Who Do We See!
This morning we had a joint service with our Church of Christ neighbours. When it’s at our church I usually lead the service and the minister from the Church of Christ preaches. Normally thats okay, but today I had a real urge to preach!!! Funny I know. While I didn’t, and the minister did a fine job, the reading was one of those that smacks the listener between the eyes, even in the 21st century. Because it was about money and how we become so entranced by it we don’t see those without it, suffering. So I am going to put a sermon I wrote a few years ago on the blog, because we in the west, with our comfortable lives, will always find it a challenge to really see the other in our midst. I did use the poem referenced in the sermon, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost as an opening to the service.
Luke 16:19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus
A few weeks ago Matt and I went down to Dunsborough for an extended family weekend away. My cousin Robyn had acquired a beautiful house down there and wanted to catch up with the rest of the family. You can imagine how enjoyable it was, walking down to the shops, relaxing in a very comfortable setting, watching the footy on a mega huge television. It was luxury. So much so that when I went out walking with my brother and sister one morning I suggested, half as a joke, that if I was to return to this earth I wanted to come back as a rich person. As soon as I said it, I realised that I knew I didn’t believe it, but it just shows that we can all be blinded by the delights of possessions and money. My very sensible and socialist brother put me in my place, by reminding me that I was rich in so many other ways. But it is hard to resist the subliminal messages we all get every day. Messages that encourage and cajole us into believing that life would be better and more fulfilling if only we had a bigger house, a more expensive car, a bigger television or better more exotic holidays. Better for whom, that is the question.
We have been seduced by the idea that greed is good. Good for us and good for others. That somehow it will trickle down and help all those in society without us having to do anything. As Walter Wink, in an article for Sojournersmagazine, suggests we have been systematically trained in greed from birth. Consumerism is our middle name. Just look what we get put into our letter boxes every day: piles of magazines wanting us to buy more things. He suggests our economic system is greedy on our behalf, a giant machine of production. We have made economic growth the primary social god passing off the problem of poverty as an outstanding debt to be paid off by further economic growth. Even though by now we should have learned the increased productivity does not in fact resolve inequalities of the distribution of wealth. We in fact know that money ends up the hands of a few, who will then do anything to keep it.
We may think money is neutral, a commodity without any meaning other than being used in transactions. How wrong can we be. As individuals and as a society money rules all. Our economic and political system allows money to play favourites. The more money you have the more powerful you are. I discovered this the other day listening to an account of the Koch brothers in America, who are part of the right wing Tea Party by a social researcher called Lee Fang. I had not heard of the Tea Party until a week ago, and now suddenly everywhere I look there are articles on them.
Fang reported that the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are the wealthiest and perhaps most effective, opponents of President Obama’s progressive agenda. They have been looming in the background of every major domestic policy dispute this year in the states. Ranked as the ninth richest men in America, the Koch brothers sit at the helm of Koch industries, a massive privately owned conglomerate of manufacturing, oil, gas and timber interests. They are best known for their wealth as well as for their generous contributions to the arts, cancer research and the Smithsonian institute. But David and Charles are also responsible for a vicious attack campaign aimed directly at obstructing and killing progressive reform. Over the years millions of dollars of Koch money has flowed to various right wing think tanks, front groups and publications. They formed a group called Americans for Prosperity in 1984 which in turn helped form the Tea Party protests, based on the Boston Tea Party and driven by extreme right wing groups. They have bankrolled campaigns against health care reform, pollution controls and for climate change denial to name a few.
Money is not neutral, it provides luxury, security and power and the people who have it have the greatest power to manipulate those in society to keep it. The trickle down effect is a myth; the more we have the less others have and the more we have the more we want. It makes us, our society and our world divided, fearful and less compassionate and as we have seen politicians play on it all.
But all this talk raises a very salient point, one that is central to the expression of our faith in the world. Money has become another god and economics a type of religion. So how we respond to it shows whose side we are on. For if we are really on the side of Jesus then we all have changes to make.
For Jesus wasted no time in the New Testament declaring himself on the side of the poor. There are numerous places where it is very clear, what is at stake. Siding with the poor was the mark of being one of his disciples in a time when the Roman Empire ruled and when the poor suffered at the hands of landowners, bankers, creditors and even priests.
As Walter Wink says, Jesus identified the world’s great idol as mammon, by which he meant money or property in general. He saw it as a power no longer under human control and no longer in the service of human needs. The chief manifestation of the God mammon is accumulated wealth.
Today we heard one of the many parables he used to make it very plain what he thought about it and what he believed God required of us. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is like all the parables, on the one hand an exaggerated story and on the other quite subtle. Many scholars believe it originated as a folk story which Jesus himself adapted, although most would say verses 27-31 are additions by Luke. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day, as most of us do, while poor Lazarus was lucky to beat the dogs to the garbage. When Lazarus dies we discover him safe in the bosom of Abraham at a banquet table, while the rich man cries out in torment from hell. But there is more to the story. As David Buttrick, in his book on Parables points out, the rich man has no name, while Lazarus’s name means ‘God has helped’. Interestingly by the time of Jesus beggars were seen as sinners being punished for their sins. Lazarus lies outside the wall, but just near the gate to the rich man’s estate. He is too weak to beg but lies hoping for table scraps from the rich man. The contrast between the two is carefully drawn. Then the tables are reversed. Lazarus who hoped for scraps now feasts in the afterlife. The rich man dies, is buried, and ends up in Hades. Once he partied every day, now he cries out for a drop of water. Still the rich man is arrogant and refuses to address Lazarus directly. He sees Lazarus as a low class slave and asks Abraham to order Lazarus to moisten his lips.
This parable hits us between the eyes. Poor and rich are extremes and Luke uses it in a not too subtle attack on the rich. But money is not neutral. It has social meaning and to have an abundance while others are starving is, as Buttrick suggests, impossible to condone. So perhaps this is the message we need to hear.
Brandon Scott has used the poem I read earlier from Robert Frost, The Mending Wall when looking at this parable. The rich man could have walked through his gate and served the poor man but he chose not to and even in the afterlife he doesn’t acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being. As a result the wall that separated the two in life becomes a chasm.
We build fences to protect ourselves from hearing the cry of the poor, watching them from the comfort of our lounge rooms or dream that if we spend more then the benefits will trickle down to those less fortunate. But as we have heard walls become permanent chasms unable to be breached. Human carelessness hardens. A great statement comes from David Buttrick about what happens. Yet in the parable all the rich man had to do is to go out and connect to the poor, and seek a common destiny. All he had to do was recognise what lay before him. That he didn’t, condemned him forever. We are the rich man and the poor are at our gates now, and our common destiny and survival is in our hands.
So what do we do to go through the opening? Well, it is not enough for us to continue with a lifestyle of the west, justifying our position by being generous, although that helps. As Wink suggests, we cannot just treat people well, raise our families, live in nice homes and work hard, and give money away when we are part of the institutionalised greed that leads to injustice. For as we accumulate more and more, we build a wall back up between those of us that have and those that are the have nots. A wall once built, as we have heard is hard to tear it down. We have to change our lifestyle, to see that what we desire affects others just as much as what we do. Not easy but essential. In recognising this dilemma Walter Wink acknowledges that, ‘Our personal transformation will not change the system, but it is the indispensable prerequisite to systemic change. We can alter our own patterns of consumption, less fuel, less junk food, less litter, less detergent, less beef; more recycling, more conservation, longer use of clothes and products, rejection of style fads and the mania for newness. Our very values can change: we can slough off the spell of bigness, the love of luxury, the bogus security of owning things.’ The myth that consumerism will solve everything. And in the process help the environment.
But there is more. We can also find ways to hold politicians and global companies responsible to the general public, and defeat those who are working against the public interest. The power of the internet to find out this information and then engage with groups who are questioning the activities of some of these corporations is with us all. I know because it took me about 30 minutes to find out about the Koch brothers and about groups exposing their methods to the public and coordinating opposition to them.
Finally, it is time to overhaul our national theology of wealth which Wink identifies, and the heresy that we are rich because we are righteous and righteous because we are rich. We are rich because the system perpetuates it, the rich get richer and the poor poorer unless we do something about it. The church is called to waken those within it to the wall that is building between the have and the have nots and tear it down.
As Wink concludes no one really knows how to construct a perfect economic system in the West which greedy people will not subvert to their own gain. But we, as people of faith, are free to risk moving toward a way that is more equitable and just, knowing we are grounded in a God whose love is for all people. It is this love we find in Jesus and whose way we follow. So while we can be countercultural with our money and how we use it, it is with our lifestyle we can truly reflect the call of Jesus and the need of our fellow brothers and sister. Changing the system starts with us. Scary but true.
As a footnote, it is interesting the one of the Koch brothers, David, died recently, and so was in the news. No matter how much money we have, we all die in the end! It’s how we live the matters!