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Jamaica, Lazarus and Dives

Excerpt from sermon preached by Rt. Rev. Howard Gregory, Bishop of Jamaica & The Cayman Islands at the 149th Annual Synod of the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands (Anglican) at St. James Parish Church, Montego Bay, April 23, 2019

 

Several of the readings for today and, in particular the gospel, have something to say about the ordering of life in the world, the various boundaries which we establish in the ordering of life in community, including the community of faith, and which are based on materialistic and other measures of human worth, and our call to be instruments for the reversal that takes place in God's kingdom. 

The First Reading from Amos 6:1-7 is a denunciation of persons of private wealth and luxury who are blind to the situation of deprivation confronting the poor and marginalized.  Amos prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam, a period which was characterized by great prosperity for Israel.  The words of the prophet are addressed to those who in verse 1 are described as “notable”.  They are the ones who constitute the upper classes, the ‘conspicuous citizens’, the prosperous ones, the trend-setters, and are looked to as authorities and leaders, whether in political, commercial or social life. The prophet points to their increasing self-indulgence and selfish heartlessness in the face of the poverty and misery of those who have, not only no ivory on their sofas, but no sofas at all on which to rest their bodies.

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;

5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music;

6 who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils,but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!

Psalm 146: 9-10 echoes the denunciation of the rich as in the first lesson and affirms God's concern for the poor, the hungry and the oppressed, while the Epistle reading from I Timothy 6:11-19 articulates a perspective on life that is designed to inform the way human beings relate to and value each other and the things that constitute the material world.  In so doing, it contains a note of caution concerning riches and the stewardship of the same.

The Gospel reading from Luke 16:19-31, picks up the themes of the previous lessons in the form of a parable, giving a very concrete expression to the relationship between the rich and the poor in the form of the two men, Lazarus and the rich man (commonly called Dives), and then adds the idea of the reversal of fortunes and the balancing of the scales of justice by drawing on the eschatological image of life in the next world.  It is a picture of persons living in the closest physical proximity, but two clearly defined socioeconomic worlds, and never the twain shall meet.  Notice that it is all set in the context of people who stand within the tradition of the community of faith as told by Jesus.

Let us then attend to the dynamics of this parable and see what we may glean from it regarding the nature and challenge of discipleship as instruments of grace and hope in face of the reality of life in our context today.

 

Self-absorbed.

There is portrayed for us in the narrative what many would regard as the good life and the symbols of success defined in terms of:

-          wealth - a rich man;

-          luxury - clothed in purple and fine linen – expensive clothing;

-          opulence - one who feasted sumptuously every day;

-          exclusive living arrangement - one who lived in a house behind a gate – keeping out undesirables.

As the parable is told by Jesus, he lays the groundwork of a life characterized by what many would define as success and which they deserve because of their personal efforts and accomplishments, but tinged with smugness, and self-satisfaction. What more is there to desire for the achievement of the good life?

In his self-absorbed state, the epitome of success and prosperity, the rich man is blind to the existence and destitute state of the poor man, Lazarus, who lies at his gate with no shelter and in a condition of sheer destitution. With empty stomach knawing at him, and his life perhaps hanging in the balance, Lazarus looks toward the house of the rich man hoping that he will be noticed, not hoping for a portion of the leg of lamb or any of the gourmet dishes being served, but for just some of the crumbs that would be part of the leftovers.  He is covered with sores, and the dogs come and lick his sores bringing him perhaps the only measure of relief and companionship that he knows.  At worse, it may also be that he lacked the energy to drive the dogs away.  How much closer could one get to the rich man's world? But he never really noticed him. Lazarus just became part of the scenery.

 

Global economic model

We can perhaps look at the relationship between the rich man and Lazarus within the context of the prevailing global economic model of the free-market economy which is based on the notion that the welfare of a nation is based on the financial success of the few which will then trickle down to the poor. In that light, the rich man may have been committed to the macroeconomic indicators which measure success, and accepted the position that the economy could not support the social programs that would help people like Lazarus.  However, when the economy boomed the trickle-down effect would then reach to Lazarus.  Of course, by the time that would be realized Lazarus would already be dead and in the arms of Abraham.

Consider for a moment the thought that the rich man may have been diligent in attending the synagogue every Sabbath, exiting his gate, perhaps like an Anglican, in pious devotion and preparation for his anticipated religious experience that day.  But we need not assume that he was an elderly Anglican. He may very well have been one of those young professionals, possessing the MBA degree, and who shunned traditional worship, and so joyfully went to Praise and Worship and to Gospel Concerts, returning to his home in high spirits on each occasion.  Nonetheless, unlike the Levite and the priest in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan who looked at the man beaten nearly to death on the side of the road, and who took a conscious decision to walk on the other side of the road, Lazarus never even registered in the rich man’s consciousness as he passed by daily.

 

Widening gap

There is a sense in which images of prosperity abound in our country today and statistics are used to point to the positive direction in which the economy is moving, inclusive of data on the number of jobs being created, and which is undeniable.  Nevertheless, there is an underbelly of a world occupied by those who have a different experience of life and which is just as real as that of Lazarus, and which is dividing the country into several cultures and classes.

 So, for example, while we must acknowledge significant improvements in the macroeconomic prospects and in the employment statistics, we must also look behind those figures and ask the relevant question as to how this relates to the widening gap between the rich and the poor. An article published in the Jamaica Observer on October 12, 2018, had this to say about how we are dealing with the widening gap between the rich and the poor in this country:

As Jamaica starts to see some improvements in its economy — growth at 1.8 per cent, unemployment at about nine per cent, a world-leading stock market in terms of growth, and consumer confidence at a 17-year high — it is still lagging behind much of the region in terms of battling income inequality, according to a recently published report from Oxfam.

The Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index 2018 (CRI), released on Tuesday, is a global ranking of governments based on how they tackle the gap between rich and poor. The index looks at three main pillars of social spending, taxation and labour.

On the list of 157 countries, Jamaica lists below the half-way mark at 96, between Honduras at 95 and the Central African Republic at 97. And out of 25 countries in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region, Jamaica ranked fourth from the bottom at 21.

Likewise, in a report in the Daily Gleaner of November 30, 2018, dealing with the issue of poverty among the children of this nation, UNICEF representative to Jamaica Mariko Kagoshima asserted that at least 25 per cent of Jamaica's children are living below the poverty line.

"Child-poverty rate is growing, and it is a great concern for us, she stated in an interview during the first regional dialogue in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) on the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Santiago, Chile.

She pointed out that at least 15 per cent of Jamaica's children were living in poverty in 2008, but that figure moved to 25 per cent in 2014.

I have been informed by one of our leading economists that there has been an improvement since those figures were released. The fact remains that there is a gap in the lived experience of different sections of our society, including our children, whose socioeconomic plight cannot be ignored.

We must acknowledge the fact that, in the budget presented for this year, one of the areas of significant increase is that related to PATH (The Programme of Advancement through Health and Education) and related programs.  But, while we applaud these charitable gestures, we must affirm that the dignity of a people cannot be based on charity or the goodwill of others but, the dignity that comes with the opportunity to earn an honest living with a livable wage and in a manner that is affirming of their worth and dignity.

 

Contract employment

Accordingly, we need to engage the employment statistics for the nation at another level if we are to be honest with ourselves as a people and as church. For example, several of the most lucrative industries at the moment need to be brought under the microscope for their employment practices which it does not appear that our political leaders over the last decade are addressing, and certainly without any sense of alacrity.  Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) is demonstrating that it can be a primary driver of the economy and contributor to the employment statistics. Workers in this sector, however, are contract workers without job security, and who do not enjoy the benefit of vacation, health insurance, worker benefits for which Labour Unions fought as part of the development of modern Jamaica and an expression of social justice.

Likewise, in the hospitality industry, the shining star of the economy, there are similar employment strategies being employed.  The government is becoming a trend setter in these practices, as well, in dealing with the employment of persons who are already living in or on the borders of poverty. 

In a society in which only a small proportion of workers are on any pension plan, and where many persons designated self-employed are not contributing to the National Insurance Scheme or the National Housing Trust, we better begin to think long term, and not just how playing with statistics can make the situation look good today.  It must be the responsibility of this and any government in power to engage these dynamics, and for citizens, including those who claim to be intentional disciples of Jesus Christ, to advocate on behalf of these workers, or is it to be the lot of these exploited workers to carry the burden for economic prosperity, however we define that?

Yes, Lazarus still sits by the side of the road outside the gate, and he hears and he sees the prosperity of Jamaica’s Dives passing by daily, self-absorbed and expounding the language of prosperity, rehearsing the statistics, but unaware of his presence.


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