A friend and fellow biblical scholar shared this picture on Facebook from Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City.
The sign’s reference to Mr. Speaker is Rep. John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who helped his party push through legislation that would cut $39 million from one of our most effective social safety net programs—food stamps or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The bill won’t pass in the Democratically-controlled Senate and, even if it does, the White House has threatened to veto it. Even so, the bill’s passage in the House is symptomatic of our country’s on-going struggle with issues of poverty and wealth. Is it just an amazing coincidence that the parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) pops up in the lectionary at the very same time that Congress votes to cut aid to the nation’s poor?
It’s not a coincidence, not at all. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners has often pointed out over the years, one can hardly turn the page in a Red-Letter Bible without stumbling over a verse about economic justice, a story about God’s concern for the vulnerable, or a teaching from Jesus about the poor. By his count, there are nearly 3000 verses in the Bible about these matters. Luke’s gospel is constantly talking about money and the poor, often in ways that make middle class and upper-middle class Americans uncomfortable. My husband tells a story about the time he preached on Luke 16 and was met by an angry church member who exclaimed, “Why are you preaching about money? Why don’t you preach the Bible?” Readers can be remarkably resistant to the Bible’s preferential option for the poor.
Yet Luke’s gospel cannot be any clearer about who has God’s favor and concern. The parable dramatically counters our prevailing trend of demonizing the poor. If anything, the story demonizes the rich. Not only is the rich man crassly insensitive to Lazarus’ human needs, but the parable literally sends him to Hades, to the abode of demons! Without any subtlety at all, Luke’s parable insists that those who do not stand with the poor will be on the wrong side of eternal judgment. Indeed, the stark contrasts between the two men—the differences in their earthly lots and God’s reversal of their conditions after death—led Albert Schweitzer to a moment of conviction and a lifetime of humanitarian action in Africa.
So how is it that congressmen like Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee can use the Bible to justify cutting food stamps to families? How is it that so many good people, when confronted with the terrible chasm of economic inequality in our country, will cite “the poor will always be with you” as the biblical response? How is it that others will trot out the phrase “God helps those who help themselves,” even though this comes from Ben Franklin, not from the Bible? Is it a case of misinterpretation? Is it willful ignorance driven by political ideology? Is it greed? Is it all of the above?
It is not hard to see why some of our congressional figures would overlook much of the biblical witness about God’s favor of poor. Notice that when Lazarus dies, angels immediately transport him to paradise without any mention of him earning his place there. Luke’s parable says nothing about the poor working harder or bootstrapping themselves to success. Quite the opposite, time after time in Luke’s Gospel, God is the one embracing, looking, finding those who are often fairly passive (Lk 15:3-5, 8-9, 20-30). God’s preferential option sounds a lot like an entitlement mentality run amok! It runs counter to an ideology that thinks government should only intervene to redistribute wealth from the poor to the privileged, not from the privileged to the poor. As if the privileged have always earned their wealth and success.
But there also seems to be a problem of chronic misidentification at work in our reading of this parable. Parables work by inviting the reader into the story. Parables typically ask readers to identify themselves in the face of one of the characters. Schweitzer read this parable and saw himself and all of Europe as the rich man, the one who is clearly the bad guy in the story. But how many of us are so honest about our privilege and wealth? We typically choose to see ourselves as the good guy in any story. We think of ourselves as Lazarus and then we spiritualize the meaning of this parable—we are the ones longing, but our longing is spiritual, of course. Or, we identify the rich man as someone who is not us. We are not part of the problem. We give to charity. We are kind to those people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
At other times readers make the mistake of idealizing poverty and the poor. I especially hear this from those who have just returned from mission trips to Mexico or Central America. It sounds something like this, “The conditions there were horrible, but the people were so marvelous. Because they don’t have any material possessions to distract them, they’re so much closer to God. I wish I could be more like them.” It’s a wonderful sentiment, except for the implication that the poor are better off, really, to continue in their state of dire physical need, while the rest of us must do the best we can with our unfortunate state of privilege. Such misidentifications keep us from seeing the poor clearly and keep us from understanding their plight as one that is profoundly connected to our own well-being as a society.
Last year, SNAP worked efficiently to keep nearly 4 million people out of poverty. Can we recognize who they are? Some sensationalist media reports picture them as young, able-bodied loafers, looking for a free ride at the tax-payer’s expense. But, in reality, approximately 75% of all SNAP recipients are working families with children; these are not loafers or cheaters. How does perpetuating the poverty of working adults and their children help us create a robust economy and a moral society? It doesn’t; it widens the chasm between us and threatens us all.
Amy Merrill Willis, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her teaching and research interests include Apocalyptic Literature, Biblical Theology, and the Bible and Popular Culture. She is the author of Dissonance and the Drama of Divine Sovereignty in the Book of Daniel from Continuum Press.