This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on September 25th, 2016.
Kathleen Norris suggests that when someone asks you if you are a Christian, you should respond: “Here’s a list of my friends. Ask them.”
Would hungry children in poverty-stricken countries say that we are Christian ministers? Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus challenges preachers to talk like followers of Christ.
Once there was a rich man whose friends call him Dives—which is Latin for rich. He enjoys looking through the Nieman-Marcus catalog. He wears handmade suits, custom-tailored shirts, and fancy underwear. The rich man is not a bad guy. He did not make his money as a hit man or a television preacher. He does not run Lazarus off his property or report him to the police. He does not do anything mean. He does not do anything. Maybe Dives noticed Lazarus and said a prayer for him, but he stuck to his policy of never giving anything directly to street people. Dives does not realize that his possessions are a gift to be shared, so Lazarus remains hungry.
Lazarus is poor and crippled. His name means “God is my help,” but he is covered with sores. He longs for the leftovers that the rich man throws away. Jesus does not tell us the kind of thing we would like to know to decide whether he is the kind of person we would like to help. Jesus does not say if Lazarus is lazy, alcoholic, mentally ill, or a deserving person down on his luck.
After the two men die, their situations are reversed. Jesus is disturbingly repetitious about the risks of being wealthy. In Luke 18:26, the disciples complain, “But if what you say is true, how can any rich person be saved?”
Dives suffers while Lazarus enjoys heaven. The rich man still does not understand that God holds him responsible for Lazarus’ suffering. Neglecting the needy is one of the sins God most despises. Dives says, “Send Lazarus to get me a glass of water.”
The rich man thinks he is still in charge. He should realize by now that his fortune and his fancy underwear have been shot to hell. Surely by now he is sorry that he failed to share what he had with the beggar, but he still does not recognize that there is a chasm between him and the hungry. As in so many of Jesus’ stories, those who are hungry end up fed and those who do not care are surprised at the gap that divides them.
Can you imagine how much the crowd listening to Jesus hated this story? They must have taken Jesus to task: “Jesus, the rich man didn’t steal his wealth. It’s not Dives’ fault that Lazarus is poor. The rich man didn’t do anything wrong. Jesus, you sound like a Socialist.”
With Jesus telling stories like this it is no surprise that they finally executed him to shut him up.
The gap between rich and poor is hard for most of us to admit, but those with money tend to keep it, and those who do not have money have hard, often short, lives. Our place as a “have” or “have-not” is, for the most part, inherited. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it lasts for a lifetime. Wealth and poverty are mostly genetic. We usually stay on our side of the gap.
The gap between the rich and the hungry is increasing. Most of us are in the group studying the menu while children starve. We are picking our favorite drink at Starbucks while mothers lose their five-year-olds. We are looking for the best barbecue place while five-year-olds lose their mothers. We are complaining about the choices at the cafeteria while fathers choose between eating enough to keep working and feeding their daughters. We are working through the microwave lean cuisines trying to find the ones that taste like food while women walk two miles for clean water every day. We are arguing the merits of Moe’s versus Chipotle while two-year-olds suffer brain damage from a lack of protein. We are saving room for dessert while God’s children struggle to survive.
We do not talk about it much because they are on the other side of the chasm, but 21,000 people die every day from hunger-related diseases. Three-fourths of the deaths are children under the age of five. Bono said, “Where you live in the world should not determine whether you live.” But it does.
Rich Christians have allowed our theology to be shaped by the economic preferences of a materialistic society rather than by Jesus. The gap between the rich and poor is the greatest challenge facing Christian preachers, but we would rather not think about it.
What should Christians do? We should hear the cries of the poor and not turn a deaf ear. We should share our resources and not hoard them. We should simplify our lifestyles and not ignore the hungry. We should become advocates for the oppressed.
What should Christians preach? We should call for the reduction of poverty through shared economic development. We should encourage giving to help those in developing countries train for jobs in which they can make enough to survive. We should plead for offerings that will provide information, seeds, and tools that make farming more productive.
If we honestly tell the story Jesus told, we will preach in a way that crosses the chasm between the hungry and us, between God’s children and us. We will preach like Christians.
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York
Tags: chasm, rich, poor, preach