Editorial: Lazarus at the Gat

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 36, Lent 2006

Over the last few years I have been struggling with the fact that by accident of birth I belong to the wealthy fifth of the planet that controls and consumes 83% of the planet’s wealth and resources. Exposure to people living in extreme poverty in the Philippines and Pakistan has touched my conscience and my awareness of sin has deepened. I struggle with both my own personal sinfulness and with the structural social sin with which I am complicit. I have a strong sense that I, and we, are the rich with billions of Lazarus’ at our gate.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, even though over the past fifty years we have dropped from third to twentieth on the OECD per capita GDP ranking, almost all in this country belong to the wealthy 20% of the global population. We take our wealth and comfort for granted and on the whole, individually and nationally, seek to better our position. Rarely do we compare ourselves with people in the poorest countries and recognize that we are 60 to 80 times wealthier than almost half the world’s population.

The Luke 16 parable of the rich man and Lazarus is essentially a judgement against enjoying the comfort of having more while others starve. The rich man (the Latin word for rich traditionally has come to be used as his name – Dives) is condemned because of his relative wealth (‘good things came your way’) and his unwillingness to change the way things were. This parable, as with the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18, rejects the accepted norm that being wealthy is a good and ‘of God.’ In fact Luke, in his version of the Beatitudes, names that it is a curse (‘woe to you rich …’ 6:24, Jerusalem Bible). To be a follower of Jesus requires first and foremost a willingness to ‘sell all you own and distribute the money to the poor’ (Luke 18:22). This redistribution of wealth is a key contributor to the coming of the reign Jesus preached.

While sin is not a popular word for many these days, I want to name the reality of being amongst the rich of the planet as sin – both personal and social. I am aware that this is not what many think when they think of sin, but reflecting on the eternal agony meted out to Dives in the parable, there is no other conclusion to draw. Because almost all in Aotearoa New Zealand are part of the wealthiest 20% of the planet, almost all of us are living in a way that is contrary to what is of the God of Jesus. We each make personal decisions about what we want in life, about our desired lifestyle and standard of living, and about what we want for those dearest to us. We do this within a context of a collective history of increasing expectations, requirements and opportunities. While there has been a growing awareness of the reality of social sin, it seems that many have difficulty with the concept and want to name all sin as ultimately personal.

Dominican, Scott Steinkerchner, who I met in Manila and from whom I have borrowed this article title, argues that social sin and personal sin need to be placed on equal footing. He believes that these two kinds of sins are mutually dependent. In appreciating this mutuality we are able to see more clearly ‘the dialogical relationship between how our actions affect others in society and how the society we live in affects our actions.’ Thus while he believes that we ‘cannot avoid being caught in social sin,’ he reminds us of our baptismal call to ‘break the cycle of sin that holds our world bound.’

To be a follower of Jesus requires a deepening of our awareness of sin – personal and social. Yet it is only in our growing awareness of the nature of God’s reign and of the reality of gross inequality on a global scale can we have any sense of what is not of God. Through my ongoing attempts to be open to scripture and Catholic social teaching on the one hand and the reality of poverty in places like the Philippines and Pakistan on the other, I have come to name myself as a modern Dives.

To be a follower of Jesus also requires that we work to break the cycle of sin. To seek to bring about a world that is more ‘of God’ requires both openness to ongoing personal conversion and a commitment to work for structural change. These are mutually reinforcing. My increasing openness to question my own lifestyle and my deepening conviction that injustice must be addressed have gone hand in hand.

Alongside this deepening sense of the bigger picture of sin have been parallel but complimentary practical questions: How can I be in the world but not of the world? How can I live in this country and not be Dives? What are the implications for daily life? How counter-cultural can I be? How can I best contribute to raising awareness of the enormous suffering that exists because of the global wealth gap? What can I do that will contribute to change? And how do I convince others in Aotearoa New Zealand that we are part of the problem, that we are Dives’ who are called to change?

Over 30 years ago the then Superior General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, caused a huge stir when he linked the church’s call for the promotion of justice to living much more simply, to not drawing benefit from unjust personal and social relationships, and to living with a firm resolve to be agents of change. If we have the courage to unpack and take on board this three-fold challenge, we have a way forward, a way of no longer being Dives with billions of Lazarus’ at our gate. Arrupe believed that we cannot be a follower of Jesus without fusing love and justice and that ‘we can never be sure we have love at all unless our love issues in works of justice.’ To love Lazarus would mean choosing to no longer be Dives.

To live this we need a spirituality for the long haul. Benedictine sister, Joan Chittister, believes that we must not let the immensity of the task defeat our working to achieve the ideal. Her sense of the necessary spirituality is based on four realities. ‘It requires an enterprise worthy enough to merit the waste of a human life. It depends on an unquenchable sense of gospel truth. It demands a memory of Church that is above institution. It assumes an unremitting dedication to personal authenticity.’

I sense that to begin to love in a way that seeks justice for the billions of Lazarus’ at our gate is an enterprise worthy enough. To attempt to break the cycle of our personal and social sin and to seek to no longer be Dives is to be open to the gospel call to conversion. To hear again the call of the Hebrew and Christian prophets is to be reminded that God desires there should be ‘no poor among you.’ And, in Chittister’s words, ‘to cry in season and out of season, politely and impolitely’ that which is ‘of God,’ is to be authentic. I pray we have the courage to walk this journey.

David Tutty. First printed in Talking Cents, a group charged by the Anglican Diocesan Council to promote an alternative to current economic and political thought, and to encourage debate within the church.

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