The First Sunday after Trinity


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


O God the strength of all them that put their trust in thee,…
1 John 4:7-21
Luke 16:19-31

John’s first Epistle is so cumulatively overwhelming and apparently repetitive that there is a danger of missing some of what it says. In summary: God is love and that love is made manifest in the sending of Jesus so that we might “Live”, i.e. attain everlasting life through him; because god loves us, we should love one another and in doing so god lives in us and his love is perfected in us and therefore he dwells in us and we dwell in him; in that god’s love is perfected in us we may live without fear.

The turning point of the passage which is easily missed and which is, significantly, repeated, is that God’s love is perfected in us which implies that without us it would be imperfect. In one sense this is to deny the perfection of God independent of anything created by him but in another sense it means that only we can fulfil God’s purpose for us. In a sense which it is hard to define, our existence is an eternal necessity of the Godhead even though we live in time. In other words, allowing for the problem of the metaphorical language, the eternal, changeless God can hardly have ‘decided’ to create humanity as a contingent act. This interpretation almost certainly stretches John’s meaning beyond his intention but at the very least the notion that our union with God involves us in some form of perfection is a great comfort which must have bolstered John’s audience, many of whom were living in fear of persecution which explains why he was so anxious both to allay those fears and to set out the over-arching theology of love and salvation.

In their different ways love and salvation are at the heart of Luke’s story of Dives and Lazarus. The man clad in purple certainly lacks love and is therefore deprived of salvation. He therefore asks that those he has left behind on earth should be warned of their fate if they persist in his ways but this plea is rejected.

For a 16th Century congregation this story could hardly have been more straightforward. Its members would have known instinctively that the rich man had Christian obligations of charity and that the poor man had basic entitlements. Although in the late 16th Century terrible scare stories of beggars were spread as part of the campaign which resulted in the mean spirited ‘Poor Law’ of 1601 (which survived until the onslaught of Charles Dickens), in the Middle Ages begging was confined to those who were absolutely incapable of undertaking any manual work; this explains the nature of obligation and entitlement.

In a broader perspective people in Tudor times knew instantly where they stood in the way society was ranked and most would have placed themselves closer to Lazarus than to Dives, thus arriving at a secure standpoint from which to view the parable. We have no such luxury. Our society is much more subtly stratified than late Feudalism and we frequently find ourselves in different hierarchical relationships: when we read about city tycoons we are poor but when we sit on the committee that determines mission giving priorities we are rich; As the economic cycle turns and markets rise and fall we can be pitched from one state into the other; one minute we are Dives, the next Lazarus. We are also warned against giving money to beggars and against ‘quick fixes’ for deep-seated problems of poverty.

This Janus-like ambivalence ought to enliven us to the necessity of exercising responsibilities as Dives because we are soon to become Lazarus but it never quite works that way; nor should it. We do not exercise graciousness, clemency or generosity in the hope that our conduct will be reciprocated. From a practical point of view this is hardly likely as the power exercised over us and that which we exercise is progressive and linear rather than reciprocal but, in any case, the quality of love is that it goes on and on, it is not a boomerang. We should act out of generosity regardless of the conduct of others which might impinge on us.

Luke being Luke, this parable is not as simple as it appears because of the divine rejection of Dives’ plea for a moral messenger to be sent to his brothers. The refusal is both practical and salvific. At the practical level, we all know, as the most literate society in history, how little what we learn influences what we do. Whether we are thinking of morality, history, psychology or simply the life broadening experience of novel reading, the instances where we change are so infrequent that we can identify them. At the salvific level the Gospel intersects with both the Epistle and Collect in declaring that salvation is not vicarious; we can, with God’s help, only care for our own souls, a point which would not have been lost on post Reformation worshippers recently deprived of the popular Roman practice of declaring indulgences. The point is further hammered home by the converse observation in Luke that Lazarus could not help Dives once he had been condemned to ‘hell’.

Underlying the Readings is the antithesis between loving and not loving, between perfection in and separation from God. In living out our contemporary meaning of love we must be careful not to typecast ourselves too firmly. Our temptation will always be to cast ourselves as Lazarus but if we examine ourselves closely we will almost certainly find that we are Dives.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. What is the relationship between the Creator and humanity from the perspective of each?
  2. What might it mean to say that God’s love is “perfected” in us?
  3. To what extent does the force of a parable lie in its anthropology?
  4. How helpful is the idea of hell?
  5. Are you Dives or Lazarus?

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)