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The Great, Cold Distance: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 25, 2022:
Luke 16:19-31

A while back a fe people from our parish and diocese read one, or in some cases, two, novels from the ’90s by Octavia Butler: The Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Talents. Both are classified as ‘dystopian fiction’ — novels about the future of our society in which things have gone very, very badly. Set in the future, I don’t recall some of the usual science fiction features like flying cars or robots. Instead, what has stuck with me is her image of a society that is stratified, with people pushed to the edges, either of extreme wealth, or extreme poverty. The rich live farther and farther removed from everyone else, the worse and worse it gets. The poor rule the streets (maybe you’ve seen the movie Escape from New York), and it’s no longer an environment in which anyone with the choice would go out for a walk.

And stuck in the middle is the shrinking middle class. Avoiding the street and unable to climb to the heights of the rich, they set up walled compounds between the two. And the walls absorb the bullets, rocks, and bombs that fly between the two groups on the edges. It is not a future any of us would hope for. Even the comfortable classes live in constant vigilance and danger.

These novels and the world they describe can’t help but come to mind as we, and other communities, grapple with challenges associated with the cost of living. The middle class, the most common species of the post-WWII world, is being squeezed, and those same pressures are driving those already struggling further to the fringes.

And lest one, in their frustration, put forward a plan that doesn’t take seriously, or have compassion, for those being crushed by the wheel of so-called progress, Octavia Butler’s description of dystopian society tells us that even those who can afford to avoid the streets, or who can construct a buffer of fence or wall, are still bound to suffer in this world of growing inequality. If “consequences” is a theme of today’s gospel, and sermon, and children’s story, then there are still consequences, even for the seemingly comfortable classes, in this skewed arrangement. Consequences for all of us if we continue down the paths upon which we look to be already set.

Around the same time of Butler’s novels (about 30 years ago), a Church of England priest that was known, like Jesus, for caring for and including the most marginalized of the community, wrote in a piece to The Independent: “The spiritual climate of the present time, a time of increased polarisation of rich and poor as well as of the polarisation of consciousness of this reality, must be shaped in the context of the cold, the love deficit which marks our culture. We have become a culture lacking in human warmth and compassion…”*

That could describe Butler’s future as described in those novels. Or it could describe much of what we find around us today. Or it could describe many times and places throughout history, including Jesus’s day: where a small ruling elite lived in comfort (on the backs of others); a small artisan class lived something of a middle class existence; but the vast majority of people struggled every day — multi-generational family units and tight-knit communities working in lock-step — just to survive. So no wonder the crowds were drawn to the miracle-worker and storyteller who offered concern and even healing, and in teaching and story described a coming world there was peace, and wholeness, and enough. “Give us this day our daily bread” was something they really meant, and needed. It’s useful, now and again (if not more) to remind ourselves that the faith traditions and Christianity and Judaism originated from places of need and uncertainty and even threat (thinking of the nations that surrounded the Promised Land of Israel, or the powerful actors and institutions that persecuted the earliest communities of Jesus-followers. Maybe when we recover that sense of urgency — about our needs, and our hopes; our brokenness in society, and in the environment — our prayers will recover a power and efficacy that we would usually judge as naive, or literally ‘miraculous.’

As we sit with the disturbing parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (the only parable with characters that are named — Lazarus and Abraham; “Richard” was not necessarily the rich guy’s name) we might be troubled or challenged by questions. And parables are designed to raise these questions. Are riches bad in themselves? Is poverty virtuous in itself? If the parable highlights the warning messages of Moses and the prophets, who are the oft-ignored messengers in our own time? To what extent is this parable describing God’s judgement and justice that people will one day encounter? What character are we most aligned with — Lazarus, the rich man… the dogs… Abraham? And what about the middle-class, seemingly absent from the story (and not prominent in Jesus’s day)?

Or do we step back a layer, to the original hearers, and find ourselves there? Last week’s gospel ended “You cannot serve God and wealth” and then between what we heard last and this week, the evangelist writes: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” Maybe that is where we find ourselves.

We will each answer for ourselves as we wrestle with this text, and sometimes come to different conclusions or political solutions. I do not know if Jesus’s primary purpose with this parable was to enact changes here-and-now, or to prepare people for a future judgement (or perhaps that boundary is porous). I don’t know if there was hope, in the end, for the rich character. But I do think that that Church of England cleric was on to something, in writing to the newspaper: Our “time of increased polarisation of rich and poor… must be shaped in the context of the cold, the love deficit which marks our culture.”* This is a story, a parable about the deficit of love in our culture. Lazarus, day after day, sat at the gate. He was not a stranger. He was not unnoticed. Jesus is holding a mirror up to us, and to every culture in every time and place, if there are people with ears to listen, and has us confront the love deficit that might be residing in us. Perhaps even from a psychological perspective the Rich Man and Lazarus reside in both of us. Is there a Lazarus in our mind or heart that we have been neglecting or pushing away? Some part of ourselves that we have trouble having compassion for?

The parable raises difficult and challenging questions, and many more than I’ve touched on. And hopefully we will be inspired to repent — turn around from harmful, unhelpful ways. And yet at the end of the day we hold up this challenge alongside our tradition’s refrain that ultimately we are saved by the grace of God. We might recall how when someone asked what was needed to be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus, in answer, describes a way of being and doing in the world. And it’s received as hard words, for the inquirer. But, the evangelist adds, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Where there is love, there is hope. And so we trust that nothing is impossible for God, and even the chasms of this world or the next can be bridged by the symbol of love that is the Cross. And so we trust in that. And pray that we are also changed in the process, as we do so.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/fatih-and-reason-the-cold-within-the-heart-of-man-the-fourth-article-in-our-series-on-what-it-would-mean-to-try-to-be-a-just-rich-man-in-the-modern-world-inspired-by-the-parable-of-lazarus-and-dives-is-by-kenneth-1531170.html