Periodically in American Christianity, a theory known as the “prosperity gospel” or “the gospel of wealth” is preached by some religious leaders, often quite popularly. The basic idea is that, if you pray this prayer or give money to that preacher, you will receive wealth and blessings from God.
The problem with this is that it is engaging in what is called “magical thinking.” One type of magical thinking is called superstition—where you see a baseball player always eating chicken before a game, or avoiding stepping on the baseline, or not shaving during the play-offs, because he believes it will bring him luck. Sometimes this kind of thing is light-hearted.
I have a friend who, when she loses something, puts a dollar under a St. Anthony figurine on her mantle, since he is the patron saint of lost things—and frankly, I will admit to calling on St. Anthony to help me find things too—can’t hurt, right?
I once knew a strict Baptist woman whose house had been on the market for so long that she went and bought one of the specially made St. Joseph figurines and buried it head down next to her “For Sale” sign—and boom- the house sold. She was aghast—and her world was rocked. It’s a real thing, too, here in St. Louis. Don’t believe me? Just google “St. Joseph sell your house.”
Sometimes it gets a little more desperate—when I was a kid, a famous televangelist in Tulsa famously told his followers that if they didn’t send him $8 million by March, 1987, God was going to “call him home.” Spoiler alert: he supposedly got the $8 million in 10 days’ time, and he lived for another 22 years.
Magical thinking, though, can lead to the arrogant belief that if you do X, then God will have to do Y. That kind of magical thinking assumes that humans can control God and figure God out so that God follows our sense of justice and our sense of fairness.
Even worse, this kind of magical thinking about money and blessing also implies the inverse: it leads to the belief that anyone who experiences hard times or difficulties is being cursed by God. This kind of thinking is one of the ideas that Jesus constantly challenged. Further it flies in the face of our experience: think of all the times we see bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people! Believing in a simplistic system like this will only lead to doubt, despair, and denial of the love of God by those who, through no fault of their own, suffer.
And a word about the use of the term “Pharisees.” It is at this point that I realize how much I owe Amy-Jill Levine, whose work I have been reading in the 3 years since I last revisited these notes. She points out that many of the criticisms of “the Pharisees” were inserted into the documents of the early church after 70 AD, with the fall of the Temple. The problem that she points out is that the Pharisees ended up founding the post-Temple Judaism we now see, and they became many of its first rabbis. Thus, blanket criticism of the Pharisees feeds into the dangerous anti-Semitism that was spawned in the first century CE, and is always lurking in the Church. The idea of Jews as greedy and obsessed with wealth is a slander as old as time—and Hitler used that resentment to great effect. (1)
If we look at this parable as the third in a series from Jesus (beginning with the Prodigal Son, to the Dishonest Steward, and now to this story) as pointing out the problems that worship of wealth can create for any person from any background. Thus, I propose that we understand that there are certainly many people for whom love of wealth is a not just a stumbling block to their spiritual development, but an idol they worship in place of God. It is wrong and historically inaccurate to claim that all members of a certain religious group behave badly, especially when the failing being talked about is a universal within MANY groups.
Instead of using the word “Pharisee,” I will be using the term "opponent." I am convinced that that is what we should call those who worship money to the exclusion of all else what they are—opponents of the values God commands us to embrace, and opponents of the way of life Jesus calls us to embody.
That’s why it is important to take a look at the verses that bridge between last week’s perplexing gospel and this week’s reading. Starting at the last verse of last week’s gospel, here are the intervening verses:
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
The opponents, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
Jesus then continues with this parable to illustrate his point. The rich man, who is a symbol for those who love money more than God, has squandered his life in focusing on his own comfort and honor (being dressed in purple and fine linen signified one’s status more loudly than shouting from the rooftops). The poor man is allowed to languish at the rich man’s very gate, with no mention of any care being given to him—he is there, but “invisible” and unacknowledged—just as many of us respond when we see the poor on the street.
The poor man is indeed pitiful, not only due to his poverty, but because he is also covered in sores which make him unclean and further accentuated that he is cut off from all decent society. The licking of the sores by dogs is a fine touch within the Mediterranean culture, since dogs were also often seen as unclean—just goes to show how cultures are different, since many of us see this behavior by our pets as signs of love and attempts to comfort us, and we know dogs’ mouths are cleaner than ours, on average.
Notice the use of names here. The rich man gets no name—he could be anyone. But Jesus tips his hand early in this story when he not only gives the poor man a name, but a name that has special meaning. Lazarus means “God has helped” in Hebrew. Further, when we hear the name “Lazarus,” we think of Jesus’s friend whom he raised from the dead—and this is a story about death. How can Jesus’s opponents be right about money being a sign of blessing and its lack a sign of curse, if the poor man is the one literally “helped by God?” Even more important in helping us judge the rich man is this: he KNOWS the name of the poor man he ignored as he strutted about in fine clothes with a full belly. He knew Lazarus’s name—and yet ignored his need for food, shelter, and medical care.
This is an important realization to sit with. In an ironic reversal, the rich man “name drops” Lazarus to Abraham—possibly out of a delusion that he NOW recognizes the humanity that had sat, sick, suffering, shivering, at the rich man’s very gates. Or more likely, NOT.
In our parable, he STILL ignores Lazarus as a person, but demands that Father Abraham send Lazarus to wait first on him and then on his brothers, without ever deigning to talk to Lazarus directly. That alone makes it easier for us to understand that he STILL, even in the alleged torment of Hades, doesn’t get it—at all.
In the best translation of this story, the image of Lazarus's comfort is even sharper: it states that Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom, or embrace. This, interestingly, is an image from feasting as well. People reclined at table on couches, their head propped on the left hand, eating with their right. One gets an image of Lazarus lying up against Abraham at the great heavenly banquet. If Lazarus is next to Abraham, he is in the place of honor (remember a few weeks ago, when Jesus advised people to sit at the low place at the table so that they could be honored by being asked to move up? Where you sat at the table had deep significance.
The image of TWO feasts in this reading, then, re-enacts Luke’s combination of “blessings” and “woes” in Luke 6:21 and 6:25:
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
These are then turned on their heads as a caution:
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.'
This is not to say that those who have money are evil—many people make great use of their personal savings to help others. For those for whom wealth is simply a tool to help others, money CAN be a blessing. However, there certainly is the tendency in our society today to believe that the poor are undeserving of help, and that they are not only to blame for their condition, but to RESENT them and to claim that their condition is something that they have chosen. It's a crazy claim. Yet, those doing the criticizing of the poor also have no desire to actually BE poor. If the poor are cleverly manipulating a system, why doesn’t everyone emulate them?
The rich man, ultimately, in his life served himself, served his belly, served his status. He never served the poor, and so he never served God. This parable again reminds us that dehumanizing the poor is one of the most un-Godly acts we can take. When it comes down to basics, the point of the Torah and the point of the Gospel is to describe how to live a fully human life, and to understand what that means. It is always good, when considering that goal, to remember the concept of shalom, a word that includes the meaning of health, wholeness, well-being, peace, and contentment. Shalom is both a blessing, a prayer, and a hope for the future.
What if, instead of engaging in magical thinking, we engaged in the magic of hope in action, especially when it comes to how we live and work with others? Many of us have had too much of hopelessness. Many of us have probably heard the excuse that alleviating poverty is impossible, a self-serving argument that actually makes poverty more widespread and more desperate, more hopeless. Pope Paul VI made this point in 1967 in his encyclical “On the progress of peoples:”
It is not simply a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not enough to combat destitution, urgent and necessary as this is. The point at issue is the establishment of a human society in which everyone, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, can live a truly human life free from bondage imposed by men and the forces of nature not sufficiently mastered, a society in which freedom is not an empty word, and where Lazarus the poor man can sit at the same table as the rich man.(2)
That beloved old hymn, God of Grace and God of Glory that we sang as the processional at the 10:30 service, reminds us of a better way. Hear again what verse 3 has to say:
Cure your children's warring madness;
bend our pride to your control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss your kingdom's goal,
lest we miss your kingdom's goal.
God IS our help, as Lazarus’s name implies, and God’s love offers us life, grace, and forgiveness— not just through some hope in the distant future, but RIGHT NOW. God is our help—through each other, right now. This parable reminds us that we are bound up together and called to care for each other as God cares for us and protects us. It is when we seize hold of our common humanity and celebrate it rather than resent each other and fail to really see each other that we become rich in heart, rich in soul.
Preached at the 505 on September 28 and at 8:00 and 10:30 on September 29 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
1) Amy Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary.
2) Pope Paul VI, On the Development of the Peoples .