Rich and Poor

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke 16 established a link between money and Christian spirituality. Followers of Jesus must apply their intelligence and energy to things of the spirit just as they do to financial matters, use wealth wisely, be good stewards of their possessions and not make money into a god. Today’s reading reminds us that we have a duty to share our goods with the poor.

 

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The Old Testament readings set the stage for a frightening parable from Jesus. The prophet Amos denounces the rich of his own day for their luxurious living and warns them that they will be the first to go into exile. Archaeological evidence has confirmed Amos’s picture of a society divided sharply between rich and poor. Psalm 146 celebrates the God of Jacob, who is the creator of heaven and earth, as being on the side of the poor and needy.

The parable in Luke 16:19-31 begins with a contrast of two characters. One character (traditionally called Dives, the Latin adjective for “rich”) is a very wealthy man who dresses well, eats well and lives in a fine house. The other character is a very poor man named Lazarus (whose name means “God helps”). He is sickly, a beggar who camps out at the door of the rich man’s house. The rich man seems unaware of Lazarus’ existence. These two men could not be more different.

Both men die. And when they die, their situations are reversed. The poor man enjoys perfect happiness in Abraham’s bosom (what we might call heaven), while the rich man finds himself suffering the punishments of the netherworld (what we might call hell). This reversal illustrates the sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24). Only now does the rich man recognize the poor man’s existence. Only now does he want to do something. But now it is too late.

The second part of the parable is a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham. That the rich man is accustomed to giving orders and getting his own way is clear from his requests. When the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to give him some water, Abraham tells him that now it is too late, since there is no going back and forth after death. When the rich man proposes that Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers, Abraham replies that all they need to know about sharing their goods is in the Hebrew Scriptures. When the rich man suggests that his brothers would understand better if someone from the dead would go to them, Abraham responds that it would make no difference. During life he took no account of poor people like Lazarus. Now it is too late.

One of Luke’s goals in writing his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles was to encourage the rich Christians in his community to attend to the needs of the poor members and to share their material goods with them. One can easily imagine the impact that this parable would have had on the rich members. It is both a sobering warning and a good scare. It should do the same to 21st-century American Christians. We live in a very rich country. However slender our personal fortunes may be, they dwarf the incomes and possessions of most people in most countries. Yet even in our cities and towns, there are desperately poor persons like Lazarus, living off the search for soda and beer cans to redeem the deposits. Lazarus is among us! Do we choose to ignore Lazarus? Do we distract ourselves with foolish pleasures as the rich man did? Neither Jesus nor Luke was an economist or a politician. But at a certain point the problems of poverty and homelessness turn into economic and political matters. How we deal with them both personally and socially is surely one of the great challenges facing us in the 21st century.

Today’s reading from 1 Timothy 6 exhorts Christians to pursue a life of virtue. The term “virtue” is seldom heard today except in certain philosophical and theological circles. It even sounds quaint and old-fashioned now. Yet what is more important and noble than striving to be a virtuous person? The virtues recommended in this text are a mixture of human virtues (righteousness or justice, patience, gentleness) and religious virtues (devotion, faith, love). Christians pursue virtue not for its own sake but rather as a response to their call to discipleship, following the example of Jesus and in the hope of eternal life with God. What Paul says shortly after this selection summarizes neatly today’s readings, “Tell them [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share” (1 Tim 6:18).

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