A homily about super powers, wealth and you, as seen through the lens of Luke 16:19-31
With great power comes great responsibility. You may recognize this famous line from Spiderman, it first appeared in the 1962 comic book Amazing Fantasy #15. In this comic, the first to feature Spidey himself, Peter Parker, a somewhat normal teenager at the time, is bitten by a radiation-infused spider. This spider bite gives Peter super strength and agility, and a super cool outfit too.
Peter Parker, as Spiderman, can now cling to surfaces, and also shoot spider-webs using wrist mounted devices he calls web-shooters. Even better he is now able to react to danger quickly with his “spider-sense” – a sixth sense that gives Peter an advantage when combating his foes.
But who are his foes? Well, it seems Peter has a decision to make. With these new powers Peter has an advantage over almost any other human being. What should he do with this new gift? He could potentially use these skills to make millions, surely there must be a market willing to pay for the chance to see him fly through the skies with those great wrist-mounted web-shooters. Or, he could choose to be the bad guy, and use those powers to conquer people, to rule over them; there are plenty of super-villain comic book characters out there too.
Instead, Peter comes to another conclusion. He realizes, of course, that with great power comes great responsibility. He chooses to use this great power for the good of all, keeping the residents of New York City safe, and free from harm when the bad guys reared their heads.
Today’s reading, a parable told by Jesus, is also about great power, but takes a different form, telling the story of a rich man and a poor man. While on earth the rich man wore the finest clothes, the poor man, called Lazarus, wore sores that covered his body. The rich man filled his table with the finest foods. The poor man longed to eat just the scraps from that same table. The rich man has all his earthly needs met; the poor man has only dogs to lick those open sores. The two could not be more different.
And when they die, surprisingly, that table has now turned. The rich man finds himself being tormented, the poor man is carried away by the angels. The rich man is in agony; the poor man comforted by Father Abraham himself. The rich man asks for mere drops of water to cool his tongue. And, in a twist of fate, it is the rich man that asks the poor man to provide those soothing drops.
But it is too late, Father Abraham replies, for now between the rich and the poor man a great chasm exists, making it impossible for one to be comforted by the other. That chasm, between those that have, and those that have not, once we leave this earth, that chasm simply cannot be crossed. And that chasm, which while on earth was more relational – the two men did not interact while alive – is now physical, and permanent.
Stepping back into today, a great chasm still exists between the rich and the poor.
The chasm exists along national borders. The median household income of the top five countries across the globe, four of which are in Scandinavia, is over 50 times as high as the bottom five countries, all of which are in sub Saharan Africa. And the United States isn’t too far behind Scandinavia in terms of household income, globally we rank number six.
And within the US this chasm, between the haves and the have nots, is widening. The middle class in our country has been shrinking for decades, with a recent study finding a loss of middle class people in nine out of ten metropolitan areas in the US. The chasm is so wide that the top 20% of Americans hold 85% of all wealth in the country. And the bottom 40%? They hold just 0.4% of wealth.
The chasm exists more locally too, where many of us are highly educated and have done well financially too. Even here, in Ames Iowa, which at times strikes me as a Rockwellian utopia, an ideal setting pulled from another era, even here Census estimates suggests over 30% of the population lives below the poverty line.
This parable is really good news for the poor, for those without: these are words of comfort, words of hope. After a lifetime of misery, finally, Lazarus is being cared for. These are words that it does indeed get better. And for those of us of some means, of some wealth? It offers a challenge, an imperative, and something to tend to in the here and now.
In many ways our wealth serves as our great power; fortunately unlike Spiderman we don’t have to don an uncomfortable costume to wield it. And with that great power of wealth comes our great responsibility. Unlike the rich man in this parable, who ignored the chasm, and served only himself, served only his own interests, we are called to more.
We are called not just to recognize the chasm, but to cross it. We cross it when we move beyond the societal and national groupings that divide us, that prevent us from seeing that the chasm even exists. We cross it when we help meet the real-world needs of nutrition, clothing and healthcare for those without.
For when we cross that chasm, we model Christ, the greatest power to walk this earth, who took on the greatest responsibility for all of humanity. And we model Christ, who reminds us that whatever you do for the least of these you do for me. Amen.