Proper 21

September 26, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Reading 2: 
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
Reading 3: 
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Reading 4: 
Luke 16:19-31
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 146
Alt Reading 1: 
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the texts
The texts for this Sunday have to do with wealth and property, and the possibilities and the pitfalls of money.

It would be hard to find a more pitiful or dramatic story than that of the rich man and the poor man in the Luke text. This is a story that juxtaposes a picture of a man who is wealthy and enjoys the fullness of his life with a picture of a most pathetic beggar. The contrast between the wealthy and the poor could not be written any sharper than this. The sharpness of definition is a literary device to make the point of the story. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” And then the contrast: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” Could this story be embellished any more that it is already?

The story is a dire warning to those few who have accumulated wealth at the expense of the many. Some people might read this text as proof that there is a heaven and a hell in the after life. But that approach would prevent the reader from getting to the point of the story. The story is a literary device setting up a cautionary tale to show the consequences of not only the inequity of the rich man and his attitude toward the poor beggar, but that there are consequences which go beyond the rich man’s rationalizations. God is not the God of the status quo, but is concerned mainly about justice. The story does not identify the rich man by name, yet the text gives the poor man’s name: Lazarus. The story is partly about the rich man and his attitude toward Lazarus. The religious of the day justified wealth as a sign of God’s favor and poverty as a sign of God’s disfavor. The story works to turn this narrative expectation on its head.

The two men died and Lazarus goes to Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man finds himself in Hades and in torment. This story might be the result of resentment of the poor against the rich and the desire to see justice done, maybe not in this life, but certainly in the next life. But the issue is brought back into this world with the rich man’s words, is plea: “I beg you to send (Lazarus) to my house--for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into tis place of torment. Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” The rich man persists: “No, father Abraham; but it someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” To which Abraham replied: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The argument has reached its logical conclusion. They had time; they know the covenant they had through Moses; they heard the prophet’s warning. What more do people need? We have everything we need to know what God’s will is for us.

The rich man’s attitude that he had while living is still in place: Lazarus must serve him, even under these circumstances. The rich man goes so far as to command Abraham to tell Lazarus to serve him. Sometimes the rich can be oblivious to the reality of the poor. They rationalize their wealth as earned, even deserved, and dismiss the poor as moral failures. They do not see their part in the unjust system in which they participate and perpetuate.

It’s important to keep in mind the context of this story. Luke says in the verses before the story, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this (the story of the dishonest manager), and they ridiculed Jesus. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your heart; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God’” God values us differently than the world values us.

The word “justify” could easily be interpreted as rationalize. The money issue is an outward sign of a larger issue which is that the status quo is set up to reward the rich and ridicule the poor, the hungry, the widow and orphan. In fact, the status quo consigns many to poverty in the very nature of the given world.

The observation in the Timothy text about the love of money is just as true today as it was when these words were first written. In the light of the recent Great Recession, the words go straight to the root of much suffering for everyone, but mostly those who are on the lower end of the status quo. Our world is very different in many ways than the world in which the Bible was written, but, sadly, the most important thing has remained the same: The human propensity to act selfishly for short term gain at the experience of everything else. The human heart has not changed a bit. The few control the many, and the few justify violence to maintain the status quo.

Process theology and preaching the texts
When dealing with ethical issues, we must always start with the understanding that everything is connected to everything else in the world. When one person mistreats others or the environment, rationalizing it as God’s will, then injustice is a result. By accruing more for the rich, others are reduced to poverty.

The story from the Gospel of Luke is about value. What is a human being worth? If they are poor, sick, widowed or orphaned, then in the eyes of the world they are not worth much. If people believe God is responsible for the status quo, then is is a very small step to the believe (rationalization) that the rich are rich because God blesses them and the poor are poor because of their sin or their parent’s sin. Then, the effort to reach out and help a poor person would be seen as an act against God.

But this way of valuing others is a convenience for the wealthy. “I don’t help others in need, because I would be going against God’s will.” It is also convenient for the wealthy to believe that God has all the power and we have none, so it is easier to protect their wealth by any means necessary, even with violence.

The issue is not simply about money or the wealthy, it is abut the kind of power God has. In a relational world, God is deeply involved in the unfolding of everything moment by moment. We are co-creators with God. This belief implies that we have power, and that the way the world is set up to serve the rich at the exense of the poor no longer holds. If fact, God might very well be against the status quo. Look at the prophets. They assume free agency of human beings. The way that God wants human society to function might be very different than what is in place now. It is the case that, for the most part, God is against empires, therefore God is against the status quo. If this is the case, then those who benefit from the empire are actually making decisions against God. For Luke to say that the Pharisees are lovers of money means that they are highly invested in the status quo. So in a relational world, everyone is affected by the choices people make.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.