The rich man and Lazarus: A parable of our time? A reflection for One World Week

For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith….
1 Timothy: 6v7

We are all created in the image and likeness of God.  Each human being on this planet. We all inhabit one world together. This, in essence, is the message of One World Week.

So, simple – and yet so hard to put into practice.

What would the world look like if we valued each person as being of equal worth? Or to ask the question the other way round:  Why do we find it so hard to value people equally?

Lazarus: A non-person

What do we learn from Luke’s story of Lazarus (chapter 16) and the rich man (who interestingly, is not given a name)? The rich man ignored the plight of Lazarus at his front door day after day. Why did he do this?  Why was he blind to Lazarus’ needs?  Because he was dressed in purple and fine linen, and Lazarus was just a beggar, a nothing, a non-person.  And God judged him harshly for his blindness to the needs of a fellow human being.

As Abraham says in the story: ‘The message of Moses and the prophets is clear, but the rich man’s family is deaf to them. And if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

So what are we to make of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man as applied to today?  Where do we place ourselves in the story of Lazarus and the rich man?  And what will it take to convince us as a society to share our wealth more equitably?  Where would we find Lazarus today? And where would we look for the modern day equivalents of the rich man?

Last week I was in London, and happened to pick up a copy of the Evening Standard. One story took my eye:

City’s £7bn bonus boys are back in the lap of luxury

A boom in hedonistic ‘greed is good’ spending is sweeping through London after two years of recessionary restraint.  West End stores, clubs and restaurants say that they have been astonished by the sudden spike in guilt-free spending in recent weeks on a scale that would have been unthinkable even six months ago.

A spokesman for Selfridges said:  ‘Stuff is just flying off our shelves.  There are a lot of £1,000 plus shoes being sold in our new Shoe Galleries.’  Particularly popular are Alexander McQueen Loki’angle boots at £2,195 a pair and Christian Louboutin Margot platform shoes costing £1,575.

Sales of £695 Alexa handbags are up, and it is – apparently – almost impossible to get your hands on a £120 bottle of Special Cuvee Bollinger (champagne if you didn’t know), as demand is so strong.

Apart from the shocking sums of money involved, the phrase in the article that stuck out for me was the idea of ‘guilt free spending’…  If you’ve got the money you can have what you want – guilt free –as the advert goes ‘because you’re worth it.’

This is the Gospel of Greed is Good.  If you’ve got it flaunt it.  The Prosperity Gospel as some Christians would have us believe:  Great wealth is a sign of God’s blessing.

I’m sure the rich man in Jesus’ time was also ‘guilt free’ as he feasted sumptuously every day.  But his great wealth, far from being a sign of God’s blessing, was the cause for God’s judgement.

We might all, deep down, long for judgement day on bankers’ bonuses.  And we may feel righteous anger at the injustice of so few enjoying so much when so many suffer the consequences of recession and cuts.

How fair is Britain?

This week’s report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission this week – ‘How fair is Britain?’ – made salutary reading:  Here are just a few ‘highlights’ (if you can call them that)

  • The total wealth of the top 10% of the UK population at £853,000 is nearly 100 times higher than that of the poorest 10%, at just £8,800?
  • Men in the highest socio-economic group can expect to live around 7 years longer than men in the lower groups?
  • Nearly three-quarters of Bangladeshi children in Britain grow up in poverty?
  • Asylum seekers are much more likely to experience destitution (lacking access to shelter, warmth and food) than other groups

What is your response to these statistics of inequality: Anger, shock, sadness or simply a shrug of the shoulder?   Or as a banker put it in a book I read a few months ago, ‘It’s a fact of modern life that there is disparity and ‘is it fair or unfair?’ is not a valid question. It’s just the way it is and you have to get on with it.’

Downton Abbey: A perfect parable of status anxiety

Over the past few weeks I’ve become a fan of ITV’s latest costume drama, Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is essentially a story about life in a large Edwardian country house – and I mean large.  An estate of several hundred acres, dogs, horses, and a rigid social hierarchy above and below stairs.  Everyone has their place, from the noble Lord whose life’s work has been to maintain the estate, to the lowly maid who can never even show her face above stairs.  There was a beautiful scene last week when the maid was discovered with a typewriter in her room.  For this offence, she was shown up and humiliated in front of her peers.  What was her crime:  wanting to leave service, in order, horror of horrors, to become a secretary.  In the rigidly stratified world of Downton Abbey this was clearly an affront the natural order of things.

Do we still believe these things today?  Of course not, I hear you say. We are, in the great words of the American Constitution, born free, and free to be and to become what we want.

And yet.  And yet, we continue to live in a society in which some are clearly valued more highly than others. In which Premiership footballers can earn more in one week than the average worker earns in almost 8 years. And in which one in four children is still being brought up in a household in poverty.

What does this mean in practice? Lets talk about Maureen.  Maureen lives with her partner in a house in Stockton on Tees in the North East of England. Last year, her two grandchildren came to live with them and she’s struggling to make ends meet.

Maureen’s story

“Practically everything has gone up. My gas and electricity was £62 a month. It’s now £90 a month. Water rates, they’ve gone up. My rent, thank heaven has stayed the same, but that’s £350 a month.

Bus fares have risen eight times in the last couple of years. Three or four times last year they went up in price, and with us being on benefits, it’s a hard thing to have to fork out for.

I shop round for the best prices for things like milk. I know it sounds awful, but I buy my milk wherever I can get it cheapest. If I’ve got to walk there, I’ll walk. Weekend is normally the roughest patch because we get paid on a Monday. By the time the weekend comes around, if we haven’t got it, we go without.

I’m trying to get a holiday this year. Not even an expensive holiday in a hotel. I want to be able to go by the sea, in a tent with my two grandkids. Is that too much to ask? But I know I can’t afford it. It’s pie in the sky.”

All people are in the image of God: a daily challenge to us all…

Returning to where I started: How do we square this with our belief that each and every human being is created in the Image and Likeness of God? And what would the world look like if we valued each person as being of equal worth?

To be clear, this is not some abstract question.  It is a daily challenge.

It is a challenge to treat those who society writes off as of equal worth.  It is a challenge to go beyond all the little barriers that we use to keep others at arms length.  It is a challenge to all the easy stereotypes that politicians and tabloid newspapers use against those who they would have us treat as outsiders, and blame for societies problems.  Bogus asylum seeker; benefit cheat; sponger; scrounger; chav; tramp; hoodie; hooligan.

I’m sure Lazarus was called many of these in his day.  Beware all such language, and beware such attitudes.  These are the subtle – and not so subtle – ways we use to deny the humanity of others – and to deny them their God-giveness.  All are made in the image and likeness of God, not just bankers, not just the wealthy, nor yet just the self-righteous, nor just the churchgoers, the Christians, nor yet just people of faith.

As the rich man was judged by his treatment of the poor man, the outsider, the non-person at his gate, so too will we.   How we too chose to spend our money; our time and our God given talents; who we chose to associate with – and who we chose to ignore.

Our task as Christians is to live as if another world is possible – a world in which all are equally valued – and through our actions to help to bring this world into being.

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