Luke 16:19-31 The Rich Man & Lazarus

Reflection by Mart the Rev

This is such a confronting parable.  When I first sat with it this week I wrote this prayer/poem thing:

I want to hear.  I want to listen carefully and I want to listen deeply.

I want to listen even if what I hear is confronting and uncomfortable.

I want to see.  I want to live my life with my eyes wide open. 

I want to see, even if what I see challenges me and isn’t to my taste or my liking.

I want to care.  I want to live in such a way that things are in some way better than how I found them.

I want to care even if it is costly and inconvenient.

I want to be open. I want to be open to the stranger and open to how God meets me in the stranger.

Some of these strangers are known to me, but for various reasons I cannot see or hear them anymore.

I want to be free. I want to delight in the wonder of having life in me.

I want to be free even if it means restricting myself in order to free others up.

This is such a confronting parable.  Personally speaking, I can’t read it in any way that makes it easy for me.  On a world scale I am the rich man who clothes himself in good clothing, eats sumptuously every day, and makes his way in the world with options and ease while poorly paid people work tirelessly to make the things I can buy at bargain rates.  On a community scale I am not the richest of people by any manner of means, but I am clothed, fed, and housed in such a way that there might as well be a chasm between me and the Lazarus’ around me as wide as the chasm described in the parable.  I, too, have been sent Moses and the prophets and someone who has risen from the dead, but I’m still not all that keen to change things.  Here is my confession!  I wonder, should I stop here and not dig a deeper hole for myself?

I want to hear.  I want to listen carefully and I want to listen deeply.

I want to listen even if what I hear is confronting and uncomfortable.

I find it curious that even in the agony of the flames the rich man still saw Lazarus as something lesser.  He bids Abraham to send Lazarus over to bring some water.  That’s what people used to power and control do – they believe in an order of things where it is quite right to assume that people less than them can be ordered to serve them.  When that doesn’t work, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them of the coming torment.  Again, Lazarus is seen as his lackey.  A third time he tries – send someone from the dead and they will notice…  Of course the rich man in the story had had years of practice, for while he had lived his life dressed in purple and fine linen and feasting sumptuously every day, at his gate Lazarus had squatted, with his sores being licked by dogs, hoping for some crumbs from the rich man’s table.  It is doubtful that the rich man had ever noticed Lazarus, much less ever talked to him, and, even afterwards, in his torment, the rich man still doesn’t talk to the poor man – the poor man only exists as someone to run errands for him.

I want to see.  I want to live my life with my eyes wide open. 

I want to see, even if what I see challenges me and isn’t to my taste or my liking.

Through this year we are thinking about how to be and do church by reflecting on what the parables of Jesus might offer.  A feature of many of the parables is the way they portray God’s interest in those who get side-lined in life – the little, the least, the lost, and the last.  Over and over in Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God the last shall be first, the lost will be found, the least shall be the greatest, and the little ones will be lifted up.  It seems to me that the church is given a licence, even a mandate, to position itself for those who society pushes to the outside of the gate.  I’m curious about how that works out.

Here’s one curiosity.  Our church is listed as a charity.  To have charitable status in New Zealand any organisation has to apply to the Charities Commission and be registered.  Once registered, donors can receive tax exemptions and so on.  What intrigues me is whether we have got into a pattern where we need to be incentivised in order to be generous.  If you give to the church then you can claim one third of what you give against whatever tax you are meant to pay.  For many years now Anne and I have given that third back to the church as a way of gradually increasing our giving but also resisting the idea that we should receive something for what we give.

We want our gratitude for God’s goodness to be what motivates our generosity, not some return we can get that effectively grants us a discount so that we effectively end up being less generous than we set out to be. I think it is lovely that the Government incentivises generosity in this way, but I don’t really see the church as a charity.  I would rather see the church as being charitable where we develop practices that reflect that we understand our role as being a conduit for God’s generous love – we witness to God’s love/charity/heart for those who find themselves side-lined by everyone else as little, least, lost, and last.

I want to care. I want to live in such a way that things are in some way better than how I found them.

I want to care even if it is costly and inconvenient.

A school is not a charity… it is an educational institution.  That it behaves charitably is amazing and a sign that it is genuinely a community for the community.  I’m thinking about some of the people who sit outside the gates who seem to only ever get the crumbs from the rich man’s table.  In the Bryndwr community where we have one of our church presences there is quite a sizeable chunk of people who live on struggle-street.  Connecting with them in a significant way is quite complex – all kinds of agencies are at work and all kinds of issues make it challenging for us to do some significant and sustainable work at alleviating their plight.  We do a few things, we run an increasingly useful clothing shop, we offer some programmes that provide a place of connection for some people, but mostly, if we are truthful, we struggle to make much of an impression.  It is actually quite hard to be charitable.

One thing that has begun to work is our link with Burnside Primary School.  Unlike us, the school has significant reach into the lives of many of the needy families in Bryndwr.  Practically all of the homes of the large state house area of Bryndwr make up the bulk of the homes that lie within the Burnside Primary School boundary.  The school has had no choice but to try to attend to the different dimensions of social deprivation in their community in a charitable manner just to make sure the kids have a decent chance of being educated.  The challenge for the school is huge.  Slowly but surely over the last few years our church, The Village, has begun to channel resources to the school to enable them to offer the practical help their community needs.  The regular provision of food, clothing, soap, bedding, and help with reading have become a way for us to be charitable in a way that we have previously struggled to be.  Our reach into the well-being of the community has been extended because of this partnership.  Actually, it has become something quite amazing.  One thing I think is necessary if we are to make the shift from being designated as a charity to becoming charitable is that individually we ought to give up any idea that we should get anything tangible back from our giving.  No tax rebates, no generous donations in return, and probably no bums on seats.  Yet, in our growing partnership with the Burnside Primary School community we are noticed, and our partnership is appreciated, and in ways more than we have ever achieved through all our efforts in the past, the lives of a quite significant number of those relegated to the outside of the rich man’s gates in our community are being enhanced.  The school can do what we can’t do but we can help them do it easier and better.  If you go to the Burnside Primary School Facebook page right there in the latest entries is this thank you to The Village Church… I think we are on the brink of something quite extraordinary.

I want to be open. I want to be open to the stranger and open to how God meets me in the stranger.

Some of these strangers are known to me but for various reasons I cannot see or hear them anymore.

I’m thinking about the chasm mentioned in the parable and how it plays out in the gaps in our society and right where we are active in The Village.  It is noteworthy that Jesus talks about money more than he talks about most other things.  In all the ways Jesus talks about money I feel my conscience being pricked.  He never talks about money in a way that leaves me feeling vindicated or validated.  Is it like that for you as well?  What on earth are we going to do about it?

I want to be free. I want to delight in the wonder of having life in me.

I want to be free even if it means restricting myself in order to free others up.