The Collective Blind-Spot Early on in the book of Genesis, the writer has God confronting Cain to ask him what has happened to his brother. Cain replies indignantly “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A good part of the Bible and in particular much of the recorded teaching of Jesus could be interpreted as addressing itself to God’s implied answer which is of course a resounding “Yes!” Yet I want to suggest it is also a message which does not seem to be heeded by much of Christendom.
Consider the following three propositions. First the encyclopaedias and Wikipedia give statistics that make it clear that there are more calling themselves Christians than there are followers of any other major religion. Second in virtually every country (including this country New Zealand) where there is a majority calling themselves Christian, there is a substantial gap between the rich and the poor. And third – and I agree there are clear exceptions – yet I want to suggest there are relatively few Christians who make much of a fuss about the plight of the poor.
Today’s lesson about a man who had no intention of being his brother’s keeper could not be much more direct. On one hand we have the one without a keeper, the poor man at the gate of a rich man. The symbolism is clear enough. We have Dives who is only named as such in some translations in the title of the passage and whose name is not even considered worth noting in the body of this version of the text in the Gospel of Luke. (Some of you may well know that Dives is Latin for “rich man”).
Here this particular rich man is presented as someone unable to find any empathy or responsibility for a poor man, even one as close as his gate. For Luke, the rich man is not worth a name in his own right, nor does he need one because his position and fortune proscribe what we might now call his platinum card status. Since his own every need is met by the first century equivalent of getting out the plastic credit card it probably doesn’t even occur to him that anyone might have basic needs beyond their own abilities to meet. Nor does it seem to occur to him that even in his own case there will come a time when the flourish of the credit card or scrawled signature will have no meaning and can offer no help.
The poor man, named appropriately “Lazarus” (ie Greek for “God is my help”) is in a serious state. Ignored by the only person who might have made a difference, starving, covered in sores, lacking even the energy needed to stop the dogs licking his sores, Lazarus, the unsuccessful beggar eventually dies, and is carried by angels to be with Abraham in heaven. And then the twist to the story, the rich man, finding himself to be mortal despite the security of his riches, also dies.
The story does not say so, but we might even imagine the wealthy man was surprised that instead of having his riches respected, he finds himself being tormented in Hades. Across the abyss he sees Lazarus with Abraham and Dives, then calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus across with some water to cool his tongue from the torture of the searing heat of Hades.
Abraham points out that the time for making contact is now well past and the gulf between them is too vast. Dives then asks if Lazarus might instead be sent to his five brothers that at the very least they might be warned in time to change their way of life before it is too late. Abraham replies by reminding Dives that since the brothers have already had the teachings of Moses and the prophets to consider, it would therefore be a waste of time – and further that he claimed that even if someone should rise from the dead (which presumably was meant to refer to Jesus), even that would not be enough to those who were not prepared to notice.
A superficial impression might be that the rich man is in Hades because he is rich, yet don’t forget the Old Testament also refers to the wealth of Abraham who is here described as being in heaven with Lazarus. A more plausible interpretation is that the rich man is in Hades because he never noticed Lazarus or saw that his wealth gave him the opportunity to reach out to Lazarus.
But for all its drama, the central message of this story is not dependent on the form final judgment will take.
The gospel message is often given a complex over-layering of abstruse theology but at its simplest and most comprehensible the gospel is simply the message that we are all interconnected and need to look out for one another as a consequence. The rich man failure was that he fails to see his part in this interconnection and by his actions separates himself from what Jesus appears to teach as being the Kingdom of God.
Reality teaches that there are clear limits of practicality to what each person, or even each church, can achieve in solving the very real problems of fair distribution of resources. Even with the best will in the world even the very rich could not necessarily make a substantive difference for the very many poor of this world and indeed it is not realistic to think they might do otherwise. In any event, from birth to the grave, the typical person will have thousands of influences working to make a difference one way or the other.
I remember a teaching colleague at Secondary Teachers College, Rae Munro, tipping out a teaspoon of sago onto the screen of an overhead projector. Each grain of sago amongst the thousands present he said represented the amount of influence a single teacher might have on the life of a single pupil. “Now watch the difference to the total picture when I remove that influence”, he said. He removed one dot altogether. The picture of random dots remained almost unchanged.
Now reflect on your own life. If you are typical I guess most of the many adults in your formative years had little effect, yet every now and again I guess there was someone who managed to make a difference. And this difference was why? For me, the very few teachers who made a difference were those who appeared to care for me as an individual. And isn’t this what gospel is supposed to be about?
This is essentially the same advice that might have been given to the rich man with the poor man at his gate. Helping the poor man does not necessarily equate to giving a hand out. Indeed the perfunctory coin tossed in passing may not make a positive difference in that even the poor have weaknesses which can be encouraged. I wonder how many in a typical congregation, have had the experience of giving the apparently deserving beggar a coin only to see the beggar head off to the nearest pub or bottle shop
Perhaps what is better is to see the beggar as a real person and engage with him or her at a genuine level. Buying them a sandwich or chatting with them to discover where the real problems lie may be closer to the ethical commitment required.
Perhaps the real problem in interpreting the parable for today is that the beggar at the gate is not necessarily going to be easy to notice in the first place. The bewildered new immigrant or friendless new-comer to our community will not necessarily be obvious and if they have the additional difficulty of having visible characteristics of a group not widely accepted by society their need for friendship might be acute indeed.
Muslims, Sikhs, Asians, and Somalis are frequently scorned in our community and it is a sign of the times that the small number of genuine refugees accepted into this country are now being encouraged to head to communities where there are reasonable numbers of the same ethnic or religious grouping. Before this policy was adopted I am told by the refugee placement folk that the new refugees had greater than expected suicide and depression rates. In some ways this may also suggest something about the number prepared to ignore those at their gate.
While there is a growing reaction to the way in which refugees driven from their home nations are arriving in large numbers at the borders of richer and more stable nations perhaps some of you noticed a few days ago that a new survey on the resettlement of refugees placed our nation New Zealand number 93 per capita on the list of nations accepting refugees. In plain English we prefer not to notice their plight and hope that they will go elsewhere. New Zealand is not one of the more hospitable destinations.
The poor who are closer are those already in our midst. Those who lack confidence and financial independence may not be beggars in the conventional sense of the word but there is no shortage of those who are apparently able to turn a blind eye to their plight. We think for instance of the wealthy landlords price gouging rents knowing full well that their over-priced properties are properties of last resort for those who lack evidence of security. We think of those who illegally employ those who are awaiting work permits – and pay them far less than the legal minimum. We think of town and city councils closing night shelters without offering better alternatives.
Each of us will have to make our own decisions about who we can support and who we must fail to support. However as those who wish to align ourselves with the gospel, even if we don’t all finish up helping the same people we are still under an obligation to open our eyes to those sitting outside our individual gates.
Like Cain we may be wanting to reject any possibility that we might be expected to be our brother or sister’s keeper. Yet we can’t have it both ways. We cannot on one hand assume total independence and total lack of responsibility for others and yet on the other hand as individuals or as a church wish to follow a God who is depicted in our sacred literature as asking where our brother and sister might be – and a Saviour who tells the parable of Dives and Lazarus.
Who has been sitting outside yours – and my gate lately?