Sunday 19th April, evening
Deuteronomy 7:7-13, Luke 16:19-end
Revd Kate Tuckett
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is one that makes me feel very uncomfortable. It’s an awful story all the way through – the oozing sores, the slobbering dogs, the place of torment, the great chasm. It’s a story that makes us confront the comfortable excuses we all tell ourselves to protect ourselves from the pain of those around us – if only he hadn’t dropped out of school. If only she hadn’t had so many babies. If only he would just learn English. If only she would stop drinking. It entirely does away with any version of the prosperity gospel – that those who obeyed God are blessed with material rewards. This was a popular view in Jesus’ day and it’s a popular view now. The OT reading from Deuteronomy promises fertility, prosperity and blessing to those who follow God. And even if we don’t really believe that God is linked to riches, it’s deeply challenging to how we pray, what we pray for, what we think God can do.
All of these are good things to be reminded of, and sometimes we need to be made to feel uncomfortable. But the reason I feel uncomfortable about it is that I think that when most of us hear it, we probably plummet right into our own chasm of guilt. Most of us here are, at the end of the day, trying our best. Most people around us are trying to do the right thing. And to hear this shocking story about a rich man and a poor man, with all its gruesome details about dogs licking the sores, can, I think, be paralysing.
It’s an awful story. But I do believe that God is for us, and never against us, wherever we may find ourselves in the story. Jesus may have enjoyed challenging his money-loving listeners, but I doubt very much that was all he wanted to do. And I want to suggest that this story tells us two things --- it tells us something about the things that get in the way of the things that God wants to give us, and it tells us something about transformation.
Some of you may have read Oliver James’ Affluenza. In it, he talks about the affluenza virus, when we desire what we have rather than what we are. He concludes that if we value whatever these things are – whether they be money, possessions, physical or social appearance, fame – then we are at greater risk of emotional distress. I know that I have valued and value all these things too much. These things start to take precedence over everything else and become our god. If you or I have to have the clothes, the status, the holiday, the lifestyle, the relationship, then that is affluenza.
In these weeks after Easter I’ve been struck by how very transitory and fleeting Jesus’ appearances are. He comes to his disciples and then he vanishes again. He moves on to Galilee. He breathes their names, he eats with them, he offers them peace, and then he’s gone. A bit like our experience of faith. We might catch a glimpse of something, the clouds part for a moment, we may see things brighter for an instant, and then it’s gone again. Longing for God, desiring God, and indeed experiencing God may be characterised as much by absence and confusion and emptiness as by presence.
And so it’s not surprising that, however faithful we are, other things start to take precedence for us. It’s much easier to believe in an idea that happiness and peace and contentment can be bought or sold or earned than trying to listen for a voice of love and compassion that can be very hard to hear. But when we do this --- and we all do this – I think we start to lose ourselves. I need that because I’m worth it. I need that person, that thing, that lifestyle. Except we don’t feel we’re worth it. We don’t feel we’re worth it at all. And this addictive cycle of acquisition, of filling the gap in our hearts and souls wears us out. It makes us anxious. And if we’re honest, most of us are tired of being caught in such an endless cycle. Perhaps some of why we’re here is because at some level we want to be liberated and reconnected with what it means to be alive.
Jesus was challenging his listeners who were satisfied with their linen suits and their sumptuous feasts when God wanted to give them so much more – God wanted to give them the kingdom. They were content to live in a world with beggars and social hierarchies when God wanted to give them brothers and sisters. They were happy to get by with the parts of the Bible that backed up their own ways of life when God wanted to give them a new life altogether. It’s a life that tells us that we are loved, forgiven and held. It’s a life that challenges us to see ourselves and other people a little less judgmentally, a little more lovingly.
It’s a life that invites us to love ourselves and love other people. To love ourselves enough to let go. I believe that our problem is not that we are fundamentally bad, but we are fundamentally convinced that we are not good, not loveable, not loved. A journey outwards is often a journey inwards as well. All of us have inside of us a reality that is broken or poor or wretched and in need of compassion. We may need to learn to notice Lazarus within us before we can embrace Lazarus outside.
We tend to see letting go as an austere and negative process. We are so used to holding onto things --- whether that’s to our limiting beliefs about ourselves and other people, or past triumphs or failures, or simply the physical goods we’ve accumulated on our journey through life – that to release them seems to go against our nature. It feels threatening and difficult and sometimes dangerous to do so. Yet if we can do this, as an art as much as an act, we can start to learn to live more freely and spaciously and compassionately.
Perhaps we suffer the most when we try to cling on to things that are passing, whether we like it or not. Letting go graciously is a beautiful and courageous to do, and here I think the story tells us something about the possibility of transformation.
Change or transformation normally refers to a new beginning, but transformation always comes, I think, as much not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. The pain and the chaos of things invites and sometimes forces us to go to new places because the old place is no longer there. Mystical writers use many words to describe this chaos --- fire, darkness, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial. You may have your own words – loss, bereavement, guilt, humiliation, divorce, redundancy, unemployment, sickness, fear. Whatever it is, it does not feel good, and it does not feel like God. Most of us will do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart. This is perhaps when we need the most freedom to let go instead of tightening our controls and certitudes.
In the story, the rich man asks Lazarus to bring him water. When you get someone water, you’re serving them. The rich man wants Lazarus to serve him. In his previous life, the rich man saw himself as better than Lazarus and now, in hell, he still sees himself as above Lazarus. There is indeed a chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm is the rich man’s heart. It hasn’t changed even in death and torment and agony. He’s still clinging to the old hierarchy. He still thinks he’s better.
The story ends with a reference to resurrection, and Jesus teaches again and again that the gospel is about a death that leads to life. It’s a pattern, a truth, a reality, that comes from losing your life and then finding it. This rich man Jesus tells us about hasn’t yet figured that out. He’s still clinging to his ego, his status, his pride, he’s unable to let go of the world he’s constructed, which puts him on top, and Lazarus on the bottom, the world in which Lazarus is serving him.
Death is the final letting go. The rich man is dead, but hasn’t died. He’s in Hades, but hasn’t died the kind of death that brings life. He’s alive in death, but in profound torment, because he’s living with the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into life.
This unwelcome but transformative truth is at the heart of every Eucharist – ‘Christ will die, Christ will rise. We will die, we will rise.’ This is the Easter mystery. This is what we proclaim every time we eat bread and wine together. I suspect this pattern must happen many times before we understand it.
Perhaps this is a story about a man who all his life defended his good fortune as God’s blessing, and who was unable to let go of all the things that stopped him from hearing where God’s blessing really was. There was a chasm in the story, but it’s left up to us to decide whether God or the rich man fixed it. Sometimes perhaps the worst thing we have to fear us that God will give us what we truly desire.
So how do we turn our desires around, how can we live without being acquisitive or jealous or competitive because we don’t believe that we are loved, because we cannot bear to face our mortality or know that we can ever be enough? I wish I knew. But there are some things the church can offer to help us with this. One of our MAP projects has encouraged us all to engage with the Rule of Life, to be intentional about finding a structure for our lives that help us to live well. Some time in silence --- perhaps 10 minutes every day, or as long as we can manage. Asking for help and support. Being a part of God is about being in community, and one way to get deeper into the community here might be to think about joining a home group --- there are four running across the parish. Sharing stuff, grieving over loss with another person. A gratitude list at the end of every day. Admitting our powerlessness. Trying to believe in the love and the care of God.
Resurrection took two days for Jesus. In our lives it can take weeks, years and we never know for sure whether it’s going to come. But I do believe that God will take whatever we can offer, however feeble our faith, and will honour that. Letting go of what we need to, to allow God to transform us, to lead us from death to life, to reach into the darkest places of our lives isn’t easy and it takes time. Let’s be gentle with ourselves. Thanks be to God.
Bell, R. (2011), Love Wins, New York: Harper One
Brown Taylor, B. (2015), Bread of Angels, Norwich: Canterbury Press
Draper, B. (2012), Less is More, Oxford: Lion Publishing
James, O. (2007), Affluenza, London: Vermilion
Rohr, R. (2003), Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go, Cincinatti: Crossroad