Summary: As the lives of the rich man and Lazarus are reversed by their experience of the Kingdom so our contemorary values are challenged by the call to discipleship.
In the gospel passage this morning there is a great reversal of fortunes for the rich man and Lazarus the poor beggar. Lazarus, after enduring great suffering is taken into heaven, into the bosom of Abraham. This end suggests that he led a faithful life while the rich man is depicted in typical Pharisee mode concerned for the letter of the law and counting his blessings – or perhaps taking them for granted – in response to his charmed life.
The surprise of the rich man and his attempt to fix things up is a bit like the story of the young assistant curate who while peddling his bike to a pastoral visit sees Jesus walking through town heading in the direction of his church. He races back to the vicarage and rouses the vicar. He tells the vicar that Jesus is on his way to the Church. ‘Are you sure?’ enquires the vicar. ‘Absolutely, it was him,’ replies the young priest. ‘This is too much for me I had better ring the bishop,’ says the vicar. He gets straight on the phone to the bishop and tells her that Jesus is on the way to the church. The vicar’s plea for help is met with a stunned silence. Eventually the silence is broken with the Bishop’s sagely reply, ‘Well then, you blokes had better look busy!’
The reversal of fortunes comes at the time of death for both men. I wonder if Lazarus was as surprised as the rich man to find that he was a beloved child of God and not just a cast-off as his treatment in his earthly life might have led him to believe.
The values of the Kingdom of God were found to be in stark contrast to the values of the society in which these two men lived. Yet that society was made up of the very people God had rescued from Egypt and to whom God had given a promised land, and with whom God had made a special covenant:
I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’" Exod 6
This is a promise Jeremiah reminds his fellow country men of three times. They had to be reminded because they broke their side of the agreement. Jeremiah saw the immanent Babylonian invasion as the judgement of God upon his people. It was a difficult message for him to proclaim but he did and he paid dearly as the community hatred and inner turmoil that he suffered bear witness.
In the Old Testament story this morning Jeremiah buys a field outside Jerusalem. Not unusual in normal circumstances, but he makes this purchase having proclaimed that the Babylonians will come and invade and lay waste to the city. He was trying to portray to them that God’s judgement would come upon them in the form of the invasion, but that God would see to it that this judgement would lead to restoration.
Proclaiming that the Babylonians would invade was one thing, but would God not protect them as God had before? To say that the invasion would be God’s judgement was anathema to the people of Jerusalem. Were they not the covenant people of God? Jerusalem was invaded and Jeremiah’s prophecy came to pass. As happened so often in the stories of the scriptures people, even God’s people think they are going on the right course, or at least kid themselves that they are, only to be brought back to reality with a thud.
There is a tendency for us to assign value to that which is ultimately worthless and we even try sometimes to give what we value God’s backing. It is so clear in the Gospel reading this morning that the values of the Kingdom of God are at great odds with many of the things we value.
Through the centuries the Church has been a witness to values of the kingdom but sometimes, because we are ordinary human beings there is a danger our witness will mirror society’s values too closely. For example the 19th century hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful [Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848] was originally written with the verse:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them all, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
This verse has been omitted from hymn books for quite some time, but it reflects a view of God whose job it was to order society so that all could feel comfortable and justifies in their social positions. It is the view of society in which members get upset if someone speaks out of turn or who has the audacity to attempt to move beyond their station in life. This was a time when Karl Marx could say that religion was ‘the opiate of the people.’ He believed that religion was being used to prop up a stable but unfair society. And by religion he meant the Christian faith as he experienced it in Europe.