Writers, playwrights, and filmmakers have, over the years, described and offered social commentary on those who have means, or money; and those who have little, or are poor. For example, Alan Jay Lerner in the musical “Camelot” couched the differences subtly in the whimsical song “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” Listen to the lyrics between King Arthur and Guenevere:
What do the simple folk do
To help them escape when they\’re blue?
The shepherd who is ailing, the milkmaid who is glum
The cobbler who is wailing from nailing his thumb
When they\’re beset and besieged
The folk not noblessly obliged
However do they manage to shed their weary lot?
Oh, what do simple folk do we do not?
I have been informed by those who know them well
They find relief in quite a clever way
When they\’re sorely pressed, they whistle for a spell
And whistling seems to brighten up their day
And that\’s what simple folk do
So they say
So they say
Then they conclude that they sing.
Then they conclude that they dance.
Finally, Guenevere asks:
What else do the simple folk do
To help them escape when they\’re blue?
And ARTHUR replies:
They sit around and wonder what royal folk would do
And that\’s what simple folk do
That’s an entertaining look at the poor by the rich. That was in 1960.
In 1983, I first enjoyed a Dan Ackroyd/Eddie Murphy comedy called “Trading Places.” It featured classic actors Ralph Belamy and Don Ameche as two brothers; one thinks rich people have superior intellect and skills and poor people don’t. The other brother bets him that he can turn a poor petty thief into a stock trader and a stock trader into a poor petty thief. Watch the film to see what happens!
When we come to the story Jesus uses, some have suggested that he did not make the story up of poor man Lazarus but had heard it over his life and used it to illustrate his point. In the story only the poor man is given a name—Lazarus—while the rich man has no name. Tradition has called him “Dives” (DI-vees) but that is actual the word for rich man in the old Latin Bible. One thing’s for sure: That story has been sited time and time again in literature. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Summoner says that “Dives and Lazarus lived differently, and their rewards were different.” In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, John Falstaff alludes to the story when he says to Bardolph, “I never see thy face, but I think upon hell-fire and Dives that lived in purple, for there he is in his robes, burning, burning.” In the Victorian Era, Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Barton said “Workers and masters are separate as Dives and Lazarus.” And even though his Christmas Book with Ebenezer Scrooge called A Christmas Carol does not specifically allude to Dives and Lazarus, the introduction to the Oxford edition does. Two other examples of the influence of this New Testament story: Herman Melville, in his novel Moby Dick, has Ishmael describe a freezing and windy night saying “Poor Lazarus, chattering his teeth against the curbstone,” and Dives “the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.” One could afford to build a fire, the other could not. And American poet T. S. Eliot, in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock says: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” referencing Lazarus returning from the dead to tell the brothers of the rich man their fate.
This is not a heaven and hell story primarily, although it has been used that way. This is a story about those who have and those who don’t. Jesus has just finished saying “You can’t love God and money in chapter 16:13. Then we read in verse 14: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at [Jesus.]” But Jesus knows how to tell a story, and how to make it effective. He includes details. See, the rich man “feasted sumptuously” every day, while the poor man lay at his place of homelessness, a gate of the city, and he did not have the strength to stop the dogs coming to lick his sores. That is excruciating detail. This coming year, 2020 ,our government once again will be taking a census. Censuses matter regarding the population of a community and the money our government allows for each of them. Yes, the census takers can count how many people have a house, a condo, or an apartment, but smart community leaders also lead them into the woods at night to count the heads of those who are called homeless. They are called that because they have no address, but try to move them from their spot, or at a gate, or a bridge, or a bench and they will resist. A census taker in 2010, said he was not surprised to find many homeless people in the woods in the exact same spot where he found them the last time! Everyone wants a home, even if society calls them “homeless.” If Jesus returned today, I think he would want to take me, and you, and many others to Halifax Urban Ministries to show how many ordinary people, who’ve gotten behind on rent, or had an accident or an illness that kept them from returning to work, come by each day for a hot meal. Jesus would want us to see, and hear, and smell what hunger is like. He would also want us to show hospitality and kindness to one Lazarus, and to another Lazarus. From Confirmation Classes to youth groups to adults groups, congregation members have gone with Jesus (metaphorically speaking) and have seen Lazarus. You can see Lazarus 7 days a week at the hot meal program. You can also see Lazarus under those bridges and in the woods. Jesus wants us to see them, and know they too are human beings. Jesus would want us to see the 150 men at our ministry for those recently addicted or incarcerated at “Solutions By-The-Sea” too. Jesus would want us to know we too might be one pill, or one injection, one drink, or one snort away from addiction, which leads to a pit of poverty, a hell on earth. If you would like to join Tobias Caskey for one of his Sunday afternoon services as I have, you’ll find Lazarus there recovering. You’ll find kind, welcoming, and hopeful people. It is a deep chasm from poverty to sustainability, or from addiction to sobriety. But people are crossing the chasm with the help of congregations like ours. It takes a lot of time from an ordinary person, to make a connection that matters. Time matters to build trust with those like Lazarus.
But also money matters to people like Lazarus. What is a gift, and what is a sacrifice to a poor man or a rich man? It’s like the story of the chicken and the pig. A pig and a chicken were walking down a road. As they passed a church, they noticed a charity potluck brunch being held. The chicken suggested to the pig that they each make a contribution to the cause. “Let’s offer them ham and eggs!” the chicken suggested. “Not so fast,” the pig replied. “What you’d give would be a contribution, but what I’d have to give is a total commitment!” For a pauper, giving 10% of one’s income could be a genuine sacrifice. But for a prince, giving 10% would be a contribution. Our world is helped by generous gifts. Daytona Beach, for example, has had some significant gifts given for the good of the community. Some people of means have caused the levels of income to rise, because they have invested greatly in this area. Good for them! We are helped by such philanthropy.
There is, of course, the story of Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. This is not that story. This is a story about a nameless rich man (Dives, Latin for “rich man”) and about a poor man with a name. This is a story about not living or dying with regrets. This is a story reminding us: “you can’t take it with you.” And it’s a story that suggests that honoring God, by finding people who can use a leg up, is more honorable than loving your money as you love yourself. People and organizations I’ve learned about have been so pleased to provide a school lunch for those who can’t afford them, or buy new shoes for those sticking cardboard in the soles of their existing shoes. One online sock company says that for every pair of socks you buy from them, they will give another pair to a homeless shelter. They learned that new socks are one of the most requested commodities in homeless shelters.
Can you imagine such poverty where a man sits in a spot next to a gate, and dogs lick his wounds? We need not look overseas for that. We can see it even in this county. Jesus message to the Pharisees is “open your eyes and your hearts to your neighbors!” And he invites us to do the same.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 29, 2019