If there’s any fairness in God’s justice, it’s not easy to see, at least as it’s depicted by Jesus. In the old commercial for Smith-Barney, John Houseman said of the company, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” We have to work for the rewards we get in life, and we get what we earn. If we work hard and obey the rules, we’ll be rewarded. That’s fair.
“If you will obey the Lord your God,” scripture says, “all these blessings shall come upon you” (Deut. 28:1-2). Then it goes on to list all the blessings to follow, a veritable prosperity gospel! That’s fairness. That’s justice. But if you don’t do what God requires – this is fair and just, also – a long list of curses will follow: devastation and destruction, plague and pestilence. One verse in particular stands out. “The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deut. 28:35).
That’s the way life was understood when Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Everyone understood it. The rich man enjoys his blessings as the just reward of hard work and righteous living, and poor Lazarus, stricken with “grievous boils of which [he] cannot be healed,” bears in his flesh a just punishment for ungodly living. That’s fair. That’s just. And it’s the system of justice we believe in here in the U.S. Rich or poor, we get what we deserve.
So it’s not surprising that the House of Representatives recently voted to subsidize the stockholders of America’s wealthy agriculture corporations and take away supplemental nutrition assistance from the elderly poor. The rich get rich and the poor get poorer, and everyone gets what they deserve. That’s the way it is in America today, where the richest 400 Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 180 million put together and the disparity between rich and poor is greater than it has been since before the Great Depression.
Jesus tells a different story. So it’s not surprising to those “in the know,” though it makes many of us fidget, to find the nameless rich man consigned irredeemably to hell, poor Lazarus enjoying the eternal blessings of heaven, and father Abraham announcing that never again the twain shall meet, the gap between them will never be crossed. It’s the fulfillment of the Jesus agenda that Luke lays out at the beginning of his gospel, where God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53).
Before we celebrate the wealthy getting their just desserts, however, we need to recognize that we are the wealthy. Before any of us wags a finger at the wealthy and says, “God told you so,” we need to remember who’s going to be separated from the truly righteous as the goats will be from the sheep (Matt. 25:31-46). As long as we have a roof over our heads and food in the fridge while others sleep under bridges and go dumpster diving for dinner, we are the wealthy who are liable to judgment.
That’s what the gospel says about money and who has it and how we use it. But this parable is about more than that. It’s about who we see, and who we don’t, and what difference it makes for all of us. Martin Luther King, Jr., said the rich man “went to hell not because he was rich but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him, because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible, because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. In fact, he didn’t even realize that Lazarus was his brother.”*
So this story is not finally about money; it’s about who we pass by every day without really seeing them or knowing them. Are we blind? Are we so busy dealing with the busyness of our own lives, our own oppressive list of things to do, our own worries and fears, our own need to protect our boundaries and preserve our lives, that we never really see the person standing right in front of us or even sitting next to us in the pew?
Dr. King continued, “I submit this is the challenge facing the church, to be as concerned as our Christ about the least of these, our brothers and sisters. And we must do it because in the final analysis we are all to live together, rich and poor, lettered and unlettered, tutored and untutored. Somehow we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
If we don’t recognize that “inescapable network of mutuality” and act on it decisively today, our judgment will not be visited upon us as eternal punishment in some afterlife. The judgment we endure today will be the loss of today’s opportunity for true community; the loss of genuine relationships that we might enter into with the others for the completion of our lives; the loss of opportunity to hear from others about life so we can learn more about life together.
“I can never be what I ought to be,” Dr. King said, “until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God made the world . . . we must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish as fools.”
That’s what is at stake in our commitment to community, in our focus on building community, and in our calling to be a model of true community for the transformation of the world, starting with our own towns and villages and neighborhoods.
Perhaps the best way to do that today is to resist falling into easy conversation with someone you know. Instead, single out someone you know very little or don’t know at all, and strike up a conversation to begin getting acquainted. Most important, listen to that person. Drop everything you expect or think you know, and let that person into your consciousness on his or her own terms. Be truly present, and give all your focus and attention to being there for that person in the moment. It will be good practice for when you step through the door and meet Lazarus.