I watched a panel discussion on an alarming and disturbing trend in American culture: the growing gap between the rich and the super-rich. While the super-rich are becoming phenomenally, absurdly wealthy, the mere rich are being left behind.
One panelist noted that the average investment banker can only afford one boat, while the super-rich might have 6 or 7 boats. You’ve got to have a decent yacht to live comfortably, he said. Another person on the panel personalized the discussion by disclosing that he himself was from a rich background. He said that it was difficult growing up -- his family had to share a tennis court with some other rich families, and they did not have a waterfall in their swimming pool like the super-rich kids did. He felt locked in behind the gates of his gated community, safely out of sight of the super-rich.
One panelist blamed the rich, saying they were just too lazy and unwilling to work. He said that some people had to vacation at Martha’s Vineyard – not everyone could go to the Riviera, and that was just the way the world was. Another disagreed strongly with this “blame the rich” mentality and said that the government needed to respond – what we really need are tax cuts to help the rich, who need a boost up.
Well, you may have guessed that this was a story that came from one of our favorite news sources, The Onion. But it did serve to shed light on the differences and gaps that exist in our culture and the attitudes we have that often go unexamined.
A more real-life story comes from a PBS Independent Lens documentary on Park Avenue. The neighborhood along Park Avenue on the Upper East Side is New York City’s wealthiest neighborhood. This is where the upper crust, those at the very top of the economic ladder live. Over the past thirty years, they have enjoyed phenomenal economic gains that they have used to buy mansions, jets, and luxury cars, but also to buy political power. They have benefited enormously from a system that they increasingly control.
But all you have to do is drive north along Park Avenue and cross the Harlem River, and there is an entirely different reality. Suddenly you are in the South Bronx, in the poorest congressional district in the country. Just 5 minutes from the height of American power and wealth. Over those same thirty years, wages have fallen for this part of Park Avenue while unemployment, rent, and the cost of living have dramatically risen. 40% live below the poverty line. All this in the shadows of the other Park Avenue.
Of course, we don’t have to go to New York City to find the disparity between the haves and the have nots. It is as close as our own community, and as ancient as the pages of scripture. We need look no further than our scripture for the morning.
Just a few verses before this story, Luke speaks of those who were lovers of money. To get their attention – and ours – Jesus tells this story. There was a rich man – he dressed in finery and ate gourmet meals every day. He apparently lived in a gated community, because a poor man named Lazarus lay outside his gate.
Lazarus’ life was just the opposite of the rich man’s: he wasn’t covered in purple and linen, he was covered in sores – in fact, it says that dogs would come and lick his sores, which is a detail we all probably could have lived without but it says something about how low Lazarus was. He would have been thrilled to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. These two men lived in close proximity but they lived in completely different worlds.
Jesus gives us this information and then says that the two men died – one was taken by the angels to Father Abraham and one was buried and went to Hades, the place of the dead. But as is often the case with Jesus’ stories, there is an upside-down quality to it that his hearer’s may not have expected.
There was a strong feeling in Jesus’ day that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment. Not surprisingly, this philosophy was especially popular among the rich. And they could back it up with scripture. Deuteronomy 28 promises fertility, prosperity, and victory in battle to those who love the Lord. Proverbs 13:21 reads, “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.” This was a fairly common sentiment.
God’s favor was linked with prosperity, which worked out really well for those who were doing well. It meant that the rich could enjoy their riches, and it also meant that they could pass by the poor beggars they came across with no feeling of responsibility. Both the rich and the poor had been placed where they were as a reward or a punishment from God, and who were they to interfere?
Now of course, such a belief required ignoring other passages of scripture, like “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11) or “Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (Proverbs 14:31). But these were not the kind of verses that rich people memorized.
I don’t have to tell you that the Prosperity Gospel, the idea that God will bless the righteous with health and wealth and success, is alive and well today. And as much as we may take issue with TV preachers who peddle that message, we have all been influenced by it.
We have all done things to protect ourselves from the pain of those around us, to pin their poor fortune on themselves so that we don’t have to worry about it so much. If only she hadn’t dropped out of school. If only he had quit smoking. If only she hadn’t had so many babies. If only he would stop drinking. If only they would learn more English. It is just human nature to try and explain why people are the way they are and why circumstances are the way they are. It helps us to get along with the business of being the way we are without too much of a drag on our consciences.
The Health and Wealth gospel may be appealing, but it’s not really the gospel. I was once contacted by a reporter from the Daily who told me that an ISU professor had done a research study showing that people with strong faith tend to live longer, and what did I think about that?
I told her I could understand the results, that a strong faith contributes to a positive outlook on life, which can be important for health. But I also said that if a person really takes one’s faith seriously, it can get you in trouble. Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero had strong faith but it got them killed, and Jesus’ faith did not help him live a long life. We think of Jesus as being righteous – without sin, even, but he was definitely not a person of wealth.
We can find all kinds of ways to tune out the cries of the poor, the needy, the suffering. But Jesus will not have it. In all the parables of the Bible, this is the only story with a character with a name. We have parables about sheep and shepherds, widows and coins, unjust judges, farmers, wayward children, travelers on the road, on and on. But in every story the character is identified only by a description, not by a name. A prodigal son. A certain Samaritan. A sower went out to sow. No names are given. The parable that we read this morning is the only exception.
What is there about this story that the poor man needs a name?
People with means are almost always known by name. The Rockefellers, the Kennedys, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates – we know their names. The gardener and the maid always know the name of the rich person, the one who signs their checks.
In this parable, the poor man almost certainly knows the rich man’s name. The poor man lay at the rich man’s gate – no telling how many times the rich man had passed right by without stopping. Maybe he thought, “There’s that lazy beggar again. Why doesn’t he get a job?”
But in this story, Jesus finally does the poor man justice. He is not a category or a label. He is a person. He had hopes and dreams. He had needs. And he had a name.
In life, the rich man had not recognized Lazarus as a person, as a human being, and in death, he still doesn’t. “Hey Abraham, why don’t you send that Lazarus down here to bring me some water to col my tongue?” Did you catch that? “Send that messenger boy Lazarus.” Even on the far side of death, he still does not recognize Lazarus as a human being – he sees him as Abraham’s gofer - somebody to deliver water and messages.
But Abraham says, No. Your days of having others wait on you are over. And there will be so special messages brought back by the dead to warn your brothers. They have Moses and the prophets, the same as everybody else, and if they won’t listen to them, then not even a messenger from beyond the grave is going to help.
Now you might hear this story and think, Wow, Jesus has it in for rich people. He really lets them have it. But that is not the case. In fact, he tells this story for their benefit. Jesus wants people with means, with wealth, with opportunity, with options, to live abundantly. He wants them, and all of God’s children, to live fully and joyfully.
Barbara Brown Taylor summarizes their situation well – and perhaps ours too:
Jesus could not stand the way people loved the things they could get for themselves better than they loved the things God wanted to give them. They were satisfied with linen suits and sumptuous feasts when God wanted to give them the kingdom. They were content to live in the world with beggars and (messengers) when God wanted to give them brothers and sisters. They were happy to get by with the parts of the Bible that backed up their own ways of life when God wanted to give them a new life altogether.The rich man wants to warn his brothers to not make the same mistake he made; to not waste their lives on chasing wealth, power, and comforts at the expense of other people. But he can’t warn them, and Lazarus is not going to do it either.
While the rich man winds up in the place of the dead and the poor man is in the bosom of Abraham, this is not a story about the afterlife per se. (And in fact, the words heaven and hell are never used here.) And while the story says something about money and generosity, the real point is deeper than just that.
Jesus’ story is really about seeing all people as people of worth, as children of God.
It is interesting that Father Abraham tells the rich man that a great chasm had been fixed between them. Who do you think built that chasm? How did it come about? By shutting out Lazarus, by shutting out the cries and the needs of the poor, by ignoring human pain, he had built that chasm – and in the end, he was the one who suffered from it.
When we fail to see others as brothers and sisters, we are the ones who fix a great chasm. When we see others as less worthy of compassion than we ourselves are, we are fixing a great chasm. And we are the ones who suffer for it.
Look around at our world. It is a world of haves and have-nots. It is a world of gross disparities. We comfort ourselves by saying that we are not rich, that we don’t have much. We might compare ourselves to those people on Park Avenue – the Upper East Side Park Avenue – and see ourselves with Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. We can do mental gymnastics to justify wherever we find ourselves in life and diminish our responsibility for others.
But if you earn $32,000 or more, you are in the top 1% in terms of the world’s wealth. If you have access to clean water and dependable electricity and if you can drive a car, you are fabulously wealthy by the standards of much of the world. We can spin it any way we like, but chances are we actually have more in common with the rich man than we do Lazarus.
The point is not to feel guilty, not to feel bad about ourselves. And it is not to pity people like Lazarus. The point is simply, to see others as children of God. To have empathy. The point is not so much to see someone like Lazarus as a person in need, but to simply see him as a person, period.
It is a terrible story that Jesus tells, really, with hunger and abject poverty, with dogs licking sores and flames and torment. It is not a pretty story, but maybe the best thing about this story is that it isn’t over. Lazarus couldn’t bring us the message, but Jesus sneaked it out for us. It’s not too late for us.
We still have a chance. We still have a choice. Rather than seeking the things we can acquire for ourselves, we can open ourselves to the gifts that God wants to give us. Amen.