April 7, 2008
RICH AND POOR: TWO WORLDS OR ONE FAMILY
Presentation given by J.Snodgrass for the Marble Collegiate Church Young Adults 20s/30s
Every year, the gap between rich and poor gets wider. The title I was given for this presentation – “Rich and poor, two worlds…” reminded me that in economic terms we actually have three worlds on this Earth ‚Äì the first world, capitalism, the second world, communism, and the third world, “other,” which has become synonymous with whole nations of people living in abject poverty. The recent disaster in New Orleans was yet another reminder that, although America is a first-world country, there’s a third world in here, too, a small nation’s worth of people that our own government left behind and forgot once the first-class citizens had been rescued.
Every year the chasm gets wider, and every year I’m reminded of a story Jesus told in the Gospel according to Luke chapter sixteen, about an un-breach-able chasm.
“There was a rich man…dressed in purple and fine linen 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 Hell, where he was being tormented, [the rich man] 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 [got nothing]; 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.’
So here we’ve got this rich man, dead, suffering, and what does he say to Abraham? ‘Send that boy down here, that poor boy that used to lie outside my gates, tell him to fetch me some water.’ Even dead, burning in Hell, this rich man has not learned his lesson. But the chasm cannot be traveled, even if Lazarus had wanted to. This rich man could have spared himself all that suffering, if he had bridged the chasm in life, but never had he reached out to invite this poor man to his table. The story continues…
[The rich man] said, ‘Then…I beg you to send [Lazarus] 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.’ [Abraham answered], ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
How correct Abraham’s words proved to be. Because later in Luke chapter twenty-four, someone does rise from the dead. And from that time to this, two thousand years, every Easter Sunday Jesus rises from the dead again to tell the rich man and his five brothers how sorry they will someday be…for not bridging that chasm, for not inviting that poor man to their table. And every year on Easter Monday the stock-exchanges open again, tracts of land are bought and sold out from under peoples’ feet. The price of fruit goes up and someone goes to bed hungry. The price of fruit goes down and someone wakes up without a job. And the dogs just keep on licking that poor man’s open, running sores.
It’s a good thing dog-saliva contains natural antibiotics, because that’s the only kind of health-care a lot of people can afford. I know that’s nasty. When I was a migrant construction-worker, we’d come in all bloody at the end of the day, and the dog was our medic ‚Äì we didn’t even have band-aids.
“Rich and Poor: Two Worlds, One Family.” The family aspect of this reminds me of something else Jesus used to say… “A father had two sons…” Jesus begins a couple of his parables this way, the most famous being the Prodigal Son. Two brothers born equal, each entitled to half of their father’s estate, but one of them is, well, prodigal, which means ‘wasteful, recklessly extravagant.’ And he blows his share of the wealth and ends up feeding pigs in a foreign land, then returns to ask for work as a day-laborer, and the father welcomes him home with open arms.
But Jesus was not by far the first in the Bible to use ‘two sons’ to represent the different worlds in our human family. Going all the way back to Genesis, when Adam and Eve had two sons. One of them, Cain, was a farmer, he settled on some land and grew crops, and stored up his goods. Their other son, Abel, was a wandering shepherd, he never had more than the animals in his flock, and the shirt on his back. But when they each made sacrifices to the Lord ‚Äì Cain from the surplus of his wealth, Abel from the bits of his sustenance, the Lord preferred what Abel offered. Then Cain smashed his brother’s head and stashed the body.
Abraham had two sons. One was Ishmael, born of an affair with an Egyptian servant-girl, Hagar. The other was Isaac, born later with his wife Sarah. And when Isaac was born, Sarah demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. As we read in Genesis twenty-one…
So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness… When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes…and sat down opposite him a good way off, [saying] “Do not let me look upon the death of my child.” And…she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the [cries of mother and child and] called to Hagar from heaven… “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for [I have] heard the voice of [Ishmael] where he is. Come, lift up the boy…for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well… She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with [Ishmael], and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.
One of Abraham’s sons inherited his father’s lands and fortune, while the other received nothing but a loaf of bread and a bag of water. And yet from the Lord, both sons received the promise, and Ishmael who had nothing, became the father of a mighty nation.
Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac…had two sons. Twins, but definitely not identical. The first-born was Esau, and as we read in Genesis twenty-five, he was born covered in red fur, like wool. Reading further in Genesis twenty-five…
Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob [which means "ankle-grabber"]… When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents… Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from [working in] the field, and…said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” …Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”
Esau’s birthright was his share in the promise of his grandfather Abraham, to inherit lands and become a founding father of a great nation. But unlike his brother Jacob, who lingered in the tents with the servant-girls, Esau knew how to fend for himself, how to farm the fields and hunt for food. Esau didn’t need the promise to survive, he traded his share of it for a bowl of stew. Later, Jacob tricks Esau again, and this time he steals something that does matter to his brother ‚Äì the dying blessing of their father. Esau was enraged, and Jacob fled to spend years hiding from him. And while Jacob became known as Israel, stumbling through misadventures, fathering twelve sons who became the twelve tribes, Esau kept right on working, and became a wealthy and powerful man of the land.
Years later, the two sons of Isaac and Rebekah met again ‚Äì Jacob was wandering around with his wives, servant-girls and twelve rag-tag kids, and sent gifts of livestock ahead, for fear of his brother’s anger…
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him…and kissed him, and they wept.
When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” [The maids, Leah, Rachel, and their children bowed down before Esau, who asked,] “What do you mean by all [the livestock you sent me?]” Jacob answered, “To find favor with you, my lord.”
But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my gift…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God– since you have received me with such favor.”
Jesus probably knew this story well, of the wandering son, crawling back to grovel at the feet of his wealthy brother. In this case, their father is dead, but Esau welcomes Jacob with open arms. And seeing the forgiveness in Esau’s face, Jacob compares it with the face of God. As was the case in the Prodigal Son, the chasm is bridged between rich and poor, between the two worlds in this one family, so that another chasm will not have to divide them in the life to come.