How often have you heard a child complain that it’s not fair? Children have a strong sense of fairness and do not like to be treated unfairly. Most parents do their best to be fair I’m sure, though perhaps their children can’t see that. God, as our parent, can be relied on to treat us fairly but life in general does not seem to be fair. The good may die in some disaster, the wicked may prosper. Our sense of what is fair is offended by this, but that is the way it is. The story of Lazarus and the rich man has some insights to show us on this matter. It was the passage of the gospels for Thursday. The readings were Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 16:19-end.The reflection I gave is reproduced below:
Some of you will be aware that my parents, both in their 90s, are struggling at the moment. My father in particular is in terrible pain with neuralgia. It’s very difficult for my mother to see him suffer and not be able to do anything to help him. When I was visiting recently my mother said, ‘It’s not fair. Your father survived Dunkirk in the war only to face this now.’ Obviously I am very sympathetic but as far as I know, nobody ever said that life was fair.
There have been recent disasters in the world, notably the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. There are wars virtually continuously. Few days go by without hearing of a suicide bomb in some area of unrest. Natural disasters like fires and floods have recently affected areas of the world, as well as unprecedented amounts of snow and cold weather. All these events, and similar ones in the past, have led to injury and loss of life. Those who suffer are not necessarily the ones whom we might consider deserving of something bad happening to them. The good and bad, rich and poor, young and old, innocent and guilty, have all been just as likely to suffer. It would certainly be possible to say that life’s not fair.
Of course the life we are thinking of is the life of this world, here and now. In Psalm 1 we are assured that those who delight in the law of the Lord will find everything they do prospers. I’m sure we can all come up with examples to show that that is not the case every time. The wicked meanwhile, we are told, will be blown away like chaff. We certainly do see at times that those who are wicked find that the law catches up with them eventually, though not always. They may well get their just deserts but they may not. As Jeremiah asks in chapter 12, ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’
Jesus’ story looks at the long term view, not just at this world. In his parable, the rich man may not have been particularly wicked but he certainly wasn’t very compassionate and was not following the guidance given in the Scriptures about looking after the poor. Lazarus appears to have done nothing wrong but suffered a dreadful life on earth. All that unfairness is changed when it comes to the time after death. Lazarus is carried by angels to be with Abraham while the rich man finds himself in torment in Hades. From what we can tell from the story, the divide between the two places is fixed with no traffic between the two.
Rather late in the day, the rich man finds some compassion in him at this point, albeit for his own family members rather than for the stranger at his door. He wants them to get a special warning of what awaits them unless they mend their ways. This suggests that the whole family is equally lacking in compassion. The rich man is sure that a man returning from the dead would help his brothers to mend their ways and Abraham is equally convinced that this would have no effect at all. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
The problem for the rich man and his brothers was not lack of guidance on how God expected them to behave, but lack of taking notice. All the help they needed was there in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus himself summed up the Law and the Prophets when he told us to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves. This was not new teaching but was drawn from the very scriptures the rich man would have had access to. All the man and his brothers had to do was to listen and then put it into practice.
The passage from Jeremiah sums up the problem and it is not one of knowledge. It is a matter of the heart. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” Jesus pointed out that our hearts will be where our treasure is. The rich man had worldly treasure and set his heart on that, rather than on studying and applying the Law of God.
All people have had some revelation of how God wants us to live. Everyone has a conscience to guide them even if they have no knowledge of Scripture. Those who live according to what they know of what is right are doing as much as they can to be righteous. They are following ‘natural law’ and it is on this that they will be judged at the end of their lives. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Romans.
The rich man had his Hebrew Scriptures and we as Christians have the Bible, giving us access to the wisdom of the people of Israel and the example of Jesus’ life, as well as the insights of Paul and others. We have all that we need to help us live a life in line with what God requires. It is on how we have responded to this that we will be judged. Living this way is not easy, certainly, but it gives a depth to life which will help us through the difficult times.
In all three readings today, the one who does not follow God’s ways is living a dry life. The rich man longed for Lazarus to come with just a finger dipped in water to cool his tongue. In the psalm, the wicked are like chaff – the dry outer part of wheat. In Jeremiah the wicked are like shrubs in the desert, living in a parched place, on salty land. Thirst is the theme running through these passages with regard to the wicked. Whatever profit their life brings, deep down they are thirsty.
Meanwhile the one who meditates on God’s Law, who allows it to sink deep into their being, is refreshed as by the most wonderful water. Such a one is like a tree that has roots that can reach the waters of a stream so does not need to worry about dry times. Its leaves continue to grow and fruit forms, even in drought. We know that Jesus told people to come to him and drink. If the written word of God can refresh people so much, the Living Word can do so much more.
There is no way to guarantee that living according to God’s Law will bring a trouble free life to anyone. In fact Jesus said that we will have trouble in this world. However, sinking our roots deep into God’s word, filling ourselves with his promises, learning of his love, allowing ourselves to be transformed by the example of Jesus, will bring a richness of life that is of a totally different type from worldly richness. What better time to do this with more diligence than in Lent?
We can be sure that when we die it will be our heart and not our bank balance that God looks at. There will be no unfairness then. One thing we can rely on: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor