During Year C of the three-year lectionary, when Luke is the featured gospel account, making it more than three weeks in a row without preaching about rich people is pretty hard. According to Luke, Jesus loved to pick on them, and he’s at it again this week in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). The Track 2 Old Testament reading (Amos 6:1a, 4-7) doesn’t give any relief, and even the Epistle lesson (1 Timothy 6:6-19) contains a specific instruction on how to deal with rich people. So, for the third or fourth or fifth time since Pentecost, I’ll probably be preaching about those of us who live in excess.
There’s something about the Amos reading that brings this particularly close to home.
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils…
My bed isn’t made of ivory, but I’m pretty pleased with our mattress and the nicely coordinated sheets under which I sleep every night. And I wouldn’t call my Sunday afternoon nap on the couch “lounging,” but it is a wonderful couch—long enough for me to stretch all the way out on. It’s been a while since I’ve had lamb or veal, but I must confess that there’s a portion of a leg of lamb that I picked up on sale in my refrigerator right now. Most of my singing isn’t to the sound of the harp, and I rarely improvise on instruments of music, but I sing idle songs all day long. I don’t drink copious amounts of red wine, and, when I do, I drink it from glasses rather than bowls, but I like to use those deep, wide-mouthed Burgundy glasses that are bowl-like. I don’t know anyone who anoints himself with oils—fine or not. Some of us use lotion for dry skin, especially now that fall is here. I don’t usually indulge in oils or lotions, but I am pretty particular about my shampoo, which is probably the 21st-century equivalent. So, yeah, Amos is talking to me.
Alas for those of us who live the kind of life I live…but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Working Preacher suggests that “the ruin of Joseph” is a way of saying the entire population of Israel, who, as Seth mentioned yesterday in his sermon, were widely divided by wealth. Some people were super-rich, while many others were struggling to get by. Amos had in his sights the wealth disparity of his community. “The rich get richer, while the poor get screwed,” as a fiery young preacher once preached a long, long time ago. In other words, the prophet Amos is prophesying woes to those who live the lives of rich people while others around them are struggling. If that isn’t a lesson for today, I don’t know what is.
There’s a fine line between rich people like me insulating themselves from the troubles of the poor and rich people like me using their wealth to perpetuate a system of injustice. It starts by wanting to feel secure. The nice car, the nice house, the bed of ivory—they are coveted not simply because for their opulence but for the message of security they portray. And, when we build up for ourselves an unassailable fortress of financial security, we begin to look out at the world from our secure position and see threats. And then we wall ourselves in with even more expressions of security, and, before you know it, every moment of our life is an “us vs. them” experience. Pretty soon, we’re not just distancing ourselves from the poor—we’re taking steps to make sure that their poverty (and our wealth) are inescapable—a great chasm that no one can cross.
Woe to me and woe to you! Woe to those of us who live lives of comfort but ignore the plight of the poor! Woe to those of us whose security depends upon a fence or a moat or a wall or a private school or a summer camp or a gated community or a lake house that no one can cross—in or out. Amos is talking to us. Jesus is, too, but, before we listen to what he says, we need to be sure that we’re ready to listen.