"There was a rich man..." Where have you heard those five words before? They are exactly the same five words that began the parable we heard in last week's gospel reading, the so-called, "Parable of the dishonest steward." "There was a rich man..."
There are numerous references to riches in Luke's gospel and they are almost all negative. Near the beginning of Luke's gospel we have Mary's song, the Magnificat: "God has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich he has sent empty away." And then there is Luke's version of the beatitudes, which contains a series of "woes" along with the blessings: "But woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort." And the parables are just as bad. There is the so-called "parable of the rich fool," last week's parable of the dishonest steward, and today we have perhaps Jesus' strongest indictment of the corrupting power of wealth - the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
The rest of the Bible is just about as hard on wealth. Consider the words of the prophet Amos in today's first reading:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Today we might paraphrase Amos in this way:
Alas for those who decorate their homes from Pottery Barn
and adorn their dwellings with items from Restoration Hardware;
who eat sushi with chopsticks
and dine on endangered Chilean sea bass;
who buy Bose stereos
and have to download the latest mp3s;
who drink champagne imported from France
and the best beers that the microbreweries have to offer.
And finally we have Paul's advice to his young friend, Timothy: "...the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil..." That is often is misquoted as "MONEY is the root of all evil" but Paul is not saying that money itself is evil. That is impossible. Money is neither good nor evil; it is simply a tool with which we can do good things or bad things.
This might be a good moment for me to remind you that our fall stewardship campaign is just around the corner!
But what's going on? Why is the Bible so hard on the wealthy? This is a little difficult for us to understand, because the Bible was written in a pre-capitalist age. In the world of the Bible, economics was a zero sum game. If I have more, then you must have less. This wasn't universally true, but generally speaking, in the world of the Bible, wealth was regarded as a kind of theft.
When you hear the words "rich" or "wealthy"? What comes to mind? Bill Gates? Warren Buffett? Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II?
The fact is that you and I are infinitely wealthier than the wealthiest person in the Bible.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is one of Jesus' most intriguing stories. Listen to the way it begins: " There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores."
At the very beginning, Jesus sets up a contrast between the rich man and Lazarus. The two could not be more different. First, they are separated by economics: one is rich and the other is poor. Second, they are separated by what they wear: The body of the rich man is covered by "purple and fine linen" but Lazarus is covered by sores. Third, they are separated by what they eat: The rich man feasts "sumptuously every day" but Lazarus eats only the food that that rich man throws away. Finally, they are even separate in death. Jesus says, "the poor man died" but "the rich man died AND WAS BURIED." In other words, the rich man is given a proper burial, he has a tomb, more than likely there were professional mourners, or perhaps he really was mourned. We have no reason to think that he was not a valued and even loved and respected member of the community. But Jesus simply says, "the poor man died." No tomb, no mourners, no service, nothing. He disappears as though he had never existed as have the poor in every place from time immemorial.
The rich man and Lazarus were different in every way except one: They both died. Death makes us all equal.
Then, suddenly, there is a great reversal. The rich man who had routinely visited the vineyards in Sonoma and had eaten only gourmet cuisine prepared by Wolfgang Puck, who had worn Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger, who had been buried from the cathedral and whose service had been presided over by the bishop himself, now finds that he is in a place of fiery torment. But Lazarus who had had to wait for hours to get treated in the emergency room, who had lined up day after day to get food from Christ Church, and whose body had been thrown into a common burial pit, now finds himself at the very side of Abraham.
Do you wonder what has happened? Well, I will tell you what has happened: The rich man has gotten his wish. Go back to the beginning of the story and note two little words: "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus..." The two little words I want you to notice are "his gate." Poor Lazarus, covered in sores, lay every day not at the town gate but at the rich man's gate.
Gates have two functions. They allow some to enter but they keep others out. Lazarus lay at a gate the rich had been built. It allowed him to enter his elegant home, but it also excluded people like Lazarus.
In other words, the rich man was not only separated from Lazarus by his wealth, his food, his clothes, and the manner of his burial; he was also separated from Lazarus by a gate he had built for that very purpose.
The rich man discovers that the gate that had separated him from Lazarus in life, in death has become a great abyss, a chasm, separating him from Lazarus and Lazarus from him. The chasm is so vast, Father Abraham says, that "those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us."
It reminds me of that marvelous moment in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge his own grave, and Scrooge cries out, "These are the chains I forged in life!"
But unlike Scrooge, the rich man in Jesus' story doesn't have a moment of enlightenment even in death. He thinks he's still in charge. He thinks he can still order Lazarus around: "...send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue..." And even when Father Abraham tells him that the distance between them is so vast that Lazarus can't cross it, the rich man persists in trying to order Lazarus to do his bidding: "...send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment."
What really interests me about the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that it nowhere tells us that the rich man lived an immoral life or that Lazarus lived a particularly virtuous life. According to Jesus, the rich man's only misdeed was that he was interested only in his pleasures and ignored the plight of poor Lazarus lying at his front door.
An exercise I like to use when I prepare my sermons is to ask myself, "What is the Bible NOT saying here?" Let's try it: What does the story of the rich man and Lazarus NOT say?
It does NOT say that the rich man did anything dishonest to gain his wealth. It does not say that he was cruel or unkind to anyone. It may be that the rich man was a member of the synagogue. He might have been an exemplary husband and father. He might have been a leading member of the Rotary Club.
It also does not tell us that Lazarus was especially virtuous. It may be that Lazarus was poor because of his own bad choices. Lazarus might have struggled with alcohol or drug addiction. He might have been chronically unemployed. We don't know.
But what Jesus does say is this: In this world, there was a huge gap between the rich man and Lazarus, a gap mostly created by the rich man. The rich man was isolated from Lazarus by the clothes he wore, by the food he ate, and even by the way he was buried.
It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to say that riches are evil or that it is wrong to be rich. I am far richer than anyone who lived in the age in which the Bible was written. I am responsible for leading this church, an institution that depends upon the generous contributions of persons who have made a great deal of money.
In 1965, in the days following the Watts' riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on this parable at Montreat, the Presbyterian retreat center in North Carolina. He said, "There is nothing in that parable," King says, "that says the rich man went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. He went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him... he allowed Lazarus to become invisible... he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus." (Cited by the Rev. Chris Tuttle in his sermon "Blindness and a Vision for Community.")
Precisely. The man's riches became a barrier, not a bridge. In this world, his riches insulated him so effectively from the poverty of Lazarus, that he did not even see Lazarus. And in death his riches became not just a wall but a cosmic abyss.
Much is being said these days about the growing polarization of the rich and the poor. A recent article asserts that the "upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year." Furthermore, the top 1 percent control 40 percent" of the nation's wealth... Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent." (Joseph Stiglitz, "Of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%" in Vanity Fair, May 2011.) But I am neither an economist nor a politician and will not venture an opinion. Nevertheless, I am troubled.
The question that Jesus asks us this: Will we let our wealth, our cars, our houses, our food, our clothing, our entertainment insulate us from the lives of those who stand at the intersections of Las Vegas holding signs that say hungry, homeless, and unemployed? Or will we use the wealth God has given us to reach out to others?
Will we use our wealth to build bridges between ourselves and those who are less fortunate, or will we build a barrier to shield us from others in this life that in the life to come may become a vast abyss across which no one can pass?