As one who lives in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, I am not overly fond of Luke’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man. I have been to Guatemala and to parts of the Caribbean where my house would be home to many families, not just Andrew and me. The sobering fact is that Jesus said more about money, about wealth, than he did about any other moral issue of his day. The gap between rich and poor seems to have bothered him more than stealing, lying, or any sort of sexual behavior. And this is especially true in Luke where Jesus confronts the rich four times more often than in the other gospels.
Liberation theologians call this God’s preferential option for the poor–which essentially means that God will take the side of the poor over the rich every time. Not because poor people are inherently more virtuous, but because God has a special place in the holy heart for the oppressed and the vulnerable. Because God knows no one else is on their side, so God is. Perhaps because God knows, and God lets them know, that eventually, whether in this world or the next, the rich and poor, happy and sad, big and little, will be changing place.
Now while part of me is thinking, yes!!! Go God. I am going to preach a barn burner of a sermon on the evils of wealth, the other part is thinking, hang on, what about rich people? What about the God who loves all God’s precious children? If those of us who are rich are just…bad…practically irredeemable, why are we using our time to hang out in church? Why show up here where we are going to frequently hear stories of Jesus scolding and confronting our ancient counterparts and us? When I was in seminary a few of my classmates virtuously said they would never go to a parish that was wealthy, that it was the poor who needed them so that is where they would go. And, I thought, sure, I get that. Leaders of the church should, like God, have a preferential option for the poor. But where exactly does that leave the rich, who is going to minister with them? And at what point does church become another dividing line between rich and poor? The truth is that it is easy for those with money who are tired of being harangued, to walk out the doors of the church and find something else to do, somewhere else to worship. Whether that is at a prosperity gospel church, in the worship space of another religion, or in the church of capitalism–that place where wealth and success are given a warm welcome. Where being rich means you have done something right, not something suspect. Where you are not regularly told to give your wealth away to people who have probably coasted their entire lives. In this value system success is earned–it is your reward for smarts, guts, effort. At least, that is the story we hear and tell.
If you have spent any time out of work–either because you were sick, or lost your job because your company downsized and outsourced, or had a baby, or got too old, then you know in your bones the other truth about the church of capitalism. That it does not care about you at all unless you are producing something. And it you don’t have another value system in place when that happens, you will be confused and angry. If you have not learned that you are worth more than your bottom line, your 401K balance, your contribution to the GNP, then you are truly lost at sea wondering where all your brains, and guts, and long hours have gotten you.
Barbara Brown Taylor observes that if the church doesn’t minister to all of us, rich and poor alike, then all that proves is that economic distinctions matter in church as much as they do everywhere else. The sides just change places. The poor will be the good guys and the rich, the bad guys, but the bottom line will still be that money determines who is who. Not God, but money. Money will still divide the body of Christ.
So what about the parable we just heard? I have always heard it as a story about how the poor will be rewarded and the rich punished. Father Abraham is there to make sure that the boundaries don’t get blurred at the end. But even the parable itself acknowledges that the warning it holds won’t really help the rich. That people will never really get the message–that we will keep letting money divide us. The rich inside the gate and the poor outside it–and when the division turns out to be permanent, and all the heat is on the inside–well, then the rich will wail and moan like no one ever told them there was a problem.
We know better. We know that money cannot save us, not ultimately. And yet in our culture, money is the primary way we distinguish who is saved in this world and who is lost. Nice house with a lovely roof deck in a nice part of the city? Saved. Falling down house in North Philly with boarded up windows? Lost. Large 401K, great health plan? Safe! 55 years old and putting together gigs with no benefits and hoping like crazy you don’t get sick? Lost!
This type of sorting seems so normal that we likely don’t really question it at all. It’s just the way it is. I personally have never met anyone who wants to be poor, sick, out of work, but wouldn’t it be interesting if we had different criteria? Do you have plenty of time for the people that matter most to you? Saved! Are you really free to choose how to spend most of your days? Saved! Do you work all the time and worry about it even when you aren’t at work? Lost! Are you rich in love? Can you look at any human being and see the family resemblance? Saved! Or do you see mostly strangers who fall into two basic categories: useful to you and of no use to you.
See, I’m not sure that money was the rich man’s problem so much as it was the gate he bought with it. That gate did far more than just keep Lazarus off his property–it kept Lazarus out of his sight, off his heart, and mind. Because the rich man had made a common mistake among those of us who have much–he believed money could fix a chasm between the saved and the lost, he believed his money could save him. And once he had enough money to buy a gate, he was safe from the vagaries of life–from all the ugliness and pain on the other side of it. Safe as long as he could afford to live there. God forbid he should ever be like Lazarus–should ever be in such great need that he had to live on someone else’s leftovers. God forbid that he should ever leave the gate open–and do the same with his eyes, heart, and mind.
Whatever your perspective, this parable tells us that most of us are afraid of the wrong things. We are afraid of what lies on the other side of the gate when it is actually the gate that is scariest of all. It separates us from our siblings. It deceives us about what is saved and what is lost. It shuts out those who might bring us cool water or need us to get them a cold drink. And, sadly, this warning will do most of us no good whatsoever. We will continue to see those on the other side of the gate as members of another species. Those we face across a chasm of fear, envy, or plain incomprehension. We will continue to resent each other for being there. For reminding us of things we would sooner not think about, and while we are brooding over this we will miss the most important truth of all–that all of us are, each of us is, God’s beloved. We are all members of the same body. Money cannot change that–not unless we insist on it. If we insist, then God will not argue. The gate will stay closed even when our lives depend on getting through it.
The ending of the story is what it is–the rich man is, well, crispy, and Lazarus is not. But there is still good news. God knows that the rich can be imprisoned by wealth as much as the poor can be by poverty. God knows that there is much more to us than our money–there are so many better ways to measure our worth. If we can open the gates between us while we are alive, then the message is plain to see. Our true value lies not in anything we have or do, but in Who loves us, and Who keeps hoping against hope that we will learn to love each other too.