Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Growing Chasm

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”Luke 16:19-26
Jesus was teaching about wealth and poverty and justice and the grace of God in a series of parables when he was interrupted by some hecklers who ridiculed him because, Luke says, they were lovers of money. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” And then he went back to talking about the Kingdom of God, and he told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In many ways, Jesus’ teachings on wealth and poverty are an extension of the witness of the Hebrew Prophets. He makes it more personal and his teaching is more emphatic, but the theme is consistent across the centuries of biblical witness. Explaining God’s judgment on Sodom, Ezekiel said, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16.49). Jesus calls this “an abomination in the sight of God.”

Against this biblical background a new report from the Congressional Budget Office should raise serious concerns ( The CBO found that from 1979 to 2007 the average income of the top one percent of the population grew by 275% in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The rest of the top 20% grew at less than a quarter of that rate. In the middle quintile, the growth was only about one eighth of the top rate. And the lowest twenty percent grew at less than one fifteenth the rate of the top one percent. Those are rate differences. The actual dollar differences are enormous.

Yesterday in the Providence Journal they applied their “Truth-O-Meter” test to a sign held up by one of the “Occupy Providence” people claiming that a person working at minimum wage made $16,000 per year while the CEO of Goldman-Sachs made $16,000 per hour. Calling the claim “False,” the Journal pointed out that the minimum wage earner would have an annual income of closer to $15,000 and the Goldman-Sachs CEO actually earned less than $10,000 per hour.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see how that really makes a difference.

A little research reveals that the sign-maker had the wrong company. The company was Lehman Brothers. The CEO was Richard Fuld. He made $17,000 per hour in 2007 while driving his company and the whole economy over an economic cliff (see Nicholas Kristof, September 17, 2008 in the New York Times).

There are places where the Bible seems to advocate income equality (Acts 2:44-46, Matthew 20:1-16), but that is not a dominant theme. There are many examples throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the history of the early church, where people of wealth are held up as positive examples. Sometimes they are praised for how they use their money to help others. Other times they are praised for virtues that may be unrelated to their economic status.

And the Bible never holds up poverty as a virtue. There is no suggestion that the poor are better than the rich.

The problem is in the gap between rich and poor. Jesus does not give us hard numbers and he does not give us a formula for how much is too much. When the rich man dines sumptuously and the poor man begs for crumbs, the gap is too great.

Reasonable people may differ in how much we think is too much. And we may differ on what we believe is the best way to reverse course. But we are going in the wrong direction.

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