Are we in the Parable or affected by it?

A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our gospel reading this morning is of Lazarus and the rich man; a parable well known to us and aptly interpreted as reinforcing much of Jesus’ ministry about concern for the poor, particularly as given to us in the Inasmuch sermon of Matthew 25 (‘inasmuch as you did it to the least of these’). By contrast last week in the Magazine section of the Weekend Australia there was an article by Fiona Harare entitled ‘Party Animals’ which spoke about Coco:

The birthday girl looks bored. Fifty of her best friends have arrived at her party, dressed as ring masters and clowns and even as a box of popcorn, in keeping with the event’s carnival theme. They have all brought carefully wrapped gifts, and as they file into a harbourside park on a sunny Saturday morning the exquisitely orchestrated scene greets them would impress almost any child. There are games and prizes and overstuffed party bags, plus two carnival-themed tables spread with Instagram-worthy feasts: mini Ferris wheels laden with cupcakes, matching glass jars crammed with snacks and, as an impressive centrepiece, a two-tiered $150 birthday cake.

Obviously it was quite a party – not bad for Coco the dog. Later in the same article there is the statement:

In 2019, if you have the means, your dog can enjoy a life that is decidedly middle class: beverages at the local cafe, three course meals at dog-friendly eateries, dog parties. There are dog prams, designer dog beds costing hundreds of dollars, doggy day care centres and luxury canine resorts.

During the two hours of Coco’s party, according to internationally-accepted figures, 1233 children under the age of five would have died of preventable causes. I don’t know whether Coco’s owner spared a thought for those children; but then again, at that same time last weekend, in the midst of what we were all then doing, did any of us?

Coco’s party echoes the extravagant ostentation of the rich man from our gospel reading in the midst of a world of hunger and preventable disease. The rich man was dressed in ‘purple and fine linen’; two thousand years ago purple cloth was inordinately expensive – worth its weight in silver it is said, while fine linen was itself beyond the reach of all but the fabulously wealthy. Beyond his attire, this rich man lived in luxury every day, dining sumptuously whilst at his very door lay starvation and disease for there:

Lazarus (was) covered with sores, and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.

Returning to Coco the dog for a moment, human beings have established a profound relationship with dogs over millenia. They are, for the most part, so easy to love because they love so unconditionally. It is not surprising that most dog owners would want the best for their dogs, putting aside the travesty of the concept of care that Coco’s owner seems to have done in her case. It is easy, for example, to understand why people might make provision for their pets in their wills so they won’t be left abandoned. You may be surprised to know that such provisioning can even apply to the Rapture; for there is a service to help – just google . This is a service that has arranged for non-Christian administrators, who don’t expect to be raptured, to activate a rescue plan for any such abandoned pets in the wake of the rapture of their owners. The service advises prospective clients:

Our administrators and Volunteer Pet Caretakers will do whatever it takes to find and rescue your pets. If your pet has a location chip, they’ll use that, or they’ll go to every location you’ve registered with us, and, if your pets are not at one of those locations, they’ll search for your cars as well as stay in contact with the local pet shelters. If they are unable to reach a Volunteer Caretaker in your area for whatever reason, our administrators will communicate with local animal organizations, like the Humane Society, to advocate for your pet’s rescue and care.

Nice to know such an option exists but frankly, when one has had the privilege to have known dogs such as our late parishioner Nixon, I find it hard to imagine that dogs wouldn’t be amongst the first living beings to be raptured in that glorious apocalyptic event. I know how very sad we are all are at the news that dear Nixon passed away yesterday; we will so miss him at our various services and will ever be thankful for the joy he brought to our community. Susan and Christine, our thoughts are especially with both of you. Bless you, Nixon.

Now let me return to our reading – for dogs are relevant to it. Note the second part of verse 21:

The dogs came and licked Lazarus’ sores

We don’t know whether these were the dogs of the street or the dogs who would have eaten up the crumbs that had fallen off the rich man’s table; but what our reading tells us is that the only compassion Lazarus apparently received whilst he languished there at the door of the rich man’s house was from those dogs who came and licked his wounds. They had seen Lazarus, while on the other hand there is no reference in the reading that the rich man had even noticed the presence of Lazarus. The rich man had indeed triply offended – not only had he failed to help Lazarus, and not only hadn’t he shown that he had any care for his circumstance (even of the sort ‘oh dear, how terrible, but what difference can I make? There’s so much poverty around; one meal to one person isn’t going to make any difference’), most seriously of all, this rich man hadn’t acknowledged that Lazarus even existed. To love one’s neighbour as oneself, one at least has to first acknowledge the existence of the neighbour … in this parable, the acknowledgment of Lazarus’ existence had been left to the dogs – they were being Nixon to Lazarus.

The parable then glides quickly over the death of both Lazarus and the rich man and moves on to what then transpired for both of them. Lazarus was carried by angels to Abraham’s side while the rich man languished in torment in the fires of Hades. In the poverty of his anguish, the erstwhile rich man now for the first time acknowledged the personhood of Lazarus as he begged Abraham:

Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.

Abraham responds that such an act of compassion would not be possible across the great divide which existed between Lazarus and he who had seemed so rich; and added by pointing out that the rich man had in his lifetime had ‘received your good things’ in contrast to the bad things which had been Lazarus’ lot.

But there was to be more to the encounter and I suspect we most often miss two key points in our easy reading of this parable. First, the parable was not an indictment of the rich man for his wealth; after all Abraham, to whom Lazarus goes, had been a rich man in this world and yet was well received after his death. Secondly, I’ve noted that the rich man had not even acknowledged that Lazarus existed let alone shown any care for his well-being; and that by all accounts, he was a totally self-obsessed human being – caring nothing for anyone nor caring what any thought of him. Yet at this point in the parable, he who had been so rich now for the first time showed care for others as he implored:

I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so they will not also come to this place of torment.

He had ignored Lazarus but now he wanted that very person to warn his brothers even if there was to be no hope for he himself. But this plea for the eternal well-being of his brothers failed. It was a bleak end to the parable. So how should we respond to the story?  

I don’t know whether Albert Schweitzer, the famous organist and theologian and later medico, ever had a pet dog, but he did love cats as attested by his comment:

There are two means of refuge from the misery of life – music and cats

Sizi and Piccolo ruled his life in the way that only cats can do. But pets are not the reason for me introducing him now into my sermon. I do so as it has been reported that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man was to Albert Schweitzer what Romans 1:17 had been to Martin Luther – a point of transformation in his faith. Born into a religious family, his father and one of his grandfathers had been pastors, so it seemed natural that Schweitzer too would proceed to ordination. He also echoed his family’s interests in music to which he added a personal love of philosophy. Before his thirtieth birthday he had already earned two doctorates –  in theology and philosophy; while he recreated by playing organ music, though that understates the situation for he had become an international authority on Bach and performed in concerts around Europe; additionally he also had found the time to write three books. Then one Sunday morning, he heard a pastor preach a sermon on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; it would be a sermon he would never forget. He wrote that the sermon made him think:

It (was) impossible that I should be allowed to lead a happy life while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering.

The result of this impossibility was that he returned to university to obtain a medical degree so that he could go to Africa to dedicate his life to serving others. Eight years later, those studies completed, he and his wife headed off to Equatorial Africa starting a medical clinic in Lambarene where he would continue to serve for the rest of his life. Explaining his decision to leave his early successful professions and embark upon an entirely new one, he said he did not merely want to talk about:

The religion of love, but actually put it into practice

In the words of the Very Rev’d Charles C McCoart of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Virginia, the significance of what Albert Schweitzer did upon hearing the sermon that Sunday was that suddenly:

He (had) decided to see and he (had) decided to care.

In a fortnight, there will be the start of National Anti-Poverty Week 2019.   This national event sees over four hundred events around the country which encourage people both to see the poverty that is at our gate and to care about it. The website for the week ( ) contains this summary statement:

More than 3m people live below the poverty line in Australia, including nearly 740,000 children or 1 in 6. Globally 700m people are unable to meet their basic needs and live on less than $US2 per day

Do we see those people? Do we care? In other words, are we in the parable like the rich man or, like Albert Schweitzer, are we affected by it? Let me once again quote him to help us reflect upon the way today’s gospel lesson may be instructive to us:

Seek always to do some good, somewhere … Even if it’s a little thing, do something for those that need help, something for which you get nothing but the privilege of doing it.