1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
I couldn’t resist a title that beats you over the head—because this parable beats you over your head. Last week we dealt with the sublimely puzzling parable of the dishonest steward. That’s one parable that hardly makes any sense; and it invites multiple interpretations, which is what we did. But today’s parable is blunt and clear, at least for the most part. There’s the rich man, and the poor man. The rich man is unjust and is punished; the poor man is just and is blessed. Pretty clear, no? Luke’s gospel is particularly blunt on the issue of wealth and poverty; but as the parable itself says, Moses and the prophets, pretty much the whole Bible, agrees with Luke.
Well, what do we do with this mostly clear message? It’s so rare that we have to question our own wealth. What voices outside the Bible ever question the wealthy? They mostly ask nicely for money. Hardly anyone will even admit, “I am wealthy.” (Ok, Donald Trump apparently has said “I’m really rich,” and the like.) But Jesus, whom recently we’ve seen be incredibly demanding, offers us a rare chance to confront this uncomfortable issue. But we should avoid hasty conclusions from this extreme parable.
After all, Jesus never condemns the goodness of material pleasures. He does call on us to share them. The rich man in our parable is not upbraided for enjoying himself. Well, Jesus said that he “feasted sumptuously every day.” From other places in Scripture, it is clear that the word “feast” is something reserved for special occasions. But his taste for excess is not really the problem with the rich man. Nor are we given evidence that he is generally a bad man; Abraham replies to him with gentleness rather than anger. The problem is that the rich man ignored the poor man Lazarus slowly dying at his gate. And even in the torment of Hades, when he looks up and sees Lazarus with Abraham, he still does not see Lazarus as his fellow human being, as the brother whose keeper he should have been. Notice how he tells Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue. It’s as if he regards Lazarus as his servant! He expresses no remorse to Lazarus for the lifetime of suffering that the rich man inflicted on him by his neglect. Instead, he thinks of his brothers, who evidently are also rich and neglectful of the poor. ‘Let Abraham send Lazarus—he’s my errand boy, after all—to warn my brothers. I think Abraham sees that he still doesn’t get it. And so Abraham tells him, even if someone comes from the dead to them, they will not repent. The word of Moses and the prophets, in a way, already comes to them from the dead, as Jesus now comes to us. The rich man ignored God’s call, and the brothers will continue to ignore it, not because they weren’t warned, but because they serve mammon, not God. You may recall from last week that the saying that prompted this parable was: you cannot serve God and mammon, wealth. Even confronted with the truth of Hades, the rich man demonstrates how true this saying is.
We think of wealth as just stuff that we have and enjoy. And that’s not all wrong—God created the material world as a place of enjoyment. But our stuff, our wealth is all caught up in our twisted relationship with our fellows. To enjoy his daily feasting, the rich man had to actively ignore Lazarus. He had to pretend Lazarus didn’t exist. Maybe he even found Lazarus annoying; maybe he was secretly angry at this heap of humanity at his gate that threatened to detract him from his feast. Or maybe quite the opposite: maybe the feast tasted all the sweeter, the wine felt all the warmer, because he could look out and see the pathetic Lazarus, desiring even a crumb from the self-indulgent excess of that table. Maybe Lazarus’ pain whetted the rich man’s appetite.
How much are we affected by twisted relationships like this? The psychology of our enjoyment of wealth is not innocent or simple. Take “conspicuous consumption”—it’s the way we buy things to show off our power to others, wresting from them a humiliating defeat because they cannot have what we have. Poor people do this too, often in a more garish fashion. That’s why the truly wealthy have learned to spend their wealth more tastefully, more subtly; we even sometimes give money lavishly to the poor to demonstrate our moral superiority over the gaudy tastes of the poor. We use our money and wealth in a complicated and perverse game of securing status and projecting a distinguished self-image. Maybe if we could just let God provide our self-image—that we are forgiven children of God, by grace brothers and sisters to Jesus the Christ—then we could get back to enjoying things in their simple, created goodness.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. Unlike the rich man in the parable, we live in a very complicated system that ensures in its own way the great divide between rich and poor that Abraham mentions. For instance, we no longer own much of our wealth; much of it is loan—mortgages, credit card debt. We are no longer at liberty to sell what we own and give to the poor. Even our potential to become wealthy is encased in debt; we become indebted to the system by taking out enormous student loans during our languid years in grad school, for instance. (raise hand) I’m not completely free to be generous.
Moreover, there’s very little about our public, secular system of wealth creation that encourages us to see the poor as our family in need. Instead, we wealthy “working families,” as our politicians call us, are encouraged to take care of our own. We don’t think of ourselves as greedy, and in a way we’re not. [with sarcasm:] Those of us with children are holding onto our wealth for our kids, nor for ourselves. For our children we move away from the poverty of the cities, where Lazaruses abound, to the nicer neighborhoods, to quiet wooded lanes in Pelham where a coyote more likely calls at our gate than a Lazarus, or sometimes to gated communities were the Lazaruses are politely asked to leave. We move our kids to where the schools are better—and the better schools happen to be whiter. It all seems sensible, though we ought to ask: why is our system such that schools are worse, and particularly, funded less where poor people live? We also should ask ourselves, what happens to our children when we remove them from being in contact with the Lazaruses of our world? Will they see the poor as their neighbors, as their fellows, or are we training them to, like the rich man, ignore Lazarus?
But it’s so beautiful and wonderful, isn’t it, the feeling of giving good things to your children and working hard to secure their future. There is a selflessness there that is created in us by God, and testifies to the sublime mystery of the one we call Father, as a God who is self-giving. We’re mostly not selfish, greedy pigs; we show a selfless love and regard for our families. It’s wonderful; I love it. And I hate to mess with this picture. But Jesus time and again shows a steady disregard for my noble desire to direct all my love to providing for my son. We already heard, “You must hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” to be my disciple. Elsewhere Jesus exclaims, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”, within earshot of his impatient mother and brothers. “Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother.” In some ways, Jesus is the farthest thing from being a poster child for “family values,” as the religious right has made him out to be. And bear in mind, the rich man shows admirable concern for his family, trying to save his brothers. The rich man in Hades. His family values didn’t save him, according to Jesus’ imaginative story.
Yes, it seems extreme and against our good sense. “Maybe Jesus should have had children,” we might say, smugly; then he would understand. But as far as this strange figure of Jesus is concerned, if we really are all equally children of God, then why should we love our own children more than Lazarus?
Wealth has changed. There are many more wealthy people today, thanks to the wealth-creating achievements of capitalism. But wealthy and poor are more segregated by nation than before. Our whole nation-state system is part of the elaborate apparatus that encourages us to be the rich man who doesn’t see Lazarus. Our world is very different, but the rich man has not disappeared; in some respects, he has multiplied. And Lazarus has multiplied too. He’s more often brown skinned; more often a woman. He probably might not have a heart of gold; she is not necessarily the “deserving poor.” But that’s irrelevant in this parable; Jesus says nothing about Lazarus’ upstanding character or how he became poor.
Like the Lazarus of this parable who is more a symbol than a real person, the Lazaruses of today are mostly unknown to most of us, although some of you inspire and prick my conscience by your direct work with people in dire need. Unlike the one Lazarus of the parable, the Lazarus we confront today is legion. Lazarus is for us a silent horror that underlies our every waking experience. And we work hard to suppress this horror. We work hard to be the blissfully ignorant rich man, and our system of wealth creation helps us all it can. That horror is the fact, which we all know at least dimly, that right now in the world there are millions of Lazaruses suffering and dying. They would gladly receive just a piece of what we enjoy each day, even those of us who are relatively strapped. And we here enjoy varying degrees of luxury each day, knowing somewhere dimly in our mind, that we could be doing more to help those millions; and no amount of praising our own hard work, and no amount of wagging the finger at the poor as if they are to blame, can justify this horrible situation. Wealth and poverty today opens in front of us an abyss of conscience that looks infinite and is overwhelming; only a God of truly infinite grace can show us a path of life through this darkness.
We have Moses and the prophets, we have moreover the cutting word of Jesus; God’s light has shone us this abyss. Like the rich man, we haven’t really repented. We’ve given to some good causes; we’ve collected clothing and contributed to fund drives for this and that. We’ve spent eye-opening afternoons at Cathedral in the Night. We’ve helped a Lazarus here and there. But we haven’t repented. If the rich man had a hard time repenting over one Lazarus, how do we repent over a million? And what would it mean to repent of our wealth?
First, I don’t think it means having to sell everything we have. Like I said, we’re not all free to do that in the first place. (Though if we were, who would not admire someone among us who sold everything and gave to the poor? It’s not impossible.) But I am not about to do that, so I can hardly tell you to. If we are going to keep some wealth, we should try to enjoy it properly.
A first step might be to resist our secular temptation to see the wealth we have as my right and my property. There is a strong inclination in our culture to say, “I earned what I have.” (Sometimes it’s clearly a lie.) There’s a lot of talk in our Constitution and laws about protecting our private property. That’s sensible, from a secular perspective; it’s not too surprising that the secular law is on the side of those who have. But God seems to be on the side of the poor. And so there’s virtually nothing in the Bible proclaiming my right to property. What we call property the Bible regards as a gift from God, first, and second, a temptation to neglect our neighbor. I believe if we regard what we have as a gift, rather than clutching it as “mine, mine, all mine,” and if don’t try to make our possessions a source for our self image, but just enjoy them as a created goodness from God, we are more likely to enjoy them properly. And we are more likely to enjoy the simpler, humbler gifts of our daily bread, and not the grander goods that can’t deliver the false salvation that they promise.
Secondly, receiving what we have as a gift from God ought to inspire gratitude in us. I know that it does among you all. That gratitude ought to make us more willing to share, both with friends, but even more with those who have little. It ought to do that; it must do that. But I myself have so little to show for the generosity that my gratitude has inspired, that I cannot count myself as a good example to be followed.
Finally, if you tell me that faith and politics cannot be mixed at all, I will respond that I understand some good reasons for why you think that, but you are wrong. I’ve preached carefully on that issue before. Let me say carefully now, as people who have Moses and the prophets, and the very words of Jesus, we are not at liberty to ignore poverty as a political issue. That much is clear and consistent in God’s Word to God’s people. Now don’t fret: I have no clear biblical authorization to prescribe what the best political approach to poverty is. There are reasonable disagreements about the causes of and best responses to poverty: some will think charitable organizations are more effective than governmental programs; and on the other hand, some will argue that private charities can never adequately address the national and international scope of the problem. And we can disagree about how much inequality is needed to incentivize work in our economic system—which, we should note, works by appealing to and exploiting our self-interest; that’s capitalism, and it works pretty well, but has nothing to do with Jesus. Obviously Democrats tend to talk more about poverty, although in this presidential race, both candidates are appealing to those who feel they are not getting their fair share. In any event, we can reasonably disagree about the prescriptions of this or that party. And of course, poverty isn’t the only political issue. So I respect our liberty of conscience on political choices. I would add that, if we are going to reasonably disagree as a Christian body, we ought to make the effort to talk together about it and seek intelligent insight together.
What we as Christians are not at liberty to do, so this parable tells us, is to ignore Lazarus. If your political candidate or party never talks about Lazarus—and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter to Jesus if Lazarus lives in Jerusalem or Egypt or Asia or South America, or Granby—then you should ask why not. And you should consider that your candidate or party would almost certainly get the rich man’s vote (by absentee ballot from Hades, of course). If your source of news and current events never discusses Lazarus, here and around the globe, then you ask should ask why. And you should consider that the rich man would almost certainly be watching that channel. The biggest obstacle to helping the poor in our political system is that there is no political will to do so. And there are only a few righteous politicians who have the courage to force the issue on an electorate that doesn’t care. We have Moses and the prophets, and Jesus. I say, let us repent.