Will the Rich Please Raise Your Hands?
Woe to the complacent in Zion!”
“If you are rich, please raise your hand.”
When our pastor asked the question during a homily last year, my husband and I put our hands in the air. We’ve been wrestling with this question for years, living in cities where people in poverty were visibly struggling and clearly without access to the things that stabilized our lives – family loans, a bank account, college scholarships, ready credit, well-paying jobs and health insurance.
But we were the only ones in the church who admitted to the fact that day — aside from a few smart-alecky 10-year olds. That’s not because we were the wealthiest couple in the congregation of academics and professionals. But it illustrated an important fact – Americans don’t like to classify themselves as rich. We cherish the story about our classless society where self-made men and women climb to the top by the sweat of their brow. Sure we buy lottery tickets and tune into “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” But in the end Bill Gates prefers to wear Dockers, and so do we.
We don’t like to be classified as “poor” either. We may be in debt, filing for bankruptcy or working several jobs to make ends meet. But the poor are the ones who need a handout. Charity, a word that used to mean love, has long meant shame in our culture.
Americans love to hug the middle. And that’s why it’s difficult to preach about the Scriptural admonition against riches and the preferential option for the poor. It’s too easy for many of us to wiggle out of the story, to imagine that it is advice meant for someone else.
What did rich and poor mean in first century Palestine? The Greek in which our Gospels were written makes a distinction between the “poor” – those who were reliant upon the good graces of an employer or creditor – and the “needy” – the destitute, the ones who begged. (1) In Jesus’ time there was a sliding scale between poor and rich, with the poor working constantly and the rich having leisure to engage in politics, the arts or war. But the destitute, who had no family or social ties, were often wanderers who had no network on which to rely. “Whenever in the New Testament you read the term poor in English, it is destitute in Greek. “(2)
In today’s Gospel the rich man has the luxury of a sumptuous meal each day, while the destitute Lazarus lays at his door, diseased and starving. Here is a taste of God’s divine justice. After the rich man fails to share his bounty with Lazarus, God steps in and takes care of Lazarus himself. Consider the meaning of “blessed are you who hunger and thirst for justice, for you shall be fed” in this context. The rich man, however, faces his own set of consequences – deep and tormenting alienation from the divine and from eternal happiness.
What is his sin? Not that he was rich, but that he failed to see the need of the poor man at his door. At the same time he failed to heed “Moses and the prophets,” prophets like Amos who last week had some harsh words for “those who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!” And this week followed it up with “Woe to the complacent in Zion!”
The rich man knew what he was supposed to do; he just didn’t do it. He knew there was need at his door; he just didn’t respond. And he traded a place at the table in the Reign of God for the privilege of having the meal to himself – and eating it alone.
But what does this mean for us? What are we? We who are neither rich nor poor? According to the Scriptures, if we fail to heed the needy before us – and we do know who they are, and we do know how they suffer – we are among the complacent. We know what we should do, and do not do it. We know that people suffer among us, and we do not respond in a way that makes a lasting difference. The consequence of complacence is alienation – from humanity and from God. It’s an eternity of Sunday dinners alone, eating at our own empty table.
Complacence is such sticky stuff – a stultifying mix of faithlessness and indifference, distraction and ennui. To overcome our indifference toward those who are broken in the body of Christ, the Gospel insists that we welcome them as family members, we listen to them as friends, and we connect them to the resources that uphold their human dignity. It’s difficult work to do alone, best done with the help of people who share that mission and support one another with prayer and sacrifice — churches for example.
With this in mind, how might we as Church help one another avoid the danger of riches and its concomitant complacency? Here are some suggestions.
- Contemplate the poverty nearest to you. Reflect deeply on why it is there, and how you are connected to it. The newspaper and the internet will help. So will talking to people who are poor.
- Read the Scriptures – especially the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos. They are always good for a kick in the butt when it comes to societal greed.
- Tithe – regularly invest time and finances in programs and social efforts that lift people from poverty and restore dignity. Visit people in prison. Be generous with beggars. Work for change through social and political channels.
- Resist the urge to flee — to different neighborhoods, schools or churches — when people on the margins come near. Instead stay part of the community.
- Don’t use service as a way to maintain a safe distance between “us” and “them.” Don’t just serve soup at the hunger center; get in line, sit at table, have a conversation.
- Take public transportation. Better yet, take the bus through the neighborhoods that the interstate swings around.
- Resist and redefine the term “bad neighborhood” by spending time in one. Go to church there or the library or sit on a bench.
- Pray daily for the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the courage to love with the love of Jesus.
(1) For a full treatment of the topic see Dominic Crossan’s book The Birth of Christianity (1999).
(2) Crossan, p. 321