The Trinity season has begun. The "feastless half" of the church year. Pastors and perhaps choir directors are quite happy about this - when the festivals no longer follow each other so rapidly, but with a little less haste, and one can reflect on some other topics in Christian life. Of course, this also gives you new challenges, because you don't always necessarily want to hear what the Bible and faith have to say about some current issues. Sometimes we wonder if the answers we find there really do justice to the complexities of the "real world." What would I say now as a preacher in Ukraine about love of enemies and about forging swords into ploughshares? Does the Word of God really give us ways to cope with the questions of our time, or does it always present us with new and more intense questions and challenges? Our text is about rich and poor. One can really ask oneself what one can really do as a relatively wealthy person for the many people on our doorstep. What does the text want to tell us? Can we or do we want to hear it? What would change for us if we listened? Or do we simply say - that is all very well, but it is all so much more complicated. As it is written there, you can't really put it into practice...?
I read to you from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 16 v 19 – 31:
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.
20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores
21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.
23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.
26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,
28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
The parable of Jesus introduces us to two people. One is rich, the other poor. That's all we know for now. We do not know how the rich man became rich. Did he farm honestly, farm well on productive land? Did he bring in goods as a merchant with some risk and sell them with good profit? Did he trade dishonestly with extortion and underpaid labour? We don't know all that. We also do not know his name. That is surprising, since the poor man gets a name, Lazarus. Usually, it is the other way around. The rich have names and reputation, the beggars and homeless remain nameless. In some traditions, the nameless rich man is given a name - in one ancient papyrus manuscript the rich man is given the name, Neuez. In an old English ballad, "Dives and Lazarus" he gets the name "Dives" or "Diverus". It's a beautiful tune, I played it on the cello once, and then listened to the ballad on YouTube. Dives simply means "rich man" but for the poet of the ballad in the nineteenth century or even earlier it was unacceptable that the rich man should not have a name where the beggar has one. But I think that was intentional in this parable. The role reversal that took place in this parable already begins with this. The poor beggar at the gate has a name - the only one in all the parables of Jesus. I sometimes wonder if it was Luke who inserted the name. We know that Luke shares some traditions with John's Gospel. Did perhaps he and his readers know the story of a Lazarus who rose from the dead? Luke doesn't tell the resurrection story- he certainly couldn't record all the stories that were circulating either, but perhaps he recalls them. There was already more than one who rose from the dead, but that didn't move people to repentance. Let alone the resurrection of Jesus himself. There would be an extra layer of irony to it - but of course we can't know that. That's an intellectual exercise for biblical scholars. Back to the parable…
This Lazarus leads a miserable existence. Again, we don't know how he ended up there. Was it many strokes of fate? Was it his own drunkenness or drugs? Did he have chances which he did not use? Was he mentally ill? One of my favorite films "The Soloist" tells the story of Nathanael Ayers, a highly gifted young cellist who ends up on the streets because of his schizophrenia and befriends journalist Steve Lopez. The journalist tries to help him and realizes how difficult it can be to help people up who have fallen in the dirt. It's a true story that moved me a lot, especially where we could tell our own stories from the Hillbrow days.
Lazarus is in misery - maybe he has always been there, but now he is also sick and full of boils. Is it a torment or a comfort for him that the dogs lick his ulcers? It is not said. But there is not much of the rich man's crumbs left for him. What could the rich man have done? Could he have brought him food regularly? Maybe he thought about it and said, how can I as an individual even help? The poor are becoming more and more. If I help this one today, tomorrow I will have 10 and the day after tomorrow 20 at my door. He would not have been completely wrong. We can tell stories... But it is clear that he isolates himself, he tries not to see the misery, because that only spoils the joy of the beautiful life. He wants to be happy and he can. Life is already difficult enough. Why make it even more difficult with caring for your neighbour? Luke writes: He lived all his days gloriously and in joy. Should we resent him for that? How then can he really help of all the poor and wretched people out there? The rich man was a pious Jew, probably respected in his society, probably very busy. What should he have done in his situation to escape hell fire? The parable does not answer this question.
After death comes the great reversal. The poor man is carried into Abraham's lap - other translations say against Abraham's chest, or Abraham's side - the place of honor at the banquet, which should be reserved for the pious and highly respected Jews. The rich man ends up in hell. In the dialogue with Abraham, he does not reproach the rich man at all. There is nothing of "You were so unloving. Why didn't you help him? You could have given of your abundance." None of that. Just the simple statement, "Remember, son, that you received your good in your life, but Lazarus received evil; now he is comforted here, and you are tormented." It is a simple reversal, a balancing justice. Is the rich man to be tormented for eternity for a few decades of luxury? Nothing is said about that either. The rich man goes to hell, the poor man to heaven. Hallelujah, that is what the radical liberation theologians and all those who wish for the downfall of our President Ramaphosa rejoice about. There it is, in black and white.
I always find it interesting how people who believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible deal with this text. My husband and I once had an impressive demonstration of it. It was in Pietermaritzburg. Our neighbour had died. We had had quite a nice relationship and we went to the funeral. The charismatic church met at the Winston Churchill Theatre. The preacher, who looked like he wasn't doing particularly badly in life said a few sentences about the deceased, who after all believed in Jesus, so we can rest assured that he is going to heaven. But, then came the question, what about all of you gathered here? Will you end up in heaven or in hell? An impressive description of the torments of hell followed and Luke 16 was quoted. But, how good: there was still a chance to make things right with God, especially today in memory of your deceased believing friend. Answer the call to life. Then came an altar call that many responded to. How wonderful that the death of our neighbour had brought so many to repentance! In this sermon, which was difficult to digest, not only were the grieving family completely forgotten, but it was also casually overlooked that the unfortunate guy who languished in the flames of hellfire was there simply because he was rich, not because he had been left sitting instead of going to an Altar Call.
Does Jesus want to tell us with this parable exactly what happens after death? If that were so, then his descriptions of hell would not contradict each other so strangely. Is the place of condemnation cold and dark, weeping and gnashing of teeth in darkness, or a place of flames and blazing, tormenting fire? Is heaven behind closed doors and those who are late can't get in, or can you still talk to Abraham and ask for mercy, even though there won't be any? Is heaven above and hell below or side by side with a nasty ditch in between?
Maybe Jesus does not want to give us a recipe how to get to heaven and avoid hell. Maybe he just wants to shake us up again and again with the message - I care about how you live. And I am especially concerned about your relationship with your neighbour. Jesus does not give a recipe how much money you must give, he does not say, you must give a tenth and you will go to heaven. He doesn't say what to put in the offering box. The left is not supposed to know what the right is doing. In any case, I should not calculate if I have already given enough. It is a matter of seeing the other, of perceiving him as a counterpart, of having fellowship, of eating with them at the same table. Just as Jesus did.
But just there the barriers go up again. Whoever really gets involved with the suffering can be drawn into a story that has no end. There you have to set limits. The story of Steve Lopez and Nathanael Ayers does not have a simple resolution. In one scene he is told, "You can't save him. Just be his friend." But even that is not so simple. And yet hope comes back into a miserable life, and even the privileged one with a house and a good income realizes that the other has something to give, something valuable that he didn't have in his life. He feels it, but cannot explain it. His divorced wife explains it to the hardened sceptic, "It is called grace."
The parable gives us many riddles, but that seems to be how Jesus was - no packaged dogmatic sentences, no ABC: "How to get to heaven and avoid hell", but again and again stories and sayings that make us think, shake up, question what we thought we had understood. I am Lutheran and believe in grace and Christ alone. There is little of that here. And yet it is a text that we are not meant to push aside. It should question us, and get under our skin, and make us think about ownership and what we take for granted. Maybe there are people out there who can give us something we didn't even suspect we were missing.
I could tell a lot of stories - difficult, heart breaking, but also wonderful ones from our time at the Friedenskirche. For example, there was the MUKA project in our theatre. The founder of the troupe was passionate about theatre and had already had some theatre training when, for some reason, he lost his job and ended up on the streets. There he gathered other young people on the street, and they began to process their experiences through drama. Hermannsburg pastor George Dalka, who was working with street youth at the time, got in touch with them and they found a shelter and audience at the Lutheran church in Doornfontein. When Pastor Dalka became Outreach Co-ordinator with us the troupe came to the big Hillbrow Theatre. The performances were rough, sometimes brutal, they got under your skin. The first time I saw one, everyone was still living on the street. But there was always a tone of hope, always a feeling - if we can express ourselves in a way that we can be heard, then a new life can begin. And a new thing really began. The theatre project has travelled around Europe many times, done a lot of therapeutic work at Hillbrow schools, and won some awards. They realized something essential. Through theatre, these poor people can offer something that is valuable to others. And suddenly you meet these people at eye level, as people with a story, with feelings, with pain but also with hope. And you realize, then a life can change.
There is still a lot to get out of this parable and to think about the question, how do we deal with the poverty on our doorstep, and what is it that Abraham gives us as advice, but the sermon is already more than long enough. Strangely enough, I often experience that when poverty no longer remains nameless but gets a face, that on the one hand it depresses and saddens me, but on the other hand it also gives me new hope, because if I can recognize Jesus in the least, in Lazarus, then I can also learn to hope that he is there. The people there and our country are not completely abandoned but in God's hand. Lazarus means, "God helps". Perhaps for this reason he got this name. God wants to help, but mostly he wants to use humans for it. Perhaps you or me today. There we should pray for wisdom and keep our eyes open. We might be given more than we know.
And the peace of God, which is higher than all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.