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How Then Shall We, the Rich, Live?
based on Luke 16:19-31
If you should come into a fortune tomorrow, what would you do with it? If you should win the Big Lotto, which the people at work tell me, is up to $20 million, how would you spend that money? I know what I'd do. First, I'd pay off my debts. All of them. Then, I'd make sure that money was set aside for the children's education and inheritance, and for our retirement. That's not to say I wouldn't retire, at least from the school district, right away! I like my job at Douglas, but . . . Of course, in all this, I'd establish a trust fund, or an endowment for the church. That wouldn't negate my weekly giving obligations, it would simply be my 10% tithe from my winnings. Then, of course, we'd take a trip. First, to Disney World for two weeks. Fourteen days to see the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, the new wild animal park, and all the other attractions. I'd make sure the kids got to Sea World, Nickelodeon, Cypress Gardens, Universal Studios, and to the Kennedy Space Center. Then, we'd move on up the coast. We'd stop at Hilton Head and enjoy the beach on our way to a week at Williamsburg my favorite place in the whole world. We'd go to Jamestown, too. Then it would be on to Washington, D.C., where I grew up. We'd spend four weeks touring the Capitol, the White House, the Library of Congress, the National Geographic Society, and of course you'd have to spend at least three of those weeks at the Smithsonian. Then, there's Mont Vernon, Monticello, General Lee's Mansion, and of course Arlington National Cemetery, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. We'd stay at the Willard Hotel, the hotel of presidents, where Mom and Dad used to take me for a "grownup lunch" after I got my braces fixed. It would be a trip to remember. Lazarus, Lazarus, who? There's no one sleeping in the streets in Washington, D.C. And, anyway, didn't Jesus say, "you will always have the poor with you?" After our trip, or better, while we were gone, I'd have the house remodeled and redecorated. First, I'd have the pool equipment moved to the other side of the yard maybe we'd have the pool rebuilt, too. Then, I'd add another room downstairs for a bigger office, or maybe just a library for all our books, or a room for all Katie's dolls and Matthew's Star Wars, Batman, Ghostbusters and Turtles stuff. Above that, I'd make a master suite. Bob and I would have our own bathroom (and the kids would have theirs). I'd want the kid's rooms enlarged. Then, I'd combine the kitchen, dining and family rooms into a great room. My new kitchen would have a baking area, at least two sinks, and a cooking island. I'd build a deck off the family room, so we could sit on the deck and watch the kids swim. The family room would have room enough for homework, reading, and a nice big round dining table. We'd install a computer with a hard drive big enough for the kid's games, my stuff, and little things like electronic cookbooks, home security management, etc. We'd even have one of those large-screen monitors (not to mention a large-screen tv) so we could all look at a web page together. It would be a grand home. Homeless? I don't ever see any homeless. Not in Springfield. And, anyway, didn't Ronald Regan say "the homeless are homeless, because they choose to be homeless?" If you were to win the Lottery tomorrow, how would you then live? Would you live, as the rich man in this story? Would you feed sumptuously? The words used here for the kind of eating this man did daily, are the same ones used for the celebration banquet given for the Prodigal Son. It was a feast beyond compare. The rich man ate such a banquet every day. His was not just blatant consumption. It was gross over-consumption. He wore purple and fine linen the clothes of royalty and the very, very rich. In those days, there were no utensils. People ate with their hands. To clean their hands, they used pieces of bread, which they then threw on the floor. Lazarus wished for one of those "crumbs" the rich man threw away.
Jesus doesn't tell us the rich man's name, but we would call him - Gates, Murdoch, Rockefeller. At the gate to his villa, lay a poor beggar. Unlike most of Jesus's other stories, we know the beggar's name Lazarus, which means "God helps." This is one of the few stories in which Jesus names a character. Can you imagine the forgiving father saying each morning, "Come on, Prodigal, time to get up for school?" Or the wife saying, "Sower, why did you sow those seeds in the weeds?" Did the shepherdess call her husband Good? No, we know these people by the names of the stories they inhabit. But in this story, Jesus names a character, Lazarus. The amazing thing is that Jesus names Lazarus. We would expect him to name the rich man. We admire the rich. Who wants to be a poor beggar lying in someone's doorway, begging for crumbs while dogs lick your sores? It was the assumption in Jesus's day that the rich were rich because God had blessed them for some great thing they had done. The poor were poor because they wanted to be, or because they had sinned against God. In this parable however, it is the rich man who ends up in Hades, paying for his sin. Can you imagine how surprised the rich man was to discover himself in Hell? He surely would have demanded the Grand Jury's definition of sin, for he had never committed a crime that he could see. He ate well, dressed well, lived well. But was that a sin? Why Hell? He did nothing. And that's the point. By doing nothing in the face of such great need, he reduced Lazarus to an object. His sin was not that he was rich. His sin was his indifference to Lazarus. His attitude toward the poor man even in the afterlife did not change (he wanted Lazarus to be sent to him as a servant to help him out, and then to be sent to his brothers to warn them). The rich man shows no regret for how his indifference affected Lazarus when both were alive, only for how the reversal in the afterlife has affected him. The rich man had the power to do something, yet he chose to do nothing. By doing nothing, he disobeyed Moses and the prophets who, speaking for God, commanded the Israelites to show compassion and hospitality to the strangers, the widows, the fatherless, and the poor. Lazarus, on the other hand, did nothing because he was powerless. He was at the mercy of the job market. Perhaps he was ill in some way or maybe he was an outcast. Jesus didn't say. Only that he was a poor man, covered with sores. There are many things to which we are indifferent, which we take for granted. The sunrise, the changing seasons, planting time and harvest time. When I was in third grade, we lived in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. I remember getting off the school bus one day and seeing the colored kids' school bus go by on the highway. I wondered where those kids went to school. That was the way it was. The colored had different schools, different bathrooms, different drinking fountains, they sat in the back of the bus. It never occurred to me that things could be, or should be, any different. I didn't know any colored because they didn't go the places I went. I didn't know that I didn't go the places they went. Then the sixties came, and the colored started saying "this is not right," as did some white people. Still, for many people, those changes were an assault on the natural order of things. It was as though people were trying to change the sunrise to the evening, or the harvest to springtime. No one had ever considered the possibility that things might be, could be, should be, different. We weren't indifferent. We didn't even notice. The rich man didn't even notice Lazarus. He walked out of his gate, on his way to the bath house, or the marketplace, or the court, not even seeing Lazarus. He stepped over Lazarus, walked around him, not even realizing Lazarus was there. That is what condemned him.
We'd like to think that things are different, almost forty years after the Civil Rights movement began. We'd like to think that the War on Poverty has been won, or that people of all colors are equal. Yet, Will Willimon tells us: In the early 1830's a member of French nobility visiting America . . . noted that a major characteristic of this young nation was the pervasive sense of equality. He said that nothing so struck him as the "general equality of condition among American people" with few who were very rich, and few who were terribly poor, [he] felt that this was fertile soil for the development of true democracy. . . . Today, perhaps the most noticeable aspect of American economics and perhaps the most dangerous aspect of American politics is the growing gap between rich and poor. . . . Today the gap between the poorest Americans and the wealthiest Americans may be larger than at any point in the last 50 years. The richest 1% of us have nearly as much wealth as the entire bottom 95%.
The rich man's sin was not that he was rich. It was his attitude toward Lazarus. Yes, he could have thrown Lazarus a piece of bread, but that would not have saved him. The deeper issue is the rich man's unwillingness to enter into relationship with Lazarus. It is one thing to hand out services and food to the poor, but it is a harder thing to actually establish a relationship with a child of God who is poor and/or broken. To offer food and help to the poor is part of the responsibility of the Christian life, but the real treasure lies in giving of ourselves in relationship. George Buttrick wrote, "The story offers no support to the glib assumption that [the rich man] would have fulfilled [his] duty had he dressed Lazarus' sores and fed his hunger. True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. Ameliorations such as food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighborliness.
My friend Steve Taylor tells about an encounter he had: Several years ago, I lived in Fayetteville, NC and was blessed with the opportunity to spend much time at Maranantha Ministries, a home and half-way house for men, women, and children. One glorious spring day, I was sitting on the porch with a woman named Cheryl. We were just sitting and chatting, watching large puffy white clouds gently dance across the blueist of skies, the cool breeze lightly brushing our faces. We sat and we rocked, sometimes talking, sometimes just rocking in silence as we listened to the calming creak of the old chairs. I can still vividly recall the surreal nature of the experience, as I sat there communing with this attractive and articulate woman, talking about children, her time in high school and college, her past experiences as a buyer for one of the largest national retail chains-sitting and chatting and watching the world go by with this woman who had lost everything to Crack addiction. Perhaps she felt protected by the beauty of the day, perhaps she just needed to share her past with someone who was not a preacher, drug counselor, or fellow addict, but for whatever reason, she chose to share the trauma of her childhood, the destructive forces which acted on her life, the loss of her mother and the abuse of her father. For whatever reason, she shared her deepest nightmares and her greatest dreams. I was overcome by the magnitude of her gift - it was the gift of her life. As we talked, by and by the conversation turned to our church fellowship on Wednesday night. All the women and children from Maranantha would come to our church and join us for dinner and bible study. I always thought it was a joyful occasion where maybe, just maybe some of those classist barriers fell...where maybe, just maybe, immersed in this world of "church" we might just be able to move beyond some of those walls which separate us one from another and ultimately, separate us from God. I remarked that since we had such a wonderful time on Wednesday night, I just didn't see any reason we couldn't continue having a wonderful time on Sunday morning. Cheryl looked at me and for a long moment. She was completely still. She looked at me with sorrow in her eyes and the shadow of sadness over her face and she slowly said, "We could never go there on Sunday." And then with more hurt than anger she said, "The people there already view us as a charity cases. How on Sunday, as they all stood there in their Sunday finest and we stood there in our cast-off clothing, how could they look at us as anything but less than human?" And as we sat there watching the wonderment of God's creation, as we sat there basking in the miracle of Spring, I struggled for a dissenting sentence, some remark, just a few words that would explain she was wrong. But instead I sat in silence. For I knew, I knew that she was right, that they that I, would see her one of "those" people.
That was the rich man's sin, he saw Lazarus, if he saw him at all, as one of "those people."
Yet there is more to this parable than a condemnation of the rich. This parable is also about hope. It is about Christian hope. For what this parable tells us is that no matter how bad things get, no matter how difficult life gets, God does notice, and God cares. Remember Lazarus' name, God helps. God is not indifferent to us, to our situations, to our hurts. God does notice us, and God cares for each one of us. For the Christian, hope is not a vaguely optimistic feeling that life will be good. Christian hope is the belief that the world was created by God, who is good, and that God is at work in the world, and in us, to bring about good things. We in the church are called to share God's work. And, even when it looks as if evil is winning, we have God's promise that, in the end, God will win. Are you Lazarus, or the rich man? It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it? Compared with Bill Gates, the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers, we are Lazarus. Yet, all of us are rich, for we know the Lord. We may not drive Beemers, or Corvettes. We may not wear designer clothes, or live in mansions. We may never take a cruise, win the lottery, or remodel our homes. Yet we are rich beyond all measure, for we have been called by God to share God's work in the world.
How then, shall we, the rich, live?
Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999