fates after death. It also has connections to rabbinic tradition and midrash. Rabbinic sources contain 7 versions of this folktale. Some rabbinic tales feature Eliezer (which in Greek is translated as Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to father Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah in the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor.

Interestingly for such a dramatic parable it is found only in St Luke.  It underscores a theme expressed earlier in this same Gospel, God hath “put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek.” First century hearers of this parable would not have assumed that the rich man was evil and that the poor man was righteous. On the contrary, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favour, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not even “see” Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home. It is interesting however that he does know his name.

The first time the rich man ever really sees Lazarus is when, from Hades “he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus in his bosom.” In that way he is like those who pass by the man in the ditch in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. They “look” and cross the road. The Samaritan is the only one who actually “sees,” “has compassion,” and crosses the road to help the wounded man. The rich man, in his stepping over Lazarus, is like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan parable.

This sequence of seeing, having compassion, and acting is a common theme in the Gospels. I wonder, what is it that causes some people to have something or someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them? And what causes others to both have someone or something in their line of vision and really to see them?

Some people never change. The rich man still thinks he’s the boss in the life to come. He thinks Lazarus will take the role of his lackey and even now be of service to Dives.

The reference to one rising from the dead in 16:30 would remind 1st century hearers of the raising of an altogether different Lazarus in St John’s Gospel. St Luke’s readers would see in this an unmistakeable reference to Christ’s resurrection.

There is more than one level of understanding in all of these accounts—one element to realize, perhaps, is that the less our hands are wrapped around things for our identity and meaning, the more our hands will be open and available for receiving and sharing. To grasp, to cling to, and to protect selfishly as ultimate, the self-serving turn inwards and away from the world that God has lavished upon us is sacrilegious. To receive is sacramental.

Prayer is principally God’s work, God’s gift. He is present as our Father, loving life into us, sustaining and working in us. He is in every heartbeat, every breath, every expanse of physical, and psychic energy, every thought, hope and desire, every decision. When we are conscious of God’s presence, of God being around us, we are in prayer. When we are aware that we move and love in God’s loving gaze, we are in prayer. When God makes us conscious of God’s nearness and touch, we are in prayer. In prayer, we are not called to support or enrich God but to be fed and strengthened by God.

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