The Rev. Maggie Harney
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Holy Comforter. Amen.
Jesus was a mighty fine storyteller. Wherever he went, people gathered to listen to his teaching stories. Some people were merely curious; some were devout followers; and some were there to criticize his every move.
One Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees. A man who had dropsy appeared, and Jesus healed him. The Pharisees watched Jesus closely because healing on the Sabbath was considered forbidden “work.” Then these very important Pharisees began to jockey with each other for the best seats at the dinner table. Jesus told them a story about people who were invited to a feast. But, they were way too busy and important to come so the host invited poor folks and gave them the best seats.
Days later, another group, tax collectors and sinners, were drawing near to hear Jesus. “And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘this man receives sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:2) So Jesus told 3 stories — one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and another about a lost son. Jesus said there was great rejoicing each time something that was lost was found and that is just the way God rejoices when a lost sinner repents.
Over and over, Jesus took on the critics who wanted to maintain the status quo, keep the social hierarchy, put the religious rules above the needs of the people. Jesus would tell a story that turned their expectations upside down.
This story about the rich man and Lazarus is another upside down story. The rich man was clothed in purple, a regal color. The dye that turned cloth purple was very expensive so only the wealthy could afford to wear purple clothes. And the rich man was feasting every day — what a luxury when most people were making do with bread and dried fish. Outside the rich man’s gate, there was poor Lazarus who attracted the dogs that licked his nasty sores. The rich man was either oblivious to the desperate need right outside his gate or he was callously indifferent. But in the end , death comes for everyone, rich and poor, and surprise, surprise, the rich man finds himself suffering torment, and Lazarus is being held in the bosom of Father Abraham. Now, if you believe that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor, then it is a big surprise when the poor man ends up in heaven, and the rich man ends up in hell.
The Prosperity Gospel has been a popular belief for a very long time, and you can still hear it preached today. It goes like this: God intends for you to be wealthy; God intends for you to wear purple clothes and drive fancy cars, and these poor folks must be getting what they deserve. The poor are poor because they are lazy and sinful.
Remember when some TV preachers declared that God sent Hurricane Katrina to wipe out New Orleans because it was such a sinful city? Were those people who lost their loved ones, their homes, and everything they possessed really more sinful that you and I are?
There is no indication that the rich man was evil. The story never says that he stole the money that made him rich. He didn’t kill anyone to get the money. But something was missing in his life. He had every spiritual resource available to him, and he did not pay attention to that.
The rich man had Moses and the Ten Commandments. The rich man must have heard Thou shalt have none other gods but me. No golden calf, no love of mammon. The rich man had the prophets who declared you should care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien in your land. He had the prophets who said let justice roll down like water. Is it justice when one man feasts
sumptuously every day, and another man begs for scraps?
Maybe the rich man believed that if he was rich then he was right with God and he didn’t need to listen to Moses or the prophets or help the poor man at his gate. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers and warn them to listen to Moses and the prophets. But, Abraham says even if someone should rise from the dead, those brothers would not believe him. Money made them deaf.
Wealth has an interesting effect on people. All of us have a complicated emotional relationship with money. We need it. We cannot function without money. Sometimes we feel envious if we don’t have as much as other people. Sometimes we feel guilty if we have more than other people. Sometimes we feel really important and successful if we have it or like a failure if we don’t have it.
If you are very rich, it is easy to become oblivious to the needs of the poor especially if you don’t know people who are poor. Many people live in wealthy silos. They leave their lovely home and community, drive to work, park their car in the basement of their office building and go up the elevator to their plush offices. Poor people do not enter their consciousness. On the other hand, the needs of the poor can be so overwhelming that you turn away from refugees or communities ravaged by epidemics.
Over 20 years ago, I saw a play, and one line has stuck with me all these years. I do not remember the name of the play, but the setting was in British colonial India. An older Indian man was speaking to a young English woman who was newly arrived. She was disgusted by the poverty and beggars she saw everywhere. The man said to her, “Sometimes, you need a beggar.”
Sometimes we all need a beggar to remind us of our common humanity. We need a beggar to stir our empathy and compassion. We need a beggar with whom to share our lives, someone with whom we can both give and receive. How often we hear a person say when they worked with the poor they received more than they gave.
Figuring out our relationship to money is a really important spiritual discipline. Spiritual disciplines are not just meditating or reading scripture or going to church. It is a spiritual discipline to discern your relationship to money. Does the amount of money is your paycheck define who you are? Does the size of your house and the make of your car define you? Do you only feel good about yourself if you are wearing the latest fashions? Or do you have another standard for measuring wealth? Do your friends or grandchildren make you feel rich? Does regaining your health after an illness make you feel prosperous?
I have been reading a book by a young woman in her 30s named Courtney Martin. Her book is entitled The New Better Off. She writes: “For the first time in history, nearly two-thirds of Americans do not believe that the next generation will be “better off” than their parents—an opinion shared by men and women, rich and poor alike.” Then she asks what does “better off” really mean? “Is ‘better off’ a fancy job title, a bank account with more zeros, a manicured lawn?” And she says all those things disappeared for many people in the Great Recession from which we are still recovering. So, maybe we need to re-evaluate what “better off” means and who gets to define what a good life is.
Maybe we are better off when we live in integrated neighborhoods. Maybe we are better off when we have friends from a different faith tradition. Maybe we are better off when someone on the street asks us for money and we give it to them without worrying whether we just got ripped off. Maybe we are genuinely better off when we give away 10% of our income.
Jesus is always inviting us to look at situations differently. What if the poor people are invited to the banquet instead of the dignitaries? What if we put the needs of the sick before the rules about the Sabbath? What if the son who wasted his inheritance gets the feast with the fatted calf?
What if you and I look at our lives differently, upside down and inside out? What if we are not defined by money? What if our relationship to God and our relationship to each other is what really defines us? Just, what if . . .