Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us your gift of faith that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to that which is before, we may run the way of your commandments and win the crown of everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
AS THE congregation reached the end of the third verse of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “Lord, for the years”, having prayed for “spirits oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care”, a friend standing near by whispered that she would not mind trying the oppression of wealth.
Sunday’s readings continue to wrestle with the ethical and spiritual ambiguities of material prosperity which have been under consideration for weeks in the cycle of the lectionary.
Again, the prevailing message is that, although money and possessions are not evil in themselves, they can fatally blind their owners to other measures of value, and to concerns beyond the occupations for which riches provide leisure. Oppression and enjoyment are close neighbours.
Amos’s warning about a life spent in thoughtless luxury is addressed chiefly to the northern kingdom of Israel — although Jerusalem does not escape reproof (Amos 6.1a). Being “at ease in Zion” is an evocative idea, which spoke to Matthew Arnold (“Hebraism and Hellenism” in Culture and Anarchy, 1869), and to G. K. Chesterton, who likened this state to “[treating] the Holy City as if it were the Hampstead Garden City” (Illustrated London News, 29 February 1929).
Chesterton’s word-play grasps Amos’s anxiety over the failure of his audience to understand the bond of holiness which united God, God’s people, and the land that they occupied. Those who could feast in full sight of the suffering of the nation, “the ruin of Joseph”, were living the kind of disordered life that would send them into exile when the Assyrians invaded, later in the eighth century BC (Amos 6.6).
The author of 1 Timothy has outlined in previous chapters how a godly and well-ordered ecclesiastical community should live. He has even upheld slavery as a system that can express Christian principles if masters and slaves all behave as believers (1 Timothy 6.1-2). Now he sums up the ideal situation, in which increasing godliness and increasing contentment go hand in hand (1 Timothy 6.6).
Wanting to be rich can be a dangerous distraction from the purposeful life lived in expectation of a life unimaginably richer and better than present existence (1 Timothy 6.9-10, 17-19). The letter emphasises the value of good works and charitable generosity, principles enshrined also in Jewish law and practice (for example, Exodus 22.21-25; Deuteronomy 10.17-19). Luke’s story of the rich man describes the dramatic reversal of fortune which comes from sheer selfishness and the neglect of an obligation to the poor.
Brendan Byrne reads this parable as a deliberate inversion of the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16.1-9). Where the manager saw sense before it was too late, and repaired relationships with individuals on whom he had imposed large commissions, thus gaining his master’s approval, the rich man fails to see that his self-centred use of his money will have consequences for eternity (The Hospitality of God, Liturgical Press, 2000).
Having ignored Lazarus lying at his gate day after day, he is nevertheless able to recognise him across the gulf that separates Hades from the place inhabited by Abraham (Luke 16.23). Still unburdened by self-knowledge, he sees a useful contact who can act as Abraham’s messenger and alleviate his suffering.
Abraham rules this out for two reasons: the first is a seemingly vast oversimplification that sees earthly wealth and poverty changing places in eternity, without the contextual density of the Magnificat or the Beatitudes (Luke 1.46-55; 6.20-26); the second is the impossibility of any traffic between one side of the division and the other.
The rich man does not give up, turning instead to his five brothers. Perhaps Lazarus might still assist by urging them to change their ways. Abraham is once more firm. People who have attended to the teaching of Moses and the prophets need no extra warnings; nor would the inattentive be impressed by someone who rose from the dead (Luke 16.31).
This must be directed at the Pharisees, who, at the end of a part of Jesus’s walk to Jerusalem in which they have been frequent dialogue partners (Luke 14.1-16.31), remain resolutely insensitive to Jesus’s references to future events. In rejecting him, they do not move closer to the faith of Abraham, but further away, encumbered by jealously protected scruples.
What Jesus offers to all of Abraham’s children, Jews and Gentiles, is the freedom lavishly imagined in the well-loved antiphon In Paradisum, from the requiem mass: “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.”