How to Get It Through Your Head

How to Get It Through Your Head

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by Daniel Harrell

Hearing this parable about a super rich man and a desperately poor man unavoidably prompts a correlation to America’s current wealth inequality. One recent video making the rounds from a Harvard economist gloomily intones how the richest 1% of American’s own 42% of the entire country’s wealth, more than the bottom 97% combined. Notably, there is general agreement among those surveyed as to what an equitable distribution curve would look like—even though with the system unfairly skewed. But the perceived gap between this equitable ideal and reality pales as pocket change wen compared with the true state of things—an ugly inequality curve in which the poorest and middle class are a barely-indistinguishable line while the top 1 percent is, quite literally, off the charts. I thought about showing the whole video this morning but it’s rather depressing. And frankly, this parable is depressing enough. Even for Lent.

Stony Brook University economist Noah Smith counters that much of America’s wealth inequality has more to do with age than class. Young people, he says, tend to have a lot of debt and not much by way of savings, accounting for their negative wealth and the reason they move back in with their parents. Moreover, the video’s  statistics don’t include things like entitlements, or the value of one’s skills or education. Americans aren’t as staggeringly unequal as the video makes out. But they are still very, very unequal.

Not that this is a new development. As Jesus illustrates, wealth inequity has been around for a long time. In fact, his parable also shows up in other reversal of fortune folktales circulating during his day. Wealth inequality isn’t solely an American issue either, of course. While in Israel we encountered poverty among Bedouin shepherds who plaintively positioned themselves at tourist stops, peddling locally-crafted cashmerey scarves made in China. Their sad roadside shanties clashed harshly with the opulent accommodations we tourists enjoyed each night. The fine linens and sumptuous feasting Jesus described translated for us into thousand thread-count linens and lavish dinner buffets.

Now I should say that you work up quite an appetite walking in the footsteps of Jesus, but I’m sure that not even Jesus ate like we did. Jesus chose to be poor for the sake of solidarity with the homeless and hungry, with the least and the last. The irony wasn’t lost on us and I felt bad about it after my second slice of cheesecake. But even in the Bible, blessings of abundance are not solely reserved for the heaven. Though Scripture sternly warns against the temptations and tyrannies of wealth, to prosper is not a Biblical vice. Christian virtuousness promotes diligence at work, good stewardship of resources, getting an education, commitment in marriage and caring communities, all of which can contribute to economic and social advancement. The issue in Scripture is never that God’s people prosper, but that in prospering they ignore the plight of the poor. Blessings start getting treated as earned privileges. Hoarding for financial security’s sake displaces generosity toward those in need. Jesus takes selfishness personally. “I tell you the truth,” he cautions, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

As with last Sunday’s parable of the Envious Brother (otherwise known as the Prodigal Son), Jesus aims this Sunday’s parable at the Pharisees. Like the Prodigal Son, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus only shows up in Luke’s gospel. And among all Jesus’ parables, it’s the only one where the characters have names, Abraham being the patriarch of Judaism and Lazarus a fairly common name meaning “God has helped.” The Prodigal Son demonstrated obedience gone sour. Like the envious older brother, the obedient Pharisees couldn’t stand that Jesus hung out with sinners and got away with it. Here the comparably well-off Pharisees despised Jesus for giving preferential treatment to the poor. If prosperity is a blessing from God, what does that say about those who have nothing? Clearly they were sinners too.

Working all the years that I served at a downtown church, I got constantly barraged by requests for spare change from street people who had nothing. Wanting to be a good reverend, I started by putting money in everybody’s cup, but my generosity got jaded over time. Seeing the same people panhandling year after year, I began to ask myself whether dispensing change into a cup truly helped then get off the streets, or enabled them to remain there instead. Were they genuinely needy or just lazy and willing to lie? Then again, was I so righteous that I can even make such judgments? Shouldn’t my faith in God make my generosity tireless? How can I say I follow Jesus and then walk by unaffected? Yet if I give only in order to assuage my guilt, can it truly be called giving? And really, what good is a dollar? Shouldn’t I be willing to offer more given how much God has offered me? I did eventually spend four years hanging out with homeless guys on the streets. I got to know their names and hear their stories. But in many cases this only made matters worse. At least the sinners and tax-collectors Jesus hung out with always reformed their lives. The homeless guys I knew weren’t really that interested in that. Granted, I’m no Jesus, but still. As you can tell, this is why I moved to the Minneapolis suburbs.

It is possible that the Pharisees were hard-working clergy who got jaded by the demands of their work. Maybe they were underpaid and resented the fact that they’d sacrificed so much to serve the Lord. But I doubt it. Luke describes them as “lovers of money,” which was not meant as a compliment. That Jesus ties them to the rich man in the parable must have meant they were doing all right. Not that the rich man was a greedy materialist. He likely counted his riches as a blessing from God. Again, the issue was not his prosperity, but his cold and self-righteous heart. He probably had his reasons. Probably thought that Lazarus should go get a job. Probably figured there will always be poor people. What can you do? “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others;” Jesus told them, “but God knows your hearts.” The bottom line turns out to be the difference between being having money and loving it, which comes as a huge relief for most of us well-to-do Christians. Thankfully, none of us love money.

Jesus says these things as religious and political opposition against him deepens. Telling parables like this didn’t help matters much. We’re all fans of fairness and poetic justice, but do we really need to be told how we get eternally recompensed for all the slights we commit on earth? And what’s with all the hellfire and torment? Turn or burn? Isn’t just feeling guilty bad enough? Jesus says that Lazarus would have been happy with a few crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. According to another statistic, we Americans throw away 40 percent of the food we produce—more than 20 pounds per person per month. That’s a lot of crumbs.

In the end, Lazarus dies without so much as a proper burial, but that’s when things start looking up. He gets ushered up to Abraham’s heavenly dinner table while the dead rich man gets sent down to the furnace room. Turns out that is easier to thread a needle with a camel. Flames lick his body like the dogs licked Lazarus, and now he’d be as happy with a drop of water as Lazarus would have been with that crumb, anything to cool his blistering misery. Being a religious as well as rich, he appeals to Abraham for relief, but Abraham says sorry, you had your chance. Justice is justice. You reap what you sow. God knows your heart. What about grace? It’s too late for that. “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” Abraham explains, “so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” We couldn’t help you even if we wanted to.

Why would Jesus ever tell such a horrible parable? It’s not like the rich guy was asking to get set free. He just wants a lousy drop of water. And what’s with the vast chasm? Who put that there? For a Savior who’s all about love, Jesus sure comes off sounding awfully judgmental. Then again, God doesn’t even show up in this parable. He’s not passing judgment. He doesn’t really need to. Because whenever we hear this parable we judge ourselves. Like when we hear about the envious older son who snubbed his found brother’s welcome home party happening just inside the house. Or when we hear about the religious Levite and priest in the who scurry past the wounded neighbor right there in the roadside ditch, only to have a despised no-good Samaritan pick up the slack and make us look bad. Or here with Lazarus being right outside the rich man’s gate. Chances are they saw each other every day. The religious rich, the righteous brother, the Levite and the priest, each came within inches of doing the right thing. But by failing to do it, each might just as well have been million miles away. This is the judgment: We all come within inches of loving and helping and even forgiving others every day, yet by refusing to close these little gaps, for whatever reason, we create for ourselves an infinity of separation amounting to the distance between heaven and hell.

Perhaps you’re heard the one about the difference between heaven and hell as the difference between two kinds of people gathered around identical soup pots and all in possession of identical long wooden spoons. The difference is that those in hell starve because they cannot get the spoons to their own mouths while those in heaven feed each other and are full.

Up to this point, Jesus’ morality tale was like those his audience had heard before. To the formerly rich man’s credit, he suffers his horrible fate; a fate he now wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. Now Jesus adds his own twist. He has the formerly rich man begging. He pleads for Lazarus be sent to his father’s house, “for I have five brothers who need to be warned, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham says they should just read their Bibles. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” According to yet another statistic, the average American owns four Bibles, and we keep buying more. The Bible still ranks as the country’s number one selling book, and we give it to children, probably because nobody reads it.

Why would we? Have you ever opened one? Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and you’ll have all you need? Consider the birds and lilies and don’t worry about your life? The Lord knows what you need before you even ask? Simply seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness and everything will be yours? Trust in the Lord and he’ll give you the desires of your heart? It’s all very Biblical. It’s just not very realistic. Not even for people who don’t love money.

There’s a small group curriculum put out by World Vision and Sojourners entitled Lazarus at the Gate and is advertised as an “economic discipleship guide.” The curriculum invites participants into a community experience where the goal is for each participant to make four individual commitments:

• Spend joyfully: Regularly give thanks for the blessing of wealth.

• Spend justly: Make one lifestyle change to consume more responsibly.

• Spend less: Make one lifestyle change in order to reduce personal consumption.

• Give more: Make a substantial gift to fight global poverty

At the end of the time together participants pool their saved money and give collectively to the poor. In this they work like a giving circle. If you’ve yet to do anything for Lent, this can be a good plan on a lot of levels. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve done it. I once asked a participant whether being in her Lazarus group and supporting each other’s economic choices also meant sharing information like salaries or current spending habits or personal budgets. If economic discipleship brings you closer to God, it should also bring you closer to your fellow believers. “Heavens no,” she replied. “That’s way too personal. And we only know each other from church.” It reminded me of an old letter once written to the recently deceased Dear Abby: “Dear Abby. I am a twenty-three-old liberated woman who has been on the pill for two years. It’s getting pretty expensive and I think my lover should share half the cost, but I don’t know him well enough to discuss money with him.”

It’s said that to know someone’s financial statement is to know their values. Actually Jesus said that. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This being the case, divulging our pay stubs and budgets with fellow Christians might not only foster deeper obedience, but genuine intimacy too. But then I try to imagine it actually happening. I try to imagine it happening at say, a pastors’ conference, you know, among people who “aren’t in it for the money” and who supposedly read our Bibles all the time. I doubt that comparing salaries and personal budgets would make us closer. Envious and resentful and condescending, perhaps, but probably not closer.

“Father Abraham,” the burning man pleads, “I don’t think that reading the Bible will do it. Send them somebody risen from the dead. If someone shows up from the dead, then they will repent.” But Abraham replies, “Meh. Why bother? If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” People ain’t gonna change.

Of course Jesus tells this parable on the last leg of his journey into Jerusalem as he approaches the last days of this earthly life. Palm Sunday. Good Friday. Denial. Betrayal. Execution. He knows what’s coming even as he speaks. And knowing what’s coming is what gives this parable its power. Why bother if nobody listens and nobody changes? Because it bothers God. Despite our stubborn resistance to Scripture and obedience and his word, God stubbornly loves us and remains willing to do whatever it takes to bring us around. He may not have created the chasm, but he’s determined to bridge it even if it kills him to do it. It is while we are yet money-loving sinners that Christ dies for us. It is for our sake that he rises to redeem us. It may be easier to squeeze a camel through a needle than to squeeze a rich man into heaven. But as Jesus said and shows, with God, everything is possible.