1 Timothy 6: 6-19, Psalm 91, Luke 16: 19-31
As we move more deeply into the current elections campaigns, it seems as though this parable was designed for this fall as the various political parties put forward their platforms for bridging the various gaps in our society, between the rich and the poor, the housed and the homeless, the healthy and those needing care…. Some folks of course just want to give the promise that if they had the power everyone would become richer in everyway. I hope I do not need to remind you that it is the responsibility of a Christian to become informed about the issues and to participate in our democracy at least through your voting on election day.
One gap though that seems quite difficult to bridge is the gap between those who consider oil and fossil fuels to be the way the economy becomes wealthier and those who side with the concerns how these products affect our changing climate. As the 16 year old Greta Thunberg who has been leading the movement to mobilize the youth around the world to challenge us who are adults to start taking more radical actions to reverse the effects of climate change, we can sense more clearly the gap between adults and the youth.
As one of the adults who has long been aware and concerned about the changes in our climate, I too feel chastened and wonder what more I could have been doing politically and spiritually to be making a difference. When I first became involved with Bloor St United Church, a small Simpler Lifestyles group formed in the mid-70s to address the fear around climate change even at that time, but it was a small group of all ages and other than supporting each other’s small lifestyle changes, we did not become a very strong presence able to challenge those with more power and wealth than we had.
You may recall too that when Mardi Tindal was our United Church Moderator between 2009 -2012 she did what she could to mobilize the entire United Church of Canada to become more aware and responsive to the dramatic changes happening to our climate. She did not really seem to receive very much support across the country as she raised profound concerns.
Today she calls upon faith leaders to step up to the plate to encourage their followers to take a stand and get involved but she knows that these issues can be very divisive. As we all face into the reality and begin to take new actions, there is also grief in realizing what we have already lost which can make people speak out of anger. As we speak to our hearts she asks: How does one communicate climate change and avoid polarization? Can it even be done?
In an article in the April Observer this year she encourages religious people saying that this is the time to speak up:
When it comes to climate change action and the role of faith leaders, “the public, as well as the government, recognize how significant our voices are,” says Mardi Tindal…… Recently, she has been communicating with Minister McKenna, Environment and Climate Change, and discussing how to pull in more religious leadership.
It hasn’t always been that way. Ten years ago, when Mardi was writing letters, giving interviews and presentations, and arguing that faith leaders have an enormous responsibility to speak to the moral and spiritual opportunity of the moment, “the thought at the time seemed to be that this wasn’t church business,” she recalls. “I was told, ‘stick to your knitting.’”
Well even in Jesus day human communities were often very divided, especially between the rich and the poor, of which there were many. Luke’s gospel seems particularly concerned about this divide as expressed through the Magnificat that was sung by Mary, lifting up the work of God in creating a new kingdom, a new reality, where the rich are brought low and the poor are lifted up. She understood that her son Jesus would fulfill this role and in turn, those who would answer the call to be his disciples, carrying on the mission that Jesus began. The goal was always to create a reversal of values that kept people divided from each other and to heal the rift with creation. Central to his message was a desire to heal the divide between people and our God in whose image we are made. Through faith in Christ we are reunited with God and are healed.
Today’s parable focuses on the great chasm between the rich and the poor. A chasm that we are very aware of in our world today. There are lots of interesting discussions as the number of billionaires in the world continues to increase.
Oxfam International2018: The fortunes of the world’s billionaires grew by 12 per cent – or $3.3 billion a day – last year, while the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth fall, according to a new Oxfam report.
In Canada, billionaire wealth grew by almost $20 billion between March 2017 and March 2018. Oxfam estimates that would have been enough to make universal child care affordable and accessible to all Canadian families.
Jesus points his parable towards the rich people who were in his audience, getting their attention by seeming to threaten that living a life of acquisition without a deeper awareness and help for the poor would have consequences for your eternal life. Although this parable may start to sound like a chapter out of Dante’s Inferno, it is worth noting that the New Testament does not refer to a place called hell, hades or sheol except in the parables and in these cases the images of a place where the fires of hell rage eternally is used for dramatic effect.
The rich man who enjoys eating sumptuously everyday does not really seem to notice the poor man at his gate, even though he seems to know his name, Lazarus, which means ‘God has helped’. He acknowledges Lazarus not as a fellow human being deserving dignity, but as someone who exists only to serve his needs as a rich man. I am aware of this feeling every time I eat out at a restaurant and wait sometimes impatiently for the server to take my order.
We hear the rich man’s attitudes as he demands that Abraham send Lazarus to come to Hades with a drop of cool water to cool his tongue. And then as the conversation with Abraham deepens, he still doesn’t understand what is wrong with his attitude for he asks that Abraham send Lazarus as a messenger to go to his brothers to warn them of their impending doom in the afterlife. He does say that they will surely repent to avoid such an outcome, but we are not sure what that repentance may look like exactly. As Abraham says, they already have the warnings from their Jewish teachings found in the Law and the prophets and they still have ignored their responsibilities as people of wealth and good fortune.
Articles on the effects of being wealthy on the human psyche abound as I discovered through an internet search. For example, this paragraph is taken from the British Newspaper, The Guardian, this Sept which explains how the disastrous effects of spending power are compounded by the psychological impacts of being wealthy.
Plenty of studies show that the richer you are, the less you are able to connect with other people. Wealth suppresses empathy. One paper reveals that drivers in expensive cars are less likely to stop for people using pedestrian crossings than drivers in cheap cars. Another revealed that rich people were less able than poorer people to feel compassion towards children with cancer. Though they are disproportionately responsible for our environmental crises, the rich will be hurt least and last by planetary disaster, while the poor are hurt first and worst. The richer people are, the research suggests, the less such knowledge is likely to trouble them.
If true, this is quite worrying. But we still have the parables of Jesus which reach into the soul to help us move closer towards God’s vision for how our world should be, how God is always challenging people through prophets and visionaries to live with hearts of generosity, compassion, forgiveness and love. This parable is not entirely about worrying about where we may end up for eternity, but it is meant to get us to worry about our values, lifestyles and attitudes now while we are still alive and have a chance to repent.
And this may be Luke’s point all along, less warning us about punishment in the next life than urging us to the abundant life in this one that comes only in seeing those around us as God’s beloved children deserving our care, attention, and fellowship.
At one point Abraham refers to the rich man as his ‘child’, so we know that God has a heart of compassion for the rich man as well, desiring to free him from the burdens that his wealth brings, to open up his heart and mind to see other people as worthy humans who need to be treated with dignity and respect. It is important to notice these words of endearment from Abraham to remember how Jesus’ lived out of a heart full of love and mercy for everyone, whether they were rich or poor.
There have definitely been some challenging moments in this current election campaign, no matter what political party you support. The unearthing of that old image of Justin Trudeau in brown face has unleashed a lot of criticism and emotions for sure, but most importantly it has opened up conversations and deepened awareness of what white privilege means, especially for the rich and how even well intentioned people can be blind to the effects of their actions and the deep prejudice that lies in their hearts and the heart of their culture, our culture.
So this parable is meant to make all of us reflect on our attitudes and how well we are practicing compassion towards others in our daily lives. We have the teachings of countless prophets, not just biblical prophets, but throughout the generations and important mentors of the last century that have lifted up the values of the gospel.
We hear the irony in Abraham’s final words to the rich man – “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Like the listeners of these stories shared by Luke, we know that Jesus did rise from the dead, have seen God’s vision embodied fully in his ministry when he was alive. After his resurrection, we know how he empowered the church through the touch of the Holy Spirit to take up his cross, to embrace his cause, to continue to work to build communities of compassion wherever you live.
Our challenge then is to find those ways of building bridges between the rich and the poor, and to bring healing not only to those who suffer the effects of poverty but to bring healing to the heart and soul of the wealthy people who have lost sight of God’s vision for this planet we call home as well as for their own lives.
So how will you seek to build bridges between the rich and the poor, between these angry youths and adults, some who may have already spent a lifetime trying to address the moral, scientific and spiritual issues around climate change and other social issues?
No doubt there may be great divides that you see even in your personal lives, between friends, within families, in our neighbourhood. Surely our call is to notice these divides, to do what we can to build bridges through healing our relationships, sharing our gifts and our wealth, and raising our voices if not also our placards.
So be rich toward God who loves each of you with the deepest love and in claiming that love you will indeed make a difference in the world.