A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 25 September 2016 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(I Timothy 6.6-16; Luke 16.19-end)
By coincidence I preached a sermon here last Wednesday evening, and here I am again today. Wednesday was St Matthew's day, which, because of the association of that saint with a history as a tax collector, lent itself to some reflections on love of money. And today, here I am, preaching on a Sunday when the two readings we've heard don't just hint at questions of wealth, but practically shout about them. So, folks, if you're already feeling either guilty or irritated because I'm back up here and banging on about wealth, don't blame me, blame the lectionary and the preaching rota.
We heard one of the most famous and oft-repeated verses in the Bible just now, although usually abbreviated: 'The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains'. That's straightforward enough, it seems to have been a common proverb even when this letter was written, and while something of a truism it also seems a perfect sentiment to put as a prelude to Jesus' story about the rich man and his poor neighbour. So I want to unpick that story.
The cast of characters is small - three in all, plus a few dogs and angels. The plot is based on extremes, and reversals: the rich man is very rich, the poor man very poor. When they die, the one who was up is now down, and vice versa. [Here, by the way, is a delicious irony. In a sermon about wealth and poverty, my attempt to write that phrase 'vice versa' was auto-corrected by my iPad to 'vice Versace'.]
Thus far the story is basically an illustration of what Mary says - and our choir sings nightly - in the Magnificat: 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.' And meek is what this Lazarus is - he never speaks or does anything, he is passive enough at this wealthy man's gate to be licked by passing dogs, he is carried away to the embrace of his ancestors. We hear nothing of his moral character, only of his poverty. The dynamic person, the one who does all the living and talking in this story, is the unnamed rich man. He's the one who lived the high life, who enjoyed himself; he's the one who asks for favours for himself and his family from beyond the grave. But, just as there is no implication that the beggar was of exemplary character, just that he was needy, so too we learn nothing of this wealthy man's morals. Matthew was a tax collector, therefore an exploiter and a sinner, but we have no reason to think that this man did active harm to others. His Achilles heel, the thing which has destroyed him and is destroying his brothers in their turn, is his capacity to ignore things which should be glaringly obvious.
There at his gate lay a man in desperate need, and he never thought to send down a few scraps. There, through their normal religious obligations, he and his brothers hear the Laws of Moses, with all their injunctions to care for the outcast and poor, and the criticism by the prophets of those who hold power and use it for their own benefit, but don't do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. These things are plain enough, but he and his brothers have chosen to ignore them. They seem to be self-centred and negligent of others, rather than actively evil - rather like the priest and the Levite in Luke's other story about the Good Samaritan. It's revealing that our wealthy man only notices Lazarus once he is himself desperate; and rather wonderful that even then, down in Hades, the realm of the dead, he assumes that others - in this case Abraham and Lazarus - will serve him. He thinks everything revolves around him.
In this moral story of social contrasts and reversed fortunes, there is no reason to think that either man is being rewarded in the afterlife for the good or bad that he did. The desperate man is loved by God so is looked after; being powerless, his condition and his fate depend on God. But the rich man, whose wealth has probably come in blameless enough ways, pays a heavy price for failing to use his wealth and power for anything beyond himself and those like him. Unlike Lazarus, he can act; like God, he can be dynamic, creative, spelling over with lovingkindness. But he doesn't act, and his final condition comes out of that ingrown lack of generosity.
So then, when you hear this story, where do you put yourself in it? Do you see yourself in Lazarus, the man with nothing beyond a name? If so, you are loved by God, beyond which there is no greater prize.
Or are you more inclined to see yourself in that anonymous and perhaps inoffensive man who merely enjoys what he has? In which case I commend to your attention Moses and the prophets; and I remind you of the costs of moral blindness, of the reversals we can expect from the God who 'hath filled the hungry with good things' and who hath sent the rich empty away.