A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury on Sunday 11 August, 8th after Trinity
Galatians 6: 7-16
Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
Last Thursday afternoon our Chapter Clerk asked to see me, to discuss a pressing question of cathedral governance. She apologized for the short notice and said that she hoped she hadn’t disturbed me in the middle of something important. I had to confess that had spent the afternoon researching the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. Such is the remorselessly high-brow nature of a dean’s life…
But that is what I had been doing, because the previous night I, like some of you, had been thrilled by the South Transept Recital given by Margaret Ravalde and John Challenger. It was a wonderful programme, wonderfully performed. The first of Maurice Ravel’s Trois Chansons had particularly caught my attention. The music and the text are Ravel’s. The song tells the tale of young Nicolette. She is walking through the fields picking flowers when she is confronted by a growling wolf who greets her: “Nicolette, my dear, won’t you come to Grandmother’s house?” Nicolette very sensibly takes to her heels. But not for long. In the last verse, equally sensibly, she runs straight into the arms of a gentleman. He is ugly and smelly, but he is very rich.
The young girl; the wolf; the grandmother: perhaps you’ll understand my Thursday afternoon research. I wanted to discover whether Ravel’s tale of Nicolette owed anything to the folk tale that we all know. And I was interested to discover that five years before he wrote it Ravel had written his Mother Goose suite – which includes a telling of Little Red Riding Hood. Presumably the key motifs from one story found their way into another.
It’s what seems to have happened in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The key motifs of Jesus’s story - of the rich man at his table, the poor man at his gate, and their destinies in the hereafter – were well established in the storytelling of the ancient world. The Egyptians told a tale of the lavish funeral of a rich man and the simple funeral of a poor man. In the land of the dead the poor man is seen in luxury and the rich man in torment, all because the former’s good deeds outweighed his evil deeds while the latter’s did not. That Egyptian tale somehow found its way into Jewish folklore and into a version which featured a holy man and a tax-collector. After their deaths the holy man was seen walking among fountains in a lush garden, while the tax-collector, his tongue hanging out, could not reach the water.
Perhaps there’s no property in a tale. Jesus re-tells a story with which his audience is familiar, and with the moral of which he is happy to be associated. Luke does what any careful editor does, and groups together a number of stories with a common theme. He places the parable of the rich man and Lazarus at the end of a sequence which homes in on the relationship we have with wealth and with status (Ravel’s Nicolette should perhaps take note). That sequence begins when Jesus goes to a private house for a sabbath meal and observes the guests choosing the places of honour; it continues with the misspent inheritance of the Prodigal Son and the wheeling and dealing of the Dishonest Manager. The moral of the sequence is clear.
And that moral is that the possession of wealth and power is not an inexorable sign of God’s favour, or an inexorably bad thing. The rich man in the parable is condemned not because he is rich but because he is careless of the desperate need of his neighbour Lazarus. Even after his death he expects Lazarus to wait upon him. Even after his death! Paul does not advise Timothy that money is the root of all evil, as his advice is sometimes misrepresented, but that the love of money is the root of all evil. That was the point of the Egyptian story; that was the point of the Jewish folktale: it’s not what you have that counts, but what you do with what you have. It’s a simple message, a fairy story message, but one that remains shockingly relevant to our country and to our world.
But Jesus does not simply retell a cautionary tale about the arrogant rich. He uses it to make his own polemical point. At each step of the money/status sequence Jesus is in dialogue with the Pharisees. They, Luke observes in an aside, “…were lovers of money”. Historically that is probably very unfair, but our ears prick up when in the midst of his torment the rich man calls out to “Father Abraham”. The rich man – Dives, as tradition refers to him, naming him with the Latin noun for wealth - is claiming an ethnic and religious kinship with the great patriarch. But Jesus is very clear that that kinship avails him nothing. It plainly avails him nothing. Despite what Moses has said and despite what the prophets have written – despite all those impassioned pleas for the poor and the unjustly treated, for the orphan and the widow, those pleas that fill the Hebrew Bible - the rich man has ignored the plight of his neighbour. His kinship with Abraham may be marked on his flesh but it is in every sense only skin-deep. Jesus aligns the tradition of his people and the tradition of his God with the cause of Lazarus: those who don’t get that do not belong in the tradition, and the Pharisees don’t get it in spades.
Which is why someone coming to them from the dead will make no difference. If you are sufficiently self-obsessed to step over the beggar in the doorway then something extraordinary will not change you. And here the irony is rich, and here is perhaps Jesus’s principal motive in making this story his own. For Luke writes his Gospel in the new era, the era which begins when something extraordinary happens, the era that is inaugurated when someone does come from the dead. When Jesus, the teller of the tale, comes from the dead.
Last week’s research wasn’t confined to Little Red Riding Hood. In a sermon preached while he was Dean of St Paul’s the priest and poet John Donne found himself speculating on the fate of a Biblical character who was generally assumed to be firmly on the other side of the great chasm to which Jesus refers. Why, Donne, wondered, had Judas Iscariot taken his own life so quickly after his hard-nosed act of betrayal? “…Perchance” he concluded, “[Judas] went to…go before his Master, who was to die, and so to meet him with his naked soul, that he might gain Mercy through his confession and prayers”. Perhaps Judas was waiting on his Lord.
The parable calls us to act. We cannot listen to it and leave the Food Bank bins empty. We cannot listen to it and fail to advocate a just and equal community. But the parable also calls us to renewed allegiance to the tale’s teller, to the one who has crossed the great chasm, who offers us forgiveness and healing, whose way is the way of life, the “…life that really is life”. Amen.