Sermon – Trinity 15 (Proper 21) Year C

Catherine Gibson

1 Timothy 6.6-19; Luke 16.19-31

Not all the stories Jesus told were original: sometimes he took a familiar story and gave it a surprising twist. That’s what he’s doing in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. A folktale about a wicked rich man and a pious poor man, and the reversal of their fortunes in the afterlife, was popular in Egypt and among Jewish teachers. But in all these versions of the story, when someone asks permission to send a message to those on earth, the request is granted. The shock in Jesus’ telling of the story is the refusal: if the Rich Man’s brothers (and, it is implied, his hearers, the Pharisees), haven’t taken on board the teaching of Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe “even if someone rises from the dead.”

Because Jesus is using a traditional tale, and intends it as a parable, we shouldn’t take the  details of this picture of the afterlife as representing Jesus’ own understanding of what awaits us hereafter. We should note, too, that nothing is said in this version about Lazarus’ piety. The Rich Man has not simply been unaware of Lazarus during his lifetime: he can’t plead ignorance because he even knows his name. We may imagine that as Lazarus lay at his gate, the Rich Man must often have passed him in his carriage.

Lazarus has his counterparts even in Ilkley: among them, the buskers and Big Issue sellers on our streets (currently usually from Romania); and those who use our Foodbank. Sometimes there are homeless people sheltering in doorways; and we only have to go into the centres of Leeds or Bradford to encounter them every few yards.

The Letter to Timothy doesn’t condemn the possession of wealth: as with all the good things of this life, we are to remember that these are lent to us by God so that we may be good stewards of them. We are not to make the possession of them the objective of our lives, but rather their use in God’s service.

Some St Margaret’s folk may recall that, about twenty years ago, Bill Godfrey and I produced our Youth Group in a dramatized version of another parable on this theme, The Young King by Oscar Wilde. The title-character has been brought up by goat-herds until he reaches the age of sixteen, when he is sent for by the dying King, his grandfather, to be his successor. Experiencing fine artefacts for the first time in his palace, Joyeuse, he becomes almost obsessed with them, and is much taken up with designing his coronation regalia.

On the night before his coronation, he has three dreams. First, he seems to be in a long attic, filled with many looms. “The meagre daylight peered in through the grated windows, and showed him the gaunt figures of the weavers bending over their cases. Pale, sickly-looking children were crouched on the huge crossbeams. As the shuttles dashed through the warp they lifted up the heavy battens, and when the shuttles stopped they let the battens fall and pressed the threads together. Their faces were pinched with famine, and their thin hands shook and trembled. Some haggard women were seated at a table sewing. A horrible odour filled the place. The air was foul and heavy, and the walls dripped and steamed with damp.” When the young King questions one of the weavers, and expresses incredulity at the necessity of living like this in a “free” country, the weaver gives him a little lesson in socio-economic realities; and the King learns, to his horror, that the cloth they are weaving is for his coronation robe.

In the second dream, the young King is transported to a galley off the coast of North Africa. The master of the boat kills an Arab in a small posse threatening the ship from the shore; and the slave who is lowered from the boat to fish for pearls dies from exhaustion after retrieving one “fairer than all the pearls of Ormuz, for it was shaped like the full moon and whiter than the morning star. . . And the master of the galley laughed, and reaching out, he took the pearl and when he saw it he pressed it to his forehead and bowed. ‘It shall be,” he said, “for the sceptre of the young King.’”

In the third dream, a great many men are digging in a dried up river-bed, when plague sweeps through them, leaving not one survivor. “And the young King wept, and said: ‘Who were these men, and for what were they seeking?’ ‘For rubies for a king’s crown,’ answered one who stood behind him.” A pilgrim, holding a mirror, is there; and when the young King enquires further, he is invited to look into the mirror.

In the morning, the courtiers bring in the young King’s robe, crown and sceptre, and they are more beautiful than he could even have imagined. But, remembering his dreams, he refuses to wear them, and instead puts on the clothes and staff he had worn as a goatherd. When asked what he will do for a crown, he picks a spray of wild briar and makes a circlet of it. As he passes through the palace and mounts his horse to ride to the cathedral, he is both scolded and mocked: and when he tells his dreams, a man in the crowd says, ‘“Sir, knowest thou not that out of the luxury of the rich cometh the life of the poor? By your pomp we are nurtured, and your vices give us bread.”’

As he ascends the steps of the cathedral, the Bishop remonstrates with him, concluding, ‘“The burden of this world is too great for one man to bear, and the world’s sorrow too heavy for one heart to suffer.’ ‘Sayest thou that in this house?’ said the young King, and he strode past the Bishop, and climbed up the steps of the altar, and stood before the image of Christ.” While he is praying, nobles burst in, vowing to kill him; but he finishes his prayer before he rises to face them.

“And lo! through the painted windows came the sunlight streaming upon him, and the sunbeams wove around him a tissued robe that was fairer than the robe that had been fashioned for his pleasure. The dead staff blossomed, and bare lilies that were whiter than pearls. The dry thorn blossomed, and bare roses that were redder than rubies. . . He stood there in the raiment of a king, and the gates of the jewelled shrine flew open, and from the crystal of the many-rayed monstrance shone a marvellous and mystical light. He stood there in a king’s raiment, and the Glory of God filled the place, and the saints in their carven niches seemed to move. In the fair raiment of a king he stood before them, and the organ peeled out its music, and the trumpeters blew upon their trumpets, and the singing boys sang.

“And the people fell upon their knees in awe, and the nobles sheathed their swords and did homage, and the Bishop’s face grew pale and his hands trembled. ‘A greater than I hath crowned thee,’ he cried, and he knelt before him.

“And the young King came down from the high altar, and passed through the midst of the people. But no man dared look upon his face, for it was like the face of an angel.”