SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Living God, in Christ you make all things new. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.” Luke 6:24
We all love the beatitudes. But what of these “woes”? Once again, Jesus is on a collision course with core American beliefs. After all, isn’t wealth what the American dream is all about? Don’t we teach and believe that in America it is possible for any ghetto orphan with determination and a dream to rise up and become the next Bill Gates? It is axiomatic that America is the land where hard work is rewarded. Wealth is the just reward of honest hard work and thrift. To suggest otherwise is unpatriotic and smells of communism, socialism or welfare state decadence. There is no excuse for poverty in America. If you are poor, it is because you are lazy, lack initiative or have made bad decisions.
Jesus takes a different view. According to Jesus, the poor, the hungry and the outcast are the chief beneficiaries of God’s just, peaceful and gentle reign. The rich? Not so much. Today’s gospel is but a reprise of Mary’s song in the opening scenes of Luke’s gospel, where she declares:
“[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.
Jesus will further illustrate this declaration by way of his parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus. Luke 16:19-31. There the declaration of Mary and the Woes in today’s gospel are graphically fulfilled. The great reversal comes with a vengeance and the rich man, who has always been on the topside of the great divide between rich and poor suddenly finds himself at the bottom. And note well that Jesus nowhere tells us anything about the moral standing of either character in the parable. We are not told that the rich man was greedy, dishonest or cruel. Nor are we told that Lazarus was virtuous, godly or kind. All we know about the two individuals is that the anonymous rich man was rich and Lazarus poor. In the new age Lazarus, who has known only poverty, is comforted. The rich man is in agony. “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.” If one thing is crystal clear, it is that God is unconditionally, unequivocally and wholly on the side of the poor against the rich. Call it socialism, call it fomenting class warfare, call it whatever else you like. But there it is.
Here on the Outer Cape we don’t have poor neighborhoods, blocks of rundown public housing or tent cities of homeless people. For that reason, we often do not see the poor among us. But they are there. They drive from miles off Cape to clean our homes and offices each day. They live in cars parked in the parking lots of restaurants and shops that are closed for the season. In warmer weather, they live out in the national forest. This I know because I have come across the remnants of their encampments-sleeping bags under tarps surrounded by personal affects. Our paths seldom cross and, when they do, our lives almost never intersect. The existence of the poor, their struggles and their pain is foreign to those of us whose refrigerators and pantries are full, for whom shelter and warmth is assured and for whom a car breakdown is merely a nuisance and not a financial catastrophe.
Nonetheless, I have on occasion gotten to know some of these people in a small way. There is a woman in her sixties I will call Natasha who lives at a trailer park in North Carolina for most of the year. She comes up to the Cape in the summer time to clean offices and work in the busy seafood joints that are ever in need of employees. She shares a rented room with two other women doing much the same. Natasha says the money is good and very much needed by her family back in Jamaica. She doesn’t know whether she is in the country legally or not. “Don’t seem to bother anyone else so why should I worry about it?” she says. “I live here forty years and never broke no laws or made no trouble.” But Natasha misses her family. She worries that if she tries to go back and visit, she might not get back into the country. “So I’ll wait to see them when I’m ready to go back for good.”
There was a shy teenage boy who lived for a while in his car in a church parking lot near our town. I never met him but understand that he was turned out of the house by his parents when he came out as gay. The pastors of the congregation were at a loss as to how to help him. Technically, he was a runaway and the solution from a law enforcement standpoint would have been to bring him back home. But that was obviously problematic. Taking him to a homeless shelter where he would have had no adult supervision or protection was also fraught. So arrangements were made for the boy to stay with members of the congregation pending a more permanent solution. But before any such solution could be formulated, the boy disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as he had arrived.
Then there is a young man in his late thirties I’ll call Chet. Chet lives in his van which he parks in the driveways of summer homes during the winter, sometimes with and sometimes without the permission of the owners. In the summertime he parks overnight in lots for the Wellfleet beaches. That is against the law but the local police know that if they roust him out of one parking lot, he will just drive a few miles down the road and park in another one. So they mostly leave him alone. They have bigger fish to fry than Chet. Chet is an avid surfer. On any given morning when the surf is up, summer, winter, spring or fall, you can spot him on his board riding the waves. Chet has no regular job, no retirement account and no health insurance, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. He may be poor from our perspective, but he doesn’t see himself that way. “I got the best life,” he told me. “I’m right where I want to be doing what I love. Doesn’t get much better than that.” Chet doesn’t worry much about his future either. “I’m going to keep on surfing till I’m old and gray,” he says. “I’ll probably die out there someday,” he says looking out over the ocean. “But hey, we all got to go sometime. And I’d rather die out there than on a bed in some nursing home.”
These encounters have made me aware of how little we know and understand about the people living their lives on the margins of our world. In many ways, their poverty reveals our own. We are indeed poorer for not having heard the stories of the poor, their heroism, their courage and their stubborn determination to survive and thrive. Woe to us, for we have been living our lives on the precipice of a gulf dividing us from those most precious to God’s heart. Woe to us, for we are on the wrong side of God’s future. In truth, the great chasm between the rich man and Lazarus is not of God’s making. We constructed that chasm ourselves with our own greed, callousness and indifference. In alienating our poor sisters and brothers, we have alienated ourselves from Jesus. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If we made that chasm between ourselves and the poor, we are capable of unmaking it. And there is still time. There is time for the mountains to be leveled and the valleys filled in; time really to see the poor among us, not as human failures or mere social problems, but as the lens though which we fully comprehend and know Jesus.
Here is a satirical poem reflecting, alas, the attitudes we often harbor toward the poor.
A Rich Man’s Prayer
God bless the beggar,
fill his dirty cup with change.
God bless the lunatics
whose ravings are so strange.
God bless the runaways
lurking in the subway.
God bless the sad eyed girl
who sells herself for money.
God bless the drunkard
who can hardly even stand.
God bless the junky
with the trembling, shaky hand.
God bless the prisoner.
May he someday soon be free.
God bless all suffering souls
and keep them far from me.