Caught in the Middle

Sunday 26th September 2010
Year C, The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Amos 6:1 4-7
1 Timothy 6:11-16
Luke 16:19-31

On the face of it, there could be nothing simpler than the lesson from today's three readings: Amos rails against the luxury and indifference of a decadent Samaria shortly before its collapse; the exhortation in Paul's First Letter to Timothy to lead a holy life is preceded by one of our most hackneyed sayings, that the love of money is the root of all evil; and Saint Luke's story of the rich man we call Dives, and Lazarus, well, it jut leaps out at you, doesn't it?

For the story in Luke could have been written for our times: we only have to think of the city bankers in their gated mansions and the poor, not at their gates but cowed, alienated and swallowed up by despair and addiction in their sink estates. And there is our clue; for we are neither the bankers nor the paupers; so what do Amos, Paul and Luke have to say to us?

Many of us are left bemoaning our fate. What is happening now has nothing to do with us. We did not pick up the bonuses and yet we, waiting in trepidation for the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review, will soon be asked to pay for their greed; and our natural response is to resent the imposition. We, the innocent, will be asked to pay higher taxes and resign ourselves to lower benefits, languishing pensions and stagnant house prices.

Yet, as we wait, there is a Christian response to the situation which seems to have eluded us. Every day we hear of various groups explaining why they should be exempt from the cuts; but I have yet to hear anyone saying my cause is just but there is a cause more just than mine. We might have less leverage than the police, we might be less obviously venal than the bankers, we might feel justified in our outrage; but it is not us that will sink into addictive hopelessness and degradation.

To view our plight simply in terms of a private Dives and a private Lazarus is to miss the point. The proposed cuts are a matter of community dynamics and politics. Dives was not only a rich man in his own sumptuous house, he sat on boards and committees, he fixed the terms of trade and the terms of power, he no doubt talked about "law and order", "scroungers" and the "undeserving poor"; and too often that is our talk. It is us, in our flawed but vibrant democracy, who share in setting the context for our debates: we may not buy the tabloid newspapers that so improbably caricature the dichotomy between virtue and vice but we do not always challenge the language as we should. We somehow believe ourselves to be caught in the innocent middle ground between the wicked from above and the feckless from below.

And in the welter of crude and shallow punditry what have we to say for ourselves as Christians? Well, the Pope's teaching on the Common good has been drowned out by atheist tirades against Christianity but our own hierarchy has been scandalously silent; bogged down in the hand-to-hand fighting over sexuality and gender we have enjoyed very little moral leadership on questions of social justice. In the past decade Christians have been outstandingly clear on issues of Third World justice but since Faith in the City, after which we were so savagely attacked by the then Conservative Government, we have gone into our shell. There has been justified scepticism at the vague formulation of the Coalition Government's "Big Society" but it is not enough to be commentators on the pronouncements of others; The Big Society has to be what we make it.

So to return to Saint Luke's Gospel. In our complex society we are neither wholly Dives nor Lazarus. We are not caught in the middle, innocent and helpless, we are less powerful than some but more powerful than most; we are less wealthy than some but more wealthy than most; we are less articulate than some but more articulate than most. WE are the committee people who campaign against housing developments and bypasses, who band together for this good and against that perceived evil, though mostly the latter, finding it easier to stand against what we don't want than speaking out for what we do want. We are the culture that often gets more worked up about the poor treatment of veal calves and retired donkeys than the poor treatment, of which we are an implicit part, of our poor neighbours and the asylum seekers who wish, quite understandably, to enjoy the life for themselves which we think is appropriate, even a right, for us. For all its superficial spiritual merits, few of us would want to suffer the fate of Lazarus as a precursor to the enjoyment of eternal life; we think that this is a false choice. Why cannot we lead decently comfortable lives now and go on to see God as he really is?

Put in the place of Lazarus, what would he have wanted of Dives? Surely not a massive gesture, closing down and selling the great house to distribute the proceeds to the poor; surely not firing all the servants and consigning their bright liveries to the bonfire; surely not asking the great man to change places with the poor man. Driven to extremes, the poor and oppressed sometimes resort to revolutionary violence but what surprises me is how docile the poor are. For complex reasons, when they riot, they burn and loot each other's houses, not those of the rich; they vent their rage on their own, not the outsiders who have penned them in with their penury. And the Christian response should be one of active engagement and concern, not a reaction of prudent generosity to put the lid back on the seething pot.

And the other part of our reaction, the point which I have saved to the last, is that our work on behalf of the mission of Jesus cannot but involve sacrifice. For all I know, those who focus on their own earthly comfort might scrape into heaven but a reading of the Gospels is not encouraging on this point. Yet to react by offering sacrifice in return for everlasting life is yet another piece of contractual dealing. Sacrifice is required of us for two fundamental and deeply connected reasons: first, we are enjoined to imitate Christ and that imitation cannot but involve sacrifice; but, secondly, to do good, to love one another, is part of our created nature and not to do good is to deny that nature and to distort our being.

It is time to come to a fateful reckoning with our past. The Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity asserts that we were made to aspire to the divine; whereas the Latin tradition of Christianity, fatally proposed by Saint Augustine of Hippo, maintains that we, born with original sin, are fundamentally corrupt. I prefer the first formulation to the second but the worst state to be in is one of denying both, living insipidly, legalistic, Christian lives, doing what we think is just enough. But when it comes to exercising our God given capacity to love, there is no such thing as enough.