Thursday, 23 September 2010

Rich man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

Perhaps it is as a result of doing work on a listed building, but I love that joke that goes ‘How many English Heritage workers does it take to change a lightbulb?’ …. CHANGE????
I have heard a few Christian versions of this too:

Charismatics : 10
One to change the bulb, and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness.

Free Church: At least 15.
One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad.

Church of England: 3
One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks and one to talk about how much better the old one was.

Mormons : 5
One man to change the bulb, and four wives to tell him how to do it.

Sorry, back to the passage, which I feel is about change, but not really about lightbulbs. Let’s look at the passage in a bit more detail. Many of you will know that I don’t believe in Hell. Personally, I feel God has got to be more compassionate, loving and forgiving than me, and the notion of Hell doesn’t stack up for me. I also feel that in the Bible, passages such as this one are interpreted as Jesus teaching about Hell, but I feel that is a misunderstanding.

Many scholars believe that Jesus is drawing upon a popular Jewish folk tale that had roots in Egypt about a rich man and poor man whose lots after death are completely reversed. The parable doesn't have to be true in all its particulars, but the people can relate to its stereotyped characters -- rich man, poor man, and Father Abraham.

The story has some surprising elements – the first is that the rich man and poor man have their fortunes reversed. The second is that the Rich Man doesn’t have a name, but the poor man does – Lazarus. Mentioning the name gives a sense that the poor man is more important than the rich man. And finally, the culture at the time felt that riches were a sign of God’s blessing and poverty a sign of sin. Hence when Jesus said ‘it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man get into heaven’, the disciples were amazed – if a rich man can’t get into heaven, then who can?

Jesus suggests that the prophets all through the ages have pleaded with the people to share their riches, and the people have taken no notice. Furthermore, even if he dies and is raised from the dead, people will take no notice of the message. They won’t change. Well that is pretty depressing. I like to think that Jesus was just feeling frustrated, and that we aren’t all destined to continuously behave poorly without changing for ever.
So do we change? And what would we want to change?

I’ve heard quite a bit about money recently. I was listening to the Jeremy Vine show, where a Marxist and a Capitalist were having a right verbal fisty-cuffs. What they did agree on was that the economy was messed up this time by cynical, unregulated greed. That in the past people bought shares in companies because they believed in them, now it is simply about making a quick buck. Also, money was leant to people who could never pay it back, on the gamble that when their houses were repossessed, the money would be recouped that way. Very nasty.

I also went to a lecture by Bishop Peter Selby who has published a book about the Biblical model for handling our money. The Bible is very clear that no interest should be paid on loans at all. He said that we needed to reinterpret these things for a modern society, and he also said the Bible was far clearer about sins to do with money than it is about things like homosexuality, and yet we all happily get mortgages, at the same time as condemning people with different sexual ethics than ourselves.

I also heard that the most fair society would be one where we all together agreed the rules, the wages, the terms, and then instantly died and were raised again randomly into a job, a country, a social grouping not of our choosing. The idea being that we wouldn’t mind who we were raised to be if it was all equal.

I believe that we are happiest if we share what we have, if we restrict how much we owe and if we limit our greed. I feel I am probably preaching to the converted here, but perhaps today is a day when you would like to review how much you share of you money and how ethical your investments and borrowings are. But please promise me that if you do review this, that you won’t do it out of guilt. I think guilt is a horrible reason to share our wealth, doing it out of an overflowing of compassion and love makes us joyful givers. Perhaps before giving we need to ask God for the gift of compassion.

I have heard it said that the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet. I must say I don’t really believe it. I think each one of us have sticking points. For some it is money, perhaps because they are afraid of poverty, perhaps because of parental messages. But not all of us have the same places where we get stuck, where we never change, where it seems that the stuck-ness has such immense power over us that even if someone came back from the dead it wouldn’t shift. Let me tell you a story:

In India Elephants are very useful for moving logs and generally shifting stuff, and that is what they do during the day, but they are very powerful creatures, and what do you do with them at night? How do you know that they aren't going to crush houses in the village etc? Well, when they are very small they are chained to metal posts by very large chains, and as much as they want to wander off, they can't. As they get older the chain is made smaller and smaller, until as adults, the elephants can be tethered by slipping a thin cord around it's neck and throwing it over a fence.

For us, sometimes things like the fear of poverty or the fear that we are not good enough are like the ropes that hold the elephants. Our negative beliefs tether us. We would like to change, we would like to be free, but we feel we can’t. Do you know which areas they are for you? Do you get stuck over money, or something else? I find for myself that one of the benefits of getting older is being aware of the buttons that people can press to set me off. The sad thing is I am not resolving them at the same rate at which I am discovering them, and so I am ever more aware of my sins.

The good news is, I think, that when we admit to ourselves, to God and sometimes to others the places where we are stuck, they often lose their power, and we can begin to change. The old fashioned word for this is repentance. I believe this gives us freedom, freedom from sin, from the things that make us stuck, and freedom to have life in all its fullness.

So may you know the power of the risen Jesus to change you
May you be honest with yourself before God
And may your money always be a blessing to you and to others

1 comment:

  1. The Great Sermon Race, P.G.Wodehouse. You'll have to add at least 2 hours' worth to be in the race leaders.