The rich man in Jesus’s story is in quite a predicament, isn’t he? Things are not going as he expected them to at all. Having arrived in Hades, not so much the heaven and hell of traditional Western Christianity, but a general place of all the dead, he is not getting the treatment he expected. Understanding riches to be a sign of God’s favor he seems surprised to be tormented by flames while Lazarus, the man who was clearly cursed with poverty and illness, is being comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man doesn’t miss a beat, though. He knows just want to do. He will order someone to fix his agony for him.
Relying on his position, his earthly power and authority, the man tries to enlist both Abraham and Lazarus in the work of solving his problem, comforting his torment. But Abraham won’t indulge his request. Not only that Abraham won’t even let the rich man send Lazarus to warn his brothers of this very unexpected reversal of fortune in the afterlife.
The living brothers, Abraham says, have access to the same guidance the rich man did – the law of Moses, the wisdom of the prophets. They have, as the rich man had, the whole canon of their faith and tradition to teach them about how to live in right relationship with God and others. They have the Torah instructions about letting those who are in need glean from their fields and those who are hungry shake olives from their trees. They are, or should be, familiar with the prophecies proclaiming God’s desire that there be healing for those who suffer, food for those who have no money, and justice for those who are oppressed.
They have everything they could ever need to avoid this torment, but if they had ignored Lazarus this long, why would they pay attention to him now? If they, like the rich man, had grown comfortable keeping their feasts to themselves how was a messenger from the dead going to bridge that divide? Besides, what exactly was the rich man suggesting that Lazarus tell his living brothers? What was the warning he was going to send them about their insular lifestyle if they already showed no sign of trusting the very word of God?
Even as he is tormented in the afterlife, he doesn’t seem to get it. Suddenly worried for his family members who apparently live the same oblivious lifestyle he lived, he expects others to jump when he calls, run where he sends them, and serve his needs and his family as he wishes. He seems to think his brothers and their families are entitled to the blessing of his newfound knowledge at the expense of Lazarus’s errand, in the way he was entitled to the blessing of his wealth at the expense of Lazarus’s starvation and suffering outside the city gate.
This is not one of those warm, fuzzy Bible stories, is it? I bristle from the start at the stark descriptor of the “rich man.” I was raised to think that it’s rude to talk about money. Maybe you were too. It’s one of the unwritten rules of polite, white, US American society. I’m a little uncomfortable right now, to be honest! Many of us have also been taught, maybe less explicitly, that since money is a private affair, how we choose to spend, save, or grow our money is an internal, individual choice. We may not even talk to our own children about how we make our choices. Decisions about money, we are led to believe, can be compartmentalized and is probably best managed separate from anything that might sway us from rational, disimpassioned plans, even separate from our faith.
Well, despite all of that, one of my favorite talk radio programs is called “Death, Sex and Money.” At the beginning of each episode the host, Anna Sale says these are things “we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” She probably like this parable; it covers two out three, death and money, and they are probably just as taboo in the church as they are on NPR.
But Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann has never had any problem jumping into the deep end with any of these topics in his scholarship. At the very beginning of his book, Money and Possessions, Brueggemann posits six theses about money and possessions that are deeply rooted in scripture and can guide our understanding of the economy of the kingdom of God. These theses, he tells us, stand in radical contrast to the conventional wisdom of the ancient world, as well as our own market ideologies today. Drawn from numerous passages of both the law and prophets that Abraham references in the parable and the gospels and New Testament literature, here are the foundational statements of Brueggemann’s book:
- Money and possessions are gifts from God.
- Money and possessions are received as reward for obedience. (This one comes with some disclaimers and warnings about its potential for distortion, particularly the distortion of its reversal, that financial adversity is a result of disobedience, which is definitely not a biblical principle.)
- Money and possessions belong to God and are held in trust by human persons in community.
- Money are possessions are sources of social injustice.
- Money and possessions are to be shared in a neighborly way.
- Money and possessions are seductions that lead to idolatry.
These statements make up the skeleton of a biblical theology of money. That is, they are a framework of how our scriptures understand money works in a relationship with God and in our relationships with other human beings guided by God. And first and foremost they set down the marker that our money and the possessions we have are very much indeed a faith matter. They cannot be cordoned off from our spiritual lives. Secondly, they tell us that money, in God’s economy, is not a personal matter.
Money, as a gift from God or reward, is in our care, but it is not for our singular use or benefit. Money is meant to be used for the good of the community, the human family, not extracted from some for the enjoyment of others. In God’s economy money is intended to bless our neighborly relationships and the communal well-being.
Which brings us back to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. At first glance we might think the parable is saying his sin, the reason for his torment, is his status as a rich man. That’s about all that we know about him, but I don’t actually think that’s what Jesus is getting at. In denying his request to send Lazarus on an errand, Abraham mentions Moses and the prophets and the guidance provided for the rich man and his family in the scriptures, that same guidance, the theology of money, we heard about earlier.
The sin of the rich man in this parable is not that he is rich. It’ not that he feasted. It’s not that his feasts were sumptuous. It’s not that they were frequent. Neither Abraham nor Jesus draws a line in the sand here about how much is too much, what is above and beyond, or the appropriate menu for a dinner party. The condemnation the man faces is not based on the balance of his bank account, but on how he lets that balance separate him from his fellow human beings, particularly, how he lets his riches build his own happiness, his own delight, his own abundant life, while Lazarus sits at the gate to his house suffering. The rich man was not being punished for being rich, but for the chasm that he dug between himself and another human being by not letting the principles of his faith influence what he did with his riches.
By keeping his wealth separate from his faith, the rich man missed out on the opportunity to be a part of God’s work in the world. He blocked Lazarus from a meal that would strengthen his body, and he blocked his own chance to be faithful to the law of Moses. Holding his blessings close he disregarded the divine design that abundance belongs to everyone. He prevented Lazarus’s physical healing and caused his own spiritual dis-ease. Before he ever died, the chasm he was shocked to see in Hades was well under construction life.
Most of the time in Jesus’s parables the characters are not given names. In fact, Lazarus is the only named character in any of Jesus’ parables, and that strikes me as important as we seek to find our place in it. It would have been easy, since Jesus was in the mood to assign names to characters, to make this story about the ultra-rich. He could have told a parable about Caesar or Pilate, or some other well-known community leader who lived in the lap luxury. And if he had we might translate the story into our contemporary times as a warning to our ultra-rich – the Jeff Bezoses and Bill Gateses of the world. But Jesus didn’t, and we shouldn’t, because again, the story isn’t about how much is too much. The story is about how any of us use what we have in accordance with God’s will.
Do we consider the implications of the way we manage our income and our possessions?
If we are spending our money in ways that ignore or tear down our neighbors, could we instead spend it in ways that build them up? If we are growing or sharing our money in ways that keeps some people at the gate, could we instead do it in ways that welcomes them at the table? If we have been the architects of the chasm between children of God on the socio-economic spectrum or if we are benefiting from it, could we do something different with the abundance we have – abundance of money, abundance of privilege, abundance of experience, abundance of opportunities, abundance of relationships, abundance of security, abundance of power and social capital – to fill in those holes, to bridge the divisions?
I believe we can.
No matter how much money we have we can make at least some choices about how our money and possessions can be put to work in God’s economy. We can choose to shop at stores that pay their employees a living wage and care for their health in body, mind and spirit. We can make investments that back corporations that take care of the environment. We can ensure our donations support organizations that honor the humanity and dignity of all people. We can give our time, energy, possessions, and money in ways that reflect God’s justice and mercy.
Each and every one of us has some sort of internal theology of money, even if our theology of money is that we choose not to think about a theology of money. The challenge of this parable is also the blessing of this parable – Jesus invites us to bring all that we are and all that we have into our relationship with God and God’s people in the world. He invites us to realign our understanding of who should be blessed by what has been entrusted to us with God’s desires for creation. The details of what that means – how much? how often? how it’s distributed? – that’s a matter of discernment which too often is private, but would be so blessed by conversations with fellow disciples on the way.
Because together we are strengthened for the call. Together we can be a part of building God’s kingdom of justice and mercy on earth as it is in heaven. Together we can be drawn into communities of healing. Together we can be tethered to God’s will and work to make God’s love known in the world.