A few weeks ago I stopped into a little shop on the Main Line that had been recommended to me as a place to find a natty bowtie. This is the type of place that sells men’s shirts for $135, ladies sweaters for $200. So I thought the bowties at $45 were a steal – and the selection was very handsome indeed! I was the only person in the small shop, and I suspected that, since they sold exclusively things that nobody needs, the effects of the rotten economy might be taking their toll.
“How has business been?” I asked the preppy, pretty, blonde saleswoman.
“Oh,” she replied, “Not bad at all. In fact, sales are up this year!” I assume that many shoppers must have walked out with more than a single bowtie, which seemed like quite a splurge to me. (But I must say it is very sharp!)
My purchase and the shop it came from were still in my mind when I read in the news that 44 million Americans live in poverty. That means a family of four living on $22,000! I am paid close to four times that and have only two dogs and a cat to support, and many months seem tight to me. Not so tight, however, as to prevent me from purchasing the odd bowtie.
Leave aside for a moment the unsettling teaching of Saint Paul that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Because we already know that this kind of moralistic teaching falls on deaf ears. We are experts at rationalizing it. We can easily say that we are not the rich ones, don’t want to be rich anyway, have no hope of becoming rich, etc. Even Paul gives us an out just a few lines later when he gives instructions to those who happen to be rich – instructions far more sympathetic to their situation than, for instance, the suggestion that they should sell what they have and give it to the poor – but then Paul had probably never read that story.
But think about the story Jesus tells of the poor man Lazarus, stinking and covered with sores that the dogs lick, begging at the gate of the house of a rich man. We don’t know why Lazarus is poor, but it does not seem to be the fault of the Obama administration. We know only that Lazarus longed to feast on the scraps from the rich man’s table.
Now, I am stopped dead in my tracks already to think of the scraps that are chucked into the trash from my table. I am a little assaulted by this story already. I can too easily picture myself cleaning out the fridge of old, wasted leftovers, while I’m wearing my new bowtie (which happens to be pink with subtle white pattern).
But the crux of the story does not take place in this life; it happens in the next life, after both Lazarus and the rich man are dead and have gone to their reward: Lazarus, carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham in heaven, and the rich man (perhaps because of the way he obtained his riches?) to the flames of Hades. From there, you recall, the rich man calls out to Father Abraham, begging him to allow Lazarus to “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham replies that this is not possible because a great chasm is fixed (or, as the KJV puts it, a great “gulf”) between the rich man suffering in Hades and Lazarus, being comforted in heaven.
If you want to be argumentative, we could talk about various biblical attitudes toward the afterlife. We could wrangle the theological implications of heaven and hell. We could question the motives of a loving God who allows this rich man to suffer so in hell, and whether or not there is any truth to this arrangement in the afterlife. But to do so would be to miss the point of the story. For although he promises us life in the world to come, Jesus is almost always more concerned with that piece of the kingdom of God that is already near at hand – in this world. There is nothing that can be done, he says, about the gulf that is fixed between Lazarus and the rich man in the next life; but there is something to be done about the gulf fixed between rich and poor in this life.
Jesus is really only concerned to teach about the torments or ecstasies of the next life in so much as they provide a point of reflection for choices we make in this life. Whether these represent the truth about life in the next world or a teaching device that spoke powerfully to his audience is hard for us to say. What is easier to say is that Jesus regularly contrasts the hope of the rich (which he sees as bleak) to the hope of the poor (for whom he holds out great promise). His message is shaped to be more easily heard by beggars in the street than by shoppers looking for bowties.
And the gulf that he tells us is fixed between Lazarus in heaven and the rich man in Hades, is nothing more than a mirror image of the gulf that separated them on earth, even though they lived their lives within steps of each other. Such a chasm, a gulf, exists today between rich and poor, and that gulf is growing ever bigger in America. Splashy gifts of $100 million here and there (announced with fanfare on Oprah, but representing barley more than scraps from a billionaire’s table) do almost nothing to narrow the gap between rich and poor that is now wider in America than it has been since the Roaring Twenties. And the point of Jesus’ story is to ask us to worry about the gulf, about the chasm that yawns ever larger between the poor and the rich.
In America we have often tried to assert that poverty is the result of the moral failings of the poor: their laziness, stupidity, or mental illness (as if that was their fault too). But Jesus strongly suggests to us that poverty is a result of the moral failings of the rich: our greediness, indifference, and cruelty.
And as Jesus sees the chasm between rich and poor growing wider and wider, he pushes us to consider whether it must be so, whether we really want it to be so, and he’s telling us that if we want to align our wills with God’s will, we need to think about crossing the gulf, or at least narrowing it.
Most of you know, of course, that at Saint Mark’s we try to cross the gulf every week here with the Food Cupboard and the Saturday Soup Bowl. By doing so we acknowledge that we are rich men and women with poor people sitting more or less at our gates who deserve more than scraps from our tables. While these ministries allow us to cross the gulf, they do nothing at all to narrow it. They treat the symptom (hunger) not the disease (poverty).
To my knowledge, only one solution has ever meaningful addressed the reality of poverty and the forces that allow it to persist and grow, and that solution is education. Our work to start a school for poor kids at Saint James the Less is nothing less than an effort, not only to cross the chasm between rich and poor, but to narrow that gulf, at least a little bit.
It is a travesty that in the nation that invented the system of free public education we now have more than 14% of our population living in poverty, and an even great travesty that the release of this information is not cause for widespread outrage. 44 million Lazaruses do not seem to be a troubling reality for many in this country; I can only suppose this is because Lazarus is powerless and unlikely to vote.
But Jesus is trying to teach us to pay attention to Lazarus. He is trying to show us how great a gulf is already fixed between us. And he is asking us to worry about the gulf, to bother to cross it, and to do what we can to narrow this great chasm between rich and poor, because not to do so is soul-destroying to the rich, who can well afford to do something to help.
And part of the challenge, of course, is to know who you are in this story. Part of the challenge is to stop for a moment at the counter, with a natty, new bowtie in your hand, and wonder whether this might mean that there is a great gulf fixed between you and 44 million Lazaruses. At which point it doesn’t really matter what you believe about heaven and hell. All that matters is what you intend to do about the gulf that is already spread out before you.
So far there is little good news to be heard in this analysis of either the Gospel or our national scandal of poverty, so let me try to show you where the good news in all this is.
From time to time rich men (and women) do look down as we pass through our gates, bowties fluttering in the breeze, and notice Lazarus sitting there, his sores of interest to the dogs that follow in our wake. And from time to time it occurs to us to do something for this poor soul, to go back to the fridge and pile some leftovers on a paper plate, and bring it out wrapped in foil, with a plastic fork and a paper towel for a napkin and give it to poor Lazarus. Or we might give $100 million dollars to the Newark School District. Or something in between – like making soup, or traveling to Honduras, or opening a school.
And when we do this, when we yield to this curious urge to pay attention to the poor among us, we almost always begin with the benevolent thought that poor Lazarus will be better off when we have done our good deed. Maybe it makes us feel good to have provided Lazarus with a meal, so we determine to do it again next week. And maybe this even becomes a habit, this small gesture to improve the sorry lot of Lazarus’s existence, if only for a meal a week. And maybe Lazarus’s life is changed in some way, big or small, as a result of at least one good meal a week, one act of kindness in a world that has lorded its greediness, indifference and cruelty over his supposed laziness, stupidity, and mental illness.
But if the rich men (and women) stick with it, week after week, meal after meal, what may happen is, that the angels of God begin to cinch together the cords of the gulf that once divided us, and bring us closer together. And we may discover that while we think possibly we may have done Lazarus some good, we know that we have been changed as our lives move more closely in contact with those who before consorted only with our dogs as they licked the infected wounds of the poor.
And will we choose to do this because we are afraid that otherwise we’ll burn in hell? I doubt it. We’ll do it because the great gulf fixed between rich and poor grows so great that it begins to disgust us. We’ll do it not because we are making decisions about what kind of world we want to live in in the next life, but because of what kind of world we want to live in in this life.
And should that lead us to a greater joy in the world to come, to a neighborhood of bliss in the vicinity of Lazarus and Abraham, then praise to be to God for such a wonder! But I hope we shall not wait to hear news from those long departed to tell us whether or not this is so. After all, we have Moses and the prophets, and the teachings of the Lord of love. And their word is good enough for me.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
26 September 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia