Sunday, September 29, 2013


Sermon preached at the Church of the Ascension, Plumstead
at Parish Mass for the Harvest on Sunday, September 8th 2013



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.

So wrote the British poet, Edith Sitwell, in The Canticle of the Rose in 1941.  The moving story we have just heard Jesus tell the Pharisees is one which has resonated through the centuries and still has the power to make us stop and think.  Every time I pass a homeless person sheltering in a doorway at a grand hotel or store I am confronted by that story .  Last week we heard Jesus reflect on the nature of God’s mercy based on a parable about financial corruption and now we have this powerful account of the consequences of social injustice. In some ways todays reading hardly needs further comment and it maybe we should just sit quietly and consider what it says to us: as someone once said: "It's not what I don't understand about the Bible that bothers me, it's what I do understand!"

But I’ve been asked to preach as well as preside at Mass!  So I will try to do three things: explore the message of the story; reflect on its connection with today’s Harvest Festival, and consider all this in relation to the call to holiness referred to in our second reading.

Now it’s important to realise the account of Dives and Lazarus isn't just a ‘story’, it’s a parable.  And a parable is a way of illustrating a story that addresses a particular subject.  It’s a ‘word-picture’.  And, like all good pictures, it has many layers of meaning. 

Firstly the person of Lazarus.  This Hebrew name means ‘God is my help’ and because Jesus rarely names any character in a parable many have been led to believe that this story is based on a real-life encounter.  Perhaps he had got to know Lazarus and now uses him to represent the plight of the poor who, frequently, have no voice – just as Lazarus is silent in the account.  But Lazarus is not powerless.  Indeed, he has the power to save the rich man and to prevent him being denied a place in heaven.  And, whilst we know nothing of his life, we are told that when the poor man died he was taken directly to that place – to the ‘bosom of Abraham’.  Perhaps Jesus sees himself in the plight of Lazarus.

On the other hand the rich man is given no name in the gospel (the name traditionally given to him, ‘Dives’, is simply the Latin word for a rich man).  But he does have a voice.  In life he had ignored the poor man who lay at the entrance to his property and in death pleads for mercy just, one might assume, as the poor man had done.  Then there is that interesting conversation between him and Father Abraham.  If you listen carefully to the conversation between them you hear echoes of another parable – that of the Prodigal Son which Luke had recorded earlier.  In both the subject matter was two men: one reduced to poverty who longs to fill himself with leftovers, the other who had enjoyed the good things of life but has become merciless to the needs of the poor.  And in both we have a father to whom appeal is made. 

The difference is that in the parable of the Prodigal the father allows both to feast together whilst now Father Abraham (who we can assume also stands for God) chillingly speaks of the great gulf that separates them forever.  We need to recall that Luke records both stories in the context of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem and, as one reads through the following chapters, there’s an increasing sense that a moment of profound crisis is approaching the consequence of which, like the message of ‘Moses and the prophets’, will fall on deaf ears. 

This unsettling finale to the parable recalls the four curses Luke records at the close of the Sermon on the Mount:
‘But alas for you who are rich:
you are having your consolation now.
Alas for you who have plenty to eat now:
you shall go hungry.
Alas for you who are laughing now:
you shall mourn and weep.
'Alas for you when everyone speaks well of you!
This was the way their ancestors treated the false prophets.’
(Lk.6: 24-26)

So, in this context, let’s consider your celebration of the Harvest.

The Festival is rooted in the Jewish Pilgrim Feast of Sukkot, or Tabernacles, which commemorates the time when the Hebrew people lived in tents in the Wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.  Apart from anything else we, like them, offer gifts from the harvest of the earth in recognition that we do not own this planet.  The food we eat, the produce we gather, all are gifts and by returning a proportion to God we acknowledge that we are merely part of creation.  It’s interesting to recall that during another Pilgrim Feast, that of Shavuot, Jews are reminded of the words of Yahweh when they were approaching the Promised Land after their years in exile: "When you reap the harvest in your country, you will not reap to the very edges of your field, nor will you gather the gleanings of the harvest. You will leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am Yahweh your God." (Lev.23:22) 

Whilst the poor may not often need to glean from our fields it’s interesting to note that farmers today are being urged to leave parts for the benefit of wildlife – and the consequent benefit to us – and not to seek to maximise an immediate financial profit from their land. 

Today, of course, we give thanks for the harvest of the earth in the context of the Mass, which is itself an act of thanksgiving – Eucharist.  A celebration in which we present before God bread and wine as symbols of all creation.  So we might consider what we are thankful for; what we have received that has been given us that we might enjoy life in all its fullness. 

Finally, how does all this relate to the way S. Paul urged Timothy to be ‘saintly and religious’? (1 Tim.6:11)  Well, quite simply because you cannot separate the call to holiness, the practice of religion, from the call to justice and the needs of the poor.  As someone has written: ‘the call to be involved in creating justice for the poor is just as essential and non-negotiable within the spiritual life as is Jesus' commandment to pray and keep our private lives in order.’ (Ronald Rolheiser: The Holy Longing)  Jesus reminded us of our priorities: that we are called to the love of God and neighbour.  They are not separate.  So today’s gospel reading and our Harvest celebration are both invitations to live holy lives for it is the world’s poor who will save us. 

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.

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