Jesus told a story (Luke 16:19-31) that isn't used a lot in our churches these days.
It’s a strange, disturbing story about a nameless rich man who lives very well behind a gate - against which a poor and sick man named Lazarus huddles and eventually dies, completely unrecognized by the world.
(Note that Jesus and scripture found it important to remember unrecognized Lazarus’ name, but not the rich guy in this story.)
The angels come for Lazarus and take him into the comforting, loving arms of Abraham. The rich man dies too, and is honored with a funeral in this world. But when he goes to the afterlife he is in torment. Seeing Lazarus from afar, he is relieved, thinking the poor man will serve him, oblivious even on the Other Side to his feckless privilege, the true source of his suffering.
This man built a wall and hid behind a gate that he expected to insulate him from the misfortunes of all manner of discomforts, including conscience and faithful temperance and charity. Ironically, his gate constructed and fortified his ignorance and sin, to such an extent that even in the afterlife he couldn’t free himself from his hellish greed and gluttony. The problem wasn’t necessarily his wealth and power themselves; it was his attachment to and abuse of them.
Insulating ourselves from the world is the way to gluttony and greed. [Image: Keith Hardy]
In worship this past Sunday, we explored gluttony and greed, temperance and charity. I shared some facts about our country’s relatively wealthy lifestyle that shocked many in attendance. Most of us are largely insulated from an accurate understanding of how our lifestyles impact others in the world, and God’s Creation itself.
Did you know:
The United States has 5% of the world’s human population, but consumes more of the world’s resources than any other single nation than China (and they surpassed us just a few years ago). We consume between 25 and 30% of all the resources used on the planet.
A mother in India would have to birth and raise somewhere between 13 and 20 children to use of the resources that are used for one American child’s upbringing.
40% of our agricultural produce is never consumed by people; the majority of our landfill refuse is wasted food.
Many citizens who profess confidence in our version of free market economy have some idea that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, a seminal work of modern market economics. Many fewer know he wrote another book first, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and that he was concerned about the monstrous potential of capitalism without a strong moral base, and for the underprivileged.
How much better are we off for all our excess consumption? The endless pursuit of more: more things, more growth, more options, more choices, even more of the same? There is no doubt that, overall, we have attained some quality of life. But are there diminishing returns, unintended tragic consequences?
United States health care options are greater and costs are orders of magnitude higher than any other country in the world, but our health outcomes lag behind other developed nations.
U.S. Federal Reserve reports indicate that financial stratification, more wealth concentrated in fewer households, is escalating.
American mental health indicators have been steadily worsening in the 21st Century, long before the pandemic struck. Addictions and overdose deaths, mental health disability, suicide rates and other indicators of mental and spiritual illness are increasing.
Social science has confirmed the “hedonic treadmill,” the human tendency to return to a relatively static and stable level of happiness regardless of changes in our material circumstances.
What if more isn’t better? What if, sometimes, less is better? What if better for all is better for you than just better for you? More isn’t better. Better is better. That’s what Abraham told the rich man in Luke all of scripture and the prophets was selling. It’s the Good News Jesus was selling.
Being better off isn’t about what you have. It’s about how you have whatever you have, who you care about and who cares about you. If you want to feel safe, like in God’s Peaceable Kingdom, satisfied like at Jesus’ Heavenly Banquet, consider starting to ask yourself, “Is what I want really better? Or is it just more.”