This morning as I was listening to the radio, one of the hosts of the radio show expressed a sense of dismay that no one was rising up right now against the rising inequality of wealth that has accelerated since 2008. Given the rather “progressive” bent of the radio hosts, who represent a significant facet of Portland thought, this socialist perspective is not surprising. What is a bit disappointing is that the radio dj did not recognize that the Occupy movement and its pressures were all about leftist politics, and that the lip service paid to reducing inequality from left-wing politics in 2008 and afterwards has been just that, lip service designed to increase government involvement without solving any of the root causes of political discontent, which is just how every single government intervention works–a genuine problem leads to increased government action that ultimately does nothing except increase the power of government without leading to a better life for the people suffering from the original problem. As our political order and larger social order lacks both wisdom and virtue, a state I lament often, we can expect no solutions from any larger aspect of our society.
As a part of the discussion, and what prompted the rather superficial political discussion in the first place was a news piece about the end of the BART strike in San Francisco. Now, San Francisco is an extremely liberal city when it comes to politics, but when the desires of unionized BART workers for better wages conflict with the desires of people who depend on public transportation to get to work conflict, stranded workers have little sympathy for striking public employees. There are clearly a lot of co-dependency issues here, no doubt, between people who depend on a public “good” and public workers who depend on taxpayers for their salaries, but in the end ordinary workers like ourselves all are fighting for scraps from the master’s table. Instead of jumping to Marxist thoughts, as many would do, I pondered what that concept referred to in scriptures.
There are two stories in the Bible, both in the Gospels, where the concept of scraps from the master’s table are discussed. Both of these passages are particularly thought provoking, and I have written at some length about one of those passages in a different context . Let us examine these two passages with a specific interest in mind. That interest is specifically the nature and implications of fighting for the scraps from the master’s table that takes place in these two passages, and what implications that has for our own lives in what is clearly a very corrupt and wicked world such as we live in today, and our behavior towards others. This is a narrow focus, but a very difficult matter to deal with effectively.
First, let us look at Luke 16:19-31, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which reads as follows: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tongue of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, they have the law and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'”
Let us narrowly examine the issue of social justice in this parable. The parable itself sets up Lazarus as a beggar, probably due to some sort of chronic health condition that prevented him from work, and whose poor family probably kept him from receiving a great deal of aid, forcing him to beg for a living. Given that he died and went to Abraham’s bosom, we can see that he was a righteous poor person. In a great deal of the Jewish thought of the time, the poor were thought to be poor because they were wicked or lazy in some fashion. The same thought pervades many ‘Christian’ thoughts as well about those like Lazarus in our time. To be sure, there are some people who are lazy or wicked and suffer the results of their addictions and compulsions. We all struggle against sins in our own fashion, sometimes more successfully than others, sometimes more publicly than others, but there are a great many people who suffer not because they are wicked but because they are being tried and tested and refined for glory, and looking only at the exterior of a person’s life does not prepare us to recognize their true spiritual state.
Nor ought we to think the rich man was condemned simply for being rich. After all, Abraham (of Abraham’s bosom, the father of the faithful, the friend of God) was himself a very wealthy man. It is not merely the possession of a high net worth, or being part of the top 1% of ancient near east society, that makes one a wicked man, any more than the possession of wealth is evil nowadays. Wealth is a good thing to possess, and certainly makes life more enjoyable and pleasant, but it is neither a sign of virtue or vice. It is what the rich man did, or rather, did not do, that brought him under divine condemnation. He lived luxuriously while showing no care and compassion to the well-being of others, no generosity of spirit or of resources, and yet he had the cheek to seek generosity from Lazarus when he found himself facing judgment. The Bible is very clear that those who possess wealth have the responsibility to act generously to others (see, most notably, Luke 3:11, among other places), and that the treatment of those we view as the least will be the same treatment that will be meted out to us.
We can therefore take from this particular passage that we ought not to judge other people by their net worth, whether that is to think the rich wicked or exploitative for being rich, or the poor wicked and lazy for being poor. We ought to get to know people, take the measure of their character, and to provide opportunities for others as we are able to do so, providing out of whatever gifts we have been given, whether our intellect or our wisdom or our resources, in order to help others who have need. We ought also to do what we can, even if that is not very much, to provide opportunities for dignity and not merely aid, such as the workfare envisioned in Ruth and in Leviticus 23:22 . These are not easy matters to accomplish, but virtue is not a matter of ease, but rather a matter of wisdom and understanding and disciplined behavior, something we all struggle with.
Let us also note one additional matter. When Abraham, in the parable, says that those who wish to avoid the fate of the rich man ought to listen to the law and the prophets, it ought to be obvious from a reader of Leviticus 23:22, or the book of Ruth, or Psalm 100, or Amos (to name but a few obvious examples), that God viewed the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable as an exceptional evil, but also viewed those who were just and generous in their own dealings with others as being people after his own heart. The stinging comment at the end that those who do not believe the law and the prophets will not believe one who rises from the dead is especially appropriate in our own time, where people claim to be Christian without having any sort of compassion on those who suffer, instead seeking to blame others for their suffering without any sort of understanding of the struggles that many of us face in life. Such people, if they do not repent of their wicked ways, do not face a very blessed fate, according to this passage.
The second passage of interest is Matthew 15:21-28, which reads: “Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered and said, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.”
Here let us know as well that it is a virtuous Gentile, not someone well respected within Jewish society, who seeks to eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. Although Jesus healed many Jews during His ministry, He did not spend a great deal of time healing Gentiles, although He did do it from time to time (and it was those Gentiles, who were not used to kind treatment from the Jews, a more privileged people, who were especially grateful for that kindness shown by Christ). In life, it is often those who are outcasts and outsiders who are particularly sensitive to the kindness of others who normally reject them and view them with harshness . I know this has been true of me in my own life, given that I have always been an outcast and an outsider wherever I have been, for reasons not of my own design.
Jesus’ behavior towards the Gentile woman is curious, requiring a certain amount of reading between the lines to make sense of the interaction in ways that are not made explicit in the text. We see, for example, that Jesus (acting in His role as the Messiah) appears on the surface to be very rude to the Gentile woman, ignoring her request and comparing her to a little dog. Between the lines, though, we see a different picture. For one, we can read that the disciples’ requests for Jesus to turn away the woman were only superficially met, since Jesus answered her request when she had a clever comeback. She must have recognized a twinkle in his eyes (similar to the one recognized by Jesus’ mom in John 2:1-5 in a similarly discouraging comment followed by a surprising comment) that gave her the courage to make her request boldly. Likewise, Jesus accepted her worship without condemnation, a subtle acceptance of His status as the Son of God that would be blasphemous for any man (or even an angel) to accept (see, for example, Acts 12:20-24, Revelation 19:10). We see, therefore, that Jesus Christ, unlike the rich man at the table, did give the crumbs of His table for a faithful Gentile to eat, metaphorically speaking.
Let us also briefly note that the Jews, who claimed to be the sons of Abraham, were here compared to those who ate at the Master’s table, taking a great deal of pride in their knowledge of God’s word and their obedience to God’s ways. However, there was also not as much appreciation from those who thought they were the closest to God. The elites of the Jewish people, aside from a few exceptions (like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) were largely concerned about their own prestige in the eyes of the people or the patronage of the Romans, and often thought themselves above the people of the land with their unemployment and underemployment problems, their struggles to find enough food for themselves and their families, their illnesses and sicknesses and spiritual struggles. However, Jesus Christ did not think or feel Himself above those matters, even if He was exhausted by the neediness of His people and by the sorry state they were in. I would think that He would feel the same way about our own world today, with its neediness as well as the total failure of our own societal leadership to set a godly example of compassion and concern.
If in this life we find ourselves to be looking for the scraps from our Master’s table, let us know that we are not alone. Were it not for a hope and a faith in God making things right in the world to come, the injustices and sufferings of this present evil world would be too much for us to endure. Let us hope that we meet the same fate as the faithful Gentile woman whose trust in her Lord God was rewarded with the healing of her daughter from the scourge of demon-possession. Let us also hope that if we suffer unjustly here and now like Lazarus the beggar, let us hope that we too are found worthy to enter into Abraham’s bosom and the blessings of the world to come. There, let us enjoy more than scraps, but rather a glorious wedding feast.