What the prophets have to say about economic inequality
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus covered in sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”
What’s wrong with this picture? The Gospel for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary time gives us an image of wealth disparities. A nameless rich man is juxtaposed to a poor man named Lazarus. The problem is not only the rich man’s wealth. It is decadence in the face of extreme suffering. Lazarus is at his door covered with sores, meaning he suffers physical ailments which are exacerbated by his economical struggles. The rich man sees his situation but does nothing to help. Likewise, Lazarus is in a state of desperation, willing to accept whatever morsels might be available from the rich man’s table. While this text from Luke’s Gospel is nearly 2,000 years old, sadly the image mirrors the inequities that persist today.
“Woe to the complacent in Zion!” (Am 6:1)
Do you recognize the needs of others or look the other way?
What can you do to alleviate suffering in your community?
What structural changes are needed to address poverty?
Similar to last Sunday’s readings, the first reading from Amos and the Gospel from Luke highlight wealth distribution, wealth disparities and related suffering because of financial hardships. Lazarus suffers physical, psychological and emotional hardships due to poverty. His body and mind reflect his struggles, and he is isolated socially, as dogs pay him attention when humans do not.
We must recognize the systemic problems that enable and encourage poverty while also looking for ways to prevent and heal suffering.
The Lectionary invites us to consider the story of Lazarus in light of the prophet Amos who also critiqued excessive wealth in his day. In the first reading, the prophet addresses the wealthy in society for their disregard of those in financial need. Amos calls out people living lavishly, reclining on ivory beds and eating and drinking decadently, similar to the rich man in the Gospel. The excesses are linked with a disregard for those who have less. Amos criticizes those who live in leisure because they are complacent and unaffected by the suffering in their midst.
The Gospel offers hope and warns of punishment, as Lazarus receives comfort and peace in death and the rich man suffers torment in death. We encounter the image of a God who is both just and concerned for those who are most in need. Yet we must be motivated to correct such disparities in this life rather than simply waiting for things to be resolved in the afterlife. The story of the rich man and Lazarus and the prophecies of Amos should inspire us to correct the evil of poverty that plagues our world. We must recognize the systemic problems that enable and encourage poverty while also looking for ways to prevent and heal suffering. Moreover, our readings remind us not to be complacent or complicit with the injustices in our midst. Like Amos, we must identify the disparities and work to overcome them.