Wealth and Poverty
Donald Trump is not the wealthiest person in the world, nor is he the wealthiest person in America. Nowhere near it. Bill Gates former owner of Microsoft and the investor Warren Buffet are both worth more than 70 billion dollars. Trump is worth 4.5 dollars. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are not ostentatious. They do not flaunt their wealth. Donald Trump does. He promotes himself through his business empire. Everything has to be Trump. None of these men however are like the rich man in the parable of Jesus. Bill Gates has dedicated his fortune to helping the poor children of the world, eradicating malaria and promoting education in developing countries. Warren Buffet lives a quiet and circumspect life but donates much to charity. Donald Trump is in touch with ordinary Americans. He speaks for them and he has put himself forward in politics to try to change things for the better according to his own vision of what that might be.
In the parable, the rich man was clothed in purple and fine linen. That is a description of the dress of the high priests. These garments were designer quality and very expensive, say around £60,000 in today's money here. In Harrods in London you can pay £300 for a polo shirt and £600 for a pair of jeans, although The Scotsman newspaper is just the same price as in Scotmid. Eddie once went into Harrods and bought a Scotsman newspaper and he got a Harrods bag to carry it in. He then carried the Harrods bag around London. There's a new £200,000 Range Rover for the very rich – like the Hawick lottery winners. Some more exotic cars are more than a couple of million pounds. Rich women pay thousands of pounds for a handbag to say nothing of exclusively designed dresses and coats. Down in Almondvale you can buy an ordinary looking black coloured plastic watch for £5000. The wealth of celebrities, Russian businessmen and middle east princely families is enormous and many live extravagantly. They try to outdo each in building private yachts and castles to live in various parts of the world. Roman Abramovich gave Vladimir Putin a £24 million pound yacht.
The rich man in the parable did not live simply. He lived in luxury. He consumed conspicuously. He feasted on the highest quality of food – every day - Jesus emphasises that point. Not just once or twice a week but every day including the Sabbath. He did not fast at all as the Pharisees did. Poor people were fortunate to taste meat once a week. When I was in Africa, it was once a month – a special day - a day when people remembered that they had eaten meat. The rich man in Jesus parable had meat every day, the best, cooked in different sauces to his taste, along with wine – a luxury for most people in Jesus time – fruits and breads. There are many people in this country who live like that. They tend to eat out in posh restaurants and some do so – every day, paying £100 for a meal in London.
In Jesus time, people did not use knives and forks. They ate with their hands. They didn't have table napkins either. Wealthy people cleaned their hands on hunks of bread as they ate. They then threw the dirty bread away. The beggar, Lazarus, was waiting outside for this bread to be thrown out so that he could eat it. This was a reality. Lazarus had his pitch – outside the rich man's house. He went there every day and he probably got something to eat every day. The rich man did not send him away out of his sight. He tolerated his begging, his untidiness, his uncleanliness, his poverty, his suffering. He had ulcerated sores on his legs. Stray dogs licked them. The rich man did not mind the beggar having the thrown out bread to eat. He did not insult or harangue the beggar, he did not despise him, he was not cruel to him. He accepted the poor man as part of the landscape of life. This may indeed have been his charity. Would you or I like to have a beggar outside our front door every day? Is it hard enough to meet the young woman selling The Big Issue at the shopping centre on several days every week? Part of the landscape.
This is a strong and devastating parable and it is uncomfortable for us. Imagine Jesus teaching it. People would be spell bound. The poor would rejoice that they had a champion, someone on their side, who understood their lot. Any wealthy person listening would be chastened and troubled for this is an uncompromising message. In much of Jesus teaching there is a stark contrast between what is happening on earth and what is happening in heaven. Jesus says 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers'. Jesus teaches his disciples that they are not to be like the bosses of the world; they are to be servants. Jesus' own fate - crucifixion - was extreme and the opposite of his status in heaven. He promises the crucified repentant thief that his circumstances too will be transformed. Jesus was a radical far left of centre preacher when it came to wealth and riches, political might and influence in the world. He warned that it is quite the opposite in heaven. There is redress, reconfiguring, restitution. The inbreaking of the Kingdom of God reverses and upturns the social conditions of status, wealth and contrasting poverty.
So the poor man dies. How long he lived we do not know. I remember seeing a man from Shettleston in Glasgow being interviewed by a BBC news reporter after it had been announced that men in that area live the shortest lives in the UK, something like a 53 year average. 'Why do you think this is?' asked the reporter. The Shettlestonian smiled a single tooth smile and replied 'If you lived here – you wouldn't want to live any longer either'. It is likely that this beggar was not that old. The rich man also dies. Fact of life. Fact of death. In the Old testament, Ecclesiastes 9 says 'So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterwards they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!'
In Jesus' parable a judgement has taken place. The poor man is given salvation and the rich man is sent to hell. Note that Abraham is in heaven. He was a saint before Christ who believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness. Jesus did teach about hell. Former Moderator Andrew McLellan wrote in Life and Work some years ago that he did not believe in hell. It is, he said, inconsistent with a loving God. You can take your pick – Andrew McLellan or Jesus – who do you think knows more? What was the basis of the respective judgements, one to salvation and one to damnation. Was it just poverty and wealth? Is there virtue in God's sight just by being poor? Is there condemnation just by being rich. No. It is more subtle than that. The rich man is condemned because he ignored the plight of the poor at his door whom he could have helped and did not do so. He could have taken the man in – even just temporarily – bathed his wounds like the Good Samaritan did – got him some medical care, found him some lodgings and some decent clothes. But he spent his wealth wholly on himself. This was not good Judaism. This was not Judaism at all.
Proverbs 19:17 says 'One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, And He will repay him for his good deed'. Isaiah 57:8 says 'Is (true fasting) not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?'
In the parable the rich man ends up in eternal hell fire. The poor man, Lazarus, is taken to heaven. Abraham occupies the role of judge. He refuses the rich man's cry for rescue on the basis that he had had good things in life and Lazarus had not. Now the circumstances are reversed. The rich man is being punished for his callous disregard of human suffering which he could have alleviated had he been a good and moral Jew. Furthermore if he was indeed a priest, he had corrupted the purpose of his office and had used his position to live a disproportionately luxurious lifestyle. Jesus was a very severe critic of the Temple and its role in the lives of Jews in his time. Pope Benedictus apparently was fond of luxury. His red shoes costs hundreds of pounds. Pope Francis lives more simply. But a certain German Catholic Bishop lived like the rich man in the parable. Bishop Franz-Peter Tebarts-van Elst spent millions on his bishop's palace with marble bathrooms and exotic furniture. He was called the 'bishop of bling'. But he got the sack in 2013 for spending the Church's resources on himself. The mediaeval popes lived like the rich man in the parable. Worse in fact by far. Maybe they have not made it into heaven either.
The parable concludes with the affirmation that heaven and hell are distant and there is no connecting corridor between them. The rich man asks that Lazarus may go to warn the members of his family of the fate that awaits them too. Abraham says 'No' and says that if they lived as good Jews they would not meet the same fate. In a last throw of the dice, the rich man says that the testimony of someone who died but is very evidently alive would change them. Abraham says 'No'. Again. Their spiritual blindness and disobedience towards Judaism would mean that they would never recognise or understand something much greater such as resurrection.
The liberals in the churches say that Jesus was just telling this parable to encourage people to be good. The somewhat stark and fearful vision of heaven and hell is not real – it is just an illustration. For centuries Scottish preachers took a different interpretation. They took the parable at face value, as being true about what happens in the hereafter. That happens little nowadays. Few evangelicals are keen to preach much about hell. It doesn't fit with our human rights based consumer society. Islam does offer the in and out choice between their understanding of eternal reward with Allah and damnation for the rest including us kafirs – or as they strangely describe us - unbelievers.
The parable is about the use of great wealth; it is about the concern of God for the poorest; it is about humanity. But it would be unwise to think that it is just a good story. Jesus did not do fake. He did not speak for effect. He talked the talk and he walked the walk. None of us here are extremely wealthy and none are beggars. But we can consider that it is our calling to assist where we can and not to ignore people who need our help.