May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen
Let me start by confessing to a guilty pleasure: this week I went to see the Downton Abbey movie. If you didn’t follow the TV series, it follows the pattern of the similar very popular “Upstairs/Downstairs” drama series: the lives of English society, divided by where the owners and the servants spend their time, set at the turn of the 20th century.
Don’t worry, im’ not going to tell you the plot other than what’s already out there: the king and queen are coming for a visit! As you can imagine, the fictional household of the super rich Crawley family is all atwitter at the prospect.
It is with images of ballgowns and diamonds and white-gloved butlers in my head that I read the lessons for today. Sorry folks, there’s no way around it. Today every passage of scripture points us to one theme: wealth. There is scorn form Amos, advice from Paul to Timothy, and a very dramatic parable from Jesus.
All focused on the same thing. This isn’t something new. The lectionary, especially the gospels, has been pointing this way for several weeks now, having us reflect on what role wealth plays in our lives. There’s an urgency in Jesus’ message about what wealth does to our lives and our relationships, about how it gets in the way of being faithful servants to the one true Master.
I want to focus more on the parable .Again, you know the plot already. Lazarus and the wealthy man have been dealt very different cards from the beginning. More “Inside and Outside,” than “Upstairs, Downstairs.” There’s no background story here: the poor are poor; the rich, rich. But it is a study in contrasts: the rich come and go, the poor are firmly stuck in one place. The rich have a multitude of things, houses, servants, food…. The poor only their infirmities and dogs. The rich have options… the poor, hopes. The wealthy man, despite his status in this realm, is unknown by name. Lazarus, despite his status, is known to God.
Then comes the part where they are both finally equal: like all human beings before and after, they die. In one of the few times that Jesus talks about what happens at the end of natural life, we find this amazing reversal, the roles of rich and poor have been switched.
And it begins at the very moment of death: the rich man simply dies; Lazarus is lifted to heaven by angels. Now the rich man is tormented and in pain, Lazarus refreshed and in the good company of Father Abraham. A just reward for each of them. The story might have ended there, but Jesus has more for us to ponder.
For the rich man, it seems not even the fires of hell will turn him to repentance. Amazingly, he feels entitled to ask for more. A drop to drink, a warning to his loved ones… “Just sent Lazarus…” he pleads, as if he was still the master of his own affairs, sending a servant to do his bidding. “Not going to happen,” Father Abraham tells him. Where in life there once was a gate between them, now in death, there’s a chasm. His wealth is of no use, he no longer has any influence over matters, he is now the beggar on the street. Jesus leaves the story right there for us to grapple with.
We have been warned how wealth interferes with relationships, we have been told how corrupting it can be, we have been taught that we cannot serve two masters, God or wealth.
But we try.
The problem with the rich man, and the characters in Downton Abbey is that everyone is fine upholding the status quo. You can’t overcome the life, the cards you’ve been dealt. If providence gave you ball gowns and tiaras, so be it. If you were born into undignified poverty, too bad. If you wanted to get ahead or change your circumstances somehow, well, how American of you! It’s not that this fictional family does not endure the slings and arrows, the ups and downs of life, it’s that it’s so much easier to do with fine china and when everyone knows their place.
Just this week I read about new data published about the issue of income inequality, which is growing. Income inequality refers to the gap between the richest and the poorest members of society. This issue isn’t limited to the United States.
But here, because we believe we are a just and fair country, because we subscribe to the Horatio Alger philosophy that says I can –and must!– pull myself up by my own bootstraps. This line of thinking does not take into account privilege, gender, race, economic opportunities, education and so on. For every self-made millionaire, there are people, who no matter how hard they work, will never overcome some of the obstacles life presents them.
The real problem with income inequality –beyond the obvious– is that we add a moral dimension to wealth or the lack thereof. We tend to blame those less fortunate for their own misery and we give a pass to those who have done well. Often, to the indignity of poverty we add shame. To the anguish of illness, we add fault. To the distress of unemployment, we add contempt. To the anxiety over the lack of opportunity, we add disdain. “Work harder,’ we think. “Work smarter!” “What’s wrong with you!” as if someone’s economic condition were a moral fault.
In a society where income inequality is the norm, the chasm between rich and poor is as high as impenetrable as the one between Lazarus in heaven and the rich man in Hades.
I thought it interesting that the rich man never acknowledges Lazarus in any way during life, yet recognizes him immediately after he dies. So it’s not like he wasn’t aware of him. And now that the tables are turned… it’s too late. Another ironic twist: now Lazarus can see the rich man, but not help him. There’s this great chasm between them and no gate.
That’s the important part for me. The gate. The rich man does not live inside an impenetrable fortress. There’s a regular fence, or wall, but it has a gate. A go-between, which represents an unmistakable opportunity, not just for him to come and go but to do something different with his wealth. Perhaps something as simple as opening it up to welcome someone inside for a bite to eat. Or something really difficult as going outside to feed and take care of those like Lazarus.
The Crawleys of Downton Abbey are not necessarily bad people, but they are clueless.
Unaware, they buy into the perks that society bestows on them, and they can see no other way to live their lives. And their wealth blinds them to the idea that they bear any responsibility to improve the lives of those who are not so fortunate. Only on a few occasions does this moral dilemma really surface in their collective consciousness.
We are not so lucky. We are not fictional characters in a magical world. We have the hard messages from scripture to wrestle with, along with bills to pay, bosses to please, and all sorts of people demanding our attention.
Yet Jesus is urgently asking us, “never mind all that, have you noticed who’s at the gate?” that is, who is the unseen, unloved, unwanted one that escapes your attention over and over?
Who is the one you blame because they can’t get their act together and is a drain on society? Who is the one who asks for more than you think can or should give? Who is the one that will make you change your life? “Who is at the gate?”
Before we dismiss him thinking we are so poor we have nothing to offer, remember we can always be generous, loving, compassionate, forgiving, kind, we are rich indeed.
“Who is at the gate?” if we dare to look we may find not just the poor, but the King himself.
In Jesus’ name. amen.
Proper 21 C 2019
Susan Saucedo Sica
St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church
Image: Lazarus at the Gate by Laura Jeanne Grimes