You can read the whole passage from Luke by following this link:
I am not a poor woman. I have never dug in garbage cans or dumpsters for food, nor have a suffered from malnutrition, nor have I even wondered about the source of my next meal. I have never lingered with a disease because I lacked the healthcare that would pay for medicine or doctors. I have never stood in line at the unemployment office. I have never had to live with multiple people cramped into one room in the poorest part of town. I am not poor. And yet, I do not feel rich. The rich have no problem with bills. They can travel when and where they please. They have more money than they need. I am not poor and do not feel rich. I am middle-class. Because of this when I hear readings from the Bible that caution about the dangers of being rich, like all three readings for today, they often hit me and bounce right off again. I’m not rich, I quietly say to myself, so this doesn’t really apply to me. But the problem is that it does.
I would argue, that in today’s world, if you have money left over after you have paid for the basics, like food, adequate shelter, clothing, transportation, and healthcare, then you are rich. Cable TV, brand name clothes, the latest in digital technology, a cell phone for every member of your family, gourmet food, and the newest model of car are not necessities in life. You do not need any of these to survive. If you can afford any of these things, then you are rich. And as a rich person, you need to listen to what scripture has to say about the responsibilities of the rich.
So let’s take a closer look at our reading from Luke for today. The story begins with two characters who are the complete opposites from each other. We have a rich man who can afford the best of the best. He is not concerned with the basics of life, he has far more than the basics. And at his gate we find a very poor man, Lazarus. Now Lazarus has nothing—no food, no shelter, no clothing, and on top of that he is afflicted with some horrible illness that causes him to break out in sores all over his body. All he wants is the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table to satisfy his hunger, but the rich man doesn’t even seem to notice him lying there. The only creatures who do care for him are the dogs who lick his sores (the ancients believed that the saliva of dogs had healing powers). And one day Lazarus dies and is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham in heaven. And the rich man dies as well, but he isn’t carried to heaven, he is carried to Hades, where he will live in eternal torment, being burned forever by fire.
The rich man looks up from his fiery resting place and sees across a wide chasm that Lazarus is resting in heaven in the arms of Abraham. He calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him some relief, but he gets none. Abraham says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so.” The rich man could have crossed the chasm that separated him from Lazarus during his lifetime, but he chose not to, so now it is too late. Some outcomes cannot be influenced. Some chasms cannot be crossed. Some things harden. There is a point of no return. But the rich man still hasn’t figured out that he has fallen from his previous position of greatness, and he tries to bargain for special privileges for his family, his fellow elites, and he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to change their ways. Abraham smashes the rich man’s illusions. He can claim no special privileges for his brothers. He cannot expect shock therapy to awaken them and sensitize them. They have Moses and the prophets, the one who symbolizes God’s deliverance of his people from bondage and the ones who keep calling the people to enjoy their freedom and exercise it responsibly. They have the Scriptures which make clear to them their duty to care and to share and which point beyond to the One who frees them so they can act responsibly. They need no magic sign.
Is this a story to condemn the rich and commend the poor? Our first reaction may point in this direction, and that is often why we do not want to see ourselves as being rich. But if we look more closely at the story we will see that the one who is holding Lazarus in his arms is Abraham, a very rich man in his day. The rich man was punished not because he enjoyed his wealth, but because he neglected the needy at his doorstep. The rich man was punished because, even though he had far more than he needed, he ignored the starving, dying man on his doorstep.
Did you know that since 1984 the wealth of this country has more than doubled? Per capita, Americans are now 70% richer than they were in 1979. The United States currently has 269 billionaires, the highest number in the world. In the past 25 years, the average after-tax income of the top 1% of Americans has risen an astonishing 111.3, from $298,900 to $631,700 per year (again, all these figures are adjusted for inflation). Yet 12.6% of our population lives in poverty—that is 37 million people. And this is how we define poverty: for a family of 4—that is two parents with two children—to be considered to be living in poverty means that you cannot make more than $20,444 per year. If you earn a dollar more than that number you are not considered to be living in poverty. Even with public assistance, the least expensive apartment you can find in this part of the country for four people will probably cost you about $700.00 a month. Your utility bills—heat, electricity, and water—will cost you at least $150.00/month for a small apartment. Food for a family of four will cost at least $400/month and that is an extremely low estimate. That leaves you with about $5000/year to clothe 4 people, pay the phone bill, pay for transportation, health insurance and healthcare. If you work 40 hours a week at $7.25/hour, which is what the federal minimum wage was increased to in the summer of 2009, you would earn $14,580/year if you worked all 52 weeks with no vacations.
Now some would argue that the poor are poor because they are lazy. But among the poor, 11.4% work full time, year-round, and most of the others would work if they could find work. Many more people would fall below the poverty line, except that they are working two full-time jobs at the same time. To work two full-time jobs and earn only $28,000 between both, seems to indicate that there is a failure in the system, not in the poor themselves. No one who works full time or more than full time should have to live in poverty.
The Scriptures tell us that we rich Christians need to respond to the call of Lazarus at our gate, and Lazarus is there—indeed there are at least 37 million Lazarus’ out there calling to us. And there are many ways that we can respond to that call. Our mission and outreach committee funds many worthy and wonderful charitable causes, but I don’t think that it is enough. We also need, individually and as a Christian community, to grapple with the issues of welfare and unemployment and to consider the public programs that can deal most constructively with these urgent needs. We need to join with other individuals and communities in attacking the causes of poverty so that we can try to break the vicious cycle that moves from parent to child to grandchild. This is not a partisan political issue, this is a moral issue, this is a religious issue. We need as individuals and as a community to get out into the community and do hands on work with those who are in need. How will we respond to the call?
I leave you this morning with words from our reading from Timothy for today,
“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
Follow this link for a story about the working poor in this country: