All Saints' Episcopal Church

Living What We Already Know

The theme woven through all of today’s readings is obvious – wealth inequality, or the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. It’s a topic with which most of us are familiar. The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 150 million adults in the U.S. – in other words, the top 0.00025% of the population has as much wealth as the bottom 60%. And the gap is only getting wider.[1]

Wealth inequality is nothing new. Some researchers believe that economic inequality began long ago. With the domestication of plants, hunter-gatherers (whose mobility had previously made the accumulation of wealth difficult) settled down on farms. Then the domestication of large, draft animals, like cattle and oxen, allowed farmers to till even greater amounts of land and, therefore, accumulate even more wealth. This transition is believed to have taken place over ten thousand years ago.[2] By the time of the prophet Amos, almost three thousand years ago, we find that economic disparity is in full swing.

In today’s reading from Amos (6:1a,4-7), the prophet is speaking to the Northern Kingdom in the 8th C. BCE, about forty years before the nation is conquered by Assyria. Although Amos prophesied to the Northern Kingdom, in these verses we see an indictment of the behavior of both the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms of Israel and their capitals of Zion and Samaria. He rails against those who lie on beds of ivory, lounge on their couches, eat piles of meat, drink wine, and use the finest of oils – all the while not troubling themselves with thoughts of others or their nation.

As we see in our gospel reading (Luke 16:19-31), seven hundred years, one exile, and four ruling empires after Amos, Judah is still struggling with the problem of unequal wealth among her people. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and he tells them a parable about a rich man (whose name we are never told) and Lazarus, a poor man who lay outside his gate. In that day and time, bread was used to wipe grease from one’s plate, after which the soggy bread would be thrown under the table.[3] All Lazarus hopes for is to have some of this discarded, greasy bread to satisfy his hunger.

The poor man dies from starvation and possibly disease, given his running sores, and he goes to be with Abraham. The rich man also dies, and he goes to Hades where he is tormented. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to just dip his finger in water and put it on the rich man’s tongue. But a great chasm exists between them. When the rich man asks to have Lazarus sent to his family to warn them about the place of torment that the rich man now inhabits, Abraham responds that his brothers have Moses and prophets, Amos among them. If the brothers will not listen to them, there is no reason to think they will listen to someone who has risen from the dead.

We who hear this parable find ourselves in the place of the rich man’s brothers. We already have been given what we need to know. It’s a striking statement to make in this day when so many books promise us wisdom and knowledge, promise to tell us about that one thing that can bring us fulfillment. My own bookcases are full of them. But is it really that difficult?

Scripture doesn’t make it seem so complicated – notice those around us, share what we have with those who are poor and in need, welcome strangers and orphans, love God and our neighbor (and, by the way, everyone’s our neighbor). So do we truly not know what will bring us wholeness and life? Or do we already know, and we are just looking for something easier that will do the trick? It seems so simple, but so often something gets in the way.

I will never forget being at Penn Station in NYC when I was in medical school. Earlier that morning I had walked through one of the worst areas in New Haven to get to that train station before then making my way into NYC, and now I was waiting to take another train to see friends on Long Island. By this time, I was anxious and frazzled. When a gentleman asked me for money, I said no. When he asked me to just buy him a cup of coffee, I still said no. I don’t know why, really. It was January and freezing outside and, although I often got down to $20 in my checking account, I did have enough money that day to buy him a cup of coffee. But my fear and anxiety formed a gate around my heart that kept the man at arm’s length. My fear and anxiety formed a chasm between the two of us that I wouldn’t cross, and to this very day I regret my response.

We need to lose our fear – whether it’s fear of the stranger, fear of going without the basic needs of life, fear of what others think of us, fear of the unknown, even fear of violence – before we can be transformed into generous people and take our place in the larger human family and God’s creation.

There’s a difference between change and transformation. It’s been said that change takes place when we add something to our lives and we are different for a season or two. But transformation happens when something falls away, and we are never the same. [4] The thing that often needs to fall away is the underlying fear that keeps us holding on tight to material goods, the underlying fear that keeps us serving wealth instead of God (a choice Luke has placed before us earlier in this chapter). If only we could begin to turn to God for our security, our truth, our abundance, our life – then our fear could fall away; we could begin to open our clenched fists and let other things fall away, too, as we share the gifts of God with those around us.

For those of us for whom this is still difficult, there is good news. First, even when we cannot choose to let things fall away, life has a way of making that decision for us at some point. If we live long enough, we will know what it means to have things stripped away from us. It will be painful; after all, there is no resurrection without death. But God is with us as things fall away, teaching us what grace looks like again and again.

Second, there is no chasm big enough that God can’t cross it. Even when we don’t have within ourselves the generosity to share what we’ve been given with others, God is always there with us, offering to let God’s own generosity flow through us, accomplishing in us what we can’t do alone.

With this good news front and center, take some time to ponder these questions. What gates surround our own hearts and keep us from living and loving as God would have us do? What needs to fall away so that our lives can be transformed?

[1] Robert Frank, “Most millionaires say they’re middle class,” CNBC, May 6, 2015, https://www.cnbc.com/2015/05/06/naires-say-theyre-middle-class.html.

[2] “Rising Inequality Began with Agriculture and Domestication of Plants and Animals,” Ancient Origins, November 16, 2017, https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/rising-inequality-began-agriculture-and-domestication-plants-and-animals-009138.

[3] R. Allen Culpepper, “Commentary on Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume Eight (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015) 262.

[4]  I’m grateful to Suzanne Stabile for this understanding of change versus transformation.

A Note:

I think the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is less about God punishing us for not sharing with others, than it is about the situation we put ourselves in when we don’t recognize those around as our neighbors. God does not make us miserable or put a chasm between us; we are the ones that do that all on our own when we erect barriers between one another and fail to honor our connectedness.

Living What We Already Know
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