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The rich man and Lazarus: Socio-economic discrepancies

Ordinary Sunday 26: 26th September, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Luke 16:19-31

Unquestionably, the most prominent divisive moral issue in our Church today is the debate over homosexual behaviour. There are perhaps half a dozen references to it in all of the Scriptures. In terms of emphasis it is a minor concern — in contrast to economic justice. Marva Dawn, the popular Evangelical writer on Christian Spirituality is right to ask, 'Why do we forget that the extensive passages about money and greed predominate over any moral issue in the Bible? Why have we fought so much about sexual sins that we ignore much larger problems — that we are so wealthy when so many in the world have next to nothing?' Would that the passion presently being expended in the church over the question of homosexuality were devoted instead to urging the wealthy to share with the poor! Some of the most urgent champions of 'biblical morality' on sexual matters become strangely equivocal when the discussion turns to the New Testament's teachings about possessions. Any ethic that intends to be biblical will seek to get the accents in the right place, not overemphasizing peripheral issues.

This came home to me forcefully in January, 2005, when I was invited to be the chaplain for a pilgrimage of year 11 and 12 students to Kolkata. We spent 10 days working in the various homes run by the Daughters of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa. After Morning Prayer and breakfast at the Mother House of the nuns, we walked to our places of work. I had been assigned with four of the students, to work at Kalighat, the Home for the destitute and dying.

Sixty percent of the population of Kolkata is male and we were told that, at that time, there were 80,000 homeless people living on the streets. As we set out in the early morning, life on the pavement was just beginning to stir. People were folding up their meagre supply of blankets, lighting their kerosene cookers, queuing up for morning ablutions and urinating in public view. We had to be careful not to step on a baby or an aged person still asleep under blankets in the semi-darkness.

A doctor had prepared us for the kinds of things we would encounter on arrival at our destination. He told us, 'Every one will have tuberculosis. Many will have dysentery, malaria and internal parasites'. By the time I arrived, my adrenalin level was such that I wondered whether I dare breathe: 'Was it safe to shake all the hands of those who reached out to touch us? Will I be offensive in what I say or don't say?'

To my relief, I didn't initially have to worry too much about such questions. I was sent to work in the laundry, such as it was. It consisted of vast vats of dirty water in which the blankets were soaked. I was required to roll up my trousers and jump up and down and behave like a human washing machine. After 10 minutes or so, I was to wring the blankets out by twisting them around some railing and then take them up on to the roof to be laid out to dry in the sun. It was little wonder, that I, and a large number of the students succumbed to 'deli-belly'. I felt so sick on Sunday, the 16th January, that I wrote in my diary: 'Lord, deliver me from the black hole of Calcutta'.

When our ten days were up, we flew to London where it had been arranged for us to spend a morning with the archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace and to reflect with him on our experience in Calcutta.

It was a striking contrast to go straight from the streets of Calcutta to a Prelate's Palace on the Thames. The stark inequality between the archbishop's living conditions and those of the majority of the population of Calcutta was not missed on the students! It is precisely this socio-economic discrepancy which is vividly and memorably conveyed in the juxtaposition of the rich man's expensive luxury and the poor man's painful beggary in our Lord's parable which was the Gospel reading for today's Mass:

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple (was he a bishop?) and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores." (Luke 16:19-21)

What is wrong with the situation in this world, according to the parable, has nothing to do with the faith or lack of faith of the two men. There is no mention of their moral qualities. Even though the parable goes on to speak of a reversal of fortunes in the after-life, the teaching of the parable is not to be understood as a systematic statement about human destiny after death. This is not systematic theology. It is a parable concerned with the single issue of wealth and poverty. What has to be put right in the next world is the fact that one man lived in luxury while another was destitute. Richard Bauckham has rightly remarked, 'to try to base the fate of the two men in the parable on considerations other than these stated facts is to evade the parable's clear-sighted view of the flagrant injustice of the situation it sketches. What is not stated is not relevant'.

It is unacceptable that one man enjoys luxury and the other suffers in agony. Their proximity makes the contrast all the more stark. Unlike us, the ancient Israelites didn't keep dogs as house pets. The dogs that licked Lazarus's open wounds were the scavenger dogs that roamed throughout the villages. The picture Jesus painted was a picture of extreme, abject, poverty. The rich man was in a position to offer enormous help but he refused to lift so much as a finger. As a Jew, he would have been familiar with 'Moses and the prophets' — the legal and the prophetic portions of the Old Testament, which require the practical love of neighbour. After the excursion into the hereafter, the parable brings us back to the world in which the rich coexist with the destitute because they do not listen to Moses and the prophets — 'to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God' (Micah 6:8).

And the New Testament makes the same claim on followers of Jesus. In his little practical letter James says: 'What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about the physical needs, what good is it? The same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead' (2:14-17). James is not asserting, nor is Jesus, that it is impossible to be both rich and Christian. If that were the case, it would eliminate every one of us in middle-class Western Christianity. What the scriptures teach is that it is impossible to be rich and Christian without simultaneously being generous and sharing what we have with others.

Neil Postman says that many Christians suffer from what he calls 'Low Information-Action Ratio'. This forms the acronym 'liar'. What liars we are if we 'see a brother or sister without clothes or food' and do not lift a finger to help. The letter of James warns us against 'Low Information-Action Ratio' — 'faith without action' makes us liars. So what can we do?

The archbishop of Canterbury challenged the students who had been on pilgrimage to Calcutta to return home with a new perspective and he made three points:

  1. He said, "there is nothing to be gained by feeling guilty. Guilt is an unproductive emotion, paralyzing rather than enabling. We must think in terms of responsibility rather than reacting out of guilt". He told them that they cannot change the world, but he encouraged them to think of the one thing that they could do, the one thing that could not happen without them, to make a difference in the place where they live.

  2. He reminded them that they don't have to have all the answers before they extend a helping hand. For the most part, those who work among the suffering, live with the big questions unanswered. The big questions are still there. But they get on with the next thing in practical care.

  3. He told the students that, "they should stop thinking of the people they met in Calcutta as belonging to the 'third world'." "There is", he said, "only one world and the people of Calcutta are part of it". We have to find ways of living more simply, that they may simply live.

Not so long ago the archbishop reiterated what he told the students back in 2005. Referring to the global financial crisis, he said, "a year ago we were staring meltdown in the face?. We seem to be settling back into 'normal' boom and bust of the more-more economy. But the rapidly growing global demand and competition for food, fuel and water mean that it can no longer be 'just like it was before'. We need a viable alternative to constant growth capitalism."

Most of us live a life of comfortable affluence and relative economic security. We have been formed by the forces of market capitalism at least as much as by the teaching of Jesus. There is no single set of rules as to how we should respond to the question of possessions. Instead, we are called to respond in imaginative freedom to Jesus' parable of the Rich man and Lazarus. Such imaginative response to his subversive teaching will be costly, but true discipleship does not involve following a cushy God who has no power to change us and draw us away from our selfish selves into his larger purpose.

That larger purpose is set forth in this anonymous piece with which I conclude. It is entitled — 'An Apology to my brothers and sisters in developing countries.'

While I was deciding which oat bran cereal to eat this morning, you were searching the ground for leftover grains from the passing wheat truck.

While I was choosing between diet and regular soda, your parched lips were yearning for a sip of clean water.

While I complained about the poor service in the gourmet restaurant, you were gratefully eating a bowl of rice.

While I poured "fresh and better" detergent into the washing machine, you stood in the river with your bundle of clothes.

While I watched the evening news on my wide-screen television set, you were being terrorized and taunted by a dictatorial government.

While I read the newspaper and drank my cup of steaming coffee, you walked the long, dusty miles to a crowded schoolroom to learn how to read.

While I scanned the ads for a bargain on an extra piece of clothing, you woke up and put on the same shirt and pants that you have worn for many months.

While I built a fourteen-room house for the three of us, your family of ten found shelter in a one-room hut.

While I went to church last Sunday and felt more than slightly bored, you stood on the land with those around you and felt gratitude to God for being alive for one more day.


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