This week we hear from the same three books as last week, with some of the same themes around wealth and sharing which are not unlike our own time. Also we hear Jesus puts a new twist on a story of poor and rich.
Amos 6:1, 4-7
After the death of Solomon. the kingdom of David was divided with the Northern Kingdom taking the name Israel, the southern area became Judah. Amos wrote in condemnation of the corruption of the Northern Kingdom which fell to Babylon before Judah. He describes vividly the indulgences of the wealthy, and by implication their lack of care for the needy. ‘The ruin of Joseph’: Joseph was the favoured son of Jacob who allotted territory to Joseph’s two sons, Benjamin and Manasseh, This area made up a large part of the Northern Kingdom. The last verse is the warning of the coming destruction of the kingdom and the deportation of the important citizens to Babylon – including especially the rich and powerful people. The Old Testament prophets saw such events as God’s punishing evildoers. Later more reflection and understanding, came a more nuanced view as expressed in the gospels – a recognition that rewards and punishment do not always come in this life. Reward in the afterlife we see in the Gospel today.
The psalm response shows in contrast to the selfish rich in Amos, God’s care for all the poor and oppressed. The last verses however pick up the theme of ‘thwarting the wicked’, a warning that they will not always profit from their lack of concern for others.
1 Timothy 6:11-16
The second reading takes a slightly different direction without a specific focus on the use of wealth, although care for those in need would be assumed as part of being ‘saintly and religious’. These are general terms meant to be inclusive of all forms of moral behaviour and devotion to God thus would include care for the needy. There is a tone to this exhortation that leads some scholars to seeing it as taken from a baptismal ceremony as newly baptised made their profession of faith before witnesses. The writer compares this to Jesus although it is not entirely clear which account of Christ before Pilate in the four different gospels he is referring to. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of his coming into the world to bear witness to the truth, and that might be the example suggested. In all gospels, Pilate will end by sentencing Jesus to death, so the hint of being ready for martyrdom is possible, too.
The reading ends with a solemn ‘doxology’ or declaration of God’s glory. It is a good reminder of how God is far above anything we can think or imagine in this life, yet we destined to ‘appear’ before the Lord when the ‘due time’ comes.
Luke gives us another story about the uses and abuses of money. Good storyteller that he is, he starts with a short but vivid picture of the rich man and the disabled beggar. ‘Purple and fine linen’ is a quotation from Proverbs 31:22 where ironically it is in praise of the Good Woman who provides for her household. Purple dye was the most expensive and fine linen imported from Egypt, so these were luxury goods of the time. Lazarus is the only person in a parable given a name. It comes from the Hebrew word Eliezer meaning ‘God helps’ so there may be some irony in this, for God’s care at the beginning seems not to be helping Lazarus in his wretchedness. He cannot even get the scraps thrown out from the rich man’s feast. The dogs who come to lick his sores are usually seen as a sign of deep degradation, but those of us who are observers of our pets may think rather that it is only dogs who have any concern for his condition and they are offering canine sympathy.
Lazarus not surprisingly died from this neglect. ‘Carried away’ – an immediate transport to God’s presence. ‘Abraham’s bosom’ is a symbol of intimacy, as the ‘bosom’ or chest meant the choicest seat at a banquet where people reclined to eat and one specially favoured would be nearest to the host. The presence of Abraham is a reminder of the promises given to Abraham as the father of his people. Also it lets the conversation be carried on by Abraham rather than involving God in the dialog. (This is a story, and the details are not meant as a description of the afterlife.)
The rich man dies and is buried, perhaps with much worldly ceremony, and goes to ‘Hades’, a classical word that was the Greek translation for ‘sheol’ – the Jewish dwelling place of the dead. Now he who had no pity on Lazarus wants the former beggar’s help and expects him to be his errand boy. When he learns that he cannot be helped himself, finally the rich man does show some concern for others: his own brothers who are still living in the same self-indulgent way. The answer of Abraham stresses that in the teachings of the Hebrew tradition there is all that is needed God’s call to help the poor. Much of Jesus’ teaching supported the inherited ethical views of the Old Testament.
But Jesus’ story takes a new turn here. In this section of Luke’s Gospel, he has incorporated this parable, as well as a number of other teachings and events, into a format of Christ’s last journey to Jerusalem where he will meet his death on the cross, and then rise from the grave. As the rich man and his brothers in the story have ignored the teachings of Moses and the prophets, so the Pharisees and others of Jesus’ listeners will ignore his Resurrection and what that means about Jesus’ authority. ‘Miracles will not convince those whose hearts are blind and unrepentant.’ (L. Howard Marshall)
It is not spelled out in this text, but I do feel in these words a sense of how strongly Jesus felt the pain of that rejection when it was his loving intent to save all (as written in last week’s reading from 1 Timothy).
As last week, these pictures of the wealthy who are unconcerned over the needs of others are not just parables for the past, but a picture of our own times. Global media makes us more aware of those with immense wealth but also of the hungry, sick and oppressed people in our country and around the world. So many are in need that it has become easy to ignore both those on our streets and slums, or refugees from war and famine. It has been said that people get ‘compassion fatigue’ and don’t have answers to global problems, yet overwhelming as the needs are, should followers of Christ consider that a good excuse for not helping those they can?