A USA student went to Brazil as a foreign exchange student. One of her first lessons was about the vast disparity between the rich and the poor in Rio de Janeiro. She had learned about the poor in Latin America, and particularly about the slums in Rio-- though her host family would never have considered taking her there. She was aware that her host family was well to do, but she had no clue how rich they were. That is until one day it was announced that they would go shopping that weekend. She expected that they'd simply head into town. To her amazement, they went instead to the airport where they boarded their private jet and flew to Paris for an overnight shopping spree. Such is the disparity that exists, the chasm between the rich and the poor.
In the early 2000s, I had the opportunity to travel twice to Russia. As an outsider looking in, one of the most immediate impressions was that this was a land of priceless treasurers, and incredible poverty. Historic palaces bear witness to the incredible wealth of years past, in contrast to the serfdom of the masses. The communist era sought to equalize the wealth distribution in the country, but in truth did little to improve the lot of the common person. And in the post-communist era the vast majority exist on little to nothing, while the new rich (the Russian mafia) rival the world's wealthiest. One passes by beggars in the street to enter museums filled with Rembrandts and Picassos. Such is the disparity that exists, the chasm between the rich and the poor.
In our own country the gap is widening. Politicians talk about the 1%. Major corporations such as Monsanto dominate world markets. I had the opportunity once to do a commission for a German couple who had a summer place in Gig Harbor, where I was a "starving artist" woodworker. At the time this couple was in the Forbes top ten of the wealthiest people in the world. They had just acquired the A & P Grocery stores, and considered it to be a good tax right off. I still am amazed to think about the time when Erivan and Helga Haub stood in my living room as we finalized a deal on what would be my largest commission. The wealthiest of the wealthy in my modest home. Quotable quote: They had invited a prominent Gig Harbor businessman and his wife for an afternoon of relaxing by their pool. Helga turned to Erivan during the course of the conversation and said, "Isn't it great being in Gig Harbor where we can thoroughly enjoy ourselves socializing with the peasants."
Such is the disparity that exists, the chasm between the rich and the poor.
But just when I become convinced of my own poverty, I remember a visit from our friends in Russia. Our congregation had paid for their way to come and spend a few weeks with us. As they walked into our home for a meal one evening they simply exclaimed, "Yet another palace!"
The Bible doesn't take lightly this chasm between the rich and the poor. One of the most radical concepts was for a year of Jubilee. Every 50 years wealth and land would be redistributed and all would be equal again. It probably was never observed.
Amos declares that the exile awaits for the wealthiest in Judah who are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph. And in our Gospel lesson, we have Lazarus and the rich man, each with their differing lots in life, but who will find in the life to come that their fortune has been reversed. Does God care that much about economic justice and equality?
Acts gives us an account of a great economic experiment of the early church. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." One must wonder how widespread this situation was, and how long it endured. Probably only for "one brief, but shining moment. . ."
Last week's Gospel declared emphatically: "You cannot serve God and wealth." Liberation Theology emerged from Latin America to claim and emphasize the Gospel as "Good News for the Poor", but understandably, with the exception of a few "bleeding heart liberals", it gained little traction in the North.
The uncomfortable and inconvenient reality is that if we listen to the prophets, or Jesus, we cannot ignore the concern expressed for the poor. There is an 800# Gorilla in the room. The question is: Is that Gorilla the dominant power of the rich over the poor that will continue for all time? Or the hand of God that will act with retribution against the rich and in favor of the poor?
This text should make us uncomfortable. Or perhaps hopeful. It all depends. But if we believe the witness of how God has acted historically, and that God will continue to act, we best be prepared for the possibility that redemption may affect economic injustice and oppression.