Luke 16:19-31, Psalm 41:1-3
Starting in chapter 15 of the gospel of Luke, all of Jesus parables are about wealth. Commentators I read said that Jesus spoke more about money and possessions than about anything else in his parables. And unfortunately for us, his words on money and possessions are condemning of all of us who are comfortable, all of us who have so much more than enough. And bottom line of his condemnation is this: we have failed to remember that we belong to God and to one another.
In this story we see the rich man hiding behind his gated estate, his gated community, behind his walls from anything outside that would be displeasing to him. He, as most people at that time, and indeed as most people in our time, mistakenly assumes that his wealth is due to his own actions and/or to God’s blessing him because he DESERVED it. As a result, he doesn’t see any need to give a second thought to this poor man outside his gates. He doesn’t see him, doesn’t think to give him even his left-overs, or anything from his own table. Just as he assumes his own wealth is because he deserves it, he assumes that Lazarus is poor because that’s what he deserved. Perhaps he saw him as lazy, perhaps he saw him as just “less than”. Whatever it was, he gave him no thought at all. He never saw it as his job to care for this brother of his, he probably never even considered helping him. We are told that when Lazarus the beggar died, the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. He was a beggar in life, someone many of us, too, might see as “lazy” or “unworthy”. But this does not change the fact that he is a valued child of God, and so, in place of a decent burial, he is instead carried away by the angels. In contrast, the rich man who died was given a proper burial, and then he found himself in Hades in torment. But even from this place, from THIS place, he still cannot see. He begs Abraham to have Lazarus, whom he is still seeing as his inferior, come to cool him down. And when the answer is “no”, he begs to have Lazarus go to his family to warn them. He still sees Lazarus in the servant role, still sees him as the inferior who should do this for him. This is especially emphasized by the fact that he never talks directly to Lazarus, but only to Abraham, someone he sees as “on par” with him in terms of level. The rich man sees himself as one of the elite, able to talk to those who are the fathers and founders of the faith. The rich man also wants help for his family. The rich man never asks for forgiveness for his actions, he is still not thinking of the poor people whom he shunned or whom his family still shuns. He considers that maybe they should change their behavior, but it is still for their own personal gain. “Send Lazarus to my family so that they will not also come to this place of torment,” he says. After everything that he has lived through, and everything he now suffers, he remains unable to see beyond himself, beyond his family, beyond his own personal cares. He has failed to remember that we belong to God and to one another.
In what ways is this familiar to us? Materialism makes people very selfish. We become owned by our stuff, and it causes us to be more and more self-focused, and focused on only gaining for self. A friend posted this on Facebook:
John Bogle, the Vanguard founder who passed away in 2019 told a story: “at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informed his pal, Joseph Heller that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day that Heller had earned from this wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responded, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.”
Those who are just accumulating more and more for themselves never feel they have enough. They are always focused on gaining more for themselves and their close family. They fail to remember that we belong to God and to one another.
When we think about the growing discrepancy between the rich and poor in this country, we see the reality of this story. Did you know that during this COVID pandemic, while people are losing their jobs, losing their livelihoods, losing everything, that the wealth of the billionaires in this country alone increased just during the pandemic by $1.9 trillion!! And yet, many of these are the same people who declare that we should not have a minimum wage of $15/hour, which, by the way, is nowhere near a living wage in the Bay Area. The rich have so much more than they can ever, ever use. The poor don’t have enough to feed their families, but the rich still cling to the idea that they somehow deserve it, somehow need to cling to it for themselves, while the poor do not deserve to eat, and should be okay with the “dogs licking their sores,” as we are told that Lazarus experienced. We think that God blesses us so that we might have wealth. But the truth is that God blesses us so that we might bless others. And we forget this. God doesn’t bless us to hoard our wealth. What we have is not ours, it is lent to us to use for the good of all by the God who loves all of God’s children. But we have forgotten that we belong to God and to one another.
The rich man did not see Lazarus as part of his family. But we are called to “Love our neighbors as ourselves”. I want to point out that this is not “we should love those people that we like”. And it is also not “we should give a little of what we have to those other people.” What does it truly mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? How would you treat yourselves? We know how we would treat ourselves. We pay for our houses, we buy nice things for our children. We pay for our cars. Do we treat our neighbors this way? No, we throw a ten at a homeless person, but loving them as ourselves would mean inviting them in, sharing our home with them, including them in the same abundance that we have. Is this hard? For all of us. For ALL of us it is hard. I had a conversation with someone this week who said that she invited a good friend who had lost a job to live with her. It was hard for her to even invite this very good friend into her home, but she did. And it didn’t end well, for any of them. It ended with the friend stomping out of the house in a rage, the friendship broken. She said, “well, so what are we supposed to do? Just keep taking those risks? When do we get rewarded for caring for those who don’t even appreciate it?” The answer is that we don’t. Not in this lifetime, or at least not in the way that we expect. We probably won’t be paid back in terms of money. We might lose friendships, we might lose sleep. But we are not in charge of “what happens out there”. All that we are in charge of is what we will do with the time that is given to us. All we are called to do is to remember that we belong to God and to one another. The reward for that? Again, it won’t come in the way we think of rewards.
The reward for doing what God expects of us is wholeness. It is not material gain. It is not comfort. But it is a memory that we belong to God and to one another. It is the reminder that we are all God’s children, all family to one another, all deeply loved beyond our imaginings. It is the vision of what it truly means to love our neighbors AS OURSELVES and to live into that.
Admittedly, it is the rare saint who can do that. But that is what we are called to try to do. There is a wonderful phrase, “If you’ve come to ‘help’ me you are wasting my time. If you’ve come because your freedom is bound up in mine, let us work together.” This is not top-down. This is not parochial. This is not “charity” in the common sense of the word. This is about serving one another because we remember that we need one another, that our wholeness is bound together.
The rich man in this parable got it wrong in so many ways. He got it wrong because he never helped Lazarus. He got it wrong because he thought Lazarus was beneath him. He got it wrong because he assumed that people have what they have because they’ve earned it and God has blessed them to use it for their own good. He got it wrong because his attitude about it never changed from one of superior hoarding, to one of repentant giving. He got it wrong because instead of living a life of gratitude, he lived a life of greedy accumulation.
As you know a group of us continue to study racism in the United States. We are looking at history in new ways, searching for deeper truths about how we came to be as we are, and what needs to change. This last week I listened to a podcast about Affirmative Action. It started by asking when Affirmative action began in this country. Most people said sometime in the 70s. And then we started looking at the facts. Back in 1618 the Headright system gave 50 acres of land, or to some 100 acres of land, only to white people, to anyone willing to migrate here. In 1705, statute in Virigina required masters to give WHITE indentured servants 50 acres of land, 30 shillings, 10 bushels of corn and a musket. 160 years later there was a ruling to give freed slaves 40 acres and a mule. But that ruling was then overturned, unlike the ones for white folk. 1785, for every 36 square acre units, one was set aside for the education of white children. But not African Americans or Native Americans. And it went on and on. We have a history of taking for “our own” whatever that means, of not allowing others the same opportunities, and then blaming THEM for not having as much as we do. We have failed to remember that we belong to God and to one another.
In the parable for today, Abraham talks about the growing chasm between heaven and hell which prevents any kind of interaction across the divide. We are creating that here, and a lot of how we do that is our failure to remember that we belong to God and to each other. Crossing divides is not easy, but I believe that Lazarus will not be whole without the rich man, just as the rich man will not be whole without Lazarus. Just as Lazarus needed saving from his extreme poverty, the rich man needed liberation from his wealth, his greed, his tunnel vision of only caring for his own needs. We need God, and we need one another and that means working hard to cross those divides.
So my question for all of us is who is just beyond our gates that we fail to notice? Who are we failing to treat as we treat ourselves? Who is it that we divide ourselves from, and how can we start to remember that we belong to them, too. And then, what do we do with what we have? Do we give thanks? Do we use it to care for others?
We don’t know what is the greater problem in this parable: the rich man’s wealth or his attitude. But both call us to look in a different way at what we have and our attitude as well.
Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, said in his speech on how to change the world that the first thing we need to do to change the world is to get closer to those we would serve. To spend time with the poor, the hungry, the homeless. There is power in proximity and the solutions will come in that dynamic of closeness. He tells the story of his grandmother who would hug him so hard and then ask, “Do you still feel me hugging you?” Amd of he said “no” she would hug her again. But as she died, she said to him, “Bryan, I will always be hugging you.” And he realized we can all hug someone, embrace and hug the people you are called to serve. He got close to prisoners and in doing that found his own power to change the world through his actions, his writings, his speaking, his remembering that we belong to God and to one another..
As always, we come here to hear the good news. And the Good News is this: we will keep being given those opportunities for wholeness, those chances to serve and love one another as the brothers and sisters that we really are. We will continue to find those chances to remember that we belong to one another. And when we finally learn that we belong to God, and to one another, we will also, in fullness, remember what it is to be children of God, loved into being, loved into “enough”, loved beyond measure. Amen.