SERMON: The greatest gift we have been given is our humanity

SERMON: The greatest gift we have been given is our humanity

A Sermon preached by Canon Anthony Phillips at
St Mary’s Ifffley on Sunday 25 September 2016 – Luke 16:19-31 Dives and Lazarus

The parable appears to give a guided tour of the life hereafter. True it does not give the precise temperature of Hades, but it indicates fairly graphically that it’s a hot spot. Then there is the great chasm – a sort of Grand Canyon but quite impassable. But of course one is not meant to take these details literally. The picture is entirely imaginary, and is couched in the thought forms of Luke’s day. Just reflect – whoever would enjoy heaven if its main feature consisted in watching the souls of the wicked roasting in hell. Only the religious pervert. Unfortunately even to-day there are no lack of those.

Nor is the story to be interpreted simply as indicating that in the life hereafter a strict doctrine of rewards and punishments operates. After all nothing is said about Lazarus’ background. He might well have been an entirely dissolute person. We simply do not know how he got in to his sorry sate. Indeed the story is not really interested in Lazarus at all: the hero or rather anti-hero is the rich man.

The parable appears to have been a well-known folk-tale, here adapted for a novel purpose. It is probable that the original story of the rich man and the poor man whose fortunes are reversed in the after-life originally came from Egypt. It was certainly very popular with Jewish teachers.

The situation described in the story is as bad as it gets. The contrast between the two characters could not be more acute. The rich man secure in his own home dressed in the finest clothes ostentatiously in the sight of all daily enjoys his abundant feast. At his gate lies Lazarus, with scant covering, for the dogs can lick his sores. For all intents and purposes he is a kind of human garbage left to rot. Yet all he desires are not what the rich man can give him, but that which falls from the rich man’s table

To grasp the full horror of this wonderfully economic tale of gross self-indulgence in the face of abject poverty, you need to understand two things. In Jesus’ time dogs were not kept as pets but regarded as pariahs whom no fit person would ever allow near them. Lazarus, presumably so weakened that he can do nothing to fend them off, has to let these unclean beasts lick his sores. And second what would fall from the rich man’s table were the pieces of bread which he used to wipe his hands clean. That was what sustained the emaciated Lazarus. The sheer callousness of this scène can hardly be more explicit nor the scale of the rich man’s indifference to the suffering at his feet magnified.

The rich man of the parable is a Sadducee. Unlike the Pharisees whose general position Jesus seems to have held, the Sadducees did not believe in the new fangled doctrine of life after death. You will remember how they teased Jesus with a story about a man who had seven wives, asking him whose wife would be his at the resurrection. Instead of any real life after death, they expected the dead to go down into Sheol, the pit of the Psalms, where they would live beneath the world in a shadowy half-life devoid of all the senses. But to his surprise the rich man of the story, instead of being at peace among the shades of the dead as the Sadducees believed, found that he was enduring the most awful punishment while the miserable beggar, Lazarus was enjoying paradise. He who had ignored the poor man at his feet now found the positions reversed. Lazarus was up above with Abraham while the rich man was down below frying in Hades. True to form, the rich man, still regarding Lazarus as someone he can order about, pleads with Abraham to get Lazarus to come and ease his suffering. Evidently our personalities do not die with us! Anticipating a charge that he might see himself as being treated unfairly, Abraham points out that he had had it good in his lifetime. Now it was Lazarus’ turn to enjoy blessing and the rich man’s to experience suffering. And in any event there is such a divide between where Lazarus now is and where the rich man lies in anguish that it can not be bridged.

Now comes the novel twist to the story. The rich man having been forced to accept his fate, pleads for his brothers. Could not Lazarus go to them and warn them before they made the same mistake. No says Abraham: they have Moses and the prophets. But rejoins the rich man: if only one went from the dead….. Abraham replies: If they do not hear Moses and the prophets neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.

What does this exchange mean? Moses and the prophets stands for those parts of the Hebrew scriptures known as the law, the first five books of the Old Testament attributed to Moses, and the twelve prophetic books named after their supposed authors. Nowhere in these writings does the doctrine of resurrection occur for this belief only entered Judaism shortly before Christ, probably at the time of the Maccabean revolt in about 160 B.C. However what these scriptures unequivocally do enjoin is that the rich have a duty under natural law to alleviate poverty. This does not depend on the niceties of any theological doctrine, but simply on common humanity. So the prophet Micah sums up the requirements of the law as: ‘What does the law require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’. Amos even calls foreign nations who know nothing of Hebrew law to condemn Israel on grounds of natural justice, when they see the oppression and injustice in that community from which any decent man would recoil whatever his religion, race or legal system.

The parable then reaffirms what it is to be human. Belief in an after-life does nothing to effect our basic duties in this life as part of the human race. Whether we are Pharisees or Sadducees, believe in an after life or not, we are required to alleviate poverty – and to do that quite independently of any thought of rewards and punishments in the next world. Nor do we have any excuse for ignoring those lying at our feet whether in the streets of Oxford or in the myriads of refugees television daily brings into our secure and comfortable homes.

But the importance of the parable remains that resurrection is immaterial to morality. Nor can we plead ignorance of what is required of us. Natural human instinct is sufficient. And that is to be exercised without thought of rewards and punishments in any after life, but because of need in this. If we cannot understand what it means to be human any possibility of a lasting relationship with God here or hereafter becomes impossible.

The greatest gift we have been given is our humanity: we stunt it at our peril.