Sermon preached September 29, 2013
Texts: Luke 16:19-31
If I Were a Rich Man
This is a song we could all sing with feeling, at least if the lyrics were more gender neutral.
But here’s something to think about. If we take the Bible seriously we need to know that there wealth is viewed with a great deal of concern. Many are familiar with the words from I Timothy: But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (6:9-10a). The Bible is full of cautionary tales about wealth.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. So begins a story told by Jesus. God, would it have been too much to have given me a small fortune? This rich man in the story is given no name, only well-described. It may be helpful to know that purple in the time of Jesus was the color of wealth, royalty, and position. The Roman Empire regulated how purple was to be worn.
In some tales, people come into wealth at the end of the story, and they all live happily ever after. Not so here.
There is another character in the story, a poor man, someone desperately poor, so poor he does not have the energy to move away from dogs licking at his open sores. Yet this man gets a name, Lazarus – the name is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eleazar which means “God helps.”
Both the rich man and Lazarus die. Death – the great equalizer, yet in the story death does not really equalize things. The afterlife reverses things – the rich man is in torment and Lazarus is in comfort. The rich man, who had ignored Lazarus in this life, though perhaps not completely or how would he recognize him, the rich man asks from Lazarus just a taste of water. Within the confines of the story there is an uncross able chasm making this impossible.
It is good for us to remember here that this is a story. This is not intended to be a description of the afterlife. It is not really about the afterlife at all, but about this life. The message isn’t subtle. You cannot not care about the poor. If you follow Jesus, not caring is not an option. God is a God of the gap, a God who cares about those on the margins, without neglecting to care for those who are well-off.
If not caring about the poor is not an option, we find ourselves smack in the middle of the messiness of life where spirituality – following Jesus, is all mixed up with morality – what is the right thing to do and who is a good person, and these get mixed into politics – how are we going to live together as a society.
A recent issue of The Christian Century reported on the results of a poll asking respondents “When Jesus and the prophets urged concern for the poor, they were primarily talking about (a) our obligation to create a just society, or (b) charitable acts by individuals?” Among all respondents, 50% chose charitable acts in contrast to 41% who chose creating a just society. The number was 57% to 33% among white mainline Protestants.
Now you may be nodding inside. Jesus certainly is talking about charity when he mentions the poor. We should be engaged in directly working to improve the lives of those who find themselves poor. But how do we confront the fact that charity isn’t enough, nor is it always effective or efficient. For instance, it makes more sense to construct public sanitation systems than to simply allow for charitable care for those sickened by unsanitary conditions.
Charity isn’t enough. In the United States 17.6 million families face food insecurity. Military families used $100 million in government food aid last year. That did not prevent the House of Representatives from recently voting to cut food assistance programs by $40 billion over the next ten years, with even deeper cuts considered. Feeding America, the largest hunger charity in the country processed $5 billion in food and funding last year. Feeding America would have to double its contributions to make up for these recent cuts while maintaining their current services.
All recent economic data indicate that the middle class in the United States is shrinking, poverty is increasing, and the percentage of income going to the upper income brackets is increasing. With the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percentage of children in poverty than the United States (The Nation, 10-7-13). Charity isn’t enough.
Interestingly in an op-ed piece in Friday’s Duluth News Tribune another pastor in town wrote an article decrying how words have been misused especially “by those on the left.” He asserted that those on the left now define “fairness” as “the state of things when all people possess the same level of material resources irrespective of their education, initiative or responsible life decisions.” I am not sure anyone defines fairness in that way, though some might. Could fairness, though, entail that while inequality is acceptable given people’s choices, initiative, and education, perhaps fairness also means no one falls too low, that a fairer society is one where no one starves?
These are tough questions and there are no easy answers. Even if we agree that this story, in urging care for the poor, asks us to engage in the creation of a more just society as well as to offer charity, how we attain the goals of a more just society is open to vigorous debate. The bottom line is that we cannot not care about those who are poor if we want to follow Jesus.
And here’s another frame, another challenge as we seek to follow Jesus. In 2006 a Princeton University study by neuroimaging researchers found that the very poor are viewed with such disdain that they are often dehumanized. Brain activity suggested that the very poor were viewed with disgust and repugnance. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues in her most recent book that “narcissistic emotions such as envy, shame, and disgust” threaten social arrangements when not held in check (Political Emotions, 116) Disgust can be personally and socially destructive. So this story of the rich man and Lazarus, a story told by Jesus which has something to do with following Jesus, is not only about action to alleviate poverty. It is also about looking into our own hearts and souls to see if we really see those who are on the margins as fellow humans, persons created in the image of God, this God who wants to bridge the gap between us.
If people experience disgust toward the very poor, perhaps we can understand why. If we experience disgust toward the very poor, perhaps we can understand why. We may fear our own vulnerability. If the very poor are poor completely of their own mismanagement of life, then surely we can manage our lives well enough to avoid their fate. To see the humanity of those on the margins is perhaps to see that sometimes life circumstances can overcome we humans. Enormous medical bills become bankruptcy. Untreated mental illness becomes living on the streets. An abusive home environment with insufficient social intervention becomes a youth on the streets. Rather than confront our own anxiety about the vicissitudes of life, it can be easier to look at those on the margins, those with the dogs licking their sores, as less than. Perhaps we stop seeing them all together. In the story Jesus tells, it is this man who has a name, Lazarus.
A miser bought himself a nice piece of pastry but before he could taste it, he accidentally dropped it in the street. When the miser picked it up he found to his disgust that the pastry had become covered with dirt. Just then a poor man asked for charity. The miser was hardly about to part with good coins; he never had. He handed the poor man the dirty pastry and thought no more about it.
But that night the miser dreamed. And in his dream he sat in a large restaurant, a crowded restaurant with waiters running about, bringing the customers the most wonderful cakes the miser had ever seen. Yet not one waiter came his way. At last, furious, he shouted for service. But all he was given was one dirt-covered piece of pastry.
“What is this!” he roared. “How dare you bring me this dirty pastry! I did not ask for charity! I have money enough to buy the finest cake!”
“I’m sorry,” said one waiter. “You cannot use money here. This is Eternity, and here you can only eat what you, yourself, sent ahead from the Mortal World. You, alas, sent only this one piece of dirty piece of pastry, and I’m afraid that’s all you may receive.”
This is tough stuff. Following Jesus can be a challenge. We are asked to look at our world and see where it can be better. It is not about blaming those who are doing well, it is asking questions about our current social arrangements that seem to allow some to do tremendously well, while too many others are slipping, and too many are not making it. It is not about feeling guilty, it is about searching our hearts and souls to see where we are not seeing, to move from disgust to compassion.
Gospel is another word for good news, and maybe you don’t feel like you’ve heard any. Well, here’s some. Change is possible, in our hearts and in our world. We can all grow in our ability to see and to care. That’s good news.
Here’s some more. God knows us by name, even when we are at our most vulnerable. There are other kinds of poverty than material poverty. God cares about that gap, but also about the other gaps in human life, those wounds of the soul that leave us feeling like Lazarus. The compassion of God is boundless, and God’s attitude toward us is never one of disgust, only of compassion. That’s good news.
You are loved, so love. In this complicated, messy world, know you are loved and know you can love, by the grace and power of Jesus. Amen.