Sunday 26 • 25 Sep 2016

Jeremiah 32:1-3a,6-15
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

Rev. Chris Udy

Today is Social Justice Sunday,
and today we remember
that when Christian faith is most powerful
and most creative,
it’s grounded in concern for justice,
and confronting us about the way
we make and share our power and our wealth.

Jesus often talks about the connections
between justice and money.
Nearly half his parables are about wealth and work,
and that makes sense
when we remember that money is a symbol
for one way that we relate to each other,
and understand that Jesus is especially interested
in the building and healing of relationships.

It’s obvious that for Jesus,
wealth and possessions in themselves are neutral.
Money isn’t good, and it isn’t bad.
But how we get it, and how we use it,
can be good or bad.
If the relationship that brings us wealth is unhealthy,
or oppressive,
or if we get money
without having given something in the relationship,
then our wealth is tainted.
In the same way,
if the way we
use money doesn’t build people up,
if it makes relationships meaningless,
or serves to keep power and responsibility
within a small group,
then the relationships
that the money symbolises are degraded.

Today we read
one of the most important and difficult stories
that Jesus told about wealth -
The scholars tell us
it was really a story that Jesus re-told,
because the story itself
had been around for a long time,
and it was already a great favourite with poor people.

There was a rich man,
who lived in great comfort.
At his gate there was a poor man,
whose name was Lazarus.
We don’t know why he was poor -
we don’t know what he had done,
or what he was doing to change his condition -
all we know is that he was poor,
and he ate whatever he could get his hands on.
He was also suffering with a skin condition,
and Jesus made sure we knew
that this man was destitute,
and that poverty isn’t noble, or pure,
and has no dignity,
he said even the dogs from the streets
would come to lick his sores.
We can sometimes get a picture of poverty
as somehow purifying,
or good in some way -
maybe because we mistake it
with simplicity or voluntary poverty
and with people like Francis of Assisi -
but the truth is as Jesus told it.
Poverty is disgusting.
It works with sickness and death to destroy people,
to take away their self-respect,
and their energy,
and they’re left hopeless and empty.

The poor man died -
and he was taken to heaven -
while the rich man also died
but found himself in torment.

That’s as far as the old Jewish story went -
and the moral of the story was
that good poor people go to heaven,
while rich bad people go to hell.
But when Jesus re-told the story
added something extra,
and changed its tone entirely.
According to Jesus,
the rich man got quite a shock
to find himself in hell -
not because he was a good person
and expected to go to heaven,
but because he didn’t believe
there was
anything after death.

It looks like he was a Sadducee.
The Sadducees were the wealthiest people in Israel,
and they also taught
that death was the end of everything -
that there was no such thing as heaven or hell
or any other place beyond the grave.

And because they didn’t believe
in any kind of afterlife,
the Sadducees also believed
that the meaning of life
was to eat and drink,
to accumulate wealth and acquire property
and then to keep it in the family,
because family was the only way to immortality.
It wasn’t as if the Sadducees didn’t believe in God.
They just thought that if you did anything wrong,
God would send your punishment at once -
so if you could get away with something,
and God didn’t send immediate punishment,
it was obviously OK.
Anyway, in the story Jesus told
this particular Sadducee discovered
with an unpleasant surprise
that death is not the end,
and that sometimes the results of our actions
return to our discomfort and dismay.

So the Sadducee asked Abraham for comfort;
for even a little water to cool his mouth -
but it was impossible to give.
Then he remembered his family - his five brothers,
and he asked that they might be warned -
but Abraham told him they had been warned
by Moses and the Prophets,
and that if they had ignored those warnings,
even someone who was raised from death
couldn’t convince them to change their minds.

We don’t know how the rich man came by his money,
but we do know that his judgement
is related to how he used it.
He hadn’t actively done anything wrong -
he hadn’t turned Lazarus away from his gate,
or stopped him from eating his garbage.
He didn’t kick Lazarus,
and he wasn’t deliberately cruel to him;
he simply accepted Lazarus
as part of the landscape -
and that seems to be the problem.
He thought it was perfectly normal,
and natural, and legitimate
for Lazarus to suffer in poverty and hunger
while the rich man had more than enough.
He was probably a very nice man.
He was probably close to his family -
he obviously cared about his brothers -
so it wasn’t that he was hard, or evil.
It was just that his money
gave him the opportunity to build people up -
at the very least to give Lazarus some relief
from hunger and degradation -
but he didn’t take it.
His money relationships
were either selfish or frivolous.
He used the relationships he had through his money
in ways that were demeaning -
both for other people and also for himself -
and it made all of them less than fully human.

For us, the story raises
some serious and uncomfortable questions.
First, as Australians,
we need to question the morality
of economic measures intended to punish those
who are already living in poverty.
The Newstart Allowance – the dole –
is $260 a week - $38 a day –
and it’s meant to cover food, travel and housing –
but of course it doesn’t.
Recently there’s been a suggestion
that the allowance might be further reduced,
so last week Tim Costello from World Vision
asked Social Services Minister Christian Porter,
to take the ‘Newstart Challenge’
and live on the Newstart Allowance for a week.
When Minister Porter is away from home –
including Canberra -
his travel allowance can be anything
from $271 and $438 each day –
so his
daily travel allowance
is higher than Newstart pays for a full week –
but the minister wasn’t keen to take up the challenge.

Another question is raised
about the way we in the Church live out
the relationships we have through our money.
A valid criticism of the Church
relates to the way the Church uses resources.
So sometimes people point
at our buildings and properties and say
“The Church isn’t into Jesus - it’s into real estate”.
We read these
uncomfortable sayings of Jesus about wealth,
and while we realise
that we need somewhere to worship,
and that our buildings are a community resource
through which we can encourage and strengthen
relationships in our neighbourhood,
we also need to recognise
that working with bricks and mortar
can be much easier than working with people,
so we need to make sure that we give flesh
to our visions of service,
and make plans
based on the people we want to serve.

And the third and last question is personal.
The story about the rich man and Lazarus
is a story about individuals;
the rich man is judged
on how he relates - personally -
to Lazarus as a fellow human being.

We are rich.
Our lifestyles put us
into the most wealthy 20% in the world.
One recent survey said
that when all our reserves and resources
are taken into account,
Australia is probably the richest nation on earth.
Even most of our poorest neighbours
live in houses with carpets and TV sets
and refrigerators and washing machines.
We eat well.
Most of us can buy all we need to be healthy
with only a small amount of our incomes.
All of us have been to school,
some of us for longer than others.
We can all read, and write,
and we have access to information.
We all have fresh water,
and we all have safe, clean homes with sewerage.
We can all go to doctors
without much worry about the bills,
and we can get the world’s best medicines
quickly and cheaply and easily.
Most of us have cars -
and all of us have access to transport.
We are rich.

And I believe we are also genuinely concerned -
that we care deeply -
about poverty and disease
in Australia and around the world.
All of us find it hard
to look at pictures of children
with shrunken frames and swollen bellies,
and to see news reports
that tell of death for thousands
through warfare and famine and drought.
We all feel grief
when we think about the way millions live
without ever seeing or appreciating
the beauty and wonder of God’s world,
because for them
it’s a place of conflict and exclusion
and garbage and pain.

And then we’re overwhelmed by the numbers
and the politics and the problems;
we wonder what on earth we can do about them,
and sometimes we retreat behind our hopelessness.

But maybe there’s another way.
The first step is to recognise
that our concern is good and real and human -
and value it.
The point of Jesus’ parables, some have said,
is to comfort the afflicted
and to afflict the comfortable.
It’s right and good and proper
to feel sorrow and grief,
and to react with horror
when we see and hear the conditions of the poor.
At our deepest level we know
that the world is not right,
and our honest reaction of discomfort
is a good and healthy start.

Next we recognise
that God is especially concerned for the poor.
The name Lazarus means “God is my help”,
and the Bible is clear that God is biased.
God is on the side of those
who cannot help themselves.
So whenever we find ourselves distressed
and able to identify
with people who have been damaged and hurt
by the world’s inequities and injustice,
we are seeing with God’s eyes,
and even in just seeing,
we begin to work with God.

Then, we need to understand
that when we work in partnership with God,
nothing good is lost or useless.
The work of grace
is a bit like those plants that produce and broadcast hundreds and thousands of seeds,
many of which will never take root and grow –
but enough do.
Grace may seem weak and fragile,
it might even be dismissed as wasteful and inefficient,
but it is powerful and unstoppable,
and it is the principle at the heart of life.

We are not going to usher in the realm of God
by our individual actions,
and we aren’t going to end all suffering in the world
by our personal commitment,
but when we live with compassion
we become more fully alive;
when we open our minds and hearts
to value humanity,
we become more fully human;
and the more completely and fully human we become,
the more we become like Jesus,
who began the work of God’s kingdom
by noticing his neighbours,
by sharing meals, and telling stories,
and offering himself in love and friendship.