Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 29, Proper 21, Contradictions 5: Poverty and Wealth

Cartoon from the Brooklyn Paper, November 2007

Amos 6:1a, 4-7, Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

I am very proud of our congregation’s work for the relief of homeless men. It was only six years ago that I first started working with the homeless. Not that I wanted to; it’s not my specialty, but there they were, sleeping on the church’s stoop and begging out front. At that time the Bloomberg administration was initiating an optimistic vision to really address homelessness, and the Department of Homeless Services regarded me as their local agent. I was able to get housing for all of our guys, and for nine more guys besides.

Suddenly the door slammed shut. I couldn’t get housing for anyone. The policies had changed. The men now had to prove that they were homeless, and they had to prove it by being sighted, sleeping out on the sidewalk, by an observer driving around the city, on any given night over a period of several months. The guys wouldn’t do it, they know it’s not safe to sleep out there, so they never got sighted.

We figured out why the policies had changed. The new priority was simply to get the homeless off the streets and out of sight of the tourists and visitors. Out of sight, out of mind. That earlier optimism had crashed against the realities. The new vision failed because it never addressed the root cause of homelessness, which, in the aggregate, is very simple, and that is the cost of housing. When real estate goes up, when rents go up, then homelessness goes up. It is not a contradiction that an increase in wealth brings with it an increase in poverty. What the realities do contradict is the “trickle down effect,” except for the “down” part.

The “trickle down effect” is what the rich guy in the parable was practicing, quite literally. The crumbs would trickle down onto the floor, and the servants would sweep them out the door, where the beggar could pick at them. Well, at least the beggar could lie there at the gate. Here in New York, he’d never make it into the lobby of your building, and if he dared to camp out under your stoop he could be arrested for trespassing.

But the really nasty thing was the licking of the dogs, which, in the culture of Jesus’ day, was shameful and humiliating. Dehumanizing. The beggar was dehumanized, so the rich guy owed him nothing. He could just step around him when he left the house and step over him when he came back. There’s a contradiction: proximity with invisibility. Not out of sight, out of mind, but in sight and yet out of mind. Up close and impersonal. We practice it in this city every day. We feel like we have to, it’s nothing personal, there are just too many people, but in the aggregate it’s dehumanizing.

Both of them die, they’re both in Hades, Lazarus in the Paradise part and the rich guy in the Gehenna part, burning up. He sees the beggar there with Abraham, but still does not respect him. “Father Abraham, tell him to do this, tell him to do that.” No respect. Father Abraham said that there was a great chasm fixed between them, so there was no crossing from one side to the other, but there was a chasm inside the soul of the rich guy, a portable chasm he carried around inside him, by which he could remove the beggar from his life. The danger is there for all of us, to have fixed such a chasm inside ourselves, and portable, to keep us untouched by the great need of the world outside our door. Proximity with isolation. I do it too. How else can you function in this city?

It is costly to have this chasm inside ourselves. It takes energy to maintain it. We get defensive, and defensive even to ourselves. You hear it when the rich guy complains to Abraham. He acts like he didn’t know. He acts like he wasn’t told, that it was unfair, that it’s not his fault because it was not made clear to him. But it was made clear to him. He didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to pay the cost of the enjoyment of his wealth so he ended up paying the cost of himself.

This parable has several layers of meaning. One of its meanings is the judgment on Israel for not believing in the Lord Jesus when he came back from the dead. I spoke about that three years ago. Today I will stay with the economic meaning, and that’s to continue our themes from last Sunday. My message today is not for America, or for the American economy, or the political economy of New York City, although our scripture lessons apply to all of that, but I am not sufficiently expert to make those applications. My applications are for the church, to us, to you specifically as Christians.

First, consider this contradiction to conventional wisdom: that poverty is actually the cost of wealth. That our wealth is costly to the poor. I suppose in some principle of theoretical economics you could have increasing wealth without increasing poverty, but what about actual reality, when we have to factor in the practical truth of human sin and the aggregates of sin, and the awful truth that the more successful we are, the more accomplished is our sin. Let us consider this, let us not walk around it nor step over it. Can anyone show us, either from scripture or from human experience, that our wealth is not costly to the poor, somewhere, whether far away or proximate, or that it is not so that as our own wealth increases, so does poverty for someone else?

We do know this for sure, the wealth is costly to us who are wealthy. I’m talking now about the social cost, and the spiritual cost, and the moral cost. Again, in theoretical principle wealth should be morally neutral, but the clear witness of all three of our lessons today is that in actual reality it’s not. As I said last week, your wealth, your ordinary wealth, is your constant moral problem, no matter how much or little of it you have. It offers you enjoyment and security and it demands your attention and your service and it becomes an idol. It seduces you and it becomes a jealous lover. So that your love of your money is the root of so much evil in your life. Evil to yourself, evil to others like yourself, and evil to the poor. This message is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable to be preaching it, and I hope Jesus talks about something else next week, but there it is.

This week our scripture lessons do not contradict each other. What they contradict is us, and any exemptions we might claim because of our basic decency or even our indebtedness. Let it contradict you, don’t try to negotiate or defend yourself. Say to yourself, “Okay, even if I don’t see it I will admit it, to God and to others and most important to myself.” From the Reformed Church point of view, repentance is less about self-examination than simply believing what God says about us. So that this repentance is a step towards freedom. The second step is your giving in to eminent domain of the Lord Jesus. Your wealth is not your own, neither to possess as you see fit nor even to enjoy as you see fit. The government should treat it so, but you should not within your soul.

And the third step in your freedom is to share your wealth. Your wealth is loaned to you by God for you to share. The epistle agrees with what Jesus advised last week. Not that you have to become poor yourself. But that the increase of your wealth means an increase in your obligations for loving your neighbor as yourself. In the sharing of your wealth you loosen its grip on you and lessen its hold on you. The name Lazarus means “God helps.” Do you see how God was helping the rich guy all along, by giving him such a close by neighbor whom he could love as himself?

The tragedy of the rich guy was a tragedy of unawareness. He was unaware that he could love the beggar, and that loving the beggar would add more richness to his life, a richness greater than in the sauces on his table. What turns this tragedy into comedy is the laughter of love, and the effort to love, the effort which brings awareness, and that means freedom. So, if you want to know what to do with your wealth, think in terms of love. You love yourself. How do you spend your wealth on yourself? So then love your neighbor as yourself.

Do it freedom, do it in creativity, use your wealth as currency for love. You might have to confess that this is what God has done for you. I mean that if you have any wealth at all, you really don’t deserve it any more than some other person on this planet who did not enjoy your circumstances. It is a mystery what you should have it, so finally you have to chalk it up to the mystery of God’s love for you. Lazarus means God helps you. God helps you because God loves you.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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