Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Moses

St Luke 20A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Luke 10:1-9 The Mission of the Seventy
1The Lord appointed seventy and sent them on ahead of Him in pairs to every town and place where He Himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6and if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Jesus knew His scriptures, often quoting them or referring to them. Jesus was often portrayed in the New Testament as being a new, and greater, Moses, or one of the prophets. If we go back to the Exodus story (24:1) we hear about Moses taking seventy elders onto the mountain when he went to talk to God; in Numbers (11:16-25) we hear about Moses choosing seventy to share the load of work he had; the Sanhedrin itself was composed of seventy men; so to portray Jesus as being greater than those who had gone before Him, He had to send out seventy as lambs going into the territory of wolves. The seventy whom Moses had chosen were to prophesy, but only two did so within the camp. Since the Israelites were on a long journey through the desert, to whom did the other sixty-eight prophesy? I’m not offering an answer. Jesus’ seventy, however, were sent ahead of Him into the towns where He intended to go – a sort of advance party to prime people for the coming of the Lord and a new revelation.

Jesus often used agricultural ideas to get across His point. “The harvest is plentiful” could have had the obvious meaning of it being a good time to gather an abundance of grain, but there is no indication in the passage that it was time to gather grain, and Jesus was referring to the people who were ready to become followers and would need encouragement and support. Even today, we frequently hear people claim that the labourers – the ones who are called by God to make disciples of all nations – are few, but is that true because the Church authorities, like their counterparts in the first century, are keen to have labourers who follow the dictates of the authorities, not those of God?

Jesus tells these seventy people to get on the way, not to procrastinate, not to be worried that they might not have the words or the eloquence to do the task at hand – and don’t forget that they are being sent like lambs among wolves. Their lives will be at risk; they will be attacked for no other reason than their message conflicts with the message of those in charge of the areas in which they will work. Despite all this, they were to not carry money – so they couldn’t find a way home, they were to not carry any extra clothes, they were to not carry extra footwear, and they were to avoid contact with potential thieves and murderers along the way – in other words not greet anyone on the road. Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way. When we set out on a journey like this God will provide our needs – though not necessarily our wants. If they met with people who are receptive to the message they carried – we carry – they would be housed and fed, they wouldn’t need money to buy things, clothes and shoes would be provided. By offering God’s peace to those who showed hospitality that peace would be shared if it were welcomed, but would be unharmed if it were rejected. Whichever way it was received those sent forth would be able to bask in the peace of God.

Being accepted by a receptive host would have meant, in those days, that the evangelists’ stay would be welcomed for as long as they needed to remain in the one place, and the next stage of the journey would be marked by generosity in providing for travel needs along the way. The instruction for what to do within a town or community which accepted these people was to stay, to eat whatever was provided for them – which would fly in the face of Jewish food restrictions whenever they met with Gentiles – and to heal those who needed it. In other words, they will know we are Christians by our love. That expression of Christian love would be an outward sign that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

This passage ends before an important corollary to the welcoming town, for verses 10 and 11 tell them that if the town doesn’t welcome them they should clear the dust off their feet and walk away telling the townsfolk that God is not happy – Luke compares the people with those in Sodom. Some of us have had personal experiences like that, in today’s world.

Trinity 16A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Exodus 16:2-15

2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

4Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’ 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?’ 8Moses said, ‘When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.’

©2013 Amy Hintze

9Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ 10As Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’

13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say “everybody does …” I’d be very rich. If I had a dollar for every time such a statement is true I probably wouldn’t be able to buy a cup of coffee. Sweeping statements are rarely true, and claiming that “the whole congregation … complained against Moses and Aaron” is just as likely to be well off the mark, but the important point is that many were complaining. It’s not long since this congregation of Israelites was delivered from the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his army by crossing the Red (or was it ‘Reed’?) Sea. They had been quick, then, to praise God for their deliverance, and equally quick to drop their allegiance when day-to-day travelling along the tedious journey to the Promised Land created boredom and a sense of being deserted. We live in a time when instant gratification is demanded by those who cannot, or don’t want to, be patient. This congregation will arrive at the Promised Land in God’s time, but the people want to be there in their time. Sound familiar? It wasn’t Moses and Aaron who brought them out of Egypt, though they were the physical leaders on the journey. It was God who led them out of slavery in Egypt, but it was God’s servants who were bombarded with accusations of leading the people into the wilderness to die. God is an ever-faithful parent, loving His children and looking after them in their best interests. Just like loving caring parents today, sometimes the children didn’t like what the parent was doing, and didn’t like the experience. Hey, folks, God looks after those who do things for the good of others, but if we stray, not only does He have to fix up the damage we have inflicted, He then has to coax us into seeing where we went wrong, and invite us to fix ourselves. In other words, He educates us, rather then teaching us. The difference is that He leads us to the answer, and doesn’t give us the answer, so we have to think. I wish our “Education” Departments would take heed of this advice.

God agrees to provide for the daily needs of the people, as if He hadn’t already been doing that, but He sets a test for them. Remember the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16b-20) where an abundance of grain led the landowner to consider building a big storage space? Here, God tells Moses and Aaron that He will provide bread for the people, but they must collect only enough for that day, or, on the sixth day, for two days. Even in the abundance they must not collect more than they need. Are we listening?

According to verse 6, in the evening, that is before sun-down marks the beginning of the new day, the people will know that it was God who brought them out of Egypt. How would that be? We know what comes in verse 8, but it hasn’t been mentioned, and it isn’t until verse 12 that the Lord actually tells Moses that He will provide meat. Disqualified for a false start chaps!

Moses and Aaron are right, of course, in saying that it is not really them that the people are complaining about, but God, who is about to show that He has heard their complaining. Divine intervention will save the people, despite many of them going astray, losing focus, and leading others on a path away from their maker.

With a large group of people – the Egyptians were concerned about the number of Hebrews getting larger than their own – to feed, there would have been a multitude of quails landing in the camp each evening. Quails are small birds without a lot of meat on them. Each adult would probably want at least two to stave off hunger. Would this air-drop of meat supply for the travelling public bring about a return to worship? Hardly! In the morning God provided manna in the desert. The people didn’t know what it was, or where it had come from, until Moses told them it was the Bread of Heaven on which they should feed. Would they obey God’s instruction on how much to collect? This passage ends before we get the answer, but I guess most of us would have a good idea of whether they behaved themselves or not. If you really don’t know the answer, read verse 20.

6th August 2017 (Transfiguration)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

We often think of the transfiguration as a one-off historical event, but by doing that do we exclude the chance that others have been transfigured as they follow in the footsteps of Christ?

Mark 9:2‑10

2Jesus took Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. He was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4There appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As they were coming down the mountain, He ordered them to tell no-one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead, 10so they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

It doesn’t make sense for this story to be anywhere other than in the second half of Christ’s ministry on earth, and certainly not before the temptations, which marked the beginning of His ministry, and which were the subject of the gospel reading on the first Sunday in Lent. Jesus chose three of the disciples in whom He felt He could trust, so, given His humanity, it could not have been at the beginning of the ministry, and there were too many other things happening close to the end of His earthly life. Why did he choose three? Why these three?

Playing favourites is always likely to result in human dissatisfaction and ill-feeling, so I find it hard to accept that Christ would engage in such activity, but the way Peter is often portrayed in the gospels and Christ’s comment that he would be the rock on which the church would be built do suggest that He had big things in mind for Peter, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to be one of the chosen ones. In Mark’s gospel we aren’t told which James and which John were with Him on that mountain. Were these James and John sons of Zebedee, whose mother asked for them to be seated at Christ’s right and left? Matthew’s rendition of the story does say that they were brothers, but that could well have been a Matthean addition to the Marcan text he had available to him. Was John “the beloved disciple” who inspired the fourth gospel? Possibly. I don’t know the answer, and I haven’t come across any commentaries which have considered that part of the story effectively. With an event such as the transfiguration about to occur Jesus would have taken enough witnesses to make description of the hard-to-explain occurrence a little more believable. Normally two witnesses would be considered sufficient in the context, but this calls for more.

For those of us used to thinking of mountains and mountaineers, going up a high mountain would be like climbing Everest, or Mont Blanc, or Kosciuszko, but to those in biblical times climbing a high mountain represented getting closer to God, and the higher the mountain the closer you would be to God. Here we have Jesus and three disciples close to God in more ways than Peter, James and John imagined.

Matthew and Luke both describe the transfiguration as Christ’s face changing, in Matthew shining like the sun, and his clothes becoming a brilliant white. We would do well to see that transformation as an indication that Christ was doing God’s work, and we should try to emulate Jesus in that regard. Let’s not believe that such a transformation only occurred once, on that mountain: I have heard, from devout Christians in 20th and 21st century Australia, reports of similar experiences, and I’m sure they are not the only ones.

Peter, however, was blinded by the light of this vision, became fearful, and wanted to build tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – representatives of the law and the prophets, rather than seeing the world around him lit up by the heavenly presence. If we were in Peter’s shoes and see someone transfigured, would we be scared and want to put away that experience rather than embracing it? In Anglican communion services in Australia the Two Great Commandments statement used to end with “on these two laws hang all the law and the prophets”, but it seems Moses and Elijah have lost their importance.

Jesus didn’t have to answer Peter’s request to build tents because the cloud of unknowing enveloped all of them, and God spoke the same words as were reported at His baptism – they are identical in the Greek, but translated differently – and adds that we should listen to Him. Elijah had already come and the people had rejected his message. Now it was time for the message to be heard, to be inwardly digested, and to become part of our lives. In the comfort of a relatively safe society, with freedom to practise whatever religion we desire, do we actually hear God’s word, or do we just listen to the sounds and not let them transform our comfort?

Having given these three disciples an experience of a life-time Jesus ordered them to keep quiet about what they saw and experienced until after His resurrection, though the disciples were yet to understand what that would be like. We have no such requirement. Indeed, we should be proclaiming the risen Christ as Lord for the benefit of all people. Of course, that’s not going to be easy in a community which is focussed so much on the mistreatment of young people by a very small minority of church leaders across the board. We have allowed the bad apples in the barrel to condemn all the good ones because we have failed to denounce the actions of those who undermine the Good News – some would call them false prophets – and to highlight the good work of the vast majority.

Let us all have an experience where we see the transfigured Lord, or someone in His stead, and may that drive us to spread the Good News and overcome the bad.

11th June 2017 (Trinity Sunday)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Moses, Moses, what on earth did you do? Moses had been up Mt Sinai allowing God to inscribe on two tablets of stone the words we have come to know as the Ten Commandments, but when he descended, and found that the Israelites had begun to worship other gods, he threw down the tablets and broke them. Maybe this was the first example of breaking the commandments of God. Now, God instructs Moses to make two more stone tablets for a second attempt at getting these commitments, which is a better translation of the Hebrew, to the people.

Exodus 34:1-9a

1The Lord said to Moses, ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. 2Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. 3No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.’ 4So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. 5The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord.’ 6The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
     ‘The Lord, the Lord,
     a God merciful and gracious,
     slow to anger,
     and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
     forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
     yet by no means clearing the guilty,
     but visiting the iniquity of the parents
     upon the children
     and the children’s children,
     to the third and the fourth generation’;
8and Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth, and worshipped.
9He said, “If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

As a professional analyst for most of my working life I cannot help but see some striking incongruities with the overall story of the giving of the commandments. The first is that Moses went up the mountain with Aaron and seventy-two others, but it was Aaron who was accused of leading the rest of the camp astray; the second is that Moses and troop went unprepared for a significant climb up Mt Sinai, and were on the mountain long enough for the people to start a revolt, to build a golden calf, and to establish a worship programme around it. There are problems when a theological text like this is taken literally, and then someone points out inconsistencies or impossibilities.

Moses is asked to make two new tablets of stone for God to write another copy of the commandments. That seems sensible enough, since Moses was the one who broke the first tablets in a fit of anger over what the rest of the congregation had done during his absence, but the instruction is to be ready for the morning and meet God at the top of the mountain. From what I’ve seen on Mt Sinai it would take some effort to climb it without carrying two stone slabs, and would probably take quite a number of hours too! The instruction that no flocks or herds should graze “in front of the mountain” is also somewhat of a problem as that would eliminate most of the region. Some commentators have claimed that differences in various renditions of what happened on the Exodus journey are the result of copies of stories being made, and errors being made in the process. My understanding is that these stories were told over many generations, the details being modified to fit circumstances leaving the message intact, and the differences, when a written form of scripture was created, come from the different versions which had developed over time.

The incongruities stop and the teaching starts, with verse 6. If we want to do what is pleasing to God then we should pay attention to how God deals with matters. The Lord is a God who is “merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” I can’t answer for anyone else, but maybe we should ask ourselves, more often, how merciful we are, how gracious, how quick to get angry, and if we abound in love and faithfulness which will last for an eternity? God keep to His faithful love for as many as a thousand generations. If we take a generation as 25 years, then that love will last for 25000 years, or more than four times how long a literal interpretation of the Bible will tell us the world has been around. God tells us that, for all that time, He will forgive our sins. Anyone who can achieve that must be more than a saint!

If God will forgive all our sins to the thousandth generation, does that abounding grace mean that we can sin a lot more, knowing that we will be forgive. Of course not – and this passage tells us that God’s forgiveness does not equate to being excused from punishment for those sins. God loves the sinner, not the sin, but the sinner must still wear the consequence of his or her own actions.

It might seem unfair on the children, the grand-children and beyond, for the iniquities of the parents to affect them, but if we consider the impact of someone in our own culture doing something seriously wrong, and being fined or gaoled then it will take time for the family to recover and to lose the stigma of a punishment. In some cases it could be some form of illness which can be passed on to subsequent generations. This is, after all, an expression of what was happening to the people at the time, and is their way of explaining something they did not understand in the same was as we do.

Moses bowed his head to pray. I ask the rhetorical question: do we bow our heads, or do we even need to bow our heads, to pray? It used to be common, just as kneeling to pray was common. Have we made prayer a comfortable experience, and forgotten that God wants to make us uncomfortable when we think of all we’ve done wrong because we haven’t thought of the consequences of our actions before engaging them?

God has been quite displeased with the Israelites, and Moses has pleaded on their behalf, and asks if the relationship has been restored enough for God to go with His people? I love the description of the Israelites as “stiff-necked” – they are stuck in their ways and will not, not can not, look at what’s going on around them, and change their ways accordingly. I’m sure we could all think of people and times when that description would be apt.

aAustralian Anglican congregations can expect to read this passage from Exodus, minus the last verse, on Trinity Sunday, rather than the Pentecost passage from Acts, as listed in the Revised Common Lectionary. Roman Catholic congregations will get an abbreviated version of this reading.

19th March 2017 (Lent 3)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

29-moses-striking-the-rockExodus 17:1-7

1From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ 5The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.

The Exodus story tells us about the long and arduous journey for the motley collection of Hebrew people, after escaping from Egypt, on the way to the Holy Land (as we know it).  That reluctant leader of the people, Moses, tried to follow God’s instructions and get them to a good place to live as quickly as possible, but they were reluctant to learn the lessons needed, and that approach took them from one crisis to another.

One of the problems with taking small sections of scripture for our Sunday readings is that we often miss the connection with the surrounding passages. This is the second time that the “Israelites” have complained about a lack of water. The use of the term “Israelites” for this group of Hebrews wandering across the desert of Sinai shows that the text as we have received it was written well after the event. According to one source I read for this passage, it was only the Levites who were in Egypt, many of them having adopted Egyptian names and symbols, and only they, as a relatively small group, who endured the journey to the Holy Land. That’s a good reason for not calling them “Israelites” until after they’ve been integrated into the people living in their new land. It’s another example of where the original text has been modified to fit the context of the people listening to this being read.

So, back to water. Early in the journey the people had travelled for three days and when they stopped at Marah (Exodus 15:22) the water they found was undrinkable, but Moses, guided by God, put a stick in the water and made it potable. After three days of having no new water supply I’m not surprised that the people were complaining about not having something to drink, but even that goes to show that this group which had been saved from slavery in Egypt had no idea of how to make sure they had water for their journey. The nomads of several generations earlier had become so used to having provision of food and water – even if they complained about the quantity – that they had difficulty in the new surroundings without the gods of the Egyptians. As the replacement for the Pharaoh, Moses copped their abuse. Here, too, the people have run out of water; they are in a desert with nothing to drink, and so turn on Moses because he is, after all, the one who brought them away from their previous supplies, and there was a real risk of them dying from thirst. In a 21st century context we would send out an advance party, with supplies, to find the best route and locate good water for the people, but several centuries before Christ there was no such planning. It can be hard for us to imagine the circumstances properly. In this water incident Moses takes witnesses from the people and strikes a rock which then starts to gush forth good water. If the people will trust God then their needs will be met, but they have a long history of quarrelling among themselves and not trusting God when it really counts. Even when they get supplies, such as the manna and the quails, they don’t listen to God’s word and follow His instructions. God doesn’t like hoarding behaviour, or gathering more than you need instead of trusting Him to provide.

Of course, this is a theological description of what happened, and how the people survived a long journey on foot across a desert, and would have had context changed to suit the audience, as well as embellishments. The people camped at an already known site, Rephidim, so water must have been available close by and it was a matter of finding it. Had the striking of the rock released a blockage allowing a stream to flow again? Possibly, but God had led His people to that place.

Moses was stuck between a rock and a hard place. His faith in God gave him the strength to endure what was ahead, knowing that the needs of the people would be met, but he had to cope with the people’s reluctance to trust God, and their willingness to put God to the test. Some of the people probably considered it was Moses who led them out of Egypt, not God, and so question the motives for the move, yet again. Others may have believed it was God who procured the miraculous escape from slavery, but then doubted that decision afterwards as the group encountered one problem after another as God tested those with less of a conviction as to who was behind the exodus.

In the end, though, the doubts from within the group, resulting in Moses naming the place not in honour of the water but as a memorial of the group’s doubts, were answered by God providing water to restore body and soul. Usually, when God provides, there is an abundance – enough to satisfy the need with plenty left over.

The question this passage raises for me is: How often do we doubt God’s purpose and love for us because we don’t have what we think we need when we think we need it? Can we trust God a little more to provide for us instead of trying, ourselves, to make sure our needs are met?

25th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Luke 16:19-31
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house — 28for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

The “villain” in this story which is familiar to any regular church-goer is described as a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, and who feeds sumptuously every day. These days we have a wide range of colours available, and the price varies little, but in biblical times purple was an expensive colour which was generally restricted, partly because of the cost, to royalty and people in places of great responsibility. This description, then, is a very thinly veiled reference to the Pharisees and, particularly, to the Temple hierarchy, who loved to dress in expensive outfits, and who expected those beneath them to provide more than ample food, often at great expense. The poor man, not to be confused with the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, represents the starving millions who would have enough food if our rich character would only share some of his edible wealth. Translations from the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic of our scriptures all too often misses the sense in the text. Here, Lazarus didn’t just decide to lie down at the rich man’s gate: the Greek suggests that he was dumped there, inviting our rich man to show some compassion. Instead, it is the dogs who tend to Lazarus’ sores. We might cringe at the thought of dogs licking our wounds, but in doing so they were providing first aid to someone in need.

If we wonder what was the cause of the death of our two characters then we miss the most important points of the story. Despite finding himself being tormented the rich man doesn’t appear to have learned how to approach others. He speaks to Abraham as an equal, rather than as God’s chosen one to lead his people, somewhat like a young footballer with little talent talking to the Queen in the same way as he would to his team-mates. Our rich man also treats Lazarus as if he were a slave, not talking directly to him, but asking Abraham to send him to cool his tongue in his hour of need. He truly hasn’t got the message that he’s being tormented because of what he has done, or not done, during his earthly life.

There is a modern-day story about a priest who was warned to leave his home because a dam wall had burst and the town was about to be flooded, but refused help three times, only to drown. When the rich man in this parable wants Lazarus to warn his brothers about his fate Abraham reminds him that the prophets have already been warning people for a long time, and they have chosen not to listen. Then, in a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, Abraham points out that even if someone returned from the dead that person’s warning wouldn’t be heeded. Christ Himself returned from the dead, but few people accepted that it was Him, and fewer still heeded His advice. These days, with our scientific expertise, people try to find alternative explanations to events which don’t fit our normal experience, missing the message which they should hear. It was no different then.

How close are we to either of the characters in this parable? Do we take advantage of the riches we can accumulate in our lifetime, and ignore the needs of others who are less fortunate than us? Do we treat others as if they were slaves to make us more comfortable, or to get us more possessions which we leave behind when we die? Do we even think about others in the world around us? Even worse, do we see the people in need around us, or are we too focussed on what we want to notice their existence.

It’s good to have a stable home in which to live, and enough money to provide for our basic needs, but it’s far too easy to want bigger or better things, or more possessions that we think will make us happier, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of those who are in need. As to the target of this parable, the old favourite “the Pharisees” it’s no surprise that they didn’t understand, or didn’t act on, the message Christ was giving them. What about today’s church leaders – and that includes me?