Rich & Poor

Sunday 30th September 2007
Year C, The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Amos 6:4-7
Luke 16:19-31

It's a commonplace for people to say that as a society we are 'dumbing down' that we watch more television and read fewer books, that our children watch more television and play with computers and games consoles and read fewer books. We are supposed to believe that there was a golden age, somewhere around the time when we were between 12 and 25 when everybody went round with a book in their hand. Can you remember that time? Here's a little test. Go home and pull out your holiday snaps from 30 or 40 years ago, find a beach scene and count the number of people reading books; you'll be lucky if you find one. On our recent holiday everybody but me had a book. My excuse was that I was writing one instead of reading one; you can't read them unless somebody bothers to write them.

We are a society which consumes narrative, adventure, analysis, psychology, surprise, eroticism, violence and mystery never before known. Whether we are thinking about books or about television and cinema, we all consume vast quantities of more or less subtly manufactured parallel worlds. Some of us, though I doubt very many here, actually confuse soap opera with real life but some of us - and I admit to being one - are more sad at the death of some figures in fiction than we are at the death of some real people.

This is important when we approach the Gospels because for more than 1500 years their only rival in literature were classical myths from Greece, subsequently re-written for Rome. Education was Christian and classical. By the time he was forty Milton had read every book in the Western world worth reading. At one level this meant that people had the chance to consider every phrase and word of what they read but at another level it tended to give people rather polarised views of what they were being told. Today's Gospel is a good example. Listening to the story of the rich man and the poor man the simple choice in the past was to decide which you were: if you were poor than you could console yourself within the bosom of Abraham, muttering self satisfied remarks about camels passing through the eyes of needles; if you were a rich man, you were warned to change your ways.

But our habit of reading makes us see things from a variety of points of view; for us in the postmodern age, nothing is what it seems. The world of fiction which first brought us Jekyll and Hyde now brings us graphics which instantly transform the beautiful into the ugly and vice versa. We have birthday cards in layers which reveal different aspects of a subject; we can use lights to create a different atmosphere on a bare stage. Nothing is what it seems.

And in the context of today's Gospel that is a very good thing because in our world we don't have that simple choice of deciding whether we're in Abraham's bosom or whether we better look out. When we go on holiday to Goa we're rich and when we walk down Park Lane, we're poor. When we get the Christian Aid envelope we're rich, when we get the Jaguar leaflet we're poor.

I think we can draw two immediate lessons from this: first, it's best not to escape into Abraham's bosom under the illusion that we're poor and that we are victims of the cruel rich and that nothing is our fault; and, secondly, as a result of our status, we better watch out because under the illusion of being victims it might turn out that we were in fact the oppressors.

Yet, this being Luke, there is more to the story than the stark contrast which he enjoyed drawing. Just as he had a soft spot for the self righteous brother in the tale of the Prodigal Son who did not run away, so Luke is interested in the fate of the rich man who finds himself in hell. The man, as a last resort, asks that his earthly survivors should not repeat his mistake but his request is refused. This might seem harsh but it underlines the central theme of today's Gospel, supported by the fierce advocacy of Amos, and that is that we are personally responsible for what we do. We are supposed to think for ourselves, exercise our consciences and draw our own conclusions. A letter from hell telling us how to avoid being sent there is simply not enough. Of course it's not enough morally because we are not supposed to do good simply to save ourselves from pain but in our knowing world we know it's not enough in any practical way. We are the most well read society there has ever been, not only in terms of the parallel lives we observe or into which we escape, we are also learned in medicine, economics, geography and psychology; but what we all recognise when we think about it is how remarkably well read we are in history and ethics and how little it actually affects our behaviour. It seems that we are incapable of learning anything really deeply from books; we get to know the theory but we make the same mistakes. Take the small example of the literature on relationships and the state of relationships; the books don't seem to make any difference. More problematic is the relationship between television cookery programmes and the meals we make but I'll leave that for now.

so here we are, surrounded by stories that might be real but might be illusions, prospects that might be real but might be illusions, and self assessments that might be real but might be illusions and what today's gospel does is to tell us that we have to be very careful to understand our stories, our prospects and ourselves. Most of us are rich and poor at the same time; most of us want to believe that there is some easy moral fix which will put things right, mostly for other people; but most of us know that there is little relationship between moralising and morals. That, ultimately is why prophets like Amos failed, they simply went round telling people what to do; of course they did the telling in the name of God but it was still telling people what to do. Jesus broke that habit by simply saying that we needed to love God through Him and to love one another for Him. To listen to many church leaders you would think that they were actually followers of Amos and not Jesus but we have to keep ourselves properly focused. The Christian church is not a moral enterprise, it is a loving enterprise. We are not morally better than non Christians but we are living with a much higher level of responsibility and hope.

For all its complexities, moralising is much easier than loving; but who said that being a Christian should be easy?