Most of you may not know this, but the lectionary, the list of weekly readings, sometimes gives us choices and for creation season our Bishop provided some alternatives which is why we are hearing some readings from non-biblical authors. At any rate, when I chose the readings for today I had a specific theme in mind which is the one we are hearing in the passage from Amos and Luke. Amos is warning that the elite, the wealthy, frankly the lazy elements of society will eventually be exiled; Luke is effectively saying the same thing with the parable of rich man and Lazarus (not to be confused with Lazarus, the friend of Jesus). This theme, the idea that those that have amassed great fortunes or who spend their time lounging while others do all the work, is found in many places in scripture, and for good reason because wealthy and lazy people are a drain on society; but before you get out your pitchforks let me explain.
We are all the rich man, we are all the people who “lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches” and we are all guilty of not grieving over the ruin of Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers out of jealousy. We are not literally guilty of these things, though we probably are from time to time, but we are guilty of the thoughts and emotions that are associated with these things. We dream of success, of wealth, of not having to slave away at work, day after day, for most of our lives; we long for a time when life might give us a break, even for a minute. Deep down we want to be the rich man, why? Because we have either been so close we have tasted it, or we are so unhappy with some portion of our lives that we think it would be easier if we were rich.
I am currently teaching my juniors about the 1920’s, which was a fascinating decade, not only did it bring us prohibition, jazz, and flappers; it brought about an overall improvement in the standard of living for many people. The problem with this is that the improvements were not sustainable and in many ways created a false sense of success. What came about in the twenties was a post war economy in which many people were desperate to be able to spend the money they had been saving during wartime rationing. People were spending so much that the market expanded to the point where they were no longer simply buying the things that they needed, they were buying things that they wanted, while believing that these items were in fact necessary. For example, silver plated cutlery was invented in the 1920’s and advertised as the perfect way to impress your guests. It was a way of mimicking the lifestyle of the wealthy and showing off your success. Shorty after thousands of new products hit the market, stores and banks invented consumer credit, which allowed you to purchase these goods with only a small down payment, so rather than saving up your extra money until you had enough, you could get the instant satisfaction of making your purchase and paying it off over time, again reinforcing that awesome feeling of success. The problem with this is that this system has come at a cost, it has pushed our society further in the direction of believing that we need to be and are defined by our ability to dress in fine purple linen and have a life of leisure. And the more we believe that we are defined by status, the more we covet the life of our neighbor, the further we get from God, not because we are bad people, not because God wants us to forsake worldly goods, but because as we accumulate stuff, as we check off the boxes of success, we fall in love with the good feeling we get from these achievements and then we forget about God. Those good feelings are addictive and over time we turn to them instead of God because the quick release of dopamine seems to save us from the less pleasant aspects of our lives; and before we know it we are believing that the fancy gadget, the big trip, or the next award will satisfy us forever, but it never does.
In many ways I think Luke had our society in mind when he wrote the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or at least the Holy Spirit did; but as is true with all parables there are layers to this one, and it requires some unpacking. The rich man of course represents us, but so does Lazarus. We are all capable of allowing the rich man within us to overshadow and ignore the Lazarus within us. We all have sores in our hearts, wounds that will not heal and we all have hungers that we long to satisfy but everything we do seems to falls short or only does so for a brief time.
The psalmist points us in the right direction when they say that “The Lord cares for the stranger, opens the eyes of the blind, and sets the prisoners free.” We are the stranger, the blind, and the prisoner. We are strangers to God, to ourselves, and to one another; we are blind to our needs, believing that we are only called to care for others, and we are prisoners of our addiction to dopamine. We let ourselves believe that achievements will help us feel worthy, that they will somehow help us see the truth or set us free, but it’s not true. The truth is that we are blind to the presence of God and because of that we are prisoners of our own lives. The reason Jesus continually pointed to the poor, the sick, the needy as the people who would easily receive the kingdom of God is because while they may have problems, they are more open to God because they have nothing else. They have reached rock bottom, they have tried everything else, and they have been rejected by society, so they have no one else to turn to but God. We have all experienced it, in times of crisis we turn to God, and in that moment we forget about all the other stuff, all the stuff that gets in the way. This is a rich man’s view of God, it is an example of God being treated as the ultimate hit of dopamine.
The good news though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way because God is patiently waiting for us to allow them to guide us out of our self-made prison, to take away our pain, and help us quench our hunger. But it will only happen if we are willing to intentionally experience the resurrection, which means we need to face death. Not literally, but figuratively. We must allow the rich man that’s in us to die so the Lazarus that is in us can live. Doing so requires us to consciously change our thinking about the world, our culture, and ourselves. It does not mean that we need to turn our back on the comforts of life, what it means is that we need to decentralize those comforts so that there is more room for God. Once we do that we will be ready, with the grace and support of God, to break free from our prisons of pain and unquenchable hunger.