Readings: 1 Timothy 6: 6-16, Luke 16:19-31
Let us pray:
God, you who challenge, guide, ask much yet give so much more, may our questions be true and our answers be formed in your truth, your word. In Jesus name. Amen
In his ‘Confessions’ Augustine, the influential Christian theologian of the 4th century, analyses his own response, attraction even, to plays, dramas that depict tragic and sorrowful events. He notes that, “in the capacity of spectator one welcomes sad feelings; in fact, the sadness itself is the pleasure.” And he goes on to reflect on how, in this way, you can engage in the sadness and sorrow of the world without feeling that you have to actually do anything about it. Acknowledging the existence of suffering and feeling sad seemed enough - without the need to respond - and that really troubled him. Where was the mercy he asked?
Jump 1700 years and there is a very scary parallel that we can draw with our modern world – we have never been so informed, had so graphically illustrated the extent of suffering and tragedy in this world and never have we been so capable of pulling the curtain down on the drama with the remote or the mouse in hand, switching to the next story, stepping lightly to the next headline that catches our fancy. We have engaged and experienced sorrow, acknowledged the sadness, done our bit – what more can we do?
There is no sense at all that the rich man of the parable went even this far - he certainly did not appear to at all notice the beggar outside his gate. He didn’t stop and tell him to get a job or go to the local welfare place or even observe from afar – he just didn’t see him. The wall between where he lived and where the beggar sat wasn’t just made of bricks and mortar, it was made of his own attitudes, his lack of awareness that anything mattered outside his own comfort and presumably, his fortune that provided that comfort. And even when he got into conversation with Abraham across the great gulf that separated heaven and hell, he still didn’t see Lazarus – he didn’t speak directly to him, he expected service and when he had a small moment of understanding of the consequences of his actions, his thought was still not for the weak and the suffering but to save those of his family from making the same mistake. I wonder if he had been able to get the message through what kind of difference that would make – a dropping of a coin or a crumb in the bowl I suspect – nothing that would particularly transform the life of the Lazarus’s of this world.
Sometimes we have parables that take a great deal of unravelling to find meaning in – not so this one. It is blunt to the point of discomfort and uncompromising in its message. You ignore those who suffer in this life, you will get to know all about it in the next. If you didn’t pick up on all the pointers – the prophets, the Messiah returning from the dead – then you won’t get it even if a brick is dropped on your head – you will find a way of explaining it away so that you can continue on with your chosen path – where your welfare, your money, your attitudes and compassions are for you and yours and you fail to engage with the lot of those who are outside of your wall.
Just as we continue, unbelievably to me, with the idea of gated communities (whether its to keep people out or in) so too was the concept was alive and well in Jesus day. The rich man could effectively shut out that which was troubling, disturbing, less fortunate and live within his own particular view of reality.
And that brings us to wonder about our own realities and how in touch they are with the world of suffering and injustice that Jesus was so engaged with. I wonder if, in our societies’ increasing isolation from community, of concern with self above others, in our instant yet often manipulated engagement with news and information, increases hugely in our ability to isolate ourselves from other’s suffering not just physically but attitudinally and culturally – and that we as a society have reached a place similar to that of this rich man completely out of touch with the world in which he lives, uncaring of others and their needs.
Let me unpack that a bit and in light of our other reading for today where Paul is continuing with his exhortation against false teachings, especially the very destructive dangers of allowing such things as money and riches to be the driving force in your life, not God.
What are some of the current driving forces we need to be beware of, ones that can lead us into this ‘it’s all about me’ approach to life.
Our society is littered with sayings that encourage us to believe that we should always be growing, accumulating, moving up the ladder of success –always more seems to be the general theme. The idea of being content with what you have, of having only that which you need is being increasingly eroded from our social expectations. We see this in the enormous and continually growing gap between rich and poor – when for instance two people work hard at their 40 or even 60 hr a week job and one cannot feed their family and the other hauls in a 7 figure annual salary. We see this in the way we live on credit, encouraged by ads to borrow for that holiday or that third car..... We see this in drive to buy and discard and gather more and more of that which we don’t actually need – and of new, always new, latest versions. Oh that the queue outside the shop for the latest iphone might be instead to help work in the community garden or to spend an hour helping in the old folks home.
What else causes this sense of separation from the very real world that Christ invites us to engage in? Well I can’t help come back to Augustine and his sense of detached suffering We have the technology that totally enable us to see as never before the extent of pain and suffering in the world – but the same technology seems to also encourage just a fleeting connection, an awareness without engagement. I’m not sure why that is – maybe it’s because it’s overwhelming in its quantity or that the television and internet and other media have almost blurred the lines between tragic reality and fictional melodrama to the extent we can engage our sympathy with any number of victims – and have them all in the world of make believe.
Then there are the attitudes that allow us to ‘not see’ that very real world which surrounds us, where the Lazarus’s of this world live. When we employ the thinking that just as we have worked for our rewards so others deserve their lowly status – they could get themselves out of it if they really wanted. When we profit from (by that I mean use) products and services that exploit others, are not sustainable, have dirty dollars attached to them. When we think punitive measures are more important that restoration and reconciliation and that things are more important than people – then we are not ‘seeing’ the world that Christ asks us to be part of.
So what are we to do, we who potentially could be that rich unseeing person, and yet live by a teaching that tells us to pull down these walls that separate, to see the world as it is and to live in ways that not only see but engage with those who are on the outer edges of this world. Paul’s words are as important to us now as to the community then – because he sees very clearly the difference between living with good fortune (whether it be money, possessions, educated minds, family or anything else) and living dominated by, driven by those same things to a degree that we isolate ourselves from the reality of the world. We are to be constantly on the lookout, says Paul, always discerning what it is in society and in ourselves that shuts us off from Christ’s teaching of love and compassion, a glimpse of the kingdom, for all people, for the Lazarus’s of this world. And I know enough of this community to know this is something we are very aware of – we are a people who question social mores that divide and desensitise, who live (reasonably) content with what we have and who are generous and engaged with those who do not. For we who live in the grace of Jesus Christ, this is the eternal life that Jesus, resurrected, came to bring to all the world, to all people. And so we say, thanks be to God.