The story from Luke’s Gospel which Philip read for us is one of the harshest Jesus ever told. It rests on the question of whether you choose to do the right thing now, or whether you choose to leave it to the last-minute, and risk being too late. Often, Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday is a kind of feel-good Sunday, but this is certainly not a feel-good story.
Jesus tells it was particularly vivid clarity. There’s a man with all the trappings of wealth, the sort the prophet Amos was despising in the first passage we read, a man who consumed conspicuously, who would eat lambs and calves because they were particularly delicious without thought of how many more could be fed from a bigger, older animal.
Outside, on the street, unnoticed and ignored, there was a poor man, Lazarus. Around the same time, they both died, Lazarus probably from hunger and illness, the rich man possibly from overconsumption. It’s a detailed Jesus leaves out. The next we hear is that, quite possibly for the first time, the rich man notices Lazarus. There is almost a sense of injustice. How could it be that this nobody, this piece of barely human detritus, should be nestled so comfortably with Abraham while the rich man, who must have felt himself to have been so important in life, was suffering the torments of hell? Having had no use for Lazarus in life, the rich man quickly thinks one up now. Even so, he still does not lower himself to speak to Lazarus directly. Instead, he tries to order Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with water.
There’s a real tone of regret in Abraham’s response. He calls the rich man, ‘child’. It is affectionate, but there’s nothing to be done. He only has to look back over his life to understand his present, and indeed, his eternal situation. The rich man has had all the good things. Lazarus had had none in life. In an echo of Jesus’ mother’s words, and isn’t it wonderful to think of her forming her son’s thinking, the hungry man is filled with good things while the rich man is sent empty away.
But the rich man isn’t giving up. Realising his own cause is lost, he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Again, Abraham responds with regret. They have all the warning, all the guidance they need. A dead beggar is hardly going to convince them if Moses and the prophets can’t.
There is nothing that can be done. It was all too late. Does this seem like a justice to our ears? How does this story fit with our understanding of a loving and compassionate God? In truth, it fits very well. We could read this as a story about what happens after death, and many have done so, but I think that if we make that our focus, we fall into the trap of thinking more about ourselves than about others, and that is exactly what the rich man did.
It is natural, I think, to identify more with the rich man. Who, after all, would aspire to live a life like Lazarus’? We are also aware, though many of us struggle in certain respects, particularly financially, that, compared with many, we live comfortable lives. If you saw the BBC report from Yemen this week, and the images of children literally dying from hunger in front of the camera, you know that, although we are not dressed in purple silk and feasting on veal every day, we are all pretty well off. So, as we read this story, the question that may well come to mind is – are we bound for the fiery pit?
Someone who influenced my thinking a great deal was my great uncle George, a Church of Scotland minister emigrated to Canada where he pursued an academic career, ending up as Professor of New Testament in McGill University in Montreal. I remember very clearly him saying at dinner one evening, “I believe in hell, but not in the next life. Hell is here, in this life.” That made a profound impression on me and so I cannot read this story as evidence for a state of eternal torture after death. Rather, to me, it is a story about this life, not the next.
Because you cannot deny that Lazarus’ life in the gutter by the rich man’s gate, with dogs licking his sores, was hellish. His was a life of misery and suffering. A life like so many lead today. A life like that led by people in Yemen, South Sudan, Aleppo. In fact, in every part of the world, you’ll find people living hellish lives of suffering and deprivation. You’ll meet them on the streets of every city in this country. Through the work of Storehouse, we know that behind some of the doors of houses on this town, people are living hellish lives of suffering and deprivation.
Are we to respond to them because we fear there may be consequences if we don’t? Not by any means. This story is a call, not to individuals to do the bear minimum, just to societies to live the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, God’s good things are shared. In the Kingdom of God, suffering is not ignored. In the Kingdom of God, hearts and minds are open. In the Kingdom of God, people respond to each other with compassion and love, not because they are afraid for themselves. These are some of the marks of the society Christ calls us to build in his Father’s name.
Are we ever going to achieve this? Are we ever going to sort out the suffering there is in the world? We would love it if it could be so, but these problems are so big we can never believe they will be fully solved. But ultimately, the story of Lazarus and the rich man is not about solving all the world’s problems. It is about caring for our neighbours, but, perhaps, first seeing who our neighbours are. The rich man didn’t see Lazarus as his neighbour and he didn’t care. In gratitude of this Harvest Time for all the goodness we enjoy, we ask God is to open our eyes to our neighbours, and to open our hearts to them too, and to give us the will to share gladly what we have with them.