Sung Eucharist at Manchester Cathedral
26th September 2010
“Those who sprawl and those who brawl will be exiled.” “The
sprawlers' revelry is over.” That was the forceful and passionate
proclamation of the prophet Amos. He preached at a time of great
expansion and growing wealth for the Israelites; but a time too
when the rich exploited the poor and fine religious ritual
disguised the lack of sincere religious faith. Amos was fierce in
his condemnation of the corruption of city life in which the
wealthy and the powerful were utterly indifferent to the social
injustice which surrounded them every day. But he also gave the
people a message of hope, reminding them that their God, a just
God and a God of infinite compassion and mercy, would in time
bring salvation to the poor and rejected.
This profound doctrine is reiterated by the Psalmist in the extract from Psalm 145. The Lord God is a faithful God who is just to the oppressed, who gives bread to the hungry and sight to the blind, and who raises up those who are bowed down. This is the God who loves the just, protects the stranger and upholds the widow and the orphan. Neither in Amos, nor the Psalmist is there anything new - the hope and promise held out to God’s people runs right through the Old Testament, yet so often and so tragically the people failed to hear and failed to respond to the Word of God.
The very same theme runs through the whole of Luke’s Gospel. In today’s parable from Chapter 16, we heard Luke’s graphic description of how God will fulfil his promise. The unnamed rich man is portrayed as the epitome of self-indulgence; a man who believes that this present life is the only life he will live, and so will not be accountable when he dies. Lazarus, the man sitting at his gate is helpless, a sick and lonely beggar, whose only companions are the dogs that lick his sores. He doesn’t expect to sit at the rich man’s table, but is aching to eat only a few scraps that might fall from it. His yearning is never fulfilled until he dies and becomes the honoured guest at the heavenly banquet.
In stark contrast, when the rich man finds himself consigned to the torment of Hades, desperate for just a drop of water to ease his agony. The implication is that had he known what his fate would be, he would have acted differently in this life. But he treats Lazarus as if he were a slave, telling Abraham, with unbelievable arrogance, to send Lazarus to him and bring him a drop of water. Following Abraham’s rebuff, the rich man begs him to send Lazarus to his brothers so that they might avoid going to Hades themselves. Abraham tells him that, like the rich man, his brothers have Moses and the prophets to guide them, and if they haven’t listened to them, “they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”
As a moral tale, this parable contains nothing that couldn’t already be found in the preaching of the Old Testament prophets. But Jesus uses it to challenge his critics who were behaving towards the people Jesus welcomed, the poor, the rejected and the outcast, as the rich man behaved towards Lazarus. Jesus was saying in effect, remember how I taught you to pray to your heavenly Father: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What I am doing is inaugurating the Kingdom of God here and now. I’m not waiting for the end of time because the need is present and the task is urgent. Follow my example. Don’t be like the rich man, don’t wait; your work is to start making that Kingdom a reality here and now.
He was using the parable to tell them that he was fulfilling the ‘mission statement he made at the beginning of his public ministry. In the synagogue in Nazara, Jesus applies to himself the words of Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.” This was a spelling out of the consequences of the second great commandment, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” It was the mission given to him by his Father; it is the mission that Christ gives to us as his disciples.
Today we live in a totally different society to the one in which Jesus lived; highly developed, vastly more complex and sophisticated, increasingly global rather than local, infinitely richer and with a vast spectrum of opportunities beyond anything imaginable to the people of Christ’s time. Yet the stark reality of our times is that Lazarus still sits at our gates.
You who are members of the Christian Socialist Movement have as one of your principle aims to be both a 'prophetic conscience of the Labour Party and a prophetic voice to the churches'. The God given role of the prophet is to question, to challenge and ultimately bring the people back to the values and way of God. You refer to prophets such prophets as Micah and Amos (who providentially provided us with the first reading this morning) who passionately addressed the people of their time on issues of justice. You rightly look to these prophets for inspiration in asking questions of the Labour movement and issuing challenges to the churches and society of our times. And you look to the person of Jesus Christ and his commandments, recalling the consistent message of both the Old and New Testaments that we are called to hear the word of God and act on that word by loving the poor, by defending the widow, the refugee and the orphan and by standing against injustice.
As disciples of Christ, as members of different Churches and ecclesial communities, we have our differences, but more importantly we have much in common. In particular we have an overriding concern to safeguard the dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and a shared concern to promote the common good of society both locally and globally. Earlier this year, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference spelt out our understanding of the common good. “The common good is about how to live well together. It is the whole network of social conditions which enable human individuals and groups to flourish and live a full, genuinely human life. At the heart of the common good, solidarity acknowledges that all are responsible for all, not only as individuals but collectively at every level. The principle of the common good expands our understanding of who we are and opens up new sources of motivation. The fulfillment which the common good seeks to serve is the flourishing of humanity, expressed in the phrase ‘integral human development’. Such development requires that people are rescued from every form of poverty, from hunger to illiteracy; it requires opportunities for education, creating a vision of true partnership and solidarity between peoples; it calls for active participation in economic and political processes and it recognises that every human person is a spiritual being with instincts for love and truth and aspirations for happiness. Development must always include this spiritual growth, with openness to God. Indeed this notion of development, understood in Christian terms, is the heart of the Christian social message. Every person is called to develop and fulfil themselves, for life itself is a vocation, a summons, which finds its final fulfilment only in the mystery of God. We are not created for futility. Integral human development is our vocation, and it points to the capacity in each person for responsible freedom, a freedom to be formed by truth and used for the service of truth and love … Of course there will rightly be legitimate differences and debate among those who share these fundamental values and goals about how best they are to be pursued, and the continuing negotiation of such differences is the proper business of party politics and democratic participation. But at the same time, in any concrete situation, these principles can bring a particular dimension to bear, and illuminate debate on specific issues.”
This is a huge and daunting agenda but in the light of Jesus’ command that we love one another as he has first loved us, we must be firmly committed to it in the service of our brothers and sisters created in the image and likeness of God. And if we have the courage to do it, at the end of our days when we come face to face with the living God, we will hear him say: “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you gave me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” And he will add: “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
That is what you have been about for fifty years, and I pray that God will bless your endeavours in this, your Jubilee year and in the years ahead. Ad multos annos.