In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says:
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?‘
Well that’s ok for me to say to someone not to be anxious about these things, because I am pretty certain that I don’t have to worry for the foreseeable future. I am not unemployed, homeless or a refugee. We will return to this saying later, because it fits in with the passage we read about a rich man and a poor man.
Harvest can be a difficult time for people in churches, because ‘What is the minister going to be making us feel guilty about next?’ could well be running through your mind. And let’s face it, the need hasn’t reduced during the past year, either in the UK or world wide. The Church Urban Fund says that inequality has been growing over the last 30 years and the gap between the rich and poor is at its widest since the 2nd World War. If the trend continues, in 20 years we will be experiencing Victorian levels of inequality in the UK, and we haven’t started to think about where things are going in the world. What is more, you and I usually feel pretty helpless in the face of the challenge of this problem.
So what about the rich and poor man? We’re going to consider this parable through three questions:
What is the parable about?
What relationship does it bear to harvest?
How should it impact my behaviour?
When it comes to working out what this parable is about, we need to remember the big picture of what it is saying and not get bogged down in the detail. You could say this parable is about:
justice, judgement, meeting the needs of the poor, being blind to the needs around us, lack of compassion, hell, repentance, salvation, rejection of the scriptures.
Some of these themes will emerge as we explore it, but let’s keep the big picture in mind; and here it is: picture.
Sumptuous luxury and poverty are side by side. Both are visible to the other, but the rich man chooses not to see the desperate plight of the poor man. In fact he lets his dogs out, possibly to drive him away, but they lick his sores. The dogs have more compassion than the rich man and his guests! The unclean animals emphasize the outcast position of the poor man. The main point of the parable is verse 31:
“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Not only is Lazarus invisible or ignored, so are the law and the prophets which are supposed to define the lives of those who claim to be the people of Israel. Law here is not so much our concept of law – rules and regulations to be kept – but a worldview that informs and directs the way people live.
In the context of Israel they entered into a covenant with God, which included the proper treatment of those who were foreigners, refugees and the poor. These people were not to be abused and discarded as in other cultures. In fact the year of Jubilee was designed to ensure that people in the community of Israel did not live in perpetual poverty. One of the distinguishing features of the people of God was not just how they lived in relation to their creator, but also how they lived in relationship to their fellow human beings and the world around them. They were not to be like the other nations, but distinctive living God’s way and drawing others to God.
The values established in the law and exemplified in Jesus have become part of the framework of our society and other western societies, which is why we have something called the Welfare State and an NHS. Remove those values and we just have market forces, which are totally indifferent to the poor and benefit those who have.
But returning to the parable, it is these principles that the rich man has rejected, and it seems his relatives have done so as well. Ultimately, in the Jewish context this is a rejection of God, hence the judgement that comes upon the rich man. But what relationship does this parable bear to harvest? This is where we need to see what the law and the prophets said about the poor, the foreigner and the vulnerable.
To begin with, it is clear that the foreigner and the vulnerable should be treated with respect and dignity:
‘Do not ill-treat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. ‘Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. Exodus 22:21-23
‘Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. Ex 23:9
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:33-34
We can see that those who were vulnerable or poor or both in society were to be cared for. Specifically in relation to harvest Leviticus says this:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. Lev 19:9-10
There was not to be a mindset that said the farmer was going to get every last head of grain from the field, or grape from the vine. Allowance was to be made for those who were disadvantaged. In Leviticus 25 we have the Jubilee explained so that not only can the land recover, but also debts are cancelled so that people are not in perpetual poverty, generation after generation.
We are beginning to link back to the mindset of Jesus when he told the people not to worry about food and clothes, and the challenge of the parable in which metaphorically the rich man was harvesting to the edges and in his hard-heartedness would prefer the dogs to lick up the crumbs rather than let the poor man have them. The law and the prophets, nor Jesus, condemned wealth or valued poverty. The point being made is that the desire for food and clothes and possessions is not to dominate our concerns; they are not to be the motivator of our lives; we are not to become so wrapped up in pursuing these things that we forget what is important; we are not to become so wrapped up in these things that we become selfish and blind to the needs of others; we are not to become so wrapped up in these things that we end up rejecting God and so come under judgement.
So how should behave in the light of all this? Jesus is having dinner with some friends and a woman comes in with a jar of very expensive perfume and empties the lot over Jesus. His friends become a bit self-righteous and tut saying it is such a waste and if she really didn’t want it, she could have sold it and given the money to the poor. Jesus doesn’t agree with them but says, ‘The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me.’ He is not rubbishing the idea of selling and giving to the poor. In fact that is what he said the rich young man who came to him should do. There is a recognition that we will always have a responsibility to care for the poor and vulnerable; however, that doesn’t mean we can’t be extravagant at times. The woman was performing a prophetic act, whether or not she knew it; her extravagance was a fragrant gift.
The problem comes if we are only extravagant and only extravagant with ourselves to the exclusion of others and in particular the poor. The truth of Jesus’ words that the poor will always be with us is only too clear. We cannot escape it because the pictures and videos are beamed into our rooms, onto our laptops and tablets and into our ‘phones. What is more, it works in reverse because the mobile ‘phone can be found in the remotest of spots and people know that they are sitting at the gate of a house dripping with prosperity. The challenge of the parable is whether or not we are willing to see and do what we can. It isn’t to swap places; it isn’t even to take the poor man in and live with him; it is do something that will make a difference and recognise that he too is created in the image of God and therefore deserves love, respect and the wherewithal to live.
When Jesus says not to worry he is not being glib like the person James refers to in his letter:
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. James 2:15-17
Now we can all become a bit punch drunk with the level of need and therefore begin to get a bit hard hearted and immune. However, ‘When a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world it can cause a hurricane in another part of the world.’ Well I don’t know if that is true, but it does remind us that small steps can have huge results. Look at the effect of different Christian organisations working abroad, not just bring relief but also the transformation to many people. Consider how the work of the foodbank lifts people’s spirits and helps them to keep on keeping on, because someone is there who cares. Think of the work of Sanctuary and how that values and loves those who are homeless and struggling with life. And then there are the words of Jesus:
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25: 35-36; 25:40
There is one last thing I want to say. The rich man and his relatives came under judgement because they did not listen to Moses and the prophets. God makes it perfectly clear how we are to behave. It was part and parcel of covenant faith and I believe is part and parcel with covenant faith. I agree entirely with James: faith without action is dead. In rejecting what God’s word said about helping the poor, they were also rejecting God’s covenant and therefore rejecting God. The rich man in Hades hadn’t got the point. He was still unrepentant and just saw the poor man as his servant and messenger boy.
Jesus Christ the Word of God has come and shown clearly how we should relate to each other; has shown an expectation that we will meet each other’s needs and has also become the new covenant in his death and resurrection. Our need is to put our faith and trust in him, because through him there is forgiveness and freedom from judgement. In receiving the overwhelming generosity of his love, we become the channels through which it overflows to others: that includes meeting their needs.