We’re probably all familiar with a few jokes that play on stereotypical images of the afterlife. One of the more popular formats involves people who have just died having a conversation with St. Peter in front of the pearly gates. There are also plenty of jokes that take place in hell. Here’s one of my favorites: So three friends die in a car accident and they all arrive right outside hell and are greeted by a devil. The devil says, Look, I don’t like giving second chances, but you each have one last shot of staying out of here, depending on how you answer the following question: “When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say about you?” The first one says, “I would like to hear them say that I was a superb doctor of my time, and that I helped many people live longer, healthier lives.” The second one says, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful mother and school teacher who made a huge difference in the lives of countless children.” The last one replies, “I would like to hear them say…….LOOK, SHE’S MOVING!!!!!!!!!
Gary Larson who wrote The Far Side comic made good use of folktale images of heaven and hell. One comic shows a picture of two people sitting on a cloud in heaven sort of twiddling their thumbs. One person says to the other, “I guess I should have brought a magazine or something.” Another comic shows a line of people filing their way into hell and they’re given the choice of walking through one of two doors, respectively labeled “damned if you do,” and “damned if you don’t.” Another strip shows a person at a coffee bar in hell complaining that everything here is hot except the coffee.
Jokes like these work not because they aim to be theologically correct but because they use a stereotypical image of the afterlife to make light of an everyday reality. They catch our attention not because they provide a blueprint for life after death, but because they provide an insight into life as we experience it before death.
In Jesus’ time there were also folktale images of heaven and hell that had developed in that culture – Hades – from Greek mythology, tormenting flames, and the place of bliss in Abraham’s bosom. In today’s gospel reading Jesus uses these images to tell a parable about extreme wealth and grinding poverty and the great chasm that exists between the two. He accesses popular notions of the hereafter to make a point about the here and now. And as it turns out, for Jesus, issues of wealth and poverty are no laughing matter.
It’s hard for statistics to do justice to a human crisis, but here are some recent numbers on the gap between the rich and the poor. Faireconomy.org reports that in the US in 2001 the top 1% owned 32.7% of total wealth and the top 5% owned 57.7% of total wealth. The bottom 50% owned 2.8%.
Internationally the numbers are more staggering. A United Nations study that claims to be “the most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken” notes that “the richest 1% of adults (in the world) alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000 and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.” (Click here for link.) However we interpret them or feel about them, these are the facts. There is a large gap, a great chasm, between rich and poor. As people with wealth seeking to live lives of justice and healing, how might we navigate this great chasm? Perhaps we can start by taking a look at the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus.
In the same way as last week’s parable, this one begins, “There was a rich man…” and in the same way as last week’s parable, it is the second character introduced, opposite the rich man, who is the hero. The rich man and Lazarus are intentionally described in such a way so as to provide as sharp a contrast as possible between them. The rich man is extremely wealthy, signaled by his being dressed in purple and fine linen, the status symbol of the day. His table is always full as he feasts…sumptuously…every…day. Lazarus, however, could not be in a more desparate state. His body is full of sores and his stomach is empty of food. Instead of getting a chance to gobble up even the scraps falling from the rich man’s table he’s getting treated like a piece of raw meat by these obnoxious neighborhood dogs licking his sores. These men could not be farther apart in power and status and general well-being. They represent the top and bottom, up in the high rise tower and down in the dumps, on opposite ends of the wealth spectrum. But for as much distance as there is between them in their personal net worth, they actually live quite close to each other. Lazarus hangs his hat, if he has one, right outside the gate of the rich man’s residence. So close, yet so far away. Something is not right with this picture.
As little as we know about these two individuals, we do know something about Lazarus that is unique. He is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who gets a name. He is not just a generic poor person on the street, not just a statistic, and not just another faceless member of the huddling masses. Jesus gives him a name, which elevates his status as someone of worth, worth knowing, worth remembering, and worth honoring. When introduced to people we tend to put more effort into remembering the names of the important people, the ones really worth knowing. We don’t want to disrespect anyone and embarrass ourselves by forgetting an important name. By telling the parable of Lazarus and the rich dude Jesus is playfully suggesting a different kind of balance for how we divvy out respect and honor.
This is not the first time in Scripture a different kind of balance in respect distribution and wealth distribution has been suggested. The prophet Amos had a few things himself to say to those who were at ease in Zion, who were lying on their beds of ivory, lounging on their couches, feasting on the best of the flock and being mindlessly entertained by the latest tunes to be composed on harp. He wasn’t just picking on people who had done well for themselves in the booming economy. What’s wrong, after all, with a little financial security, with having a comfortable bed and couch to relax on after a hard day’s work, to enjoy a good roast lamb with some wine and good music? The prophet’s cry isn’t against the good things of wealth and comfort. It’s against those whose wealth had caused them to lose the ability to feel the pain of their poor neighbors. Alas for those who have great wealth “but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” They’d forgotten how to grieve, how to be spiritually and morally affected by others’ needs. Amos, and the other Hebrew prophets were deeply troubled by the tendency of wealth to numb the conscience — to seriously damage one’s capacity for empathy and concern for justice. And so Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and the crew become the voice that embodies that grieving for their people. Their sharp speech isn’t intended as a guilt trip, but as a wake up call — often aimed toward those whose investment portfolios were rising through the roof, but whose ability to empathize with those who were suffering was hitting rock bottom. To folks who had plenty of surplus wealth but who had a serious compassion deficit.
It is in this prophetic tradition that Jesus continues with this parable. Both men die and the story continues on the other side of the grave where the fortunes are reversed. Lazarus is finally comforted, rockin’ his soul in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man is getting a heavy dose of Lazarus’ sufferings – and he’s not enjoying it one bit. He calls for mercy, just for some small relief from suffering, just a glass of water, just if Lazarus could dip his finger in a glass of water and he could get the few drops that drip down to cool his parched tongue. The rich man is beginning to feel what he couldn’t feel before, and it hurts like hell.
Lazarus has been transformed, the rich man has been transformed, and another key prop has been transformed. The gate that once separated them, barely separated them as the rich man would have opened it each day to walk out in the town, crossing in front of poor Lazarus — this gate has been transformed into a great chasm – a chasm that can’t be crossed. The enormous gap between rich and poor just got a whole lot more tangible. In the world of parable, metaphors take on a life of their own.
Throughout the rest of the story the rich man makes several other requests for help, but unfortunately nothing is possible here that was possible before. That darn chasm is just too great. That gap between poor and rich just can’t be bridged. There’s no ifs ands or buts about it. How could it? It’s enormous, it’s huge, it’s impossible…isn’t it? Lazarus can’t even go back to warn the rich man’s family to be more generous with their wealth. The final words of the parable: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” It’s a lost cause. Not even the mysterious power of resurrection can heal a rift so large. Right? It’s all pretty hopeless. The statistics are overwhelming. Everybody’s stuck on one side of that great chasm and we’re powerless to do anything about it. It doesn’t quite qualify as a Far Side comic, but it is a tongue-in-cheek ending to a provocative parable.
For us who realize we are still alive, it is indeed possible to cross that chasm. Not only is it possible, it is a divine commandment, spoken by Moses and the prophets, and the resurrected Christ who still speaks in a thousand different ways in our world. “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God,” “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
This chasm does take on new characteristics in our setting. Because of our globalized culture and the wonders of technology we read about and hear about it and see it nearly every day. We don’t have just the poor of our city or neighborhood out at our gate, we have the poor of the world inside our homes – Lazarus shows up sitting with us at the breakfast table when we read the morning newspaper – undocumented immigrants being rounded up and shipped home, millions of US children not getting adequate health care; Lazarus is in our living rooms when we watch the evening news; AIDS in Africa, the homeless in New Orleans; Lazarus is inside our car riding shotgun during the daily commute with our dials set to NPR – refugees fleeing towns in Iraq, water shortages in Palestine. Everyday the story of Lazarus gets beamed into our lives via modern technology reminding us he’s still here, there, and everywhere. Information overload can lead to a mind numbing headache.
One of the first steps in navigating the chasm is maintaining our ability to grieve. To resist numbness and to welcome feeling the feelings of the suffering. Walter Brueggeman says “The capacity to grieve… is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right…and as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.” (The Prophetic Imagination pp. 20,21) Brueggeman also believes that grief is what prepares the way for resurrection. Grief and weeping acknowledge that what we are grieving over must come to an end. He says, “Weeping permits newness…Weeping permits the kingdom to come (pp. 60,61). Blessed are those who mourn.
Another reality of our setting involves things we have learned over the last number of years about the most effective ways to bridge this wealth gap. The poor, we are finding, are actually quite resourceful and creative. They don’t need a hand-out as much as they need a hand-up to start creating a sustainable life for themselves. One of the most important discoveries along these lines has been the effectiveness of small loans to empower the poor to make their own investments. As it turns out, if Lazarus can get some health basic care for his sores, get some food in his stomach, and get a small loan to invest, he may just have what he needs to start a dog-training business for all those dogs he has made friends with over the years, and he can begin to live an economically sustainable life and even begin to create wealth for his neighbors. $100 may not seem like much to us, but to a woman in Afghanistan or Bangladesh, it may be enough to buy a new stove for baking and selling bread, or a second loom for making rugs. Organizations like Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Economic Development Associates are working to offer these types of small loans to people who otherwise have no real way of obtaining credit. Money given to one of these programs will go directly to finance and invest in a small business of someone in poverty. It’s proving to be one of the most affective ways of enabling people, especially women, to lift themselves out of poverty.
As relatively wealthy people, navigating the great chasm that continues to be wide, let us remember that guilt is not a fruit of the Spirit. Guilt is another of those numbing, paralyzing feelings that keeps us away from the life God would have for us. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The Spirit enables us to grieve as we remain alert to the real pain around us. The Spirit enables us to be creative and wise with our generosity, tapping into the creative potential in every human being. The Spirit calls us to be chasm-crossers, with the privilege of sharing wealth, compassion, and prayers across the gap that separates the rich and the poor.