( Proper 21C: Amos 6, 1-7. 1 Timothy 6, 16-19; Luke 16, 19-31)
“You can’t take it with you when you go,” people often say. But many people have a jolly good try at controlling what happens to their material possessions after their death. At home, we regularly get invitations to attend seminars about minimising inheritance tax and using trusts, and a hot topic among many of our age group is how to (in their words) “stop the Chancellor getting his hands on our money when we die” and make sure that their wealth, and particularly their houses, are passed on to their children. The latest figures show that this is something which may concern more and more people in this country – our personal wealth is estimated at £6.3 trillion, much of it fuelled by the rise in house values.
The rich man in the parable obviously thought he had settled what was to happen to his wealth after his death. It appears he had no children, but he had 5 brothers, who in accordance with Jewish Law, inherited the family property, and might perhaps raise up children for him. And he wasn’t too worried about judgement: he wasn’t wicked, he hadn’t gained his wealth by trickery or exploitation, so he had nothing to fear. Yet, he ended up in the place of punishment.
Perhaps many of us think the same as the rich man. But if we do, this parable is there to tell us we’ve got it wrong. It’s not what happens to our wealth after we’ve died that is important, Jesus tells us. It’s what we do with it while we are alive!
The parable comes in a section of Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus gives a lot of teaching, often through parables, about the use of money. This is in response to the Pharisees, who, according to Luke, punctuate Jesus’ teaching with sneers about his association with the poor, the outcasts and the people who were considered wicked or unclean.
Originally, the story of Lazarus and the rich man may have been a folk tale. In Jesus’ hands, it is transformed into a powerful piece of teaching about the use of money and resources.
Some people think that religion has nothing to say about how we use our personal wealth. The Bible doesn’t agree! It has around 500 verses dealing with faith, 500 about prayer, but around 2,350 dealing with money. The Scriptures do not say that having wealth is wicked. Indeed, some parts of the Old Testament see material prosperity as one proof of God’s favour. But the Scriptures are full of warnings about how we use that wealth. In covenant law, prosperity brings increased responsibility for those who are part of the covenant people, but who are poor and vulnerable – the orphans and the widows especially. In the New Testament, of course, the covenant is extended to include everyone. So we Christians are bound by our baptism to use our wealth to help everyone in need in the whole world, as far as we can.
Both the Old Testament and the New warn that riches bring temptation. We do all we can to preserve our wealth for ourselves and our families, even perhaps by violence against those whose poverty threatens our security. We use it to indulge ourselves, to buy more food and drink than we need, to fill our lives with useless entertainment, to attempt to preserve our looks with expensive cosmetics and to buy power and influence. These are all the things for which Amos condemns the rich Israelites of his time.
Material prosperity brings temptation because it feeds on our natural self-centredness. It makes us believe (as so many today believe) that our wealth and how we spend it, defines who we are, and is the thing that makes us ‘worth something’. In the process, it blinds us to the needs of others, and stifles our fellow-feeling with those who have less than us. So easily, it convinces us we have no need of God’s grace.
Through many subtle details, the parable teaches us that this is not God’s way. Uniquely in Jesus’ parables, in this one a character is given a personal name. Lazarus means “God blesses him”, and his name reflects the truth stated so often in Luke’s Gospel, in the Magnificat, in the Beatitudes, in the parables, that the poor and the outcast are those who know their need of God’s grace, and who will be blessed by God. To God, the poor man is an individual, to be named and cared for. The rich man has no name; he is often called Dives, but that is just the Latin for ‘rich’. He is everyman – he could so easily be us!
He cannot argue that he does not know about Lazarus’ plight. Lazarus lives in the same place as him – at his gate. He would have passed him every time he went out and came home. Perhaps it was even his dog who licked Lazarus’ sores! He would not have had to do much to meet Lazarus’ needs. He was rich enough to use bread to clean his hands when he was eating – bread which was then thrown onto the floor as crumbs for the household animals to eat – bread which would have satisfied Lazarus’ hunger every day.
But the real problem is that his wealth had made him blind – he did not even see Lazarus as a person like himself, with needs like his own . And that blindness continued even after their deaths. From Hades, the rich man still saw Lazarus as a servant – someone whose only purpose was to serve his interests, to bring him water or to warn his brothers of their fate.
The parable is there to warn us to make the right decisions now, to change our attitudes before it is too late. In life there was only a narrow divide between those who are rich and those who God blesses – after death, it becomes a great gulf, which no-one may cross.
The Old Testament prophets gave frequent warnings about the dangers of relying on wealth and ignoring the needs of the poor. The rich man, like those Amos spoke to, ignored them. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, like the author of 1 Timothy, repeat those warnings – but once we become prosperous, too many of us ignore them too.
You may say that this parable is not talking about us at all – because we are not as poor as Lazarus, nor as wealthy as the rich man. We don’t have three course meals several times a day, nor dress in designer clothes. But, compared to the majority of people in our world, we are rich. And we do live in a society, which like the Israel of Amos’s time, uses its prosperity to indulge itself and to build up defences against any threat to that prosperity, whether of individuals or of nations. What is more, we live in a society that seems blind to the consequences of its use of resources, socially and environmentally, for the poor and for itself.
We live in a society that doesn’t think much about the judgement that may come after death, in which few people believe in the reality of Heaven and Hell. But some of us are increasingly aware that we can create a Heaven or a Hell in this world. We may not be Lazarus or Dives – but we are in the position of the rich man’s five brothers, who have the opportunity to change our attitudes before it is too late.
The first attitude we need to change is the one that sees possessions as ‘ours’ to do with, in life and after death, as we choose. We remind ourselves as we make our offering, that all we have comes from God, and we are simply stewards who have use of it during our lifetimes. We should be committed to using our resources in the way God commands, and after our death they once again become God’s to dispose of. How can we give them back to God? Through legacies to charities, perhaps? And even, strange as it may seem, through inheritance tax! For the Chancellor of the Exchequer may be God’s agent in redistributing those resources to those in greater need!
The second attitude we need to change is the way we divide up our resources. The rich man in the parable didn’t even give away the crumbs – what was considered waste after all his own needs were satisfied. We are not like that, are we? But perhaps we only give away the crumbs, what is left when all our possible needs and wants, and the needs of those we consider our families, have been met. That is not the Biblical standard, which says God first, then ourselves, and reminds us that in giving to the poor we are giving to God. Christian stewardship of our resources demands that in life we regularly notice and respond to what God needs for the proper maintenance of his Kingdom. Such regular, planned giving is the only way to counter our fallen human nature, which puts ourselves first and gives God the remains.
John Wesley, who was a very practical Christian, gave an easy shorthand for managing our material resources: Get all you can ( work hard ); save all you can ( don’t waste money or over indulge yourself); give all you can ( exercise proper stewardship).
The last attitude we have to change is that we are not rich enough to give. Compared to so many in our world, we are rich in resources. All of us have enough to meet our basic needs – to eat and clothe ourselves and to make adequate provision for our old age. Even if we have little money to spare, we are rich in other resources: freedom of expression, purchasing power, time to give attention to the needs of others, voices that can be used to campaign for social justice, votes that can influence governments – all of which can be used in the service of the many Lazaruses who lie at our gate or further afield. Some of them may not have visible sores – but many in this country and beyond will be hurting inside, through loneliness or neglect or prejudice – and our resources could be used to heal them. And all of us can pray – for the sick, for the world to change, for our church to become what God wants it to be.
So as we come to the Harvest Thanksgiving season and as we consider our Christian Stewardship year by year, let us ask ourselves: Who is the Lazarus at my gate? Am I blind to his needs? And can I change before the gulf becomes too wide to cross? Because we do take “it” with us when we go – but it’s not money!