I’ve always worked for wealthy people. In high school and college, I worked for the Dayton Family at the legendary and iconic department store of the same name. After college, I taught briefly in one of the richest of Minneapolis suburbs at Edina High School. And then for 25 years I taught at the Blake School, bastion of private education in Minneapolis and Hopkins; Blake of the wood-paneled libraries, acres of green athletic fields, pipeline to the Ivies.
Supposedly, F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “The rich are different” and that’s how my employers seemed to me then– confident, secure, and somehow elevated by economic success and even heredity. Coming from a working class family myself, I was conscious of my difference, and often envious of the ease and beauty of these fine-boned lives.
Today the topic is wealth and the Gospel is from Luke. It is the parable Jesus tells his followers about the rich man and Lazarus.
Jesus is at his best as a storyteller here. The details are rich and evocative. We learn what each character wears: the rich man sports his class color – purple – and every day dons robes of fine Egyptian linen, comfortable and soft on the skin. The poor man (Lazarus – by the way the only person ever given a name in a parable and it’s interesting Jesus would give him the name of one of his closest friends) is covered with oozing sores that are licked by dogs. Hard to imagine how this could be more graphic.
The rich man “feasts sumptuously” every day; a staff of kitchen people get to the markets early to secure the finest organic grapes and oranges, then butcher a fatted calf or several plump chickens for the family table. The scraps are fed to the dogs – and, in an especially mean-spirited gesture, denied to Lazarus. We’re not sure what Lazarus subsists on, probably the charity of passers-by.
And not a word passes between Lazarus and the rich man.
Remembering this is a story, cut to the afterlife where the rich man is agonizing with thirst in Hades and Lazarus has been “carried away by angels” to be with Abraham, the old-testament prophet, who explains that the rich man got his heaven in this earthly life so there will be is no relief, not a drop of water just as there was not a scrap of food. Now we may be getting uncomfortable because which of us, gazing with horror at pictures of pitiful souls, starving and diseased in some poor country or other, hasn’t worried that simple justice will come into play and we’re getting ours now — and not later?
All of us here today are wealthy, at least wealthier than the 80% of the world that lives on less than $10 a day. According to UNICEF one out of every two children in the world lives in poverty. The number of women over 65 living in extreme poverty jumped 18% last year alone. The United States has the highest income disparity between rich and poor in the world. What would Jesus have to say about these numbers?
In today’s lesson, it is not the rich man’s wealth per se that condemns him, it is the fact that he shares none of it with a starving man on his doorstep. We don’t know the rich man’s motives or if he writes big checks to local charities, but I think that he may not even see Lazarus, laying behind the big iron gate that keeps out the riff-raff? In the movie The Butler, Cecil Gaines learns that as as White House butler, his job is invisibility, even as powerful white men discus his fate right in front of him.
While not all of us can relate to having great monetary wealth, all of has can relate to having privilege. We have privilege bestowed on us by our nationality, our gender, our race, even our DNA. Often, privilege is unearned. Years ago I first read an article by sociologist Peggy McIntosh on white privilege. I had never thought of myself as having certain protections in place because of my race. Here is part of her definition of white privilege:
- “I can go shopping alone most of the time pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”
- “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”
- “If traffic police pull me over I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”
- “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.”
These privileges are not granted to people of color nearly as much as they are to whites – even today – ask your black friends. A major realization I made when first studying some of this was that I had a race—instead of being a norm.
At its worst, privilege can accelerate into greed and a kind of collective recklessness. Few of us are so naive as not to think that what is driving the destruction of our environment is privilege in overdrive and that it is not greed that is ravaging our natural resources for profit – not only by big corporations but by our own unthinking consumerism, our desire for more and better and newer. The movie “The Freshman,” is a story about ultimate privilege no matter what the cost: the hopelessly-entitled can take a special unmarked plane to a restaurant in a secret location where the menu for the jaded diners is the meat of endangered species. Of course, it is fiction.
Privilege can even insulate us from God. Jesus says that he often appears in the face of the outcast, the body of the diseased, and the distress of the starving and “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” But what if we are insulated and protected and distanced from “the least of these”? We may write checks but in what ways have we “outsourced” caring?
The frequently-quoted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When we succeed in cutting ourselves off from each other, when we learn how to live with the misery of other people by convincing ourselves that they deserve it, when we defend our own good fortune as God’s blessing and decline to see how our lives are quilted together with all other lives, then we are losers. Not because of what God will do to us, but because of what we have done to ourselves.”
The insulation and protection provided by privilege is illusionary. While I was at Blake, two of the most distinguished and storied families in Minneapolis were both visited by ultimate tragedy. The Nelson-Carlsons lost their daughter Juliet in a car accident during her first semester at Smith College. Margaret Wuertle – a philanthropist of unparalleled generosity–lost her beloved son Phil as he attempted to rescue mountain climbers the summer he was 21. Grief broke down all walls of separation as the community joined to mourn these young lives, ended so soon.
The collateral damage of privilege can be separation, not only from God, but also from each other, separation by the gigantic iron gate of stereotypes, distorted perceptions, fear and a desperate need to believe that the world is as we think it is.
In the horror that was the Westgate Mall shooting in Kenya, where 75 died and hundreds more were wounded in a four day siege by Islamic terrorists, western journalists were quick to attach labels; in fact, it was the concern that Westerners were killed that sent them there in the first place. Westgate was described as “an upscale mall frequented by wealthy Kenyans and foreigners; coffee cost $7 a cup (not true); a meal often a hundred dollars (not true).” An African journalist quipped, “Blessed are the poor for they don’t go to Westgate.”
The truth emerged days later: the mall was frequented by the rich and the poor, Kenyans, Asians, Muslims, lots of children, foreigners. This was not an attack of the poor upon the rich, but of crazed terrorists upon the innocent.
In the great leveler that is tragedy, black Africans were seen carrying wounded white children to safety; whites comforted black victims on stretchers. Record-breaking lines to give blood formed at the Red Cross. The Associated Press reported this story: “A woman named Rafia Khan was huddled in a crawl space with her cousin and eight other people as gunmen roamed the building and shoot again and again into crowds of shoppers while they are hiding. Word spreads by text messages that the shooters were allowing Muslims to leave—testing them by asking about their knowledge of Islam. Khan and her cousin were the only Muslims among the group in the crawl space so they decide to teach the others – perfect strangers – to recite the Shahada –the short Arabic-language creed that proclaims there is only one God and Mohammed is his prophet. Over and over, Khan whispered the words slowly and phonetically as if to children, while the others almost silently repeated them in hopes of saving their lives. After several hours, the group was found and led to safety by Kenyan police.
No one is born a terrorist or a killer. It takes a village of influences to create one and an absence of intervening forces, along with disconnection and isolation from more moderating factors. Maybe no one is born a hero either but when well-loved can see beyond the boundaries of self, and with clear vision can see the humanity behind the iron gates.
In the Broadway musical “Wicked,” two girls are born who both become witches; at birth one girl is labeled good and the other wicked. At the end of the play, Glinda and Elphaba understand the gift their troubled friendship has been. The good witch Glinda sings to her nemesis at the finale:
“I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because of you.
Because I knew you…
I have been changed for good.”