The rich man and Lazarus and the Doctrine of Discovery

IrisDeLeonHartshorn_2015FebIris de León-Hartshorn is director of Transformative Peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA.  She preached a sermon at Portland Mennonite Church on August 16, 2015 based on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31. This is an adapted version of that sermon. 

This parable is set in the book of Luke, which is known as the Gospel of the Poor and a book of proclamation rather than biographical in nature. Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55 is the prelude to the parables. It sets the tone and the vision of the kingdom’s advent which, through Jesus, we learn is now and present. It speaks to God’s preference for the poor and the most vulnerable.

It speaks to God’s reversal from the powerful to the vulnerable and from the rich to those who hunger; God’s kingdom is the unexpected.

In most parables characters are not called by proper names, such is the case of the Rich Man, we only know him by this descriptor at first reading. It says he dresses in purple and fine linen every day, not just for special occasions. He is set apart just by the fact he is rich. His wealth earned on the backs of the poor through the oppressive patronage system of his time. This system operated as wealthy patrons loaned money to poor clients with heavy taxation. When the clients failed to pay their loan their land was confiscated.

The other thing you will notice is that the parable says he feasted lavishly, not just on special occasions. Feasting on special occasions seems reasonable but every day? This action was one of self-indulgence and self-gratification rather than reasonable need. Even so, flaunting his wealth and feasting every day was not his biggest sin, but rather an indication of where he was spiritually. His greatest sin was omission, what he didn’t do.

At the gate of this Rich Man’s house lies a poor man named Lazarus. Please note this is the only time in a parable a proper name is given. Lazarus means “God helps.” Lazarus begs for the crumbs, asking for help – but no help comes. The Rich Man was deaf to the cries of Lazarus. The Divine speaks through the name of Lazarus and the Rich Man continues his indifference. Lazarus finally dies and finds rest and comfort.

The Rich Man never recognizes his sin.

And even to the very end continues to see Lazarus as his servant asking Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand to warn his family. But Abraham does not grant his request.

I find the book of Luke and especially the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus both exciting and scary. What does this mean for me? What does this mean for the church?

In the next few years Mennonite Church USA will be engaging in an educational and action project on the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a philosophical and legal framework dating back to the 15th century that gives “Christian governments” legal rights over indigenous lands and domination of indigenous people.

This doctrine was firmly supported by the Christian Church using a biblical framework to justify the various acts against indigenous people. In the U.S. the Doctrine of Discovery was the framework for Manifest Destiny. Floyd Westerman of the Lakota First Nation said the following:

I would like to quote a very prejudicial doctrine that was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1823. It said that Indian Nations do not have the title to their lands because they weren’t Christians. That the first Christian Nations to discover an area of heathen lands has absolute title. This doctrine should be withdrawn and renounced to establish a new basis for relationship between indigenous peoples and other peoples of the world.

Here’s the current reality.

Native Americans have the right of occupancy not ownership.

They can live on the land until the U.S. government decides otherwise. That is why just recently the U.S. government had the authority to sell sacred Apache land to a foreign mining company.

Because the church and Christians gave biblical justification and benefitted from the use of enslavement, extraction of resources and extinction – the destruction of indigenous people and their way of life, we firmly believe it is the church that must now work against the continued use of the Doctrine of Discovery, to be able to acknowledge it’s destructive force and the benefits it has granted us.

The church must work toward right relationships with indigenous people here in the United States and around the world.

Native Americans make up only one percent of the U.S. population live with a 25 percent poverty rate. Some reservations suffer with up to 80 percent unemployment.

Like the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus this too is about wealth. It is about how wealth was acquired here in the United States. The U.S. cultural narrative tells us that those who have wealth earned it.

The hidden truth is that wealth here in the U.S. was built upon the backs of Native Americans, African American slaves, Chinese railroad workers and migrant farm workers, just to name a few.

In the United States the acquisition of land is the biggest indicator of wealth. Just as the Rich Man’s wealth was not earned but was based on the economic exploitation through the patronage system of his time, so it is with much of the wealth in the U.S.

Maybe the Doctrine of Discovery work is something you’re not ready to explore. So let me suggest some everyday things to think about in this upside kingdom of God. In Amy Jill Levine’s book entitled “Short Stories by Jesus,” she offers this cautionary note:

Do not just contribute to the food drive, but invite the hungry into your home. Do not just put money in the collection plate, but use your resources to provide job and support for those in need. Do not treat the sick as burdens, but as beloved family members who deserve love and care. Know the names of the destitute; each has a story to tell. Recognize as Jesus put it, that you cannot serve both God and mammon.

We can continue to be blind about our wealth and its foundation or we can embrace the advent of God’s kingdom.

We must acknowledge our omission by acknowledging our sin, something the Rich Man never did.

If we are to fully engage in God’s kingdom we must be open to allow God’s kingdom into our human awareness. Then we must allow what we think we know to be turned upside down. Let the advent of God’s kingdom continue to unfold in our lives and in our church as we continue to follow Jesus. There are many ways of recognizing that God’s kingdom is here. We are offered opportunities to accept it, enter into it, live it and establish the work of God’s kingdom. Are we willing to be involved in joining God in turning the world upside down? This work is not for the faint hearted but those who are willing to be open to receive and accept the transforming power of God’s kingdom.

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Listen to Iris’ sermon in its entirety below: