The Rich Man, Lazarus, and I
This weekend, as we read the story of Lazarus and "The Rich Man", we explored our cultural conceptions of money and morality, wealth and poverty and character, and examined what, perhaps, Jesus was really saying.
A huge hat tip (h/t) to Rev. Dr. Chris Tuttle for his sharing of what he heard on a recording of a sermon by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and to Frank Warren for his weekly sharing of the secrets that he receives as part of the Postsecret Project.
The Rich Man, Lazarus, and I
Rev. Leanne Masters
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church
September 29, 2013
This morning, I want us to talk about money.
Now, I know that that is a bit of a taboo subject in church, it’s something that just. isn’t. done. But, considering the text that we have before us this morning...well, there’s no time like the present, right?
I want us to talk about it because I think that its something that we need to address and think about as people of faith, as Christians, as we explore, more and more, what it means for us to live our lives as God calls us to.
And I want us to talk about it because there’s a narrative out there about money that permeates our culture and embeds itself into our psyche.
It’s a narrative that has been handed down throughout the generations, and it has become part of how we subconsciously think about ourselves and our world.
A narrative that insists that our character and our value and our worth as human beings can be boiled down to numbers.
The number on our tax return that determines where we fall in relationship to the official “poverty line” and determines what percentage of our income we pay in taxes.
The number at the bottom of the balance line of our checking or savings accounts on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
The number that flashes across a screen when a credit check is run.
According to this narrative, the higher any of those numbers is, the “better” of a person you are. The higher the number is, the more hardworking, the more trustworthy, the more important you are.
This narrative also tells us what to think about ourselves, and others, when those numbers are low. The lower the number...well, it goes to the other end of the spectrum. Lazy, unreliable, unimportant...you get the picture.
The narrative divides us into two camps, those who have wealth, and those who do not...it divides us into “us” and “them”, and easily allows us to look upon those in the opposite place as us as entirely different from us, in more ways than one.
And so we don’t like to talk about money, especially when it comes to the money that we have, or don’t have. It makes us uncomfortable, because we feel like, when we do talk about it, we are placing judgements on ourselves or on others. We don’t like to talk about money because those of us who are struggling are defensive and embarrassed by what we don’t have.
This image was taken from PostSecret. PostSecret began as a community art project led by one man, Frank Warren, who encouraged people to send him anonymous secrets on postcards. Every Saturday night, he posts new secrets that have been sent to him on his website, and uses them as a cathartic platform for talking about the issues that weigh on people’s hearts and minds.
This one in particular speaks to how much that narrative about money weighs on us. The sender of this card is embarrassed by their number, in this case a high number in a negative way...embarrassed to share that information, presumably, with someone that they love, because they are afraid that they will be judged and condemned for it. Considered, somehow, unworthy and unfit.
I want us to think about this narrative of money and wealth, because it impacts the way that we read the parable of Lazarus and The Rich Man.
In this parable, Lazarus is a very, very poor man. So poor that all he has going for him is that a dog licks his wounds, giving him the only comfort that he knows in this world. Lazarus lay by the gate of The Rich Man, referred to in some ancient literature as Dives, who was so wealthy that he dressed in purple and fine linen, a sign in those days of great and incredible wealth.
Both Lazarus and Dives died, and, in the parable, Lazarus finds his way to heaven, to sit with Abraham in paradise, where he is comforted as he wasn’t in this world...as for Dives, he finds himself in Hades, or hell, where he is continually tormented, dreaming of being comforted by a drop of water in the way that Lazarus once dreamt of being comforted by a scrap from Dives’ table.
Because of the narrative through which we our culture views wealth and poverty, it would be easy for us to believe that what Jesus is doing here in this parable is the classic “flipping reality on its head in order to teach a lesson.” And, in this case, it could be easy to see the lesson is that God views the world in the opposite way of how we do...
That, instead of the wealthy being “good” and “righteous” simply by virtue of their wealth, the wealthy, in fact, are condemned for their wealth while the poor are “good” and “righteous” and “virtuous,” simply by nature of their poverty.
In some regards, this is how this parable has been interpreted throughout the generations, encouraging the poverty stricken to be happy with their lot on earth, for they will “receive their reward in heaven.” It has also been interpreted, along with the story of the rich young ruler who Jesus told to sell all his belongings if he wanted to follow Jesus, to say that the wealthy need to become poor in order to follow Christ, and that those who have any wealth at all are, in fact, unable to be fully Christian.
And so, again, we don’t like to talk about money. Because those of us who have plenty are embarrassed by what we do have, and feel guilty for having it at all.
Our societal and cultural understandings of wealth and poverty, combined with what we think that Jesus is saying in this parable all come together in a perfect storm of embarrassment and discomfort in talking about money, and what it means in our lives as Christians and people of faith.
What a mess.
But what if I were to tell you that I don’t think that Jesus had one lick to say about how much money someone has? And that, what he was saying, instead, was that the money, itself, has nothing to do with our value, our “goodness” or our righteousness, but that it was something...else? more?...that determined those things?
As I was reading and researching, I came across this.
In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., showed up to Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina, one of the conference centers run by the Presbyterian Church, and well known and loved to our Southern Presbyterian sisters and brothers.
He came to talk about Racial Reconciliation, but he had a few things, too, to say about wealth, and how God views it.
According to Rev. Chris Tuttle, son of Rev. Bob Tuttle who found the recording of the speech in storage at Montreat a few years ago, King had this to say,
"There is nothing in that parable," King says, "that says Dives [the Latin name for the rich man] went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth." King names the story of the rich young ruler, but says that in that story, when Jesus tells the man to go, sell all he has, and give his money to the poor, Jesus was "prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth a universal diagnosis." King moves on, pointing us toward the kind of symbolic long-distance call that takes place between Dives in hell and Abraham, with Lazarus, in heaven. King claims that, "Dives went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him." He moves on to say that, "Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible...because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. In fact, he didn't even realize that Lazarus was his brother." (2) (3)
If we think about it in this way, what Jesus was really talking about was not how much money The Rich Man Dives had...but what it was that he did, or didn’t do, with it.
It was not that he was wealthy that causes him to be seen as unrighteous, it was the fact that he never used his wealth to give comfort to the dying man at his door. It was not that he was rich, it was that he never saw the need of the poor around him...it was because he never saw them as his brothers and sisters, instead of as the other who was less worthy of the comforts of this world than he was.
Conversely, it is presumably not because Lazarus was poverty stricken in this world that he was raised to heaven in the end, but it was probably because of how he was, in relationship to God, in relationship to others, while he was living.
We need to talk about money. About wealth and about poverty. Because we need to be able to form an understanding of our relationship to it and with it, especially as people of faith. We need to be able to break away from the cultural understanding of “wealth = good person” “poverty = bad person” dichotomy that we have inherited from generations past. We need to get past a retributive view of breaking away from this that simply turns that dichotomy on its head making “wealth = bad person” “poverty = good person”, but does nothing to really look at what we have and what God is calling us to do with it.
And more than anything else, we need to talk about money; we need to talk about wealth and about poverty, because we need to be talking about the real issues of poverty in the world around us and within our own community...that according to the Lincoln Homeless Coalition, their Point in Time Count indicates that, on any given day, close to 1000 people are homeless in this city alone...that The Gathering Place serves over 30,000 dinners, yearly, to the hungry and food insecure in Lincoln...we need to be talking about these things, because we need to be seeing them, and seeing the people that these numbers represent...recognizing them as our sisters and brothers, beloved children of God. We need to be talking about it, and seeking what God is calling us to do in these places, and so many more, as a community and as individuals with the wealth that we do have!
We need to be talking about money, and we will be talking about money in the coming weeks and months as we explore our ministry budget and what we individually are called to contribute to it, as we continue to explore what God is calling us to do with the gifts that we have been given.
Sisters and brothers, what it comes down to is this: it is not about how much we have, or how much we don’t have...it is what we do with what God has given us that makes us who we are...let us remember that, give thanks to God for what we have been given, and seek the best ways to use those gifts to care, comfort, and serve all of God’s children in this world.
- Postsecret, 9/28/2013 Sunday Secrets, www.postsecret.com, image retrieved on 9/30/2013.
- Rev. Dr. Chris Tuttle, “Blindness and a Vision of Community,” http://day1.org/5224-blindness_and_a_vision_of_community, September 29, 2013. Retrieved 8/28/13.
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Church at the Forefront of Racial Progress," preached at the Anderson Auditorium, Montreat, NC, August 1965. Recording courtesy Bob Tuttle (As referenced in (2))."