Paybacks are . . .

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ — Luke 16:19-31 NRSV

There’s something about a good story with a great plot. It captures the imagination and often has a lesson to be learned lurking somewhere in the meaning of it and this one is no different. It is a bit different than the stories Jesus usually told, however, since this time one of the characters is given a name — Lazarus. In later centuries, the second character acquired a name, “Dives,” meaning “wealthy.” As in a lot of stories, the plot is that two men of vastly different circumstances find their situations totally reversed. It’s a Biblical version of the Prince and the Pauper or maybe Cinderella where those who are poor or oppressed eventually win out over those who control their lives.

Dives, of course, was a rich man who spent lavishly to maintain his lifestyle, dining extravagantly, wearing expensive clothes, pampering himself with whatever his whims seemed to desire. Meanwhile, at his front gate, Lazarus, a poor man covered in sores and starving, waited in hope for even the scraps from Dives’ table, a hope that apparently was never to be realized. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

There’s an old saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There are lots of a situations similar to Lazarus and Dives where the rich enjoy life and all that their wealth can provide while the poor suffer and often die. I can’t help but think of the current sequestration mess. I think particularly of Congress who, finding they might be inconvenienced by cutbacks to air traffic controllers, sought to relieve the pain of their fellow travelers (and themselves) by reinstating those controllers so that the public might travel relatively unimpeded. Meanwhile programs like Head Start and those which aid the homeless, Native Americans, veterans, retirees, school lunch programs, and countless other programs that affect millions and millions of people who can’t afford to fly off on vacations or who might not even have a roof over their heads are left in Lazarus’ position, begging at the doorways of Congress and getting about the same result Lazarus did. It was that way in Jesus’ day and that plot line is still just as real to us today.

One of the main precepts we hear in scripture again and again is the oft-repeated social conscience — care for the widows, the orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, the dying, the poor. It doesn’t say anything about taking care of the rich people; they can take care of themselves pretty well on their own. It’s the marginalized of society who always seem to bear the brunt when one group feels it is more entitled than all others. Jesus certainly preached about caring for the less fortunate, but considering that so many Americans feel they are Christians living in a “Christian nation,” they don’t seem to have been listening to the scriptures too closely — or maybe they have had preachers preaching the wrong message. One bit of scripture we look at rather askance is the verse that begins with “The poor you have with you always” (Matt. 26:11a). It may be so, but does that mean we have to grind them into the dust and leave them begging at the door with weeping sores that the dogs lick? Just because they’re always there, does that make it right? Or inevitable? Or beyond change?

There are people in this world like Margaret Watson who serves as a priest in South Dakota among Native Americans who are among the most affected by the sequestration cuts. She wrote a letter to her congressmen about what she sees and experiences and has even extended an invitation for them to come and spend time on the reservation, seeing what their cuts have done to a group who is already existing marginally, but so far it seems like there’s a fairly thundering silence from Washington. Yet those same congressmen can fly off to their vacations and their nice homes in the suburbs with a full refrigerator, more than one car in the garage and probably membership in the local golf club while people on the reservation die from lack of care, lack of help and lack of hope. Come to think of it, there are a lot of other people who aren’t congressmen who can boast of the same lifestyle and who care about as little as congress seems to about those who don’t have healthy 401k’s or big stock portfolios or private investment bankers to keep an eye on their growing bank accounts. They are the Dives of this world who never seem to notice the Lazaruses at their gates except maybe to call the police to clear them out of the neighborhood or take away the food and/or hydration stations other and more conscience-driven people set up to try to help address the imbalance.

Upon his death, Lazarus was taken to rest in the bosom of Abraham, a place of high honor and a sort of heaven in Jewish theology. Dives, however, was consigned to a place of fire, Gehennom, where he definitely learned the meaning of suffering. Their roles had been completely reversed and, as a popular saying puts it, “What goes around comes around.” Paul had another way of making the same point, “”…you reap whatever you sow” (Gal. 6:7c). Dives was reaping what he sowed, and despite his pleas to Abraham to send Lazarus down with a sip of water to quench his parched throat and then to send Lazarus to testify to his five brothers so that they could avoid Dives’ own fate, he found out the wealth and power he had exerted in life did him no good in his current situation. As for his brothers, if they, like Dives, couldn’t learn the right use of wealth and power from Moses and the prophets, a strange dude who had returned from the afterlife wouldn’t have been any more believable.

I wonder — what would make Congress change their thinking on assistance for the poor and not just benefits for the rich? I wonder if a Lazarus would move them? Or maybe it would take some singeing of their toes to get their attention? Or maybe they, and those of us who ignore the Bible and our duty to our fellow human beings, need a quick course in ethics because, in the words of some immortal, “Paybacks are hell.”

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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