I saw a picture just recently of the city of Mumbai in India, and it struck me because on the right side of the image was what looked like a modern, wealthy city with skyscrapers and hi-rise apartments; and on the other side was a sea of squalid slums filled with shanties. And the only thing separating these two parts of the city was a tree-covered hill.
It reminded me of how, in seminary, the school was in the neighborhood of Eau Claire. Now, Eau Claire used to be a well-to-do kind of area, but in the last few decades has experienced a lot of economic depression, crime, and neglect. But if you got in your car and drove eight minutes, you could get to a part of town called The Vista. The Vista was the trendy part of town, with lots of shiny new shops and restaurants, a park by the river side, and expensive homes. That eight minute drive was all that separated the two.
Which just goes to show that the closeness of Lazarus and the rich man really isn’t so unusual. Lazarus sat at the rich man’s gate, but by everything we can read here, the rich man ignored him entirely. Instead, he would go into his house, have a lavish feast, probably have parties with his brothers from time to time, and give the excess to the dogs. Lazarus became little more than a prop as he went home, like a familiar farmhouse or an unusual tree would be a landmark for us on the drive home. The rich man chose to ignore Lazarus’ condition every single day.
Wealth makes it easy to be blinded to people in need. Amos condemned the rich of his day in the northern and southern kingdoms. It was a time of prosperity across the region, and without any marauding would-be empires trying to conquer, all was at peace too. But in that peace, Amos condemned the rich for relaxing on beds of ivory—which really just sounds like something the ultra-rich would do—and enjoying luxury while the poor people struggled to get by, trying to stay out of debt slavery, and losing their ancestral lands to creditors and big landowners greedily looking for more.
The letter to Timothy again points to wealth as a danger to following God’s call for God’s people. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” he says. The danger of wealth is that it tempts us to lust after more wealth, wandering away from the faith and instead using people for how they can enrich us rather than caring for people because it’s what God calls us to do. As much as Amos’ condemnation of the wealthy or Jesus’ parable of the rich man, the letter to Timothy points to the ways wealth erases people’s humanity.
We can see the horrific outcomes of how wealth has worked to erase humanity today. Longer supply chains put actual humans producing good and actual humans buying them farther and farther away from each other, making sweat-shop labor virtually invisible to most of us. The desire for more and more wealth puts actual human beings further and further down the list of things companies care about, whether it’s workers at Amazon wearing diapers to makes sure the two-day shipping gets fulfilled, or GM workers having their health insurance cut despite record profits, or agribusiness burning down the Amazon Rainforest to clear more land for soybeans.
The desire for more wealth has driven industry to greater and greater automation to reap more profits, but has eliminated jobs that used to be the bedrock of stable homes. The stinginess of greed has kept the only abundant jobs available at or near minimum wage, forcing both parents to work multiple jobs in most families. The love of money has led to rampant environmental destruction and continues to keep the world from really addressing the slow-moving catastrophe of climate change. While the wealthy recline on ivory couches, the poor are lucky to simply get by. And so many simply don’t.
So it only makes sense that the world is so angry right now. The rampant greed of men in purple robes and fine linen dining in their grand homes with their wealthy friends while the rest of us feel more like Lazarus has pushed the need for someone to blame and a means to fix it. So we have movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, the rise of nationalism, the popularity of socialism, personality cults, and alleged saviors all aiming to correct the brokenness around us. In the face of so much prosperity I think we all are aware that something is not right in so many people still being in need. The rich man should have done something to help Lazarus.
And it would be easy to lay the weight of this whole debacle at the feet of the wealthy, but before we’re too quick to justly condemn the rich man of Jesus’ parable as some Jeff Bezos type person (and I’m definitely not saying we shouldn’t, because we could and absolutely should), it would be helpful for us to see ourselves there too.
I have been to Haiti twice on mission trips, and the first time I went was incredibly difficult. There was one morning where we took a trip to a tent city, composed of refugees who had been displaced by the earthquake that had leveled so much of the capital Port au Prince. There was a lot wrong going on there, most notably just how far the tent city was from anywhere else. When I asked our guide how these people could eat, considering how far they were from any kind of market to buy food or work to earn money, he shrugged and said most don’t eat every day.
Relative to most people in the world, we in America are the rich man behind the gate. Most of us in this congregation will not know hunger or homelessness. Most of us, if we do experience hunger or homelessness, will have resources available to help us, whether at the food shelf or ARC or other local programs that this congregation supports. So it would follow, if we are the rich man of the parable, that we should ask ourselves who Lazarus is in our lives, and what we choose to do when we ignore him.
Is Lazarus the person with the cardboard sign asking for help that we ignore, figuring they’re either a scammer or an addict? Is Lazarus the detained refugee family that might or might not be just a bunch of criminals? Is Lazarus the letter from Lutheran World Relief asking for aid for yet another famine? Is Lazarus the Bengali textile worker whose meager wage and unsafe working conditions let us buy cheap t-shirts?
It is incredibly easy to ignore the poor, even when they sit right next to the front door to our house. But God sees the poor, and God sees how we use what we have for the sake of the poor. The rich man pleaded with Abraham when he realized there was no hope for him to escape his fate that Abraham would send Lazarus to warn his brothers before it was too late. Unfortunately, Abraham told him, if they didn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen to someone who came back from the dead.
Friends in Christ, we have Moses. And we have the prophets. We even have latter-day prophets who proclaim the way of God’s justice and righteousness in the world. But we also have something the rich man didn’t have—someone who came back from the dead. Jesus has shown us that God’s first love is the poor, and that the more we have the more responsibility we have to care for the poor.
But we don’t take on that responsibility as a question of human will. We take it on with the power of the Spirit. We are given eyes to see the Lazaruses in our midst who long for even the crumbs from the rich man’s table. We are given eyes to see, we are given voices to speak out, and we are given hands to act. So while we are called to be content with what we have, we are also called to boldly and fearlessly work toward justice for those on the margins, staking our souls on lifting up the dignity of the poor.
We are called to share generously with those who have less. We are called to open our eyes to the poor in our midst. We are called to speak out for the people on the margins whose voice has been taken from them by injustice. We are called to prophesy to those wealthier than ourselves to the call of God for good stewardship. We are called to see Lazarus and invite him in to the banquet hall.
So may we by the power of the Holy Spirit shape the world to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, storing up the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that the world can take hold of the life that really is life—the kingdom of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.