Byron C. Bangert

March 29, 1998

Amos 6:1-7; Luke 16:19-31

"Like so many of his parables," writes one commentator, "Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus speaks with a clarity that needs little comment" [Robert E. Luccock, WORD & WITNESS, 10-9-77]. "Of all the parables," writes another, "its meaning seems to me to be the most opaque" [Colin Morris, THE HAMMER OF THE LORD, 39]. My own view lies somewhere in between. Clearly, the parable depicts the reversal of fortunes of the rich and the poor man. The rich man, who received good things during his lifetime, finds himself in torment. The poor man, who received evil things in his lifetime, goes from misery to the comfort of Abraham's bosom. But it is not altogether clear what lesson we are to draw from this.

Jesus must have been greatly troubled by the enormous gulf that separates the privileged rich and the desperate poor of our world. No honest reading of the New Testament can ignore the depth of his compassion for the poor, the outcast, and those on the margins of his society, nor the harshness of his observations about those who were rich and those who held social and political power. Yet we would hardly expect Jesus, with his great regard for individual human beings, to condemn the rich simply because they are rich, or to extol the poor simply because they are poor. We almost implicitly assume that the rich man in the parable must have been guilty of some terrible sin to be deserving of his horrible fate, while we suppose that Lazarus, loathsome as he appears, must have possessed some special virtue that fit him for Abraham's bosom, the place of highest blessing and bliss. But a close inspection of the parable fails to yield any evidence for the moral superiority of the poor man over the rich.

The physical contrast between the two could hardly be drawn more starkly. The rich man is clothed in purple and fine linen, a sign of wealth and royalty, and he feasts sumptuously every day. In brief, he lives like a king! Outside his gate the poor man lies covered with sores, in abject poverty and hunger. His home is the street. His rags fail to cover his ulcerated body. The dogs that run loose in the street pester him and lick his sores.

We do not know how the rich man got his riches, or how the poor man came to such helplessness and misery. Apparently, how they got that way is not relevant to Jesus' story. Nor is there any evidence that the rich man has contributed in any way to the poor man's plight. If anything, the rich man allows him to lie daily at his gate, not driving him away. What is clear, however, is that there is no intercourse between these two. They exist daily in close proximity to each other, one within, the other without, but they have no community. The rich man never goes out to Lazarus, and never invites him in.

Two things are unique about this parable. One of the characters, Lazarus, is given a proper name. The name, Lazarus, means "he whom God helps". Colin Morris has observed, "If Lazarus is an example of those whom God helps, then God help those he doesn't!" [op. cit., 39]. Nonetheless, Lazarus has a name. This is true of no other character in any of the parables of Jesus. The second unique feature of the parable is its scene of the afterlife, the picture of Lazarus and the rich man after death. I do not take this to be a literal description of the topography of heaven or the climate of hell. But I do take it to be Jesus' way of expressing God's assessment of the situation that the parable portrays. The tables are completely turned. The rich man, who never went to Lazarus in life and did not invite him in, now begs that Lazarus might come to him. But an irrevocable gulf now exists between them. What is perfectly clear about this parable is God's concern for Lazarus and God's judgment against the rich man in the circumstance described. The question we must ask ourselves is, Why?

If Jesus had told this parable to rich men, we might assume that it was an attack upon the rich. We might still wonder why the rich receive such harsh condemnation, but we would have a clear fix on who is meant to heed this parable. According to Luke, however, he told this parable to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were not necessarily rich. They were middle management folks. They were upholders of society, responsible, thoughtful, moderately privileged. They were part and parcel of the religious and political and social establishment, but not the people at the top. They would have belonged to the Rotary Club, or the Chamber of Commerce, or the local Ministerial Association, and maybe the Presbyterian Church. So why does Jesus tell them this parable? And how would they have heard these words?

What do we know about people who are responsible members of society? What do we know about ourselves? One thing is that we tend to regard people on the basis of merit. We want to be rewarded for our own merit, and not judged simply as part of a group. We want people to be held accountable. We do not want people to be recipients of special favors simply because of who they are, nor do we want people to suffer special disfavor simply because of who they are. We cannot imagine that a just God would punish a rich man simply for being rich, and we cannot imagine that a just God would favor a poor man simply because he was poor.

Another thing we know about responsible people, ourselves included, is that we tend to regard the prevailing social order as acceptable and good. There are problems here and there but, on the whole, we have managed to build a society in keeping with our values and goals. We know there is always room for improvement, but basically we are comfortable with the way things are. We are bound to assume that the only thing that is clearly wrong about the situation between the rich man and Lazarus is that the rich man never bothered to come to Lazarus' aid.

Yet a third thing we know about responsible people, including ourselves, is that we learn to see things in grays, rather than black-and-white. Anyone who has had much experience or given much thought to human problems and situations knows that there are usually several sides to any question. Nobody is ever entirely in the right, and seldom is anybody entirely in the wrong. If you go around making absolute judgments about other people and situations, you are bound to be unfair and will often make matters much worse.

But here we have this parable of Jesus, with its unambiguous, unequivocal, black-and-white judgment upon Lazarus and the rich man. No evidence is given that Lazarus deserves the bliss that comes to him. No case is made that the rich man deserves his horrible fate. And there is no possibility of ameliorating the situation. The gulf between them is fixed and permanent, absolute, unyielding, final.

If God is just, then the meaning of this parable cannot be reduced to a morality tale about a certain rich man and a certain poor man. There is nothing in their biographies to justify such a conclusion. The parable is more than a condemnation of the individual behavior of the rich man. This parable calls into serious question--indeed, condemns--the prevailing social order. It is a challenge to the Pharisees, and to us--a challenge that says, there is no way you can justify a situation like the one the parable portrays. There is no way you can justify a social order in which two men can lie in such close proximity and be subject to such differing fortunes. There is no way you can justify a society of such glaring disparity in physical circumstance, where one can feast while another starves. This is a parable addressed to those who uphold the social order when that order pushes people to the margins and keeps them outside the gates and allows them to suffer the vagaries of the streets without coming to their aid.

The point is this: When viewed in the context in which Jesus must have spoken this parable, it can hardly be understood simply as a diatribe against the rich. That is too easy. That let's all the rest of us off the hook. Rather, this parable speaks to decent, upright, responsible, citizens of the day who lend their moral authority and political support to a social order that is marked by gross inequalities and terrible human indignities. This parable condemns a social order in which the physical circumstances of life are "as good as it gets" for some while for others it could hardly be worse. As Luke must have understood, the parable is addressed to the "five brothers" of the rich man, who--it is supposed--would change their behavior and correct their lives if only they knew what was required of them. We, the hearers of this parable, stand in the place of those five brothers, and the message is addressed to us. We have been warned. We have been given "Moses and the prophets", not to mention Jesus, and we must heed them if we would know how to live.

The sin of the rich man was not that he was rich. Abraham was rich. Job was rich. Neither was regarded as a sinner. Nor was the rich man mean, or cruel, or unscrupulous, or dishonest. His sin, and likewise the sin of those to whom this parable is addressed, is that he was comfortable. He was comfortable, when there was a hungry, miserable beggar at his gate. Now you might say, "See, it was really this rich man's personal moral failing that brought condemnation upon him. His heart was hardened. He never came to Lazarus' aid. That, and that only, is why he suffers torment in the life to come." This appears to be true. But it does not explain why Jesus tells this parable to the Pharisees. The Pharisees did not feast every day. They did not all have beggars lying outside their gates. The point must be that they, like the rich man, are accountable in a world in which there are beggars and hungry people in the street. The responsibility for such a world falls upon them. It is incumbent upon them to come to the aid of all those who, like Lazarus, lie suffering outside the confines of their established social order.

My sermon title this morning brings into close proximity two words that may not seem to belong together: politics and compassion. All of us, I hope, are believers in compassion. Compassion means a positive caring and feeling for others. It is one of the highest expressions of Christian love. It defines the character of God. In terms of our parable from Luke, compassion was clearly lacking in the life of the rich man. If Jesus' parable is to be believed, the lack of compassion is a grievous sin, perhaps as grievous as any we might imagine.

Where, then, does the politics come in? One common view of politics sees it as a rather cold and calculating activity, an amoral if not immoral arena for asserting power in pursuit of individual and collective interests and goals, at best a dispassionate exercise in trying to please most of the people most of the time, at worst an adversarial process of trying to gain the upper hand in order to stay in power. But politics understood in more general terms has to do with the art of governing, and with the means by which people order their life together. As such, politics is, or should be regarded as, a highly moral undertaking. If we think of politics in terms of the means by which we order our life together, then it makes sense to speak of the politics of compassion.

Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus calls upon us to practice a politics of compassion. A politics of compassion may begin with individual acts of compassion. It may require of us the capacity to reach out to those in our midst who suffer, who hunger, who tend to be ignored, who barely subsist on the fringes and the margins of our social world. But a politics of compassion requires more than charitableness toward those who happen to be at our gates. A politics of compassion is deeply concerned, as well, about the social ordering of our world. A politics of compassion asks not only, what can I do to help this person who has been pushed aside and left to languish, but what is it that can be done to alter the conditions in our world that push so many people aside. A politics of compassion acts to remove the legal and social and economic barriers that stand in some peoples' way. A politics of compassion acts to provide the resources and the circumstances that will enable those who lack money and power to participate more fully as equals in the human community.

Whenever there is talk within the Church about our responsibility for the social order, considerable disagreement arises. It is very difficult to know how best to order our public life so as to enhance community and to minimize the suffering of those on the margins. It is not a moral failing to disagree about such things. But it is moral dereliction of the first order, a grievous mortal sin, to neglect and ignore and disavow our responsibility for ordering our life in community. We are living in a time and place where it is very easy to behave like the rich man in Jesus' parable. The economy is running like a well-oiled machine, inflation is incredibly low, unemployment is the lowest it has been in decades, a rising economic tide seems to be lifting everybody, the federal budget deficit has almost been erased, our pension funds are doing ever so well. It is easy to be complacent, and oblivious, regarding much that is happening beyond our manicured neighborhoods and gated subdivisions. Unfortunately, there are still many Lazaruses out in the streets--many more today than there were a decade or two ago. Despite the glowing economic reports, there are growing and glaring economic disparities. A good case can be made that our cherished democracy stands threatened by enormous and unchecked concentrations of wealth and power.

The rich are not necessarily evil. Indeed, many of them are very nice people. That is not the point. Most of the Pharisees were probably nice, decent, responsible people as well. The question is not whether we are nice. The question is not whether we treat each other kindly in our families and our dealings face-to-face. The question is, who do we never see face-to-face? Who are we ignoring, neglecting, turning our backs upon? The question is, How does our prevailing social order work to sustain and enrich our existence, but at the expense of others? At what price has our comfort been purchased? At what cost are we insulated from the sufferings and indignities and debilities of others? When I drive through a run-down neighborhood in a big city I sometimes think to myself, "I'm glad I live in a place like Bloomington." But it disquiets me to consider that that may not be a very moral response. What are we doing, as a society, about all the people who we cannot invite into our homes, who have little choice but to live in run-down inner city neighborhoods, who do not know where their next meal is coming from, who may have to compete with the dogs for their very livelihood? A politics of compassion is a politics that cares about them, and about all those who have not prospered and cannot prosper under the prevailing conditions of our vaunted way of life.

Some 800 years before Jesus, a man by the name of Amos delivered a stern warning to the people of Israel. It was, indeed, more than a word of warning, it was a searing judgment. Amos apparently foresaw the impending defeat and destruction of the kingdom of Northern Israel. More importantly, he saw the glaring inequities, the social and political injustice, the corruption of the legal system, the conspicuous consumption, that accompanied the growing disparities of wealth in that nation in the 8th century B.C.E. "Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, . . . who drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph" [6:4, 6]. As Amos saw it, the elite of Northern Israel were particularly to blame. They held the reins of political and economic power. But they did not care for the welfare of the nation, the people as a whole. As a consequence, the whole nation would suffer, beginning with these derelict leaders. "They shall be the first to go into exile" [6:7]. Alas for those who live like kings, and do not care about those who lie outside the gates.

What we have been considering here is the view of Jesus and Amos and Moses and the prophets and most of the Bible regarding the kind of social order that God desires for the human community. It is an order that cannot exist with great disparities of wealth and power. It is an order in which people of differing circumstance do not, will not, perhaps cannot, isolate and insulate themselves from one another. It is an order in which people who are pushed to the margins are not neglected, in which the effort is made to reach out to them, and to invite them in. It is an order in which the circumstances that make for social and economic isolation and marginalization are to be addressed, eliminated if possible, and overcome if necessary. It is an order in which proximity does not exist without community. It is an order that is marked by compassion. It is an order that comprehends that the politics of compassion is to be regarded as the politics of God. AMEN.