Wealth and Poverty
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Today might have been a good day to avoid church if you don’t want to hear about wealth and poverty. Our readings today demonstrate pretty clearly that the Bible isn’t all about orthodox doctrine, personal morality, and individual salvation. In fact, there’s more in the Bible about justice for the poor than just about anything else.
The famous evangelical pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church had a turning point some years ago when he came to this understanding. He realized one day that, like many evangelicals, in spite of all his years of biblical study, the issue of wealth and poverty just wasn’t on his radar. He admitted that he couldn’t think of the last time he even thought of widows or orphans, or when he last cared about the homeless. He asked himself “How on earth did I miss 2,000 verses in the Bible where it talks about the poor?” So he began to reshape his study, his preaching and teaching. And for the first time, he began significant ministries that deal directly with poverty and disease.
Today’s readings are some of these 2,000 verses. They pick up where Jesus left off last Sunday – his last words then were “You cannot serve God and wealth.” The prophet Amos starts us off this morning. He says “Alas” for those who are at ease on beds of ivory, who sing idle songs, who lounge around with wine and fine foods, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.
This was in the 8th century BCE, at the height of Israel’s prosperity, when the gap between rich and poor was greatest. The “ruin of Joseph” was shorthand for the suffering which this tribe endured in their poverty. The issue for Amos the prophet was not really the luxurious lifestyle of the rich, but the fact that they did not grieve over the ruin of their brothers and sisters. Like the old Rick Warren, they did not care about the widows, the orphans, or the homeless.
In the gospel, there’s the same message. Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who routinely ignores the beggar Lazarus, at his gate. Lazarus lies in misery, his sores are licked by the dogs, and he pleads for scraps of food. The rich man, who dresses in fine clothing and feasts sumptuously every day, just doesn’t care. He separates himself from the poor. And alas for him, He is not grieved over the ruin of this man. And so after his death, he finds himself just as he was in life: separated by a great chasm from the poor, separated even from Abraham and all the righteous in heaven.
The rich man pleads ignorance – “how would I have known this was so important to God?” – pleading also for his brothers who are still alive, even asking Abraham to come back from the dead as a ghost to warn them: “then they’ll pay attention,” he says. Abraham replies that if he and his brothers didn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t listen to a ghost. They should have read those 2,000 verses of scripture that explain how disastrous it is to separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters in ruin. Most importantly, they should have learned to care.
But it is in our second reading that we get to the spiritual heart of the matter. In this epistle, Paul is writing to his protégé Timothy, advising him about the faith and about his ministry with the Christian community in Ephesus. He begins by acknowledging that there is great gain in combining material contentment with godliness. It is a good thing to have food and clothing. He even says that God provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
But then he makes a distinction. He says that when we cross the line from contentment to the love of money and the desire for riches above all else, when we cease caring about anything but self-fulfillment, we enter very dangerous territory.
Paul therefore advises Timothy to command the wealthy in Ephesus not to be haughty, to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. Paul advises this for their own good, for he says that when the wealthy share their blessings, they will take hold of the life that really is life. So the issue for Paul is not wealth itself, but the obsession with material comfort that separates us from connectivity and the generous life that really is life.
A real estate agent once told me that occasionally he gets out-of-town buyers who ask him to shield them from “bad” neighborhoods. They tell him where they will be working, and they ask him to find them a gated community in a location that will enable them to drive to work without going through poor parts of town. They don’t want to see these people. They want a great chasm to separate them from the poor. They are not grieved over the ruin of the poor. And they are separated from the life that really is life.
Maybe those who isolate themselves in their privilege are trying to avoid contact with the poor so that they won’t catch the disease of suffering. Maybe they are frustrated that they can’t fix it, and so it’s more comfortable to ignore it. Maybe they believe the delusion that misery or security are always within our own power to create – so they blame the poor for their having created their own problems, and pretend that they would never let this happen to themselves.
The issue in those 2,000 verses of the Bible is that God cares for everyone, and if we are to be grounded in God, if we are to hope for a faithful, spiritual life, we, like God, need to learn how to care, how to grieve over those who suffer, and to do something on their behalf. They are our brothers and sisters in God.
This caring is not the exclusive domain of the poor or the middle class or the rich. There are poor people who don’t give a damn about those who are poorer than they are, and there are rich people who care deeply for the poor.
This caring is not the exclusive domain of either of our political parties, either. Democrats who care about the poor emphasize investment in underserved communities, so that they might benefit from privileges that others take for granted, privileges that help all of us do better in life. Republicans who care about the poor emphasize support for small businesses that employ the poor, so that they might build better lives for themselves. They may have different strategies, but the best in both parties care.
But whether we are rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, what is it that causes us to either care or not care about our less fortunate brothers and sisters? What caused Rick Warren to change his heart, and start directing his ministry towards poverty and disease?
I believe that the thing that creates this concern in us is proximity to those who suffer. After all, it is relationship with anyone that helps us see them as a real person, and not just an abstraction. Relationships with people create a concern for them. That’s why the rich man in the gospel didn’t have it – there was a chasm between him and Lazarus, in this life and in the next. That’s why the home-seeker who desperately wants to avoid bad neighborhoods doesn’t have it: there is a chasm between her comfortable life and the grittier life of others.
On the other hand, when we risk relationship with the poor, we move out of our myths about them, understand them, have some compassion for them, and then want to do something for them. Rick Warren began to hang out in third world villages and homeless shelters in L.A. Bono and Bill Gates do the same. Some of you are rubbing shoulders with poor people at the Food Pantry, Albuquerque Opportunity Center for the homeless, Albuquerque Interfaith, through friendships or fellow members of this parish.
In these kinds of settings, when we sit down and listen to real people, we come to understand that they are not lazy or stupid. They may have had a horribly abusive upbringing, a total lack of advantages, untreated physical or mental illnesses, or a run of very bad luck. And they may have made some very bad choices, as we all have.
In hearing these stories, in coming to know them as real people who love their children, who hope for security and good health, who are sinners trying to learn from their mistakes, we see that they are just like us. They are our brothers, our sisters. We feel for them. And in feeling for them, how could we ever turn our backs on them?
In relationship, we will not come up with perfect policies and programs that will end all poverty. But this isn’t the point. The poor, Jesus said, you will always have with you. The point is, do I consider them my brothers and sisters? Do I know them? Do I feel anything for them? Do I care?
The lesson from scripture today is that God wants all his children, rich and poor, privileged and unprivileged, to be connected enough to care about one another. For it is then, as Paul said, that we take hold of the life that really is life.