1 Timothy 6.6-19:
Lazarus once spent the night in our church. It was a few years ago. The outer door that opens to the Garden of Remembrance had somehow been left unlocked.
Lazarus came in and settled down in a sleeping bag in the porch between the outer and inner doors. Perhaps the inner doors can’t be opened from the outside or maybe he knew that he would trigger the alarm system if he came any further in.
We found him in the morning. He used our facilities to have a quick wash, refused the offer of coffee, apologized for trespassing and went.
Lazarus used our church to get a little shelter and privacy while he slept at night.
We see him every day on the streets of our towns. He’s unkempt, looks down-trodden and is begging for any spare change.
We wish sometimes we didn’t see him. Because when we do we react with conflicting thoughts and feelings: compassion, concern, guilt, but sometimes a voice in our head says “don’t give. He’ll only spend it on drink; there are agencies to help him; he’s chosen that lifestyle; he ought to get a job”.
Let’s just hold this moment of tension, and uncertainty about what to do.
Let’s look for a while at the parable we have just heard about Lazarus (whose name means “God is my help”) and the rich man who tradition has named Dives – Latin word for “rich”.
Let’s first note that it is a parable. This is not meant to be an authoritative and literal guide to what happens in the afterlife. A parable always points beyond itself to a great truth about God’s kingdom.
Dives is not just rich. He is massively wealthy. His robes of fine purple linen are the most expensive robes money can buy. They’d cost about £30 – £40 – nearly three years wages for an average working man earning about 4p a day. He eats gourmet food in vast quantities. A banquet every day. Enough food to feed a whole village for about a week!
Just as Dives is fabulously wealthy, Lazarus is about as far down the pit of poverty as it’s possible to be. He lies at the gate of Dives’ house apparently unable to move by himself. He’d willingly pick up scraps that are thrown on to the floor, scraps that the dogs seize instantly when they’re not licking Lazarus’ ulcerated sores.
Dives and Lazarus could not be further apart in their circumstances and we are right to be shocked at Dives’ failure to alleviate Lazarus’s suffering in any way. But the great chasm that lies between Dives and Lazarus is a chasm of this world and it could be bridged. There is for now the possibility of changing the status quo.
If only Dives had opened his eyes and acted on what he saw, things could have been so different for him in the afterlife.
Because suddenly, when they both die, they change places. Lazarus is comforted and safe with Abraham while Dives is condemned to eternal torment. And it’s too late now to bridge that great chasm.
Dives pleads to have his pain alleviated a little; begs for his family to be warned and told how to avoid this place of hell.
It can’t be done, says Abraham, there is no bridge now between Dives and Lazarus. Those still alive have the words of Moses and the prophets to warn them.
We too have the words of Moses and the prophets to warn and guide us. We also have the teachings of Jesus and the writings of early Christians – our ancestors in faith.
This parable was told to “those among the Pharisees who loved money” – not “had” money but who “loved” money.
The passage we heard from the first letter to Timothy also offers teaching about wealth and the love of money.
I’d like to offer a few of my own thoughts.
Firstly – Being wealthy is not in itself a sin. Dives is not punished because he had a lot of money. He is thrown into torment because he was totally self-centered and inward looking. He failed even to notice Lazarus or, if he did notice him, he failed to do anything to help him. Perhaps he blamed Lazarus for getting himself into such dire straits or maybe he thought it was ok for such poverty to lie at the gate of his riches – that’s how it’s meant to be.
In the letter to Timothy we see a similar theme:
“those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires …. For 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.”
Being rich is not a sin but can carry temptations and dangers.
Secondly – So if we are wealthy, and all of us here are wealthy when compared with some people in this town, in this country and across the world, what are we to do with our wealth?
It’s put very simply in the letter: “do good, be rich in good works, generous and ready to share”.
Everything we have and all that we are is to be offered to God and used to benefit others.
If we’re not financially wealthy we may have other gifts to be shared: our compassion, empathy, the ability to encourage and support others; time for prayer; baking cakes or gardening.
All these things make us rich and able to give something to the life of this church.
We’re going to be doing more in the future to find our buried and hidden treasures and gifts and encourage their use in God’s work, serving this community.
Thirdly – Whatever we have, we are encouraged to be content with the essentials of life: food and clothing. And our calling must be to make sure that others too have those essentials: food, clothing, clean water and medical supplies. In doing that we will, we are told, be storing up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.
Lastly – On the cross Jesus bridged the great chasm between us, poor, weak and covered with the sores of sin, and God, rich in love and grace. God himself took action to bridge the chasm between us and him because we could not do it for ourselves. It cost him dearly but he did it out of his unimaginable love for us.
With that in mind, let’s return to Lazarus sleeping in our church and begging on the streets. What’s happened to the tension between giving to someone in need and not giving because somehow it’s not our responsibility or it wouldn’t be deserved?
When we remember what God was prepared to do and give in order to bridge the gap between him and us I can’t help feeling that our calling is not to judge but to bridge whatever gaps there are between us and Lazarus who, after all, is our neighbour and Moses, the prophets and Jesus all teach us that we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.