Economic Sin: Jesus' view of Economic Equality

Jesus told this story:

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'  "But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'  "He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'  "Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'  "'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'  "He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

Luke 16:19-31

This story is a wonderful teaser.  We know barely enough to make this a story.  We have a rich man (with no name) and a beggar named Lazarus.  We know nothing of their character, life journeys, or personalities. Both characters die and we find our rich man in Hell and lazarus in a place or location simply described as Abraham's side (only place in all of scripture where this term in described).  There is bantering back and forth between Abraham and the rich man with the final result being the rich man staying in Hell.

The theological question is why is the rich man in Hell?  The crux of the point that Jesus is trying to make is imbedded within the answer to that question. The hard truth in this story is not that the rich man was damned because of his wealth, or because of a lack of correct beliefs, but because of his failure to use his wealth responsibly.

The Rich man:
        -Clothed in purple (bought expensive clothes)
        -Fine Linen (had disposable income when most did not)
        -Lived in luxury (other versions talk about continual feasts)

Amiss all of this, there stood Lazarus:
        -Beggar (in ancient times, this often was a reflection of impairment)
        -Covered in sores (Sick and isolated from society)
        -Longing (Hungry and desparate).

In the midst of the rich man's luxury, sate Lazarus in squalor and suffering.  Cornel West stated the the role of the prophetic mission "is to shatter the deliberate ignorance and willful blindness towards the suffering of others". 

The rich man not only had in abundance, but did not see any responsibility to use the wealth to help others.  It was his own wealth that testified and condemned him (see James 5:1-3).

In light of this, consider the following:

1. Jesus was fully aware of capitalistic systems and did not support the accumulation of wealth in the face of poverty.

2. Jesus saw wealth without responsibility as a moral failure worthy of damnation.   We see this again in his story in Matthew 25, where damnation was based upon not seeing the least, the lowest, and the lost.

3. Injustice has many forms, but a current injustice involves systems that generate huge wealth that is concentrates it in the hands of a few.  Systems invovle cultures, practices, institutions, and individuals that collude to establish permanent inequities in opportunities for wealth.

4. Jesus care for the poor was not based upon the worthiness of the recipient, but merely the position of the recipient.  In Jesus' story, we hear nothing of Lazarus' character.  We spend so much time trying to determine the worthiness of those we seek to bless, that we miss huge opportunities to bless.

In other words, Jesus had a real problem with economic equality, particularly with huge amounts of wealth without responsibility for the poor and the outcast. It was not a minor doctrine, but the caring of the poor and the redistribution of wealth is considered a milepost in the signs of the kingdom of God.

I want to challenge you today to understand your responsibilities in light of what you have.  Where's your Lazarus?

May God bless you,

Pastor M Traylor