SIXTEENTH 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.
“If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” I Timothy 6:8.
The plant in the above picture is dune grass. This photo was taken yesterday afternoon at LeCount Hollow beach on Cape Cod. Dune grass is sometimes improperly referred to as “poverty grass.” The misnomer is understandable. Like poverty grass, dune grass grows and thrives in nutrient poor soil where no other land plant can survive. It is commonly found, as here, on bare sand just inches above the tideline. I think it provides a helpful metaphor and lens through which to view this Sunday’s lessons, all of which focus on poverty and its antithesis, wealth. I will come back to that shortly. But first, a few observations about the gospel lesson.
This parable of Jesus is commonly referred to as “Lazarus and Dives.” The title contains yet another misnomer. “Dives” is not a proper name but only the Latin word used in the Vulgate translation of the New Testament for “rich.” In any event, I think a more apt title might be “The Great Chasm,” referring, of course, to the chasm separating Lazarus resting in the bosom of Father Abraham from the rich man burning in the garbage dump of Hades. It is important to recognize that this “great chasm” did not originate in the afterlife nor was it of God’s making. The rich man constructed this great chasm on his own when he first settled into his gated community, a community where he could live a sheltered life, untroubled by the sight of beggars. The chasm grew each time he was driven through the central city to his office in a black limo behind tinted windows with the silk drapes drawn against the wreckage of ruined neighborhoods. It grew each time he met the plaintive gaze of Lazarus lying at his gate, quickened his pace and walked through his door without making eye contact. Now, in the afterlife, that chasm is still there-only the rich man and Lazarus are on opposite sides. The great reversal foretold in Mary’s Magnificat has come to pass:
“[God] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1:51-53.
You might think the rich man would have gotten the point, but he remains clueless. Even as he sits burning in the in the city garbage dump, he still thinks he is important. He still imagines that he is in a position to fraternize with Father Abraham. He still thinks Lazarus is his “boy” who can be ordered to “fetch” him a drink. Even after Abraham explains the situation to him, the rich man continues pressing for special favors, imploring the patriarch to send Lazarus to his errant brothers with a warning of the fate awaiting them also. This last request, illustrating once again the man’s arrogance and obtuseness, is unnecessary. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” says Abraham. “No, father Abraham,” the fool protests, “but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
Of course, we can’t miss the final irony in the rich man’s last plea. We know that someone has risen from the dead. Tragically, though, Abraham’s words have proven themselves. Two millennia later the chasm we have constructed between rich and poor remains and, if anything, it has gotten wider and more difficult to traverse. Nearly one half of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — less than $1.25 a day. One billion children worldwide are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, twenty-two thousand children die each day due to poverty. See Global Issues website. These are, of course, only numbers. We don’t see the names and the faces, nor do we hear the stories behind such soulless statistics. They are safely buried under neatly drawn graphs and pie charts, far away on the other side of the chasm.
It is all too tempting to use this text as a platform from which to launch an attack on the proverbial 1%, that is, the very few who control the majority of the world’s wealth. These, after all, are the “rich.” That term surely does not include those of us who slog to work five days a week or more for the better part of our lives just to pay for the roof over our heads, educate our children and scrape together enough savings to see us through the last years of our lives. But in our second lesson, the Apostle Paul expresses a different view of what constitutes excessive wealth. “If we have food and clothing,” he says, “we will be content with these.” I Timothy 6:8. Needless to say that I, along with most of the people to whom I preach, live far above Paul’s baseline. And though the only physical commodity for which Jesus commands us to pray is enough bread for the day, most of us have been raised to pursue the nirvana of “financial security.” How do we defend living well above Paul’s baseline when so many are compelled to live far below it? The sobering truth confronting us in Jesus’ parable, in the words of the prophet Amos and the teaching of the Apostle is that wealth has a powerful death grip on our souls. It is hardening our hearts, making us blind to our poor neighbors and deaf to their cries.
Before we can hope to call the world to repentance and to compassion for what it considers “the least” among us, we need to face up to the truth about our own sordid relationship to wealth. We need to acknowledge that, at the deepest level, we are hoarders. Clinically speaking, hoarders are individuals who experience persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions, leading to clutter that disrupts their ability to use their living or work spaces. On a spiritual plane, our obsession with accumulating wealth disrupts our relationship to our planet and to our neighbors. It is also the biggest obstacle to discipleship that we Christians in America encounter. Hoarding is a peculiarly human behavior. Animals typically do not overeat, accumulate more than they need or hunt other species to extinction. If they have any concept at all of tomorrow, it doesn’t figure into their behavior today. Animals seem to have a primal instinct leading them to be content when there is food at hand, water nearby and no predators on the horizon. That ought to be enough, and it is enough for the ravens and for the grass of the fields. Luke 12:24-28. Along with godliness, says Paul, such “contentment” is “great gain.” I Timothy 6:6.
That brings me back to the dune grass. This hardy plant thrives where no plant should be able to live. It seems almost to delight in the poverty of its harsh environment, finding just enough of what it needs. Dune grass faces with a gleeful defiance the brutal wind from off the ocean and the briny moisture inflicted upon it. There are people like that too, though few in number. These unique individuals find similar contentment in “baseline” living. Saint Paul was one of them. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have,” says Paul. “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” Philippians 4:11-12. Saint Francis of Assisi was another such person. He also rejoiced in living day-to-day, receiving charity shamelessly and thankfully when in want, but giving cheerfully and generously when blessed with abundance. So, too, there continue to be Anabaptist communities like the Amish, monastic fellowships and other intentional Christian groups that find contentment in living simply and gently on the land, rejecting the American creed of contentment through accumulation and consumption. These witnesses testify to the better life God is able to give us-if only we can empty our hands to receive it.
If there is anyone with whom we ought to identify in Jesus’ parable, it is the brothers of the rich man. Like them, we are still alive. It is not too late for us to escape the heart hardening, soul crushing pursuit of success measured in terms of acquisition and financial security bought at the cost of impoverishing our neighbor. It is not too late for us to look past the veneer of our sheltered existence and see the people our consumptive lifestyle is destroying. It is not too late for us to begin dismantling the chasm our greed has built. Like the brothers, we have the words of Moses and the prophets calling us away from a life of greed and indifference into a life of compassion and generosity. More than that, we have the witness of the one who threw himself into the depths of that dreadful chasm and whom God raised from death. The chasm of callus indifference need not continue to define our relationships to one another, deadening souls on one side and crushing bodies on the other. It doesn’t have to be this way!
Here is a poem by John Reibetanz piercing the chasm of wealth and privilege to give us a glimpse of the human cost of our consumptive way of life.
We have cried often when we have given them the little victualling we
had to give them; we had to shake them, and they have fallen to sleep
with the victuals in their mouths many a time.
(parent of children working at a textile mill, to an
1832 Parliamentary inquiry into child employment)
They cry for children too tired to cry for themselves,
daughters twelve, eleven, eight—eyes
shutting down as a grate’s banked coals shut down
at midnight, in the rising damp called ‘home.’
Too tired to eat after eighteen hours feeding
looms whose steel teeth grind insatiably,
the girls will be offered up again at dawn.
Yet they are the lucky ones, to work where skylights
hold swatches of the unaffordable blue.
Imagine these girls’ mine-trapped cousins, hauling
black rocks on sledges up tunnels of black air:
half-undressed, belted, harnessed, saturated
with the oil-blackened water they crawl through
pumping ‘the lifeblood of British industry.’
Flogged for talking, Margaret Comeley, aged
nine, can sometimes close her mouth around
a piece of muffin—if she manages
to keep it from the rats, ‘so ravenous
they eat the corks out of our oil-flasks.’
Sarah Gooder fills her mouth with song
‘when I’ve light, but not in the dark; I dare not then.’
Here is a working girl so filled with light
she is pure song: her sun-bright bodice shines
in counterpoint with her blue overskirt,
and, from her forehead’s crescent of white linen,
tapering light blazes a white path
down arms and wrists to folds of spread blue cloth,
like moonlight piloting the tide’s refrains.
A Dutch milkmaid, Tanneke Everpoel,
lucky enough to live in the Delft house
where Vermeer’s* eye and brush could catch the spill
of morning light as her brief peacefulness
brimmed over, serves here as a celebrant—
bread heaped up on the altar-like table,
wine transubstantiated into milk
whose brilliance seems the source of the room’s light
she pours forever from the earthenware’s
black core. His pose; yet—all hers—underneath it
(and signalled in her fixed eyes’ unconcern
for the beholder) such complete immersion
in what she does, that she is all she does
and it is she, this offering-up of day.
And he? When he was forty, the Sun King
invaded Holland. No one wanted art.
In debt to his baker for three years’ worth of bread,
Vermeer, according to his widow, falling
‘into a frenzy,’ passed ‘from being healthy’
in ‘a day or a day and a half … to being dead,’
‘the very great burden of his children … so taken to heart.’
Knowing the earth is closer to the sun
in winter won’t revive the street person
sleeping towards cold death in a bus shelter.
Bread in a painting won’t cure stomach ache.
So Margaret dragged her great burden of coal
while Sarah sat terrified in the dark,
and neither knew Vermeer’s poised working girl,
broke bread with her, shared her breaking light.
The painting stood by, helpless to save them
or him, and looking at it now cannot
help anyone. Yet, it can cry for them,
as parents take their children’s grief to heart:
the beads of salt, shimmering on the bread
like diamonds, can be tears the two girls shed
down where no light sang their preciousness.
The cradled pitcher’s brim can be their hearth,
since it (and not the sky’s cold mine of stars)
pours out what cannot shelter us, but feeds
a hunger no daily bread can fill: for light—
light that, like coal, comes from our earth; hunger
that, unlike grief, is inexhaustible.
* Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a painter of the Dutch Baroque period. He specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle class life. The reference here is to one of his paintings entitled “The Milkmaid.”
Source: Mining for Sun (c. 2000 by John Reibetanz , pub. by Brick Books). John Reibetanz (b. 1944) was born in New York City and grew up in the eastern United States and Canada. He studied at Brooklyn College and Princeton University. He has published essays on Elizabethan drama and modern and contemporary poetry. He also authored a book on King Lear and translations of modern German poetry. Reibetanz has also written several of his own poems that have been published in the above cited work and in numerous other magazines and periodicals. Reibetanz currently lives in Toronto and is a Fellow at Victoria College. You can find out more about John Reibetanz and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.