Poverty in America–Dead Men Do Tell Tales, But We Don’t Listen

Proper 21C 

The 18th Sunday After Pentecost

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘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. Besides all this, 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, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”–Luke 16:19-31

Poverty in our nation has reached a level not seen since 1960, fueled by the financial meltdown that began two years ago. In case you’ve forgotten, the financial meltdown was a result of an irrational belief in the magical power of the Market to regulate itself. Safeguards that had kept the worst sorts of banker avarice in check were dismantled beginning in the mid-1990’s and eventually, the Magic Market chewed its own head off. Though economists now say the worst is over, most of them were the same people who said bringing down the regulatory levee walls would result in a rising tide that would lift all boats. That worked well about as well for Wall Street as it did for New Orleans. But this post isn’t even about why Glass-Stegall should never have been repealed or whether credit default swaps or other financial derivatives should be banned. It’s about how we keep stepping over the poor, making sure that our fine linen garments don’t brush their festering sores.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke gives us the parable of a rich man and the poor beggar who lived ouside his gated community. The beggar died and ended up in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man died and ended up in that terrible part of the underworld, Tartarus, which, according to both Greek and Roman mythology,is a place of torment for sinners of the worst sort. Jesus, as a Jew, didn’t even believe in such a place: first century Judaism held that at the Last Day, both sinners and the righteous would be judged according to their deeds. So what’s he doing telling a story featuring a gruesome pagan mythology? He’s doing what he does best: he’s telling a joke.

You see the point of the story is that even if Lazarus comes back from the dead–and remember that John’s Gospel features a story of a friend of Jesus named “Lazarus” who actually does–the people who ignored what “Moses and the prophets” had to say about justice for the poor would still ignore him. If you can step over the poor everyday when you’re on the way to work or to church, then the sudden re-appearance of a previously dead beggar at your door wouldn’t likely impress you. Jesus probably laughed heartily at that point, as did most of his audience, except the Pharisees, who looked about as amused as a group of Congressmen listening to Stephen Colbert talk about immigrant farmworkers.

But let’s not pick on the Pharisees, okay? They were mostly good, God-fearing folks, trying just to protect their religion and their way of life. They wanted the same things we want: a nice house, successful careers, low taxes, to be left alone by the government. It wasn’t that they hated poor people. They took up collections on the Sabbath day, some of which (a very small some) was used as a charitable fund for the poor. No, they didn’t hate the poor. They just didn’t want to do anything that would really address poverty, they didn’t want to understand their role in creating it, or why it was the main concern of “Moses and the prophets.” Just like us.

What if we could fundamentally alter the American way of life so that everyone would really have an opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What if we really did want to “establish Justice…and promote the General welfare” of all Americans? The first thing that would happen is that Christians would be calling their elected officials to ask what they were planning to do about the rising poverty rate. And if they told us that they were planning to cut taxes of the rich, we would laugh in their faces, and toss them out of office.

But of course, we don’t want to do anything about poverty. That would be a “transfer of wealth” or “socialism” or some other shop-worn epithet that means that we want what we’ve got, and we don’t really care if some bum is lying in the street with a dog licking his bleeding sores, we are damn sure not going to pay more taxes. And if somebody came back from the dead, with a warning that our blindness to injustice and poverty would result in our judgement, that wouldn’t persuade us either.

We didn’t believe Moses when he told them that keeping Yahweh’s laws meant justice for the poor or when the propehts warned that all our religion was utterly useless if we didn’t work to bring economic equality to our nation. So why would anybody believe it when some ex-dead guy says that the way we treat hungry, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned people is the way we treat him?

Hilarious isn’t it?

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