Last year our family visited Windsor Castle twice. We only went the second time because once you’ve bought the tickets they last a year, but it can be good to see things again and things had changed a little since our first visit. Queen Mary’s Dolls House was back on view!
On both occasions, though, I was struck by something outside the Castle, but in full view of it – homeless people in doorways. It reminded me of a verse from ‘All things bright and beautiful’ which, thankfully, ceased to be included in hymn books many years ago:
‘The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.’
We don’t believe this anymore – or I hope we don’t! But it shows how a nineteenth-century hymn writer, who wrote some good, theological words in other places, was trapped in the mindset of her own time. She couldn’t see beyond the status quo.
Recently I was re-reading a parable of Jesus which also ties in with this: ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table…’ (Luke 16.19-21) Mrs Alexander, the hymn writer, would have known this story. She practically quotes from these verses, and yet doesn’t seem to get the point of it.
I think The Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the most challenging of Jesus’ parables. The beggar dies and is carried by angels to Abraham’s side. He rich man also dies – and is buried, because he can afford it – but his final resting place is Hades. He cries out in agony and asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his family. But at no point does he show any remorse or a change of heart. He still thinks only of himself. He still cannot see what was wrong with the way he was living. Make what you will of this Jewish take on the afterlife, but this tale has something to say to us in this life.
In many ways, the world is still the same. One place where wealth and poverty are very closely juxtaposed is Israel-Palestine. Israel is a developed, well-resourced modern state, which has been funded massively for years by the US. Alongside it, the Palestinian territories are impoverished, and Gaza is at breaking point. Many charitable resources have gone to these areas over the years, but a year ago the US cut all its aid to the Palestinian areas. For years Israel has also built smart settlements within the West Bank in contravention of international law. In places, the settlements come right alongside Palestinian neighbourhoods. The contrast is stark.
On 28 January President Trump unveiled his ‘peace plan’ for the region. But all it really does is to make permanent the current injustice. It is simply preserving the status quo and, tragically in my view, some Christians will say that’s the way God wants it to be – the way he has ‘ordered their estate’.
This world will never be perfect, but I believe that those who are privileged – and I include myself amongst them – must look beyond their own interests. The Kingdom of God demands that we challenge the status quo, and work towards greater equality and justice for all – in this life, before we get to the next.
With every blessing