A sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries Pentecost 19 Christ Church St Laurence – 25 September 2016
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen. From Luke Chapter 16: Jesus told this parable to those among the Pharisees who loved money: There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously everyday… In recent months we have been working our way through St Luke’s Gospel; the Gospel with a seemingly endless collection of parables. These simple yet memorable little stories contain complex and often confronting messages. They also depict an extraordinary range of colourful and sometime rather shady characters. In the early chapters of Luke we encounter a farmer scattering seed; we meet a Good Samaritan who was moved with compassion and crossed the road; we meet a rich fool and, last Sunday, we met a shrewd and dishonest manager. Even Agatha Christie could not have devised a more diverse and intriguing cast. However, one of the characters in today’s Gospel reading is absolutely unique. There is something about this character that distinguishes him from every other person we encounter in Luke’s parables. The poor man, the one dying of hunger and disease, is the only person in any of the parables to be given a name. What is so significant about this poor man; the man called Lazarus? Why is he identified and honoured in this way? The other significant character in today’s Gospel reading is the un-named rich man. Although he remains anonymous, Luke presents an image of a supremely important figure. For one thing, we are told that he was dressed in purple and fine linen. The Romans restricted those who were permitted to wear purple in public. Only people of power and influence were allowed to wear this royal colour as a symbol of their rank and importance in society. Should we be concerned that in our society, the only people that officially wear purple are Anglican Bishops? At least they do in most parts of the Anglican Communion. Luke tells us that this rich man feasted sumptuously every day. And that Lazarus, the poor man starving at his gate, would have happily satisfied himself with what fell from the rich man’s table. In the first century, napkins had not yet become a part of the refined dining experience. Instead, the wealthy would use pieces of bread to remove the grease from their fingers. The greasy bread was then thrown on the floor for the dogs to eat. Such unnecessary waste seems ridiculously extravagant or even unimaginable to us, and yet there are millions of people across the globe who would be very grateful for the crusts that you and I might discard from the ends of a loaf of bread. Suddenly, this parable seems rather confronting for us.
We assume that the unique character named Lazarus simply died of starvation. It is possible that the rich man died of overeating or ‘good living’ as we might call it. There was a great chasm between the two men when they were alive, and Christ tells his audience that a great chasm continued to exist between them in the hereafter. This enormous gap or chasm between the poor and the wealthy continues to this day. According to the United Nations, around 21,000 people die of starvation every single day. In sharp contrast to this, it is now claimed that Australian children of the present generation will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, mostly because they eat the wrong things and they eat too much of them. So, getting back to today’s Gospel, why is a poor, insignificant and hungry man the only person in the parables to be given a name; and perhaps more importantly, what does his name mean? The name ‘Lazarus’ (which is given to a very different character in John’s Gospel) simply means “God helps”. In Luke Chapter 16, ‘Lazarus’ represents all of the people in our world who are forgotten and neglected; ‘Lazarus’ represents all of the people in our world that go largely unnoticed by wealthy and powerful people. The name ‘Lazarus’ tells us that God has not forgotten these people, even if wealthy societies like our own often overlook them. The National Council of Churches has asked all Australian denominations to observe Social Justice Sunday today. As Christians, we are being challenged to reflect on this great chasm that continues to exist between the poorest and the wealthiest nations of our world, and the similar gap that exists between the poorest and wealthiest members of our own society. Reflecting on this great chasm will inevitably be confronting because we know where most of us sit in this equation, and it will be confronting because we feel powerless to rectify the situation. We do what we can; we give to the Anglican Board of Mission; we support St Laurence House and Cana Communities; we contribute food to the Asylum Seekers’ Centre… but at the end of the day, we know that the great chasm will still be there. Is there any point in even trying to bridge the gap?
Although many Christians give the impression that they have been called to save the world, most of believe that this is someone else’s job. Our small acts of mission, charity and compassion will not save the world; they will not even alleviate hunger and disease. In Luke Chapter 16, a poor and starving man is given a name. This does not solve all of his problems in this life. But he is given a name to show that God has not forgotten him, even though he is of little consequence in his own world. As we contribute to mission agencies and charitable appeals, we will almost certainly never bridge the gap or the great chasm between rich and poor. However, we are called to give sacrificially; reflecting the love of another who gave his very life sacrificially. As Disciples of Christ we are not called to save the world; but we are compelled to give whenever we can; we do this to assure those who are often overlooked that God has not forgotten them, and that we have not forgotten them either. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.