The Rich Man and Lazarus, Part 2: Justifying the Disparity

Luke’s introduction to the story of the rich man and Lazarus reads: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this [Jesus’ teaching about not being able to serve God and money—that money is a rival god] and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God’” (Luke 16:14-15).

How did the religious leaders justify their love for and accumulation of money? It wasn’t that difficult. A number of Scriptures teach that material wealth is the blessing of God and that disease and impoverishment is the result of God’s judgment. If there were no Scriptures to support this view there would be no prosperity gospel preachers with huge empires. Joel Osteen would not have the largest church in America if he did not have Scriptures he could employ to justify his theology of wealth and material blessing. It’s in the Bible. It’s bad theology, but it’s in the Bible.

The rich man would have appealed to this theology to justify his lack of response. He may have even argued that Lazarus’s condition was due to the judgment of God, so if he tried to alleviate his poverty or bring some relief to his suffering, he would be interfering with God’s will. (This sounds similar to the arguments of some of the Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to cut money for food stamps and programs that assist the poor.)

Of course, there is also a counter theology in the Bible that reaches its pinnacle in the life and teachings of Jesus. We find it in the Law. For example, Deut. 15:7-8 reads: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of the towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”

It’s also pervasive in the prophets. Isaiah says: “Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . .? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself . . .?” (58:6–7).  Here are two different theologies about money and blessing. 

So does the Bible contradict itself? Yes, it does. The Bible argues with itself on any number of issues. No matter how “inspired” the biblical writers were, they were flawed, sinful, finite human beings. The Bible contains bad theology and good theology; the Bible contains good social and ethical practice as well as bad social and ethical practice. There are texts of transformation and texts of terror. Both slave owners and abolitionists made their cases by appealing to Scripture.

And not only does the Bible argue with itself, we who read the Bible bring all our assumptions, presuppositions, beliefs, and biases into the interpretative process. How often do we go to the Bible to prove some point about what we already believe? 

When reading the Bible, the issue is not: Do I bring my biases with me into this process of interpreting and applying Scripture? Of course we do. It’s not a question of whether or not we have biases. We all have biases and we bring these with us into the reading of the text. The question is: What are our biases? Do we read with a bias to prove some doctrinal point or to exclude some person or group? Or do we read Scripture with a bias for inclusion and with a vision for the common good?

We have to choose what we will accept and reject. We have to discern and decide which texts will have authority in our lives and the degree of authority we will grant them. This process is more complicated and messier that simply saying, “I believe the whole Bible is literally the Word of God.” But even those who make such a claim do not actually practice it.

One does not need a theology degree to be able to discern what is good theology and bad theology. One simply needs to ask:
* Will believing and doing this make me a more loving, compassionate, forgiving,                              gracious, good, caring person?
* Will it make me more like Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels?
* Will this help me love God more and love my neighbor as myself?
* Will this advance the common good and the well-being of all God’s children?  

One does not need to be trained in historical-critical methods of interpretation or theological systems or church history to answer the above questions. The light of God is within each of us. The most important thing is to be open, honest, humble, and receptive to the Divine Voice within us and to bring with us to the sacred text a bias toward grace. 

The more loving we are toward others (especially the disadvantaged) and the more humble and honest we are about our own sins and faults, the less likely we are to use Scripture to justify bad theology, oppressive social policies, and self-serving ethical practices.


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