Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, you look with compassion on this troubled world. Feed us with your grace, and grant us the treasure that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The gap in employment rates between America’s highest- and lowest-income families has stretched to its widest levels since officials began tracking the data a decade ago. Meanwhile, rates of unemployment for the lowest-income families — those earning less than $20,000 — have topped 21 percent, nearly matching the rate for all workers during the 1930s’ Great Depression. By contrast, households with income of more than $150,000 per year have an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, a level traditionally defined as full employment. Middle-income workers are increasingly pushed into lower-wage jobs. Many of them in turn are displacing lower-skilled, low-income workers, who become unemployed or are forced to work fewer hours. This according to an analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press. See CBS Money Watch, September 16, 2012. Also this week The U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut spending on food stamps for the poor by $40 billion over 10 years. Thus, if you are poor, unemployed or both, your chances of getting ahead are poor and your chances of staying out of abject poverty just got worse.
What is happening in the United States is but a microcosm of a much wider and more dangerous gap that has been developing globally between the rich and the poor over the last century. Today over three billion people, almost half the world, live on less than $2.50 per day. Between 27-28 percent of all children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or stunted. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names. These statistics are taken from Global Issues, a website dedicated to providing information on social, political, economic and environmental issues affecting us all.
The Gospel of Luke is very much concerned with this gaping canyon between the rich and the poor. In the opening chapters Mary the mother of Jesus sings: “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Luke 1:52. In his “Sermon on the Plain” Jesus declares, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Luke 6:20-21. In the next breath he warns, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” Luke 6:24-25. God is preparing a great reversal of fortunes which should have come as no surprise to the rich man in this Sunday’s gospel. After all, had not Moses taught that the needs of the poor man must be met by his neighbor’s generosity? Deuteronomy 15:7-8. Had not the prophets repeatedly warned Israel that her neglect of the poor would bring the judgment of God upon her? Amos 8:4-10. Yet heedless of these dire warnings, the rich man went right on feasting until he found himself on the other side of that great income divide that his life of greed and callousness had helped to build. Too late he recognized the peril of the great divide to his own well being. Too late he realized that he was on the losing side of God’s history.
The parable paints a bleak picture and it is all the more troubling because the gap between rich and poor, with which Jesus was all too familiar, not only continues to exist but is growing by leaps and bounds each year. The only mitigation we get from this dark story is last week’s gospel lesson about the so-called “Dishonest Steward.” Here was a man Jesus called “shrewd” because he was a man of wealth who had the good sense to understand that his discharge from employment was not just a professional setback. It was the beginning of the “great reversal.” Rather than wasting his time trying to get back into the good graces of his former employer or hording what little wealth he had coming at the end of his final day at the office, he seizes the opportunity to build bridges between himself and the people he used to exploit. He understands, as the rich man in this week’s lesson does not, that he needs friends like Lazarus if he hopes to sit at the messianic banquet.
So as late as the hour is and as wide as the gap between rich and poor has become, there is still time. It is not too late to bridge this gap and Jesus would have us know that it can be done. We do not have to settle for a world in which the poor become ever more desperate and the rich become ever more fearful behind the bars of their gated communities. We can use wealth wisely to build bridges of friendship and compassion between ourselves and Lazarus; or we can use it to reinforce the walls and widen the gap that separates us. It’s that simple-or not.
To hear some politicians talk, you would think that any ounce of compassion you might have for the poor, any desire to see them cared for amounts to socialism or something worse. These days words like “socialism,” “communism” and “liberalism” get tossed around in pejorative ways that seem to lack any connection to what they mean. I cannot begin to sort all of that out. But let’s clarify a couple of points. First off, understand that when it comes to the earth and anything on it, there is no biblical notion of human ownership. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” says the psalmist. Psalm 24:1. In the first chapter of Genesis God tells the human race to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Genesis 1:28. In order to understand what that means, you need to keep reading into the second chapter of Genesis where the narrator tells us: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Genesis 2:15. Human beings are God’s gardeners. As such, we don’t own the earth and we are no more free to do with it as we will than your landscaper is free to pave over your front lawn to build a tennis court for his own private use. Our job is to care for what God made. Our “ownership” of anything is in fact no more than “stewardship.” The owner is God and we must ever be mindful that we will one day be called to account for our stewardship of God’s wealth, however much or little has been placed in our hands.
Secondly, God is passionately concerned about the poor and their treatment is the single most important moral imperative in the Bible. To hear some preachers speak, you would think that sex is the only moral territory that is of concern to God. But the fact is, the preaching of the prophets is replete with warnings against mistreating the poor, the widow and the alien sojourner in the land. You can count on the fingers of one hand the times Jesus addresses sexual sins (including the times he had the perfect opportunity to do so but did not). I don’t have the time or the patience, however, to count up the times Jesus spoke out on behalf of the poor, healed their diseases, fed them when they were hungry and promised them a place at the messianic banquet.
Third, the proper use of wealth is to place it in the service of caring for the world God made and of meeting your neighbor’s needs. I don’t know whether in today’s odd nomenclature that amounts to socialism, communism or something else. But this is the use of wealth to which Jesus calls his disciples. As we learned from last week’s gospel, there is no better use of money than to bridge the gap between ourselves and our poorer sisters and brothers.
For some background on Amos the prophet, see my post for Sunday, September, 22nd. Amos is continuing his criticism of Israel’s commercial class here. Once again, I cannot understand why the common lectionary omits verses 2-3 of chapter 6. In them Amos invites his listeners to take a field trip to three cities, Calneh, Hamath and Gath. The location of Calneh is uncertain. Hamath was at the northernmost border of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It was under the control of Israel’s King Jeroboam II in Amos’ time, but it appears to have been subject to attack and conquest throughout the lengthy struggle between Israel and its arch enemy, Syria. We know that Gath was destroyed by Hazael, King of Syria a century before Amos in about 850 B.C.E. The point here seems to be that God knows how to punish nations for their wickedness. What happened to these cities can as easily happen to Israel. Indeed, the fact that Israel has been chosen as God’s covenant partner makes her subject to a higher standard of righteousness. Consequently, God’s judgment is all the more likely for Israel and will be all the more severe.
The prophet is unsparing in his criticism of Israel’s ruling class for its decadence, opulence and callous disregard for the wellbeing of the people of Israel. Interestingly, Zion is also mentioned here, unusual since the audience is from the Northern Kingdom of Israel rather than the Southern Kingdom of Judah whose capital is Jerusalem (Zion). Amos 6:1. Some scholars suggest that this might be the work of a subsequent editor seeking to make the prophet’s oracle relevant to Judah at a later time. Though possible, it is more likely that Amos himself included his homeland within the sweep of God’s judgment just as he did in chapter 2. Amos 2:4-5. The complete and unfeeling exploitation of the poor by the commercial class in Israel is sure to bring down God’s judgment. Amos warns that these “first” among the people of Israel will be the “first” to go into exile. Amos 6:7.
This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.
The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and the conquest of the land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here. But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established.
My son-in-law, Caleb, refers to the lottery as “a tax on stupidity.” He is right. Who would buy stock in a company if the odds against growth were one in 175 million and the odds in favor of losing your principal investment were the same? You might just as well throw your money over the bridge. You would have to be insane to make such an investment, but millions of people do just that every time they purchase a lottery ticket. Most of us know this. So why are lottery tickets such hot items?
A lottery ticket is, as the advertisements correctly call it, “a ticket to a dream.” Somebody has to win. Why not me? And if by chance I won-just imagine! I have to confess that I have often been tempted to purchase a ticket in spite of my understanding of the odds against me. Winning would certainly solve a lot of my problems. I would love to pay off the debts I have left over from my children’s college. Of course, whenever you own a home there are deferred maintenance issues needing attention. Then again, why not just forget the maintenance and buy the house of my dreams? Naturally, I have friends and family under financial burdens whom I would be in a position to help (and I expect I would discover family I never knew I had!). And, Oh yes! The church: how could I forget? Beyond the loss of a dollar or two, is there any downside in buying this ticket to a dream?
I think Paul nails it when he tells us flat out: “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, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” I Timothy 6:9. Why are we so eager to be rich? In my own case, the chief draw is autonomy. If I were independently wealthy, I would not be answerable to anyone. Nobody could tell me when I need to be at work. I would not be dependent upon any bank or mortgage company. I could live my life on my own terms. But wasn’t that precisely why Adam and Eve found the fruit on the tree of knowledge so very attractive? The serpent promised them that the fruit would make them “like God” and enable them to choose for themselves what is good; to live their lives on their own terms.
I have a feeling that the serpent is lurking very near the convenience stores where lottery tickets are sold whispering his same old lies. And they are lies. Truth is, money does not make me autonomous anymore than princes can offer me salvation. What money can do is make me forget how rich I really am. Yes, I am rich precisely because I am surrounded by loving people upon whom I can depend. My family is such a close and loving one because we have always had to depend upon each other and have therefore learned to care so deeply for each other. I am rich because I have received through the testimony of two millennia of saints a faith in a God whose love for me braved even the cross. Because life has taught me again and again that I am not autonomous, I have learned dependence upon and trust in this God who has never failed me. I have learned that true security comes from belonging to a community of mutually caring people living together as a single body-the Body of Christ. Giving up all of that is the true cost of a lottery ticket. Investing in one is therefore even more stupid than the math suggests.
For good reason, then, Paul advises Timothy to shun the quest for wealth and pursue instead “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” I Timothy 6:11. Again, these virtues are not developed in people who are autonomous or imagine themselves to be so. They are developed among people who know themselves to be dependent upon a gracious and compassionate God who shares his very self with them and invites them to do the same for each other.
A few things are worth noting right of the bat. First, note that Lazarus is the character in this story who is given a name. The rich man has no name. That already tells you something about where Jesus’ concern lies. The poor, starving masses have a name and a face. The rich man, for all his wealth and power, is nearly invisible. It is usually just the other way around, isn’t it? In our culture, the poor, the sick and the dying are kept mercifully out of our sight. The parable mirrors testimony to God’s compassionate care for the downtrodden reflected in last Sunday’s psalm:
Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
6 who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
7 He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8 to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 113:5-9. When the transcendent God stoops to look down upon the earth, he sees the poor, the needy and the childless-people that usually are invisible to us. God doesn’t seem much interested in what the kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers are up to.
Second, Jesus tells us nothing about the character of either of the two men in his parable. For all we know, the rich man might have been a regular worshiper at synagogue each Sabbath. He may have been a generous contributor to charity. He may have been a loving husband and a dedicated parent. We cannot assume that he was greedy, miserly or cold hearted. He may have passed by Lazarus without making eye contact, but honestly, who of us has not at some point in our lives done that very same thing on our way to the train or the bus in Times Square or some other place where the wretched of the earth come to beg? As for Lazarus, we know nothing of his character either. He might have been a good, honest and hardworking man just down on his luck. But he might also have been a scoundrel whose irresponsible lifestyle brought him to his sorry state. Jesus does not tell us one way or the other. It does not matter to Jesus and it should not matter to us. The Scriptures do not limit the command to care for the poor with any provisos such as that the poor be “deserving.”
Third, this is not a parable about God punishing rich people for failing to care for the poor. God is not even in this parable and God is not responsible for that gap between Hades where the rich man finds himself and the bosom of Abraham were Lazarus resides. The rich man built that gap all by himself. It grew wider every time the rich man drove up to his estate and turned his gaze away from Lazarus as his limo with the tinted glass pulled through the gate. The gap grew larger whenever the rich man switched TV channels to avoid the disturbing images of starving children on the news. The gap widened as the rich man invested ever more of his wealth into shoring up the security fence and the alarm system around his property. When the rich man arrives at the afterlife, he discovers that the gap between Lazarus and himself is still there. The only difference is that the great reversal has occurred. Lazarus is now the honored guest at the messianic banquet and the rich man is on the outside begging for scraps.
Now the sad thing about this parable is that there is no learning curve. The rich man is still under the illusion that he is somebody important. He thinks he can hobnob with Father Abraham and extract favors from him. He doesn’t even deign to speak directly to Lazarus. Instead, he asks Abraham to “send that boy there-what’s his name? Lazarus? (As though it matters!) Send that boy to fetch me a drink.” Abraham has to point out to the rich man that things have changed. The reversal has come, just as the prophets warned. But the rich man still doesn’t get it. He still thinks nothing has changed. He still thinks he is in a position to order Lazarus about like a servant, only now he wants Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent before they also come to his “place of torment.” Abraham replies that the rich man’s brothers have all the warning they need. They have Moses and the prophets. They need only listen. “No, father Abraham,” he protests. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
It is hard to miss the irony here. Of course, we know that someone has come back from the dead, but the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. So what will it take to wake us up? What will it take to convince us that by ignoring the cries of the poor we are building our prison in Hades? God has sent his Son to wake us up from our deathly sleep and after we rejected even him, God raised him up and gave him back to us again. God continues to raise up Jesus for us. If that does not melt our hearts, what will?