Uniform 01.26.2014: A War on Wealth

Luke 16:19-31

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson declaring a “war on poverty.” Through programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start, the Johnson administration demonstrated its commitment to easing the economic inequality in our country. President Johnson understood that one piece of legislation would not raise the disadvantaged from poverty, so he promoted a variety of plans to attack the issue from all sides.

We still talk about the “war on poverty” like we talk about the “war on drugs.” We see poverty as a big problem that will take a series of complicated initiatives targeting many different issues to solve. It often feels like such a big problem that we don’t know where to start.

When we talk about the war on poverty, we see statistics, amounts of money, and stereotypes of the kind of people who live in poverty. We fail to see the faces and hearts of the people who deal with the harsh realities of poverty on a daily basis.

Jesus refuses to let economic inequality become an abstract political issue. For Jesus, poverty has a name, a face, and a story. In this week’s parable, Lazarus is a real person facing a real trial. Luke doesn’t tell us much about Lazarus, but we know that he lived by the gate of a rich man, hoping to survive on the scraps from the man’s table. He has no company except “the dogs [that] come and lick his sores” (v. 21).

Jesus knows that understanding why poverty is a problem is much easier when a human face is attached. Knowing Lazarus’s name and specific situation makes his struggle feel personal. Jesus hopes that the Pharisees listening to the parable will sympathize with Lazarus and wonder why the rich man ignores him.

But more than recognizing Lazarus’s humanity, Jesus wants the Pharisees to see themselves in the rich man. While he is specific about Lazarus’s poverty, Jesus is vague and general about wealth. The rich man is not named, and he is described as being part of a community that disregards the poor. This man could be any person who ignores the suffering of another.

While President Johnson tried to tackle economic injustice by declaring war on poverty, Jesus in Luke’s Gospel might be seen as declaring war on wealth. Lawmakers see poverty as the problem that needs to be fixed. Jesus believes that poverty is a result of the problems that come with wealth and excess.

As Richard Vinson notes in his commentary, “Luke keeps pounding us about possessions” (532; see more below). Jesus’ words continually lift up the poor and curse the wealthy (see Lk 6:20-26). In God’s kingdom plan, having too much is a problem. Abraham tells the rich man who cries out from Hades to “remember that during your lifetime you received your good things” (Lk 16:25). The rich man had many possessions that gave him a comfortable life, but he is miserable in death.

In this parable, the consequences of wealth are dire. Because the rich man failed to see Lazarus’s needs, or maybe because he decided those needs were not his responsibility to fix, he finds himself on the wrong side of a “great chasm” (v. 26). Abraham even asserts that the man’s brothers cannot be saved from a similar fate because they fail to understand the Law’s commands about abundance and lack. If they haven’t listened to Moses, nothing will convince them that they should act differently.

We have the commands of God’s law as well as the warnings of Jesus to teach us about possessions. Are we listening to God’s instructions about wealth and poverty? How can we be better at seeing and responding to the needs of others?

Discussion Prompters

1. How does the language we use to describe poverty affect the way we see people who live in poverty? How does Jesus’ parable about Lazarus, a specific person, challenge us to think differently?
2. What does poverty look like in your community? What human faces and personal stories do you see that can help make the problem of poverty relatable?
3. Do you believe that poverty is a problem to be fixed, or do you believe that poverty is the result of other issues? Why?
4. How can we participate in Jesus’ “war on wealth”? What can we do to ensure that we will not end up like the rich man in the parable?

Resources

Susan Page, “50 years later, war on poverty has new battle lines,” usatoday.com, 7 January 2014.

Richard V. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008).

Reference Shelf

What, more stuff about money? In the middle of this chapter, we get the famous “you cannot serve God and mammon,” and bookending it, the parables of the dishonest steward and the rich man and Lazarus. In the first, the steward is commended for forgiving debts, or parts of them, even though his boss, the real creditor, had no idea what his employee was doing. In the second, the rich man wakes up in torment for neglecting the needs of the poor man at his gate. The point is simple, and consistent with Luke’s emphasis so far: if you have mammon—possessions, money, stuff—then use it to do good to the poor, or you’ll be sorry on Judgment Day.

Luke keeps pounding us about possessions. He has tried predictions (the Magnificat), curses (the Beatitudes/woes), strings of exhortations (the Sermon on the Plain, or the material in 12:22-34), and parables using rich guys as bad examples (12:13-21). In this chapter he tries two parables, a curveball and a nasty fastball aimed at our heads in hopes that he will get our attention.

You can’t serve God and mammon, says Jesus. The Pharisees scoff: of course you can, and we probably tend to agree. You can have a lot, and still serve God, we think, and here, I’m not thinking of the mega-church pastors and televangelists who make the big, big bucks, nor about the CEOs who get razzed for throwing million-dollar birthday parties. I’m thinking about normal, everyday Christians.

We live in a time and place that teaches us that self-indulgence is good, that we have a perfect right to spend all our money on ourselves if we want, and that we’re being good citizens—helping the economy—when we do. We are bombarded by psychologically sophisticated advertisements designed by clever people, ads that try to convince us that we need what they have to sell. Every year the definition of what we actually need expands. How many computers does your family own? How many cars? How many televisions? How many cell phones? […]

The fastball parable tells us that we’d better beware. There are all sorts of “tramps on the street” whom we could notice if we cared enough, all sorts of sick and homeless people who die for lack of what we throw away. The rich man isn’t accused of being a crook; he’s accused of living well while others starve, and that should make us cringe. (532-34)

Resource

Richard V. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008).

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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