Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Does anyone here recognize this proclamation? It’s part of a poem by Emma Lazarus entitled ‘The New Colossus,’ which is inscribed on a plaque affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. (Colossus is defined as ‘a statue of gigantic size’). Here’s the sonnet in its entirety.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The history behind this poem is very interesting. Emma Lazarus was a fourth- or fifth-generation American from a very wealthy Jewish family. During the 1880s, when Jews in Russia were being systematically massacred, she became an activist for Jewish causes here in America as more and more of them emigrated from Russia to the U.S. Specifically, she was drawn to plight of the Jewish immigrants living in New York City. She wrote ‘The New Colossus’ in 1883 as part of an effort to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
‘A New Colossus’ wasn’t written in a vacuum; there’s a very telling cultural context out of which she wrote it, and it helps us understand the point she was trying to make. There’d been some well-publicized anti-Semitic incidents during the 1870s here in the States. And then in 1882 our Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1882, part of which restricted “any person unable to take care of him or herself” from immigrating to America. That same year they also passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. In essence, it was the first law implemented to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating. So it was out of this context that Lazarus wrote of the great statue who stood at the “golden door” or our country, “Her name [is] Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glow world-wide welcome. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
It’s been noted that this poem has never represented America’s actual or official immigration policy. Rather, it’s always been aspirational in nature. And while it has come to reflect an accepted, albeit unofficial, “cultural policy” which our nation has taken in regard to our view of immigration, that view has clearly been contested and questioned to a great degree these past few years. Just this week an official representative of our federal government suggested on live TV that we amend Lazarus’ poem so that it would reflect the sentiment of the Immigration Act of 1882, indicating that we should only welcome those who can “stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Is that really the position we as a nation want to take? That the only kind of people we want here are those who can stand on their own two feet and never require any kind of help? Do we really want laws in place which make it increasingly more difficult for legal immigrants to become American citizens simply because their children qualified for and therefore took advantage of a hot lunch program at school?
Let me be very clear. At issue here, for the purposes of this message, is not immigration per se, but the stance that the only people welcome here are those who meet a certain high economic criteria. Politics aside, I believe this is a very bad and unethical position to take, because it flies in the face of everything Jesus Christ stood for and proclaimed—including the point he was making in today’s reading, the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The context of this parable is important. Jesus has just finished talking about how the love of wealth is a stumbling block to our relationship with God. In 16:13, Luke records Jesus telling his listeners, “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” The very next sentence is, “The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. So Jesus said to them, ‘You’re always making yourselves look good and righteous to people, but the truth is God knows your hearts, the real you’” (vv. 14-15). For Jesus, there’s a connection between being someone who loves money and presents him/herself as holy and righteous, especially when it’s a kind of holiness that offends God (holiness on the “outside” only).
Here’s what I think. On one level, it’s clearly about being a lover of wealth. But I think there’s more to it than just that, especially in light of the parable Jesus tells about the reversal of fortunes experienced by an unnamed man of great wealth and a poor beggar named Lazarus. The story begins by describing the difference in their living conditions. The rich man is “clothed in purple and fine linen,” probably indicating that he’s a wealthy government official, maybe even a king-figure. Lazarus, on the other hand, is covered in sores, whose only medical treatment for those sores is being licked by dogs. Every day he lays at a gate (to the man’s home, to the city?) and begs for food. To him, any leftover scraps from the rich man’s meals would be a feast for poor Lazarus.
So, beside monetary wealth, what’s the biggest difference between these two characters? How about power? The kind of power that allows one to control the narrative, so to speak. The man with great wealth holds all the cards. Yes, he has access to all the resources that enabled him to live in comfort and ease–food, entertainment, clothing, medicine, etc.. But more importantly, and I think more to the point of the story, given his status he probably controls the social and economic systems in which he and Lazarus both live. If he is a king or, at the very least, someone with political clout, he has power to create what today we would call policy. And while Jesus doesn’t come right out and say it, it’s safe to say that the way the story is told, the policies in place serve to benefit the wealthy man and others like him, and to keep Lazarus and others like him in their lowly place. The wealthy man is perfectly fine letting Lazarus beg for his food and the dogs lick his sores. In fact, the man would probably tell us, “That’s just the way it is; there’s nothing I can do about it.”
On the other hand, Lazarus has no power, no voice, no say in matters of justice and injustice. This, to me, is the biggest difference between them. One has all the power and the other has no power whatsoever.
Even in death, the man sees Lazarus as a slave who’s there for his own benefit!
So, as the story goes on, they both die. And to everyone’s surprise, the poor beggar is catapulted to heaven where he now feasts at the table with Father Abraham while wealthy man lands in “the place of the dead” where he’s tormented by fire and oppressive heat.
In his newfound state of suffering, what’s the first thing the formerly wealthy man asks for? He asks that Lazarus be sent down to serve him! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame (v. 24). Even in death, the man sees Lazarus as a slave who’s there for his own benefit! But to his great agony, he no longer holds the reins of power. He’s living under a “policy” over which he has no control, a “policy” set in place by God. Here’s how it’s stated in the parable: “During your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now, Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from her to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to here” (vv. 25-16). In a twist of irony, one can almost hear Father Abraham telling him, “I know you don’t like it, but that’s just the way it is; there’s nothing I can do about it.”
If you stand back and look at the whole of Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation—it’s clear that God has a very special place in his heart for the poor and powerless. For example, the law of Moses indicated specific ways that the Hebrews society was to look after and care for those who had nothing. And while some parts of the Old Testament law may seem archaic and anything but providing for justice for certain people, especially women, you have to know that within the society of that day, it was radical in its advancement in mandated care for women and children and foreigners and the poor. And this is carried forth into the New Testament. From Jesus of the Gospels to Paul’s letters to the Apostle’s letters to the teachings of the first century church, the poor and marginalized of society were given attention; it was mandated that those who had resources were to use them to benefit those who did not have those same resources.
In the Gospels, when Jesus became angry it was almost always at the religious leaders, the Pharisees–the people with power. His biggest gripe with them was the fact that they lived a “do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do” kind of life. They presented themselves as holy and righteous. They called the shots. They passed the laws. They passed judgment in the Jewish “courts of law.” But Jesus knew their hearts, and wasn’t afraid to let them know that despite how it appeared on the outside, God was offended. They had the power, but failed to wield it as God intended. Those in power benefited while those without it suffered.
For Jesus, this wasn’t a story about politics or policy. But I think it was a story about justice, and doing the right thing. From my reading and study of this parable, I think Jesus was making it very clear to the power-brokers of his day, and therefore the power-brokers of our own day, that policies and positions (whether official or unofficial) which ultimately serve to benefit those with power more than those without it are in opposition to God’s ways. To be clear, this isn’t a parable against being wealthy or living in comfort. It’s a parable about recognizing the fact that God expects us to proactively use our position and influence in society to enact ways that build up those who don’t have what we have.
For Jesus, this wasn’t a story about politics or policy. But I think it was a story about justice, and doing the right thing.
But there’s more. If we who do have the power and position to make a positive difference in the lives of others fail to do so, we’re just as guilty as those who actively work against them. That is, living passively in our comfort while certain policies and rules continue which keep others down—the poor, marginalized, immigrants, etc.—is a terrible thing.
Maybe, just maybe, Jesus is warning us that if we simply live comfortably while others suffer and never lift a finger to work to change that, we could find that when we cross over to the other side at the end of this life, things may not be quite as we had expected. Maybe, just maybe, being religious will get us nowhere. But being active disciples of Jesus Christ who live to serve others—especially the poor and marginalized—will be the key to an eternity of joy and peace with God.