Sermon given at Holy Communion on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Will we perish like fools or learn to live together as brothers and sisters?

The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar

Sunday, 25th September 2022 at 6.00 PM

A few days ago, I met Lazarus: not the Lazarus of our gospel reading, but a Lazarus who was suffering, humiliated, dehumanised, and almost unnoticed. Our encounter was on one of the wards of the hospital where I work as a healthcare chaplain. Lazarus was in the corner of a four-bedded bay, hidden behind curtains, naked except for a bed sheet, to be avoided unless you had a reason to search him out.

Lazarus is a nobody and, in a sense nobody’s responsibility for there is nothing that can be done to relieve his situation. Lazarus is incurably ill.

Lazarus, a 38-year-old man, came to the UK to study at a college in East London, but a series of events brought his life to a standstill. The college he was attending was investigated for fraud, closed, and did not refund Lazarus his course fees. His parents had drained their lifesavings and were unable to fund a place at another college and now cannot pay for his return flight. Having come to this country on a student visa, the situation has become increasingly precarious. It may well be that, for a number of years, Lazarus got by, living under the radar until he became ill; seriously ill; terminally ill.

His passport has expired, his visa has expired, his funds have expired, and soon his life will expire. Hidden behind curtains, Lazarus is invisible.

Our gospel reading, generally known as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is frequently misunderstood for it is not about life after death. It is about the dangers of living selfishly in this life. The rich man—notice he is not given a name—is dressed in fine linen, dining at a table full of food, enjoying all the good things life has to offer. Jesus does not give him a name because he could be you or me. The person who is named, uniquely named in a parable is Lazarus because Jesus wants to lift his invisibility. Covered in sores, he begs at the rich man’s gate and eats scraps off the rich man’s table. Dogs lick his sores, a telling detail for this would have made him ritually unclean and, excluded from the Temple: a final humiliation.

Both men eventually die and even in death, their situation could not be more different. Lazarus is carried off to the bosom of Abraham—heaven, while the rich man is in the fiery torment of hades. 

In hades, there seems to be a moment of regret as the rich man calls out to Abraham asking for mercy, that Lazarus be sent to him, to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue: a strange request but one which confirms the arrogance of the man for he still believes that others, like Lazarus, exist to serve his needs.

Yet, as I said a moment ago, this parable isn’t a primer about life after death; rather it teaches us about the consequences of our actions towards others.

Martin Luther King—you probably know you can see a statue of him on the west front of the Abbey among the twentieth century martyrs, drew on this parable when he spoke about the missed opportunities the rich man had to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother

Lazarus. He happened pass Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. He allowed Lazarus to become invisible. More than that: he didn't even realize that Lazarus was his brother.

Let’s be clear about what Jesus was getting at: this is not a parable about poverty, or about our wealth, or about the right distribution of the world’s resources. This is a parable about what we fail to see or sometimes choose not to see. Jesus calls us to recognise and confront the reality that every day we pass by people who are trapped in poverty: not only the food and fuel poverty so many people in this country are experiencing in these hard times: there are other faces to poverty: the poverty of housing, education, unemployment, ill-health, relationships. Could it be that poverty is difficult to confront because it forces us to look into the eyes of people who are not so different from us as we would like to believe, to listen to their stories, to walk with them in their struggles, and to see, really see, the pain living in their eyes?

In going behind those bed curtains last week and listening to Lazarus, the many poverties of his situation are almost too much for me to bear, let alone for Lazarus to contemplate.

It was just two weeks before his assassination that Martin Luther King spoke about this parable: ‘I submit’, he said, ‘this is the challenge facing the church: to be as concerned as our Christ about the least of these, our brothers and sisters. And we must do it because in the final analysis we are all to live together, rich and poor, lettered and unlettered, tutored and untutored. Somehow, we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God made the world.’ King concludes that either we learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will all perish as fools.’

We all know Lazarus, even if it’s just the Lazarus on our television screens in advertisements about the child with the cleft lip or needing clean water; or the Lazarus who drops through our door in charity letters as a torture victim or asylum seeker; or maybe it’s more obvious: the Lazarus who sits outside the supermarket begging, or the Lazarus who walks down the middle of the street shouting at traffic and is in some episode of mental illness. Let’s hurry by.

Then again, if we were to ask someone who volunteers with one of St Mungo’s outreach team, here in London, going out each night to meet a homeless Lazarus to help them off the streets, what difference it has made to their life: their life not the life of the homeless Lazarus, what might they say? Because once you do something like that, and perhaps some of you have, you cannot go back. You cross a gulf, a chasm and see and understand human need differently from that moment onwards. You are privileged to see the world in all its richness, brutality, and immense complexity; more importantly, you also see the person in front of you as a beloved child of God.

These are hard days, and they will get harder. But Lazarus is in front of us, at the gates, every day. And we still have the chance to change things—if only we are willing to see. 

Will we perish like fools or learn to live together as brothers and sisters?