Proper 21, Year C
Luke 16:19-31 - link to NRSV text
Another hard text from Luke ... it must be Sunday!
This one's follows pretty logically from the Lucan Beatitudes and Woes. That was a pretty harsh text to preach on too, and for much the same reason. Luke's Beatitudes and Woes say, in a fairly straightforward fashion:
Honored are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God ...
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
I encourage you to stop by the Global Rich List as an initial impetus for reflection. It's a site where you can enter your annual income, in American or Canadian dollars, Euro, Yen, or Pounds, and then click a button to find out how many of the world's people are richer than you, and how many are poorer.
For example, my annual income of USD$36,000 per year puts me in the top 4.33% of the world's richest. That information sure puts me on the edge of my seat when I hear "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Luke 6:24). And it puts me on the edge of my seat for this Sunday's parable too, because much as Luke's "woes" don't say anything like, "woe to you who are rich and ungenerous"; they just say, "woe to you who are rich." As one of the world's richest people, that has to give me pause.
Like the Lucan "woes," the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is unique to Luke. And like the woes, it gives us rich folk some serious things to think about. Just as the woes don't say "woe to you ungenerous rich," verses 25 and 26 of this Sunday's gospel give as the sole explanation of the rich man's torment and Lazarus' being gathered to Abraham:
During your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus likewise received evil things. And now he is being comforted here, but you are suffering. And in all these things, there is a great divide set up between us and you people, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.
I'm following Luke Timothy Johnson in translating the beginning of verse 26 as "And in all these things, there is a great divide set up," rather than "Besides all this, there is a great divide set up," because I think there's something of Luke's eschatology -- and of God's prophetic word to us in this passage -- in the distinction.
The great divide between Lazarus and the rich man didn't spring up upon their deaths or after the last judgment; it was created by the rich man while both of them lived.
It's a financial divide between the haves and the have-nots, between those who feast and those who hunger. But there are other divides that follow from that and perpetuate it. You can get a solid and very brief description of conditions in the pre-industrial city that are relevant to this Sundays gospel from Bruce Malina's and Richard Rohrbaugh's notes on Luke 14:15-24 in their Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (a one-volume paperback that I recommend VERY highly, as I do John J. Pilch's "Cultural World" lectionary commentaries). Here's some of what comes to my mind:
The rich man not only controls resources like land and money, but also controls systems of taxation that perpetuate the "great divide" between him and Lazarus. Furthermore, the rich control the Temple and related institutions that place value on avoiding impurities that the rich could hire others to deal with, but the poor could not. These divides in arenas of wealth, civic power, and religious power (which is also political power!) are clearly visible as well in the physical layout of the city, as elites occupy the geographical center of the city as well as the center of power. The neighborhoods in which the elites lived alongside Temple and palace were often protected with fortifications, while poorer residents of the city lived in ethnic and occupational groups at the city's edge, and the poorest --- beggars, prostitutes, and those in marginalized occupations, lived completely outside the protection of the city walls. During the day, the poorer people in the community were let in through the walls to provide the goods and services the elites wanted; at night, they were locked out.
A lot of things are different for we who live in industrialized cities in wealthy countries like the U.S. Some things are remarkably (and disturbingly) similar, though. There is still a "great chasm" or "great divide" between the haves and the have-nots. In the neighborhood in Pasadena, California, where I used to live, the physical chasm was the one cut for the freeway. North of the freeway had the concentrations of poorer residents, and especially recent immigrant families whose primary language was Spanish. South of the freeway were the upscale shops and restaurants the northerners cooked for and cleaned, and south of that were palatial homes (again, with gardens tended and rooms cleaned by northerners). Baltimore has physical features like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a street that can't in a single green light be crossed on foot from the poor neighborhoods of Sandtown and Pigtown to the wealthy neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins medical school. Anne Arundel County, where I work in Maryland, has divides of its own fixed between rich and poor. Even full-time professionals like teachers, police officers, and firefighters often can't afford to live anywhere near where they work, let alone the person who staffs the counter at Dunkin' Donuts or washes dishes at the upscale Woodfire Grill.
There's still a vast chasm, fixed and maintained by elites, between rich and poor, and as I pointed out in a recent sermon, that chasm is in many ways growing, even within U.S. cities. And then there's the rest of the world -- and this Sunday's gospel warns us in the sternest possible terms not to turn national borders into a chasm beyond which we neither look nor work for reconciliation and justice!
Looking hard at all of this will, one hopes, put the fear of God in us. But the difference, in my mind, between "the fear of God" and just plain FEAR is that while fear causes us to retreat or become paralyzed, the fear of God motivates us and empowers us to DO SOMETHING to live into the kingdom of God, God's justice, peace, and freedom.
In Anne Arundel County, people of faith are organizing around the principle, "If you're good enough to work here, you're good enough to live here." An initiative has been introduced in the county council to set aside a percentage of new housing for pricing affordable to teachers, police officers, and firefighters -- and, if we can garner enough support, another percentage will be set aside that's affordable for dishwashers, gardeners, and housecleaners. If it passes, the effects will include better schools, less pollution and traffic congestion, and improved quality of life for all (and if you're anywhere near the area, do come to the October 3 BRIDGE public meeting in Baltimore!). But there's another effect that the rich man in this Sunday's gospel implores us to consider:
Whenever we create or maintain an unbridgeable chasm between people, we automatically are on the wrong side of it.
So we are called to do what we can to "prepare the way of the Lord" by filling in the chasms, making the paths straight, tearing down the walls so that no one is let in for our convenience and shut out when we think we no longer have need of her. Indeed, just saying, with our lips or our lives, "I have no need of you" to a sister or brother is an insult to the Holy Spirit who makes us one (1 Cor. 12:21).
And there's something else Luke in particular enjoins us to do in response to this Sunday's gospel, and it's a point of stewardship. It's true that the rich in Luke's writings are in big trouble. But if you read carefully, you might notice that there are some people with substantial material resources who don't seem to be included in the woes. For starters, there's Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Suzanna (Luke 8:1), and there's Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37).
These are people who take seriously what the Holy Spirit says: that we are one family of sisters and brothers, and so we are called to have all things in common. Resources that legally might belong to one person rightfully belong to the whole, to be used to help any in need and to build up the whole community. These are people who take seriously that "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1).
These are not people donating to a cause. As much as I love National Public Radio, I don't think their pledge drives are any model for stewardship. We do not give our own resources to encourage the development of particular programs or to support what we agree with; we share what wasn't our own to begin with, and do it because we want to know Christ's compassion and the unity of the Body more deeply. We do it because of who we are in Christ.
And as we make use of possessions to live more deeply as a community into who we are in Christ, we will see not only how much we have used our power and resources to dig chasms, but how powerful Christ's love is to bring us to repentance and reconciliation to bridge them.
Thanks be to God!
Thanks for the message. I was looking up he net on 'the great divide' as word dropped into my spirit by Jesus. Bles you
Posted by: Gerard | Jul 16, 2006 12:13:09 AM
Often when we serve, we receive far more that we will ever give. Years ago I served on a synodical commission and made a minimal contribution. However, one of the members often used an expression that has stuck with me over the years. There are times when we realize that "the bells are ringing, the lights are flashing, and the horns blowing." Then we know that we should pay attention. That is what Jesus is telling us in this parable. Listen hear the bells and horns - look see the lights flashing. We need to wake up and come alive!
Posted by: John C. Bonser | Sep 27, 2007 10:01:18 AM
Years ago(1969), when in seminary, my missions prof challenged me, a starving seminarian, to believe that I am one of the richest people in the world, when thinking, freedom, education, health, future, stability, spiritual growth, etc.
Posted by: Bill Fitzgerald | Sep 29, 2007 1:55:07 PM
I also wonder about those who 'dumped Lazarus" at the gate - at the divide. The divide is often nurtured even by those next door who are nearest to us. They are obviously steering clear of Lazarus also. All the more reason to make this word one for all to hear - the dignity of all. Thanks for this piece.
Posted by: Al Debelak | Sep 24, 2010 3:57:32 PM