Deuteronomy 24:10-22; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Luke 16:19-31
Mark Twain famously said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I DO understand.” Well, Jesus’ words today seem distressingly clear, like his message on “you cannot serve God and money” a couple of weeks ago. Ever since August, we’ve been hearing Jesus’ parables in Luke, which means Sunday after Sunday listening to him slam the rich. And yet surprisingly, our world hasn’t changed a lot, so maybe we just have to keep telling and listening to these stories until it does. Month after month, year after year, I still meet people who have heard these parables all their lives, and yet as soon as it’s suggested that Jesus meant to say what it sounds like he said about wealth, they stop wanting to talk about Jesus and instead want to talk about free markets and economic opportunity and monetary demand and the generative creativity of entrepreneurial investment. All of which I think Jesus can handle on his own terms, but we don’t want to let Jesus deal with us on his terms – we’d rather set the terms with our money, and then fit Jesus into those. So if we’re content with a Jesus who is mammon’s pet, that’s what we’ll get. But he’s a far less interesting Jesus than the real one conveyed by the Gospels, and a Jesus who cannot save us. That discussion, with no little irony, just confirms the last line of Jesus’ parable, that if the rich can’t understand this message from the scriptures, they won’t be convinced even by One who has (in point of fact) risen from the dead. Our risen Christ Jesus didn’t tell us these stories to make us feel bad, though, but to help set us free for life in God, in the power of resurrection.
This parable is the only one recorded in which Jesus speaks the name of a character, and that is Lazarus. The name Lazarus is a Greek adaptation of the Hebrew name, Eleazar — literally, “God helps.” Eleazar was the name of the faithful servant of Abraham — Eleazar of Damascus. Remember, although Abraham was a wealthy owner of many herds, he had no offspring to inherit it for much of his life. Until his sons Ishmael and Isaac were born, he had designated this favored servant, Eleazar, as his heir. In Jewish folklore, Eleazar (or Lazarus) was said to walk in disguise on earth and report back to Abraham in heaven on how his children followed God’s commandments, especially regarding hospitality toward strangers and charity toward the poor.
Jesus told this story: “There was a rich man who always wore tailored suits and designer shirts, and threw massive parties every day with exotic food and drink, and top bands playing live, just living it up at his mansion estate compound. Now at the gate to this compound, just past the security monitor camera and intercom, lay a homeless beggar named Lazarus. Now Lazarus was sick, covered with sores and lesions, and he was always hungry, every day just starving to lick off the wrapping paper from the rich man’s cheeseburgers. But he never got to. The closest he got to it was the local stray dogs licking the sweat off his diseased skin.
“Eventually Lazarus died, and angels carried him into the arms of Abraham, where he was held and embraced. The rich man also died and had a huge funeral celebrating his great accomplishments, and how good God had been to him. But in the realm of the dead then, the rich man was suffering torment and pain, roasting in fire. He looked up, and saw at a great distance away, Abraham at his party table, holding Lazarus close by with his arm around him, feeding him sweet desserts, cold drinks, and all the best food. And the rich man called out, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send ol’ Lazarus to me with some water for me to drink! You can spare some, and I’m hurting and cooking from this fire.” But Abraham called back to him, “Son, remember that while you were alive, you had all the good things — the good schools, good neighborhoods, the good tax breaks, nice houses, good vacations — and Lazarus got the worst. Now here, he gets to relax and enjoy the best things, and you’re scorching. Besides, there’s this huge canyon between you over there and us over here, and no one can get over it from here to there, or from your side to ours.”
Then the rich man said, “Father Abraham, if you can’t do that, will you please send ol’ Lazarus to my family estate with a message? Let him warn my five brothers so they won’t wind up suffering like this also!” But Abraham called back to him, “They have the law and the prophets of Scripture. If they pay attention to them, they’ll be fine.” But the rich man said, “No they won’t, Father Abraham. But if someone appears to them from the dead, they’ll turn their lives around.” But Abraham replied to him, “If they don’t listen to the law and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone should rise up from the dead.”
We’re all too familiar with the dictum that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And the picture Jesus shows of the rich man living it up while the poor man suffers is the world we know, the world we recognize with a division between the haves and the have-nots. What’s news is that Jesus says this is not God’s will, this does not please God, and God – in due time – will change this. When that time arrives, Abraham has to explain the facts of eternal life to the rich man: you enjoyed your life while letting your neighbor suffer, so now you can suffer while your neighbor enjoys God’s banquet.
Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on this passage frequently in his final months, and in his exposition of this he said that it was not the rich man’s wealth that condemned him, for Abraham had been one of the richest men of his day in Canaan, and Abraham was the great exemplar of faith. The first cause of judgment Dr. King identified, which Abraham addresses directly, was the disparity between the rich man’s surplus and the need of Lazarus. Will Willimon’s described this as “a story about gaps, about the great distance between us, a distance fixed first by us and our economics, then a gap appointed by the justice of God.”
Just in the United States, we’ve seen a tremendous change since I was a boy in the 1970s. For two generations, there had been a steady growth and expansion in the economic security and sharing in the prosperity of the country, rooted in increased education, new technologies, public investment in rural utilities and industries, desegregation and expansion of opportunities for minorities, publicly supported Social Security and medical care for the elderly, and nutrition and health care for children. I’m not portraying it as a golden age, because the poor also suffered then, and this same spiritual disease was also prevalent then, but simply to see how our disease of this “Lazarus gap” has progressed over the last 30 years. In 1976, the middle rung of our country’s economic ladder earned 2.3 times what those next to the bottom rung earned, while the families close to the top rung earned 6.5 times as much as those folks near the bottom. Thirty years later, the middle rung still earns 2.4 times the income of those next to the bottom rung, but those near the top rung now earn 8.6 times the bottom folks. They’re having to build new rungs to keep climbing, without pulling up those behind them. Some folks are fond of the saying that a rising tide raises all boats to make the point that everyone does better when the rich are profiting, but I think there’d be less objection to the yachts on the water rising, if they weren’t lobbing cannonballs through the hulls of the rowboats around them. This gap isn’t just about status – it’s about that bottom 20% not even being able to keep up with increases in the cost of apartments and cars, let alone houses and health insurance and college tuition. It’s about multi-billion-dollar banks gouging the poorest laborers with payday loans approaching 50% interest. In the past decades, there has been plenty of economic growth, yet over the past thirty-five years, wages rose in the middle income ranges just 11%. The wages of only ten percent of Americans saw their incomes increase as much as the rate of the economy. But salaries at the top rose 617%. Between 1997 and 2001, the top one percent captured more gain than the bottom fifty percent.
Looking up at the top of the ladder, in 1976 the average CEO compensation was 41 times that of their average worker; thirty years later, it’s 411 times that of their average worker – the widest gap endured by workers in any industrialized country. In 2004, CEO salaries rose 12% (not including stock benefits), while their average rank-and-file worker saw an increase of about 3.6%. I can’t imagine anyone seriously arguing that these are “pay for performance” differences. So what the U.S. Catholic bishops observed years ago continues to be true: our economy “seems to be leading to three nations living side by side: one growing more prosperous and powerful, one squeezed by stagnant incomes and rising economic pressures, and one left behind in increasing poverty.”
And this doesn’t even touch the disparity with the billion people on our planet who live on less than a dollar a day. Only in such a world would executives of Gap and Banana Republic, who take home tens of millions of dollars annually, convince themselves that they’re truly benefactors of their Salvadoran seamstresses for paying them forty or fifty cents per hour. The rich at their tables call themselves benefactors because the seamstresses aren’t as bad off as the Lazaruses who beg in the street. But Moses, and Amos, and Jesus and James point to the injustice that these executives, by giving up a fourth home or a fleet of Mercedes, could pay their seamstresses enough for all their children to stay in school and get medical care, enough to live in homes with clean running water and sanitary sewer systems. This is why the Lazarus-es of the world cry to the Lord against the rich man, because the rich take livelihood from the poor (Deuteronomy 24:15). And God hears the poor even if the rich do not. A decade ago, Pope John Paul II preached a sermon in Canada with the following warning: “In the light of Christ’s words, the poor [of the global] South will judge the rich North. And the poor people and poor nations—poor in different ways, not only lacking food, but also deprived of freedom and other human rights—will judge those people who take these goods away from them, amassing to themselves the imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy at the expense of others.”
This gap concerns Paul when he confronts the Corinthian church about permitting it to emerge in their own fellowship together. At their common table together, their communion and fellowship meal, some are so self-indulgent that they become drunk on the Lord’s cup, while their greed forces others to go home from the table with nothing, hungry. Paul insists that this disparity humiliates the poor who have nothing and shows contempt for God’s church. The unworthiness at the table that he warns his church from is the failure to see the poor as brothers and sisters in the very Body of Christ. So eating and drinking “without discerning the body” (without seeing the poor as part of Christ’s body and members of ourselves, loved as much as we love ourselves, cf. just a few verses later, 1Cor.12:12-13:13) invites judgment, because in the poor is “the flesh and blood of the Lord” as much as in ourselves, and so we are judged by the Lord when they cry out. Look at these scriptures yourselves. I’m not making this up – you’ve got the same law and prophets and risen Jesus. I wish we had wiggle room – I enjoy beachfront houses, swimming pools, hotels with big fireplaces and leather sofas, as much as anyone would. But if I listen to Jesus and Paul, that wealth all for myself would just cost me too much, and not in dollars. Contrary to Kenneth Copeland and the “prosperity gospel” heresy, God’s blessings come to us for sharing around the Lord’s table with all God’s children, not for hoarding at a personal picnic. That is why communion cannot be solitary – it’s about sharing God’s gracious blessings fully among all the members of the earthly Body of Christ you can reach. And too many of those members are suffering too much to leave outside the gate.
Paul summons us to a community of sharing that addresses another point of the story that Dr. King emphasized: that the canyon between the rich man and Abraham’s table is one that he himself created. The division that the rich man maintained in his natural life became his insurmountable hurdle after death. The persistence of this dividing canyon is expressed most clearly in what the rich man fails to say, according to Dr. King. What he fails to say, as address, as plea, is “Lazarus.” There’s no indication in the story that he ever spoke directly to Lazarus. And even after death, does he call directly to Lazarus for mercy? Does he appeal to Lazarus to slake his thirst? Can he call Lazarus by name? No. He calls on Abraham to HAVE Lazarus come and help. He could not address Lazarus as neighbor and brother. The members of the Corinthian church also did not see their poorer members as equal members in Christ’s body, and so righteously bestowed with blessings temporarily in the hands of their richer brothers and sisters. It was a failure, as Paul would write in chapters 12 and 13, to care as members one for another – a failure to love. If we give away our wealth for the sake of reputation, or to get rid of the poor (to get them to go away, leave us alone, stay away from us on the street, not have to negotiate a wage increase for another year, keep their demonstration out of sight of the economic summit), we gain nothing.
The purpose of giving away wealth, of sharing, is to incarnate our membership with one another and with Christ in love, to build up love, to – in the words of Christ from another parable last month – make friends through unrighteous mammon. Giving money doesn’t make friendship or love, any more than the birth of Jesus as a human being alone saved us. But Jesus couldn’t have loved us unto death on the cross apart from being born flesh and blood, and so our friendship with the poor has to take material form also. As the elder John wrote (1Jn.3:17-18,16), “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help. Let us LOVE, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. We know love by this, that Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” THAT is what we join to and promise when we share the bread and cup at our meal. And if not giving our lives, perhaps at least our surplus dollars.
Now I know that most of us don’t have many surplus dollars, and what we have we try to use to take care of our families, to ease burdens of others around us, and to avoid becoming burdens ourselves on others. I’ll tell you what I work on. I work on seeing and talking with Lazarus. I work on treating the children at the shelter and in YO-Durham as if they’re as loved by God as my own child, which they are. And then, as John and Jesus instruct, I work at moving my love from sentiment and words, to deeds, putting love to work with money. And I work on amplifying the voice of Lazarus for my brothers and sisters at the tables of the rich, in board rooms and committee rooms where decisions about investments and payrolls, lending and taxes, get made.
As an example of that last kind of work, Terry Sanford was a governor of North Carolina, president of Duke University, and a U.S. Senator representing North Carolina. Will Willimon described him as one of several key Southern leaders who declared that poverty was not destiny, that “God didn’t make the world this way, we did, that those of us with more had a sacred, God-given responsibility for those with less.” One night, Willimon attended a meeting with Terry Sanford and several others to discuss some affirmative action programs of the government. As he recalled it, “Most of the people around the table had little good to say about affirmative action programs. Then we got to Mr. Sanford. ‘Every man here,’ he said, ‘got his first job, maybe his second, through affirmative action. We didn’t call it that. I called it “calling up somebody my Daddy knew.” Everybody here got a helping hand up, if not, we wouldn’t have made it through the Depression. If we don’t reach out, reach across, give a hand up, there will be hell to pay.’” Whatever you think of affirmative action’s flaws as a blunt tool of government, it has been a legal structure to work where American Christians have failed to discern the body of Christ in Lazarus, and failed to reach out, reach across the gap, give a hand up. For that failure, both Paul and Jesus say, yes, “hell to pay, and heaven too.” (Will Willimon).
The rich man’s wealth and the life it provided obscured his vision of Lazarus like cataracts on his eyes, and has clogged the arteries delivering blood to his optic nerves. It was only after death that he could “lift his eyes and see” Lazarus. The good that he could have shared had he not been so self-centered became poison in his system, like a mineral one needs a little of for health, but that becomes toxic to the body when in excess. Or as Francis Bacon said some 400 years ago, money is like manure, it only does good when it’s spread around. Those with wealth can be deaf and blind to their fellow-membership with the poor, so Jesus tries to heal them with stories like this, to open their eyes and ears, to get the blood flowing among members of his body.
Stanley Hauerwas has said on this subject that being rich makes you stupid because you don’t have to listen to those around you with less money, and they treat you with a deference and respect that is often less than honest about your ignorance and faults. Wealth gives you more control over how you interact with others, and what those you interact with will tell you, so wealth can make you stupid (Hauerwas says), and in this country, we are very wealthy. Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder has written: “Riches separate us from those who are impoverished. A gulf develops between the rich and the poor. Our wealth makes it possible to avoid them, to keep them out of sight and out of mind. We demonize and neglect those ‘outside the gates.’ This is the natural consequence of the logic of exchange as the foundation of worth and value: if worth is based upon what one has or knows or achieves, those who have little by society’s standards become worthless and expendable, objects of scorn, neglect and abuse. The Bible is clear: We cannot know the God of Jesus Christ apart from relationships with the poor and the powerless. God has chosen the poor, the least, the most vulnerable, those whom the world considers ‘the weak’ as special friends. In Jesus Christ, God comes in vulnerability and poverty. God’s special friendship with the poor is not a rejection of the rich, but an affirmation that life is not in riches. Life is in God’s grace.” Connecting the rich with Lazarus, opening and supporting each of our lives to caring for Lazarus, is not a guilt trip, but a gift of moving into grace, into the body of our risen Lord.
Cyprian, a pastor in the African city of Carthage in 250 A.D., said, “But how can they follow Christ, who are held back by the chain of their wealth? Or how can they seek heaven, and climb to sublime and lofty heights, who are weighed down by earthly desires? They think that they possess, when they are rather possessed; as slaves of their profit, and not lords with respect to their own money, but rather the bond-slaves of their money.” In his first letter to Timothy, Paul gives instruction on the path out of this to freedom and life: “Warn those who are rich in this world’s goods that they are not to look down on other people and not to set their hopes on money, which is untrustworthy, but on God, who, out of his riches, gives us all that we need for our happiness. Tell them that they are to do good, and be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share. This is the way they can save up true capital for the future if they want to make sure of the only life that is real.” (1 Tim.6:17-19).
The world of money seeks to trap us at solitary tables where we feed ourselves and scatter crumbs left over to the poor. But Jesus has set a table where there is enough for all, through our participation in his kind of sharing, our trusting him enough to use our money not in fear or selfishness but for love. It is a table of friendship and caring, not gaps and division. It is a table of inexhaustible love and grace, joy and peace.
Stan Wilson is a Baptist pastor in Clinton, Mississippi, who weathered Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath two years ago. He tells a story about the day after the hurricane, when he was going around to check on his members, and seeing all the electricity off all around town, and lots of tree and roof damage. Cars were lined up for gas, stores were closed, evacuees from worse-hit communities packed shelters. At the end of that long, hot day, he was heading home, when a friend called on his cell phone and asked, “Have you checked on the poor?” Now, he says that in Clinton, the poor mostly reside in a hidden neighborhood easy to avoid and pass by without driving through it. Pastor Wilson confesses that he doesn’t know these neighbors very well, and they don’t know him, and so “we are increasing fragmented from one another, and this fragmentation means I do not know the poor (and I can be increasingly unaccountable for the use of my wealth.) On my trip back into town, I found a family I knew that had recently been evicted and were living in an uncle’s shack. They were without any provisions, and all the stores were closed, so I went to a family in our church. They cleaned out a cupboard of peanut butter, bread and bottled water. This was a brave gift, since they did not know when power and provisions would return.”
Pastor Wilson describes it as “ironic and tragic that I had to be reminded to remember the poor; I’m a pastor, after all. I have spent years studying the scriptures, and I like to think I know them pretty well. So, why did I forget the poor in a time of crisis? The rich man thought he knew scripture too. He thought they were his stories; he possessed the stories enough to think himself a child of ‘Father Abraham,’ as he said. But he turns out tragically to have overlooked the heart and soul of scripture—the story of God’s deep desire to create a people of hospitality and welcome for the poor and the stranger.”
On his second effort to head home, Pastor Wilson says, “I came across what looked like a party. I slowed down. Neighbors who had been helping one another all day were emptying the contents of their freezers into a great, shared, neighborhood cookout. Across town most of the rich were frightened and sheltered, alone in their big houses, worrying about gas and groceries running out. But not here. Here was a neighborhood enduring the storm together and sharing its plenty.” As we move together to washing each other’s feet now, let us come to God’s waters of caring. Come to God’s table of plenty. Amen.