A CLOSE LOOK AT GOD, FAITH AND PROSPERITY
©Wendell Griffen, 2018
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
January 14, 2018
Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)
Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday
Luke 16:10-15, 19-31
10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,* who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’*
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
We worship God today on the Sunday before the US national holiday to honor the life, faith, and fellowship of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Followers of Jesus have long viewed Sunday as our worship day because the New Testament Gospel accounts about Jesus report that his resurrection happened on that day of the week.
Next to Easter (Resurrection) Sunday, the Sunday before the King Holiday may be the Sunday cherished most by followers of Jesus who believe in social justice. This is because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., unlike other persons for whom a US holiday is named, is remembered for his devotion to social justice. Dr. King never sought nor held any public office. He did not serve in the military. Dr. King was not financially wealthy based on the standards of his day. Yet, his fierce and nonviolent advocacy for social justice has left a more lasting and profound impact on life in the US and the rest of the world than did the careers of the presidents and generals of his era, or even since then for that matter.
We do Dr. King a disservice, however, if we ignore or forget that he always labored, agitated, demonstrated, spoke, and protested based on his identity with and ministry in the religion of Jesus. In that sense, Dr. King not only rose above the politicians of his time and ours. He rose above the religious leaders of his time and hours in the US and across the world. Rev. Billy Graham was welcomed by and held evangelical rallies in cities across the US, and he was hosted in the White House by several presidents. But Rev. Graham’s ministry is seldom – if ever – remembered for having challenged the conscience of people in the US and around the world concerning the evils of inequality, war, racism, greed, and the suffering people experience because of those realities.
Followers of Jesus also do Dr. King a disservice if we do not view the conditions, situations, and experiences of our time as he did, through the lens of the love and justice ethics of the Hebrew Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus preserved in the New Testament. We should take avoid the common mistake of remembering Dr. King as “a civil rights leader.” Dr. King was a prophet from God and disciple of Jesus.
Dr. King was a preacher. He served with his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. And, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became co-founder and the chief theologian for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In all these roles Dr. King functioned as a prophet in the tradition of Jesus. If we do not remember Jesus and his ministry when we honor Dr. King, we not only do a dis-service to Dr. King’s life and ministry; we do a dis-service to the love and justice ethics of God that Jesus lived, taught, and for which Jesus (and Dr. King) ultimately died.
The lesson Jesus taught in Chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel is strikingly relevant concerning our thinking about God, faith, and prosperity in 2018 as we reflect on the life and ministry of Dr. King. Many people are familiar with the saying that “no one can serve two masters.” I suspect that few people, however, associate that saying with the lesson Jesus issued and that Dr. King often mentioned about God, faith, justice, and prosperity. In proclaiming the lesson about the rich man and the pauper named Lazarus, Jesus was expounding on the fundamental moral, ethical, theological, and social view that knowing and loving God involves becoming one in fellowship and peace with our neighbors, including persons whose situations are different from our own. In doing so, Jesus issued a scathing condemnation about the idolatry of wealth under the guise of prosperity.
Jesus set up the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus with the following statement: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much…No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” We then read these words. The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for that which is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:10, 13-15) We find the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus after reading that the Pharisees – described by Luke as “lovers of money” – ridiculed Jesus for saying “you cannot serve God and wealth” (mammon in KJV).
Nothing in the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus suggests that the rich man did not believe in God. Neither the rich man nor Lazarus is identified as religious in this lesson. What the lesson emphasizes is that the rich man idolized wealth with complete disregard for Lazarus and his miserable plight. That point is highlighted when the lesson mentions how the dogs showed compassion toward Lazarus licking his sores while Lazarus was unable to even depend on table scraps from the rich man.
Lazarus was conspicuous in poverty and misery; the rich man was conspicuous in luxury and comfort. The rich man only noticed and named Lazarus in the afterlife, when his situation was defined by agonizing misery while Lazarus was at peace and comfortable. Then, the rich man who refused to offer table scraps to relieve Lazarus from the agony of starvation when they were neighbors wanted Lazarus to provide a drop of water to relieve the agony of his thirst.
The rich man idolized wealth during his lifetime. He enjoyed the comforts of wealth. Nowhere does the lesson suggest that the rich man paid any regard for Lazarus and the clear inequality of their situations. In this regard, Jesus used the rich man in this lesson to condemn the Pharisees, religious folks who “were lovers of money.” This is the way Jesus expounded on his teaching that “you cannot serve God and mammon.” The lesson about the rich man and Lazarus was how Jesus tried, in the way of Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, to “make it plain” that idolatry of wealth is “an abomination in the sight of God.”
What Jesus made plain is that the Pharisees, like the rich man in this lesson, justified themselves “in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). That point is profoundly made in the teaching about the rich man and Lazarus. While the formerly sick and starving Lazarus is envisioned in the afterlife feasting in blissful fellowship with Abraham, patriarch of the Hebrew faith and people, the man who idolized wealth is envisioned in everlasting and agonizing separation from God and from the faithful community.
The figure of speech “Abraham’s bosom” in the lesson indicates that Lazarus had a place of safety and security in the afterlife. This figure of speech is drawn from the ancient banquet custom of was reclining on couches during a meal so that head of one person would reach the chest of the next person. To engage in conversation with that person, one would lean his head back against the person’s breast. It was a sign of high honor to be seated next to a celebrated guest at a banquet, and to be seated next to the host was a sign of the highest honor.
So, in proclaiming this lesson, Jesus dramatically not only showed the great moral, ethical, and social distance between the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus declared that the rich man was eternally out of fellowship with the entire community of the faithful.
This lesson was a powerful condemnation of the Pharisees, religious folks who loved wealth, as being hypocrites. Remember what Jesus said: Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. Jesus termed religion that loves wealth dishonest (Luke 16:10) and “an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). And Jesus used the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus to drive that point home!
More than any other person in recent memory, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. exposed the abominable (meaning morally detestable and despicable) dishonesty (hypocrisy) and idolatry to wealth of religion and culture in the United States. Unlike the current president of the United States, Dr. King did not see or speak about poor and unprivileged people in vulgar terms. Unlike the self-professed “religious conservatives” who have been the chief supporters and defenders of the current president of the United States, Dr. King spoke up for poor people, sick people, oppressed people, and people who suffered from the effects of wars. We do Dr. King’s life and ministry a tremendous injustice by allowing his memory to be defined by anything less than the love and justice imperatives found in the religion of Jesus that he preached and lived.
When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King preached and lived, we will do much more than engage in annual daylong acts of service. We will join voices and forces to denounce, condemn, and resist the idolatrous religion of empire and greed that traffics in fear, hypocrisy, and violence. We will denounce, condemn, and resist policies, politicians, and other powerful actors that marginalize and threaten people across the world like Lazarus, people who live in conspicuous misery while others celebrate conspicuous consumption.
When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King preached and lived, we will denounce President Trump and every other person who thinks and speaks about any child of God as being from a “shithole” country. We will not only cringe about people who, like the rich man, live with callous disregard, outright disdain, and hellish hypocrisy towards our neighbors who suffer, we will confront and challenge them.
When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King preached and lived, we will confront and challenge our imperial lust for wealth while refusing to share with people in Haiti, El Salvador, across Africa, and elsewhere in the world. And we will prophetically challenge President Trump and anyone else with the truth that idolatry to wealth inspired the white supremacy and racism responsible for so much of the poverty, disease, and other suffering in Haiti, El Salvador, Africa, and other black and brown areas of the world.
Idolatry of wealth motivated white European versions of President Trump to plunder, rape, and commit violence in black and brown societies across the world.
Idolatry of wealth drove white colonizers and imperialists to steal land from and kill indigenous black, brown, and red people in Africa, India, and throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Idolatry of wealth inspired white religionists to disregard the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus in order to justify trying to exterminate indigenous people.
Idolatry of wealth inspired white religionists who, like the Pharisees who ridiculed Jesus, were lovers of money rather than God, called the entire hellish slavery empire organized and operated in this society righteous.
Idolatry of wealth inspired white religionists to sanction slavery and manifest destiny, sanction discrimination against immigrants, and support laws and policies that legalized discrimination, bigotry, and abuse of people like Lazarus.
Idolatry of wealth inspired those white religionists to call resistance to slavery and anti-discrimination and anti-poverty advocacy evil.
When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King preached and lived, we will remind President Trump and anyone else what the Psalmist declared long ago at Psalm 24:1: The earth is the LORD’s and all that there is in it, the world, and those who live in it… We will remind President Trump and anyone else who idolizes wealth that God became incarnate as a colonized child in a poor family. We will remind President Trump and anyone else who idolizes wealth that when the child Jesus was threatened by a maniacal ruler named Herod an angel directed Joseph to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, a nation in Africa.
When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King lived and preached, we will declare that President Trump’s spirit resembles that of the rich man Jesus spoke about. We will proclaim that the idolatry of wealth that President Trump has worshiped across his personal, professional, and political career is enabled, supported, defended, and even championed by people who call themselves “evangelical Christian conservatives.”
Then we will, in the spirit of Jesus and Dr. King, position ourselves with the Lazarus people of our society and world. We will do this because we refuse to turn our backs on the love and justice imperatives in the Great Commandment that we love God wholeheartedly, intentionally, and courageously, and that we love our neighbors – including our neighbors who suffer from the effects of poverty, abuse of power, income inequality, sickness, violence, racism, nationalism, imperialism, sexism, and other wickedness because of human idolatry of wealth.
Finally, we will warn President Trump and the current version of the Pharisees who idolize wealth how idolatry to wealth works to separate them from what is real prosperity. Biblical prosperity is never self-centered; it is always communitarian. A prosperous person, community, and society is one that protects, provides, supports, and nourishes people like Lazarus, not one that belittles, marginalizes, and oppresses people like Lazarus.
By refusing to protect, provide, support, and nourish Lazarus during his lifetime, the rich man came to a dreadful and tormented end. Jesus prophetically warned anyone who shares the idolatry of wealth illustrated by the rich man in this lesson that God does not condone and will subject to severe judgment the idolatry of wealth that President Trump and his self-proclaimed religious conservative sycophants represent.
Why? “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
Why? “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”
Why? “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Jesus said it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived, preached, and died in obedience to those love and justice imperatives. Let us honor Jesus and his prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by proclaiming those love and justice imperatives with steadfast courage and fierce hope. This is how we can challenge and condemn the idolatry of wealth demonstrated by the current version of Pharisees and President Donald Trump, their “rich man.”
 Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. is Pastor-Emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, California, Emeritus Professor of Homiletics, American Baptist Seminary of the West, and a former President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.