We come to the final term of another academic year, which has been the first for some and will be the last for others. In between now and the end of term there are still challenges for many here, not least examinations, be they school exams, prelims, mods or finals. And for those who are beyond examination age I dare say there are other challenges to face in our work. But this is no time to be downhearted, for we are in the season of spring and of Easter.
The comedian Milton Jones has written of Easter that: ‘Sometimes religion can seem like the last person in a long game of Chinese whispers. Once Jesus said ‘Love on another’ and now we have the Easter Bunny!’
In fact we marked Easter at the beginning of this service by the introit, which speaks of the hope of spring and of Christ’s resurrection.
“Awake, thou wintry earth – Fling off thy sadness! Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth Your ancient gladness! Christ is risen.”
But also, in singing this chorus from Bach’s cantata number 129, we were reviving a tradition once encouraged by Provost Masterman of this college, that this piece be sung at the beginning of each Trinity term to mark the beginning of the cricket season. Well, why not?
One piece that we will not be singing tonight is the 1848 hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander: All things bright and beautiful, popular though it is at baptisms and in schools, which contains, in its original version these words:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
GOD made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
Not surprisingly this verse has long since been deleted from the version of the hymn that we sing these days. Professor Rodney Barker, Emeritus Gresham Professor of Rhetoric has explained why this verse is so unpalatable today:
For the Victorian writer ‘… The relative positions of the rich man and the poor man were as immutable, natural, and God given as the purple headed mountains or the river running by. God made them what they were, high and lowly, and ordered their estate but there is an equally interesting assumption in the verse that is less noticed: rich and poor are synonymous with ‘high’ and ‘lowly’. Social status is not only fixed and God given, but it is measured, equated with, determined by material wealth.”
How very different from our gospel reading this evening, which challenges us about privilege, poverty and religion.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or Dives and Lazarus as it is sometimes known, was in fact, a well-known story is Jesus’ time, probably originating in Egypt and was popular among Jewish teachers as a depiction of the fate in store for the good and evil after death.
But, characteristically for Jesus, he alters the meaning of the story, as that it is no longer simply a warning about rewards or punishments, in fact nothing is said about the piety of Lazarus.
The story is all about the character of the unnamed rich man, apparently a rich Saducee, who had no belief in the afterlife and who devoted himself to luxurious living, choosing to ignore the poor man at his gate, in favour of a life of self-indulgence. Even when he realises his mistake in the afterlife, to his cost, Abraham refuses to send any messenger to the richman’s brothers to warn them of this impending fate; if they were not persuaded by the prophets, they would neither be persuaded by apparitions. The rich man fails in two ways, by the use of his wealth and his religion. Because his mind was closed to the revelation fo God, his heart was closed to the demands of compassion.
So what does this parable mean to us? We could see it as a portrayal of events if we do not live a life of generosity. Indeed, just two chapters later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is telling a rich man to give away everything that he own to the poor and follow Christ.
Others would argue that, in this parable the rich man stands for the Jewish nation who enjoyed God’s favour and blessings and Lazarus represents a people who lay at Judah’s gate, the Gentiles, those who were outside the covenants and promises of the Jewish people. The only benefits they enjoyed were the crumbs, they might be fortunate enough to gather. So the parable contains within it a prophecy that the two characters mentioned are to change places. The rich man is to suffer rejection, pain, poverty and punishment and Lazarus to enjoy comfort, peace and honour with Abraham. The Gentile nations are represented by Lazarus the beggar, who now by faith is able to be blessed in Abraham’s bosom.
If this interpretation is correct, what Jesus is saying, as a Jew let’s not forget, is radical. He is overturning centuries of Jewish history and theology. For our reading from Deuteronomy this evening, taken from a passage where Moses has delivered the Ten Commandments, alerts us to the historical relationship between the Israelites and God:
‘Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. 10
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners that the Jewish nation had been privileged to enjoy the instruction of “the law and the prophets,” and since the ministry of John the Baptist, they have also been blessed with the added light of the gospel. He then shows them what will be the consequence of not taking advantage of these opportunities during this life.
Just two verses before this story in Luke, Jesus is reported as saying: ‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed.’ So Christ is relating to those around him, that since John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, a new kingdom of God has been brought in and those people in Jesus’ presence are witnessing to it. In the next chapter, Jesus explains that, even though this kingdom might seem illusive, it has an exact location: asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming he answered
‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’, or ‘There it is!’ for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
So when Jesus tells a story about what the kingdom of God is like, we have to place that parable in the context of who is telling it: God himself: the one of whom he speaks is indeed the one who is speaking. God has sent someone to us, Jesus tells his followers: himself and through the cross, he will gain a victory for his Deity and for the world; he has ultimate victory over sin and the grave.
In her poem Still falls the Rain (the raids, 1940, Night and Dawn), Edith Sitwell used the metaphor of rain for the bombing raids in the second world war, falling on London and for the blindness and sin of humanity which continues to nail Christ to the cross. In this poem she portrayes the rich man and Lazarus as equal, where the beggars sores and the rich man’s wealth are all the same: both are humans in need of God’s mercy.
Still falls the Rain
At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us—
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one
But she ends the poem with a verse which reminds us of the sacrificial love of Christ, in his incarnation and his death, whose blood continues to be shed by us.
Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain—
“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.”
Such love demands to be taken seriously and not for granted. The joy of Easter can only come after the suffering of the cross.
In the story of Dives and Lazarus is about privilege which ever way you look at it: the privilege of the Jewish people, the privilege of wealth, prosperity and education and, most important of all, since the coming of Christ, the privilege to all humanity, Gentiles as well as Jews, of the new kingdom of God. We are a privileged people, not only to be in this place, given all the opportunities we have, but most importantly, as children of the kingdom of God. With that privilege comes responsibility. This term, whatever it has in store for us, may our minds be open to the revelation of God and our hearts open to the demands of compassion.