The Lazarus at Our Own Gates

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, September 25, 2016

From our second reading this morning, the first letter of Paul to Timothy: ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.’ Perhaps it is better known in its more uncompromising King James’ version: ‘for money is the root of all evil’. The root, not just a root. 

But then the apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, his right-hand man in Ephesus, wanted to make sure he was indeed delivering a stark, even uncompromising, message.

Ephesus was what might be described in the language of today’s overblown holiday brochures as ‘a vibrant, trendy resort, with decadent nightlife and a huge choice of designer shopping outlets’. 

So Paul is advising Timothy on the dangers of that type of lifestyle, not because Timothy is a wayward individual, but because their fledgling Christian congregations in the city were clearly in real danger of supplanting the real fullness of life with a pleasurable life financed with the illusory properties of consumerism and acquisition. And they were very seriously concerned about a very major threat to the faithfulness of their congregations and they were delivering an uncompromising message.

We are so used to hearing the phrase – ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’ – that we may be forgiven for switching to autopilot and thinking that it is ‘money’ which is evil. No. It is the love of money. It is the processes by which we are seduced by the possibilities money may offer that are where the evils lurk. It’s an obvious point, but money itself is neither good nor bad. It is entirely neutral. Actually in many ways it could be asserted that the invention of money has been one of the most civilizing developments in the history of humankind. It enabled at a stroke the movement of people away from a subsistence existence and released people to realize wider hopes and ambitions and so fostered diversity, culture, communication and movement. It freed people. But with freedoms come temptations. 

Again, let’s use the famous phrase. The root. Let’s not think of the root in the abstract, let’s think of it as burgeoning plant life. The evil is like a root in the ground, which takes its nourishment from its milieu and although it starts out small can soon sprout like a weed before one knows it. So it is with money, because the desires it fosters tend to start small and perhaps unnoticeable but, as gardeners among us may well attest, then turns into something unsightly and unruly which saps the goodness from around it and overwhelms other growth and progress.

Paul is uncompromising in his message because he knows the dangers of the seductive power of acquisition and consumerism. He refers earlier in his first letter to Timothy to the dangers of ‘dishonest gain’ or as William Tyndale put it, so much more colorfully, ‘filthy lucre’, from the Latin lucrum, meaning ‘profit’.

I don’t know exactly how it comes to be that materialism and the acquisition of wealth come to have this pernicious, creeping, insidious seductive power, but what was true for the early church in Ephesus remains just as true today.

The other day I read a fascinating article from the Harvard Business Review, posted on Facebook by our very own Peter Fasano. The article is by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology from UC Berkeley, and is entitled, ‘Don’t Let Power Corrupt You’ . 
This is how he starts the article:

In the behavioral research I’ve conducted over the past 20 years, I’ve uncovered a disturbing pattern: While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior. The 19th-century historian and politician Lord Acton got it right: Power does tend to corrupt.

He then goes on to describe a very interesting piece of research that he conducted with a colleague from UC Irvine. They found that whereas drivers of the least expensive vehicles—Dodge Colts, Plymouth Satellites—always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians in a crosswalk, people driving luxury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes yielded only 54% of the time; nearly half the time they ignored the pedestrian and the law. 

What makes this personally interesting for me, is that I have found this to be true. The crosswalk at the corner of Bedford and Main here in Armonk is one I use all the time, and the findings of those two academics from California match up with my own slightly more informal findings, based largely on the number of times that a luxury SUV has almost mown me down on a piece of public highway over which I have the right of way. 

It’s almost as if when people begin to become imbued with wealth, privilege, status and a sense of entitlement, for some reason it seems that it can make their attentiveness to the needs of those around them diminish. It is not so much that there is a conscious desire to be bad, but more a kind of of obliviousness to the hospitality needs of those around them. 

Now, I realize that this is a generalization and like all generalizations there are many exceptions to this. But I do think that this is precisely what can happen to people if they are seduced by the lure of money, of the acquisition of material possessions, and the pursuit of status.

This is the fourth or more week that we have had readings about how poisonous money can be. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus said ‘you cannot serve two masters’. Here is the stark truth: if you’re not serving God, then you’re serving another master, and that master is most likely money. Again, it bears repeating. Money is not the root of evil. But the love of money is. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having money and possessions, but for those that have much, much is expected. If you are blessed, for whatever reason, with an abundance of riches, material, monetary or otherwise, those must be used to make this world a better place.

Dives and Lazarus: a page from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1035

Dives and Lazarus: a page from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1035

Take a look at this very graphic rendering of this story from the 11th century. The top panel sets out the situation of the rich man and Lazarus on earth. The second panel shows Lazarus being taken by an angel to heaven. The third panel shows the rich man being taken by a demon to Hades. The rich man in today’s Gospel reading is often known in folklore by the name Dives. ‘Dives’ simply means ‘rich man’ in Latin. Dives was probably not a bad man, as such. I am sure that if you were at one of his dinner parties he would have been a very gracious host. But, like the crosswalk drivers, he seems to have been largely oblivious to the fact that there was a deeply distressed human being lying near the entrance to his house every day. We can infer this because Jesus doesn’t give any account of conversations between them, no pleadings, or remonstrations. Just this: Dives was rich, lived in fine digs and dined sumptuously, and there was a poor man suffering terribly right beside him. Yet Dives simply didn’t even seem to notice this man. Again, like in the letter between Paul and Timothy, there is nothing new under the sun.

I tried to find a picture that would be akin to a kind of modern-day Dives and Lazarus. And I came across this picture which I think is from New York City. Whilst I don’t intend to get into a full-blown critique at this point of the role of global corporations in global poverty, I would say this: that we don’t need to be super-wealthy and dining on sumptuous banquets to find uncomfortable parallels between us and Dives. Rather, I think that the person of Dives is an allegory for the very person that Paul is warning Timothy against: the person who has become so seduced by materialism that they don’t notice the common humanity of their neighbor any more. If we really want some consumer item offered by a global corporation, that want can take us over, and we become oblivious to the Lazaruses that are part of that story. There are always Lazaruses lying at the gate. Sometimes they are literal, like the man lying on the street on that picture. But sometimes they are more out of sight. The people who have worked unconscionably long hours in miserable conditions for appalling wages under exploitative supervisors so that we can have that consumer item we want so badly, and have it at ever lower and lower prices. All of the very cheap items in our stores today and I’m particularly thinking of food and clothing, all of them have Lazaruses lying there, overlooked by us. The armies of poorly paid, terribly treated migrant workers who toil in the fields of this country picking crops and living in conditions that are in some cases scarcely different from slavery. The farmers in the mid-West that are forced by huge national supermarket chains to sell their milk for less than it cost to produce it, just so we can always have low prices.

If we want to do what we can to change, then all of use – you and me – need to be on our guard against the love of money, the love of wealth. Know that it is a subtle and malign presence. 

And pray that we will never, ever lose sight of our common humanity with every other human being around us. Everyone is a beloved child of God, and is worthy of the highest regard. I know that it is often hard to know how to respond to those who are in dire need, but simply a welcoming face and kindly word can be of great help to someone. Even if you aren’t able to give money to a panhandler, say, asking them how they’re doing and that you are wishing them well, and maybe buying them a sandwich, makes the bridge of humanity from one beloved child of God to another. In fact, one of the greatest gifts that we can give is a sharing of our humanity, our love. And, unlike money, the more you give love away, the more it grows.