September 29, 2019, Putting a Price Tag on the Poor (Luke 16:19-31) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000155
Sometime in the 19th century, an ad appeared in a daily newspaper that read: “FOR SALE: a remarkable smart healthy Negro wench. About 22 years of age; used to house work and farming, and sold for no fault but for want of employ. She has a child about 9 months old, which will be at the purchaser’s option.” There is a whole lot that’s wrong about that ad, but the thing I want to point out right now is that when that ad came out in the paper, people considered it possible, and normal, and perfectly alright, to put a value on a human being in dollars and cents. The ‘value’ of that young woman was probably pretty high because she was useful. Her child, at 9 months old, was really of no use in the short term, and so it was not worth much at all. That’s why the child is advertised as “at the purchaser’s option” – this woman, a human being like you or me, could be bought with or without her child, just like we can buy a car with or without a CD player.
That ad is horrifying and disgusting to us, in this day and age when slavery is thought to be a thing of the remote past – although the last survivor of slavery in this country died in 1971, which isn’t really all that long ago. We think we don’t assess the value of human beings anymore in this enlightened day and age. But in reality we assess the value of human beings all the time. We don’t advertise people in the classifieds – except for the personals, which is another kettle of fish. We don’t call out the price of a man or woman or child on an auction block. But we still rank people by their worth in so many ways.
In our day, the big way we assess the worth of a human being is by their paycheck. A football player or movie star is worth a fortune. A doctor or lawyer goes for top dollar. A garbage collector, without whom life would be very difficult indeed, is worth almost nothing to us. Men, apparently, are more valuable than women. People who are attractive or talented are definitely more valuable than dull people. People with a good education are way more valuable than uneducated people. U.S. citizens are more valuable than people we consider foreigners, especially foreigners from poor countries. Notice how we tolerate putting babies and little children in filthy cages because they are the children of illegal immigrants. What is the value of a little child from Mexico? Is her existence optional? The basic principle is that the world, by and large, places a very low value on the poor. It’s the logic of the world.
Which brings us to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. You can see right away that Jesus is running absolutely counter to the thinking of the world, because he gives the poor beggar a name, and leaves the rich man nameless. But the central thing is this: when Lazarus dies, he finds himself nestled safe and secure in the bosom of Abraham. But when the rich man dies, he finds himself in Hades, suffering the torments of the damned. (Remember that this is a parable, a story that makes a point, not a theological treatise on heaven and hell.)
And why is the rich man suffering so horribly? Has he committed some terrible crime? Murder? Idolatry? Blasphemy? Some kind of sexual perversion? No. His offense was just this: that he was rich, and he failed to show mercy to Lazarus, who sat in miserable poverty at his own door while he, the rich man, enjoyed his good food and his fine clothes and his high-class friends. Jesus never says that Lazarus asked the rich man for anything. He doesn’t say that the rich man kicked him or cursed at him, or was cruel to him in any particular way. He just failed to notice him. The rich man condemned himself simply by being oblivious.
And the reason for that judgment is that God is on the side of the poor. All through the Scriptures, God speaks up for the rights of the poor. He commands his people to show mercy to the orphan and the widow, the stranger and the poor. When farmers harvested their crops, they were forbidden to harvest all the way to the edges of the fields. God commanded that they leave that portion of the harvest so the poor could come and glean their own food. If someone gave a poor man a loan, taking his cloak as collateral, God commanded that the cloak be returned by evening, because the cloak was all he had to keep him warm. The prophet Ezekiel reveals that the real sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality, as it is so often thought, but a lack of concern for the poor. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom,” Ezekiel writes, “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” And Jesus announced his coming with these words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”
In his Word, God reveals that he has such a heart for the poor that he takes their joys and their suffering personally. In the book of Proverbs, it is written, “He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord.” But the ultimate teaching on God’s identification with the poor is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. Two groups of people are assembled before the throne of the King at the judgment. To the group on his right, the King says, “You are welcome, because when I was hungry you fed me. When I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. When I was naked you clothed me. And when I was sick and in prison you came to visit me.” To the group on his left, the King says, “Away from me, you that are cursed! When I was hungry you gave me nothing to eat. When I was thirsty you gave me nothing to drink. When I was naked you didn’t clothe me. And when I was sick and in prison you didn’t come to visit me.”
The strange thing about the story is that both groups of people are equally clueless. “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison?” And the Lord proclaims what he has been revealing all through the Scriptures: whatever you did for one of those you value the least – the poor, the foreigner, the disabled and disenfranchised – whatever you did or did not do for these people; well, you did or did not do it for me. He identifies so closely with the poor and the vulnerable – with all those unfortunate people the world sees as human refuse – that any act of kindness to them is an act of kindness to him personally. But whoever walks by one of the least of these and doesn’t notice them, whoever isn’t moved by their suffering, whoever fails to have the least bit of compassion for them – God himself receives that callousness and hard-heartedness like a slap in the face.
The lesson of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not that it is inherently evil to be wealthy. Nor that it is inherently virtuous to be poor. The lesson is that God has revealed himself as the one who chooses to stand with the poor and the despised and the undervalued, so much so that we can’t love and serve God without loving and serving the poor. And, on the other hand, we can’t love and serve the poor without honoring and delighting God, whether we realize what we are doing or not. It’s the very thing about God that made Mary sing out in joy when she, a peasant girl from a little backwoods town, was chosen to bring God himself into the world. “My soul magnifies the Lord! My spirit rejoices!” she sang, “for he has seen me in my poverty and nothingness and has done great things for me. He scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their thrones. He lifts up the poor and lowly and fills the hungry with good things, but he sends the rich away empty!”
If we see the people around us with the eyes of God, we realize that every single person has infinite value. The person you see on the street, or at the grocery store, or in your neighbor’s back yard – the Lord of the Universe gave his life for that person. Psalm 49 says: “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly…” Every human being was created by the hand of God, imprinted with his divine image, brought to life by his own breath. But there is more for us to understand in this parable than just this general principle. Because God wants us to know that he has set his heart on those the world chooses to despise, those the world considers of no value, the refuse, the dregs, the burdens on society: God’s love rests on the unloved, in such a personal way that to care for the poor is to care for God himself, and to despise the poor in their poverty is to despise God himself.
“Our Father gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. He sets the prisoners free; he opens the eyes of the blind; and lifts up those who are bowed down; The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow…” God has assessed the life of the poor and unloved at the infinite value of his own life. Let us look at the poor around us, even the least of our brothers and sisters, recognizing their worth through his eyes, knowing that he has loved us in our utter poverty and unworthiness.