Tell It Slant, IV: Rag People

Tell It Slant, IV: Rag People

Date: June 26, 2016

Bible Text: Luke 16:19–31 |

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If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. —Luke 16:31

Money and destiny are related. What we do with our money here has something to do with how we spend eternity there. Earthly habits determine heavenly habitations. That, in terse précis, is the point of this parable and the theme of this sermon. Do you still want to go along for the ride?

There are two main characters in the story. One has a name and the other doesn’t. But Jesus tells us that the one who is given no name had been given a lot of money, and the Latin word for ‘rich’ is ‘Dives’, so for centuries, tradition has called this parable “Lazarus and Dives.”

To Anglicize it, we might call it “Lazarus and Richard.” Get it? Richard? That is almost exactly what tradition is doing when it reads the Latin New Testament and calls the rich man Dives. The rich man’s name is, well, Rich.

The second character is, unexpectedly, the hero of the story, sort of, so he gets a name. In fact, this is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who gets a proper name. His name is Lazarus, which is Hebrew for “the one whom God helps.” ‘Lazarus’ is the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Eliezer,’ as in Eliezer Wiesel.

Did you ever have Lazarus Department stores around here? People from Ohio and Pennsylvania are probably most familiar with the name ‘Lazarus’ from the formerly successful chain of department stores founded by Simon Lazarus in Columbus in 1851. Lazarus means “the one whom God helps,” and, boy, did God ever help Simon Lazarus and his progeny. Simon’s grandson Fred turned that single department store in Columbus into a $1.3 billion national conglomerate by teaming up with other well-known merchants like Filene’s, Abraham & Straus, and Bloomingdale’s. They called it Federated Department Stores.

Today, of course, the Lazarus stores are just as impoverished as their biblical namesake. The Lazarus stores, like their parabolic predecessor, have fallen on hard times. Today, all formerly ‘Lazarus’ department stores are called Macy’s, kind of like Marshall Fields, I guess.

Jesus tells us about a rich man—Dives’ in Latin, but let’s call him ‘Richard’—who lives in opulent luxury; perhaps he lives down the street on Sheridan Road. More pointedly, perhaps I am he. I don’t consider myself to be a rich man, but Jesus would have. Even the most modest of us live richer than the kings of Jesus’ day.

To snap a quick Instagram of Dives, or Richard, Jesus in his story gives us two small details. He tells us what Richard wore and what Richard ate. He was, says Jesus, “dressed in purple and fine linen, and he feasted sumptuously.”

Against the stone pillars of the gate to his estate sits a miserable beggar who may not be gainfully employed, but at least he knows where to drag his bones every day in order to hold out his tin cup where the wealthy pass by. In contrast to Richard’s lavish threads, his limbs are clothed only with disgusting open sores.

A few of our Kenilworth Union families have sponsored a refugee family through Refugee One. The matriarch of this small refugee clan of three children and a niece is named Allure—such a beautiful name. Allure—when I say her name I think of a sweet fragrance. Allure is a refugee from the civil wars in Sudan. She is around 30 years old; she has been in a refugee camp for 15 years, since she was 15 herself; all three of her children were born in the camps.

In the early 2000’s, when Allure arrived in these Sudanese refugee camps, there was, there is, even in a place as destitute as a Sudanese refugee camp, there was, there is, a class system. There are the haves and the have-nots. There are layers and levels of tragedy.

In those places the levels are bad, worse, hellish, and unthinkable. Apparently it depends on how soon you were able to arrive at the camp. The last ones in are the worst off, and the first ones, impoverished as they are, have figured out how to prosper, if that is the right word, in these camps, and they have a term of derision for their new neighbors; the old-timers call the newcomers Abu Janguer, which is Arabic for ‘used clothes.’ They are the rag people. It’s what they use to construct the tents they live in. They’re so new and so poor that they haven’t even been given plastic sheeting to construct a home with.[1] I don’t know if any of her fellow refugees ever called Allure Abu Janguer—rag woman—but Allure would know many rag people.

Where Dives wears purple and fine linen, Lazarus is a rag person. You know your own rag people. You leap over them on the sidewalk or in the ‘L’ station on your way to work.

Lazarus earns his living by catching the quarters Richard tosses his way when the rich man is in a generous mood, or by dumpster-diving with the junkyard dogs in the rich man’s admittedly opulent garbage.

We don’t know why Lazarus was poor. Maybe he was just plain lazy, or maybe he hit the Jack Daniel’s a little too hard, or maybe his skin disease or whatever prevented him from holding a job, or maybe his mind worked a little differently, like many of the panhandlers you see on the city streets. Jesus didn’t tell us why Lazarus was poor. I guess it didn’t matter to him.

Nor do we know why Dives, or Richard, didn’t take better care of the poor man God had thrown under his very nose. Jesus doesn’t tell us that Dives was a bad man, or a selfish man. Jesus doesn’t tell us why Dives didn’t take better care of Lazarus. I guess that didn’t much matter to him either.

In any case, death, that great leveler, comes calling for both men. And it is at this point in the story that Jesus gives us one of his patented plot twists. If in this life Dives is on top and Lazarus on the bottom, in the next, everything is reversed.

Which must have baffled Jesus’ contemporaries, because they, like we, had the mistaken notion that people deserve their lot in life. If Dives was rich, it must have meant that God liked him. It must have meant that God was rewarding Dives for his diligence, or his piety, or his intelligence.

Likewise, if Lazarus was poor, it must have meant either that God was punishing him for his indigence, or his stupidity, or his perversity, or simply that God had it in for him for no good reason at all, and if God had it in for you in this life, there’s no reason to think God’s going to change God’s mind in the next.

Christians have never managed to outgrow this subtle, subconscious prejudice against the poor. An article in The New York Times on Friday[2] suggested that some British citizens might have voted to leave the European Union because they were inspired by Switzerland, which is doing just fine without the EU.

Switzerland has never been a member of the EU even though it is surrounded by a thicket of EU countries. Switzerland’s per capita income is $80,000 a year, which is almost double the UK’s $43,000 and a third larger than the United States at $55,000, but the Swiss miracle has nothing to do with the EU.

The Swiss are so good at capitalism because they’re Presbyterians, or at least they were in the sixteenth century, after John Calvin was mayor and pastor of Geneva. The Swiss are famous for three things: banks, watches, and punctual trains. They learned all this from John Calvin. “Runs like a Swiss watch” has always been a huge compliment.

The early Calvinists in the generations after John Calvin were famous for believing in the inextricable connection between money and destiny. They didn’t get it from John Calvin himself, but the early Calvinists believed that wealth now meant salvation later.

Earthly blessing foreshadowed eternal felicity. Earthly prosperity was a sure indication that you were among the elect. It meant God liked you. It was, it is, why Calvinists make the best capitalists; they worked so hard to prove to themselves and everybody else that they are numbered among the elect. It is called the Protestant work ethic.[3]

Money determines destiny. The early Calvinists were right about that. But they were wrong about the precise relationship. According to this little parable, the relationship is not direct, but inverse. The way Jesus links the two, you can be rich now or rich later.

There’s nothing wrong with being rich; Dives doesn’t go to hell because he’s rich; he goes to hell because he’s blind. He does not see the beggar right outside the automatic gates at the end of his half-mile driveway. He does not care about the rag people. Wealth is a powerful resource—for good and for ill. You can use your money to build walls, or you can use your money to build bridges. Those Kenilworth Union families that sponsored Allure and her children? They’re using their money to build bridges. What’re you going to do?

In hell, Dives calls out across the gap to heaven, saying, “Father Abraham, send that what’s-his-name, that beggar—Lazarus, I think—to cool my parched throat with a drink of cool water.” Sorry, no can do,” says Father Abraham. “Well then send Lazarus to warn my brothers,” “They already have Moses and the prophets,” says Father Abraham. “They should listen to them.” Dives complains, “But they don’t listen to them.” Father Abraham says, “Sorry, Charlie, it’s too late now.”

This happened a long time ago, but it happened. I’m not making this up. I was visiting old friends in Philadelphia, and I was walking down Walnut Street, that tony shopping district in Center City, when I was accosted by one of the numerous homeless folks who wander the streets of every big city in America. He was wearing a full three-piece suit, but it hadn’t been cleaned since the mid-80’s and hadn’t been in style since the Nixon administration. It was lime-green, large-checked, and polyester. When I was 17 I had one of those myself; that was in 1974.

The pants stopped a good four inches from the tops of his black socks and white patent leather shoes. The tie was so loud that if you shut it up in a closet a hush would fall across the room.[4]

On his head he was wearing a contraption made of aluminum foil. Yes, he had rabbit-ear antennae, like you used to put on your TV before cable. It looked like he was trying to receive radio communications from distant planets. He was wearing a wool winter overcoat, though this happened to be the sixth of July and it was 92 degrees. He was sweating. He was a rag person if ever there was one. He was used clothes.

He asked me for some spare change. I told him I never give cash to strangers. He said, “Well, thank you for your attention. Have a nice day.” As he walked away, I noticed that as with many of these folks, he carried all his belongings with him wherever he went, and his were in a department store shopping bag, with gold letters 3 inches high. Perhaps you can guess what it said. Maybe he knew what he was doing. Maybe he understood that many of the rich folk he approached would make the biblical connection, but he didn’t look like he was capable of shrewd calculation.

Luke tells us that eternity refuses to send us messengers from the far side of the grave. But I don’t know. I think I might have had a visitor from the bosom of Abraham. His shopping bag said his name was Lazarus.

A while back I was walking down East 67th Street in Manhattan and found a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk. I scrupled for a moment on the legal and ethical issues of my good fortune. What’s the law and what’s right when you find something that someone else lost? I looked around to see if I was on one of those reality shows that try to trap people into doing bad things, but I didn’t see Charlie Rose or Leslie Stahl.

I was on the sidewalk in front of a tony apartment building with three or four doormen in the lobby. I thought about leaving my phone number with the doormen, but then I thought, “Nobody in that building needs that Ben Franklin.” I tucked it into my wallet and walked around with it for a few days, and finally slipped it into the paper cup of one of those solicitors you see outside the train station.

The good news is that sometimes you get a second chance. I did. And so did another rich man from another famous parable. Have you ever noticed that Charles Dickens got his idea for A Christmas Carol straight from Luke’s Parable about Lazarus and Dives? It’s the same story—about a stingy, uncaring rich man who ignores the poor at his own doorstep, only this time, there is a happy ending, because in Dickens’ parable, the rich man receives his warning from beyond the grave.

Says Scrooge to the ghost in chains, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” “Business!” thunders Jacob Marley. “Business! Mankind was my business; the common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”[5]

I’d forgotten that Dickens knew his Bible so well.

[1]Marc Lacy, “Evicted From Camp, Sudan Refugees Suffer in Limbo,” The New York Times, August 3, 2004.

[2]James B. Stewart, “Britain’s Dreams of a ‘Swiss Miracle’ Look More Like Fantasy”, The New York Times, June 24, 216.

[3]This is my own summary of Max Weber’s famous thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958, first published 1904.

[4]With apologies to novelist Peter De Vries, from whom I adapted this line.

[5]Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (London: Octopus Books, 1980), p. 33. Suggested by George A. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), p. 142.

2017-12-05T15:29:14+00:00