26 September 2010

Being religious without love is no religion at all

Bonifacio Veronese, Dives and Lazarus, 1540-50. Oil on canvas, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 26 September 2010: The 17th Sunday after Trinity

10.30 a.m.: Holy Communion, Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin.


Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
Teach us to offer ourselves to your service,
that here we may have your peace,
and in the world to come may see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings: Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91: 1-6, 14-16; I Timothy 6: 6-19; Luke 16: 19-31.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our Gospel reading this morning is a popular Bible story. We usually know this as the story of Dives and Lazarus, and it is almost as well known a story as the parables of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.

But there are some unique and distinctive aspects to this story.

For example, this story is found only in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

And did you notice who is named in this story?

Surprisingly, God is not named in this story. But, of course, as in the Book of Esther, God is seldom named in the Gospel parables either.

Instead, the parables challenge us to think who is God for us by asking us to see who is most God-like, who acts like God would act.

Apart from God, who is not named in this story?

The poor man at the gate is named, but the name Lazarus could be confusing, because this is also the name of the brother of Mary and Martha, the dead friend Jesus raised to life in Bethany.

The name Lazarus, or in Hebrew Eleazar, which means ‘the Lord is my help,’ is an interesting name for those who first heard Jesus tell this story, for the rich man in his castle certainly is of no help to the poor man at his gate.

Abraham is named.

And Moses is named.

Both are key figures in this story, for all the descendants of Abraham are promised that they are going to be children of the covenant with God. And it is Moses who receives that covenant in the wilderness on Mount Sinai. So just think of what that covenant must mean for people in the wilderness, people in exile. The man at the gate, who is being ignored by a leading religious figure of the day must have been made to feel hopeless, outside the scope of the covenant, abandoned, in a wilderness, impoverished, exiled outside the community.

But there are six other characters in the story – and not one of them is named.

The Rich Man, who is at the centre of the story, is sometimes called “Dives.” But the name Dives is one he does not have in the Gospel story, in the parable as Jesus tells it. Tradition has given him that name, we have given him the name Dives. When you read the story again, you can notice that the rich man is anonymous. He has no name. The name Dives derives simply from a misreading of an early Latin translation of the Bible.

And the rich man has five brothers – but not one of them is named.

In the past, some commentators have tried to over-historicise this story, identifying the rich man, in his robes of purple and gold, with Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that his five brothers are his brothers-in-law, the sons of Annas, the other High Priest who plays a role eventually in the Crucifixion of Christ.

I like to think this man is anyone who claims to be religious but who falls in love with riches. It is not his wealth that is his downfall, but his love of wealth and how he uses it.

The Apostle Paul is often misquoted as saying money is the root of all evil. But as our Epistle reading this morning reminds us, what he actually tells Timothy is that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and that, “in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Yes, you can be religious and rich at one and the same time. But if I appear to be religious, I need to be careful that my religious practices are not a contradiction of, a denial of, the way I live my life in the world, and respond to the needs of others.

God’s covenant is only meaningful when it is lived as a covenant of love. The rich man loves himself first, and, perhaps, his family, his own inner circle second. But that is as far as his religion goes. It doesn’t go beyond his own front door.

I like to think Jesus is playing a little game with those who are religious and listening. If you remember the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), she is told that she is wed to five husbands but has no true marriage at all.

The five husbands could represent the first five books of the Bible – the Torah. The Samaritans would not accept any other writings as Holy Scripture, and there was a joke among Jews at the time that the Samaritans were so insistent on these five books alone that it was like being wedded to them. They were the Biblical fundamentalists of their day. She is being told that you cannot be wed to Holy Scripture and have a covenantal relationship with God without love.

She realises that just as being wed but without love is no marriage, being religious without love is no religion at all.

Love is the active ingredient of true religion. And when that dawns on her, she becomes one of the greatest missionaries in the Gospels.

The story of Dives and Lazarus has inspired great artists, and composers like Vaughan Williams

Similarly, Jesus may be playing a game with those who are listening to this morning’s parable. If the rich man, as it appears, is a priest of the Temple, then he too is a religious figure. But the priestly caste of the day were Sadducees, not Pharisees. And so the Pharisees who were listening to this story (verse 14) would have known that the Sadducees too refused to accept as part of the Bible any books other than the first five– when it came to Holy Scripture they only admitted those five into the family of faith.

The rich man realises that being wed to the Torah without love is no covenant. But unlike, the Samaritan woman, it is too late for him when this truth dawns on him.

There is no covenant without love, and this is true for marriage and for religion.

There is no true religion without love ... not self-interest, but love for God and love for others.

Oh – and there is one other character in this story who is not named. This is not a human character. But an animal – the dog.

Does anyone remember the 1996 movie produced at the Sullivan Bluth studios in Dublin, All Dogs go to Heaven, with a voice over by Burt Reynolds?

There was a religious tradition in the time of Jesus that dogs did not get into heaven. Dogs were seen as scavengers and therefore impure and defiled. Jezebel is devoured by the dogs in the street, who leave only her skull, her hands and her feet (II Kings 9: 33-37). To be thrown to the dogs was a most degrading death (Psalm 22: 20).

The little dogs may have eaten the scraps under the table in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15: 21-28; Mark 7: 24-30). But dogs were still were kept outside the walls of the house, even the walls of a town. It is a cultural attitude so inbred that in the Book of Revelation the people kept outside the gates of the Heavenly City include those who are described as “dogs” (Revelation 22: 15).

We think of dogs today as faithful pets. But even Argos, the faithful hound of Odysseus, waiting for years for his master’s return from Troy, waited sitting on a dunghill. And that cultural perception of dogs as dirty was prevalent throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Lazarus is hungry and covered with sores, and sits outside the gate of what must have looked like a Heavenly City inside. He is in such a condition and in a place where even the dogs come and lick his sores (verse 21). For its time, this is a description of abject living, so abhorrent that this man is totally outside normal, good clean company. He is in the wilderness, in exile, and at a point where only God can redeem him.

Dives is not a single identifiable rich man. He is each and every one of us. Who among us, on first hearing this story, as it opened, as the first part of it began to be told, would not have delighted in the lifestyle of the rich man. After all, how often do I find myself saying, quite rightly, all I want is for me and my family to have somewhere decent to live, decent clothes and decent food?

But that decency turns to indecency when these things soon become all we want in life … and want nothing for others, have no place for meeting the needs of others.

I heard a comedian last week complaining about the size of a pizza slice he was served in a cafĂ© – if you had a pie chart for what you’d do if you a won a million in the lotto, this was the size of the slice for what I’d give to charity, he said.

Having lost his compassion for others, especially the needy on his doorstep, Dives loses his religion, for without love their can be no true religion; and Dives loses his humanity, for I am only human in so far as I am like God and love others.

The loss of Dives’ humanity is symbolised by his loss of a personal name. I am baptised with a personal name, and so incorporated into the Body of Christ; that name is how I am known to God and to others – God calls me and you recognise me by my name. Without a name, can Dives remain in the image of God? Can he be called on by others as a fellow human being.

On the other hand, the coming of Christ turns all our skewed values upside down: those we think are most outside God’s compassion and outside the Kingdom of Heaven may well be those most likely to be signs of what the Kingdom of God is, and to be reminders of kingdom values.

Lazarus who is an outsider becomes the true insider; Lazarus who is totally poor, becomes rich in the one way that really matters; Lazarus who is at death’s door finds eternal life.

The dogs too play an important role – like the woman who mops the brow of Jesus on his way to Calvary, and the women who weep with him above the city … they do not take away his suffering, but they tell him that his suffering is shared in creation.

So, who is most like God, most like Christ, in this Gospel story this morning?

Those who first heard this story, would initially have expected the person to be most like God to be the religious leader, the one who can cite the Bible, call out to Abraham and Moses. When his fate is revealed they must have thought: “There’s some mistake here surely?”

Those who first heard this story would have initially expected the person to be least like God to be the beggar at the gates, the man out with the dogs.

But is that not what Christ is like? He gives up everything to identify with our humanity in his incarnation, life and death; he is rejected, and dies outside the city walls.

You may not want to be like Lazarus, but Christ wants us to be like him. And we are most like him not when we hope for riches and pleasures beyond our reach, but when we love God and when we love one another. God calls each and every one of us to be like him, to love like him, and when he calls us he calls us by name.

We may marginalise others, we may exclude others, we may push others outside the gates. But God never counts me out, God never excludes you, God never closes the gates on others. We too, despite what others may think of us, are invited to the Heavenly Banquet. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Post Communion Prayer

God our guide,
you feed us with bread from heaven
as you fed your people Israel.
May we who have been inwardly nourished
be ready to follow you
all the days of our pilgrimage on earth,
until we come to your kingdom in heaven.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was first preached at the Parish Eucharist in Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, at 10.30 a.m. on Sunday 26 September 2010.

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