Amos 6:1a, 4-7, 1 Tim 6:11-16, Luke 16:19-31
Some biblical passages (like last week’s Gospel of the dishonest steward) are hard to figure out. Not this week. It’s not really hard to figure out that Jesus is preaching from the same playbook as the prophet Amos: offering severe judgment to those who live lives of comfort – some might say luxury – and ignore the nameless, suffering poor. Jesus’s naming of the poor man, but not the rich one, is a subtle indication of whom God notices. Just prior to today’s passage, Paul’s letter to Timothy states famously “the love of money is the root of all evils,” and urges his listeners: “If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction.” His alternative is simple: keeping the commandments and holding fast to the theological virtues.
Content with food and clothing, eh? What’s hard to figure out is what we twenty-first century Americans are supposed to do with these embarrassing passages. Feel guilty? Terrified? Well, maybe. But I think we’re apt to find ways around the plain sense of these texts. One way is to make them simply about giving to the poor. If that rich guy had just given a few scraps to Lazarus, he’d be OK. Or another way is to decry greed, saying we must remember that it’s “love of money” – not money – that is the root of all evil. But both of these interpretations ignore the stinging indictments of the comfortable lifestyle choices themselves. This is, after all, Luke’s Jesus, who pronounces “woes” on the rich precisely because they have their happiness now. And Jesus echoes this in his announcement that “you received what was good during your lifetime” and now “you are tormented.” The delight itself seems to be the problem.
A final evasion is to state that the biblical authors didn’t understand productivity growth. Their zero-sum picture of the world could only imagine the comfort of some being enjoyed at the expense of others. There’s something to this point. To read these texts in context, we should remember that the ancient world was a world of the 1% versus the 99% in ways that we cannot even imagine. Very few people could imagine living in the circumstances described by Amos and Jesus, while probably a large majority of people lived a precarious existence at best. Even on a global scale today, there are fewer who are desperately poor percentage-wise, and there are many more who enjoy fine food, clothing, and furnishings.
Progress? Only if we imagine that everyone can live like the rich man. And that, I think, is really the target of these readings, at least for many of us: the problem with the life of luxuries is not only that everyone can’t have it, but that no one should want it in the first place. Possessions possess us. This can sound like we are all crazed, addicted shoppers, which isn’t the case. But we trust them. In new stuff we trust. We must have comfort. We are, as Amos names it, wooed into complacency, carousing, and lounging around. We hear Pope Francis calls for a lifestyle of simplicity and sobriety in Laudato Si’… and we quickly turn to beating the political drum for this or that policy change. Because we can’t take the direct challenge, take it to heart, do an examination of conscience, figure out how our collective compulsion to excuse the superfluity baked into our consumption habits gets in the way of genuine vocation.
There’s a magical spell that comfortable living places on us, and these prophetic readings mean to break that spell. It’s about re-imagining the world. The indoor shopping malls that ring Minneapolis/St. Paul are called “the Dales” (Southdale, Rosedale, Brookdale…). I have a friend who refers to the Mall of America as “Satandale.” True, as always in our culture, it’s easy to pick on some targets. But an imagination that realizes maybe the biggest shopping emporium in the richest nation in the world, conveniently located near a hub airport, is the anti-thesis to God’s Kingdom… well, I think that is the imagination these readings might invite us to develop.
And then go back and read the Prodigal Son reading, because we (including me) are so implicated.
And then start thinking much, much more creatively about what we can do with our wealth to promote human flourishing. A key point about luxury is how it presents us with a false sacramentality, a false sense of how material goods can mediate transcendent meaning. We’re excited by the ivory bed, the new iPhone (don’t get me started), or whatever else of the millions of SKU’s invented to thrill us enough that we give our wealth away for their magic. It’s false magic. And it prevents us from finding life’s real magic, not in some non-material space, but by recognizing how the wealth we expend on these objects could be used in ways that actually benefitted people, actually built relationships. I think of farmers, but there are plenty of others to consider. It’s not a world where everyone has a bed of ivory. Maybe no one does. But it is a world where there is no Dives and no Lazarus.