On wealth, poverty, and caring without being overwhelmed (reflections on Luke 16:19-31)

16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

16:24 He 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.’

16:25 But 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.

16:26 Besides 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.’

16:27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–

16:28 for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

16:29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

16:30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

16:31 He 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.'”

-Jesus (Luke 16:19-31)

What a story Jesus tells. It’s a story that might raise some big questions: questions of heaven and afterlife, questions of hell and eternal conscious torment, questions of works and faith, questions of wealth and poverty and its relation to salvation. So many questions.

I resist answering these questions here—both because this reflection is supposed to be brief, and because I think these questions are better wrestled with in community than explained with too-easy answers from just one person. 


I also don’t think these questions are quite the main point of Jesus’ story. I think the point is less abstract and more pragmatic. It’s not so much about what doctrines we believe, but about the way we live. 

And—although it feels worth noting that the materially poor person in our story is named, and that in this naming there is an affirmation of dignity—the story focuses much more on the rich person than on Lazarus. The rich person is the one who speaks, the one whose story is followed from beginning to end. 

It is this rich person who was aware of Lazarus’ illness and hunger, lying there at his doorway—he even knew him by name—but nonetheless ignored him. New Testament and Jewish Studies professor Amy-Jill Levine suggests in Short Stories by Jesus that perhaps Lazarus’ community had carried him there because they knew the rich person had plenty to share. But the rich person did not share. The dogs tried to take care of Lazarus in the way they knew how, by cleaning his wounds; the rich person did less than the dogs did. 

Even after death, the rich person is still trying to order Lazarus around. He still doesn’t quite seem to think of Lazarus as an equal, as fully human. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, he tells Abraham. Send him to my father’s house to warn my brothers. In other words, basically: I still think Lazarus is here to serve me. I have no regrets about the way I treated him in life. I don’t see what was wrong with it. Send Lazarus. Send Lazarus

As Dr. Amy-Jill Levine writes, perhaps the rich person “has not yet learned what landed him in torment in the first place. He wants to see his brothers saved from torment, not to ease the pain felt by the millions who lack food, shelter, or health care” (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 291).

In a world full of these kinds of pains, I wonder what Jesus’ story asks of us. Most of us may not be filthy rich like the sumptuously-feasting man. But perhaps the story asks of us, too: How do we see people? How do we treat people? Do we want to see people’s needs met and their pains eased? What would that look like? What might we do? 

Several years ago, I led a small group through a curriculum called Lazarus at the Gate, offered by the Boston Faith and Justice Network. One thing I still remember from that study is the idea that globalization has placed millions of “Lazaruses” at our metaphorical gate. We know so much more than people in other times in history did about what’s going on all over our world, including and especially the ways things are difficult and people are suffering. Climate disasters, wars, and displacement, just to name a few things, bring so many Lazaruses to our gates—or at least our phone and computer screens—every day we’re paying attention.

I feel this. I want to help. And yet, I also feel the reality that we as finite fragile humans were not designed to process all of the information that is thrown at us all the time. We did not evolve to be able to hold in our minds and hearts and bodies all the concerns of the world. It is too much for us. 

Humans spent most of human history living in villages and kinship networks small enough so that we could know what was going on with everyone—the good and the bad. We could serve and help one another well within this context. People’s suffering was not too much to know. It did not overwhelm us on a regular basis.

I don’t have easy solutions to these tensions. But I do want all of us to find the good that we can do and do it. To find ways of not getting so overwhelmed with the needy world’s needs that we can’t do anything.

I was recently reading Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s book Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now. In it there’s a reflection from Catholic Bishop Ken Untener often known as the Romero Prayer. I was struck by these words from this prayer: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

We can’t do everything. But we can do something. We can do something to share food and other resources with one another, with our communities. We can do something to ease people’s suffering. We can do something to take care of one another.

And, in faith communities that share this as a value and a goal, we can do so much more than any of us could do on our own. Here’s to finding, creating, and building those kinds of communities. 

As always, all thoughts are welcome – about the story Jesus tells, about how you’ve been able to care for the Lazaruses around us without being overwhelmed, or anything else this makes you think about.

Gutsy faithfulness in a world where money fails (reflections on Luke 16:1-13)

I’ve got another church eblast reflection for you all – unabridged (read: slightly longer) version! 

This one’s on Luke 16:1-13:

16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

16:2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

16:3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

16:5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

16:6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

16:7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

16:10 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.

16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

16:13 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.”

When we read parables like these, it can be tempting to try to figure out who exactly every character in the story represents. This is called allegorical interpretation, and many biblical scholars have pushed back against this approach.

Perhaps Jesus’ stories were meant to be just that—stories. Conversation starters. Feeling-evokers. Thought-provokers. Open-ended, with multiple possible interpretations and takeaways. Maybe that’s the beauty of the parables—even though it also makes them…difficult.

I mention this because I am not at all convinced that the “master”—a fraught word, if I ever heard one, given the U.S. history of slavery—in our story this week is meant to represent God. Not only does he engage in dubiously-just firing practices—he lets the steward go based on an accusation from a third party without even bothering to hear his side of the story (v. 1-2)—but also, on top of this, his massive wealth is persistently described as “unjust” or “unrighteous.” 

Perhaps the steward, then, feels free to play fast and loose with the master’s money because he knows the whole system is unjust. 

What does it mean to be faithful, in a world where a few rich folks hoard while masses of people go hungry? Perhaps crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s when it comes to wealth management takes a back seat to figuring out how to survive—and helping others survive too. Maybe strict adherence to rules and regulations is less important than mercy. And surely mercy is what the steward shows to the debtors when he tells them to lessen the amounts of their debts. 

The steward in our story is often referred to as the “shrewd manager,” but I feel like the word “shrewd” can have some funky connotations. In some church contexts, people use the story of the “shrewd manager” to say that we as Christians should also be more shrewd. As in, we should be more cunning. As in, it’s okay to manipulate or mislead people if it’s all for a higher cause. To me, this is hardly what it means to be “children of the light” (v. 8). 

Perhaps it helps to know that the word translated as “shrewd” is often translated elsewhere as “prudent.” I’m not here for the manipulative cunning, but I’m okay with Jesus encouraging his followers to be prudent.

Prudent, like counting the cost of our discipleship (see Luke 14:25-35). Prudent, like acknowledging that all wealth in our unjust system is in fact unjust—and, accordingly, holding onto material stuff lightly. Prudent, like refusing to spend our lives serving a cruel death-dealing capitalist system that does not love us—refusing to destroy our souls in service of wealth that will one day be gone (v. 9). 

(This word translated as “be gone,” by the way, is actually quite strong in the original Greek; it could be translated as “fails,” “ceases,” or “dies.” As in, money will fail. Money will one day cease to exist. It will die.)

In light of all this, I wonder what we might learn from this passage about what it means to be faithful. Some of us may have been taught that faithfulness is a passive thing, measured by the sins we avoid and the things we do not do. But in Jesus’ story, faithfulness is active. It’s creative. It’s risky. It’s gutsy. It requires intelligence and courage. It involves trying something and being willing to face the consequences of our actions.

The steward is hardly a meek rule-follower. But there is something about him to be admired. With his actions he calls out the lie that unjust wealth is to be served at all costs. He points toward a different way.

Like this steward, we too take part in unjust systems. Under patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, a few rich folks keep getting richer, and any cost is acceptable in terms of human life and wellbeing. We may not be able to completely escape this system—but we can resist it. We can make choices that fly in the face of its logic. We can flout its expectations. 

We can rest. We can play. We can build genuine relationships that aren’t just transactional, based on what we can get out of someone. We can be radically for others and refuse to compete. We can treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can share resources generously, knowing there is enough for all. 

We can’t necessarily avoid unjust systems, but we can refuse to serve them as masters. We can build something new—something sacred and beautiful—in the midst of them. 

Peace to you this week. If you have thoughts about what faithfulness means to you (and how that’s changed over time), or how you live in unjust systems without serving these systems as masters, or anything else this passage makes you think about, holler in the comments or otherwise. I’d love to hear from you.

Super chill book review: Bittersweet (Susan Cain)

I tore through Susan Cain’s new book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Can Make Us Whole (Crown 2022) pretty quickly. And I may have done so while referring to it as “my emo book” for short. 

“Delightful” may seem an odd word for a book that’s all about being sad, but I really did find it an enjoyable read. I appreciated how Susan Cain has quite thoroughly done her homework and also writes about it in a smooth, accessible, not-particularly-academic way. It seems pretty clear that she has not only put years of research into this book but also years of deep personal reflection, mulling over what it all means. Pondering these things in her heart, if you will.*

A few thoughts and quotes:

1) I really enjoyed the broad range of this book. A topic like “bittersweet” really lets you go in all sorts of directions, and I felt like Cain took advantage of that—in a really good way—without it feeling like the book was directionless or just all over the place. 

Cain drew together realms ranging from psychological studies, to music (including her own love for Leonard Cohen), to poetry on grief and death, to workplace management research, to the Stanford Duck Syndrome on elite college campuses. (Well okay, mostly its Princetonian equivalent…which I guess they call effortless perfection, because it sounds fancier than ducks.)

I hope this doesn’t make the book sound overly intellectual. It really got me in the feels. In a good way—a humanizing way.

2) I appreciated how Cain wrote about art coming out of pain. Not in a romanticized way, or a way that tries to make suffering seem like a good thing. But in a way that encourages us to take the pain that we do have and the suffering we go through and make something beautiful of it.

Cain writes in the introduction, “Bittersweetness shows us how to respond to pain: by acknowledging it, and attempting to turn it into art, the way the musicians do, or healing, or innovation, or anything else that nourishes the soul. If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings, we can end up inflicting them on others via abuse, domination, neglect. But if we realize that all humans know—or will know—loss and suffering, we can turn toward each other” (xxv).

I like the idea of looking for what “nourishes the soul,” whatever form that may take. And of turning toward one another and building connection rather than self-isolating when we’re suffering. And, by implication, the idea of turning toward those who are suffering and helping them know they’re not alone.

3) In my more evangelical days, I might have found the way Cain writes about religion a bit blasphemous. But now I’m totally into it. 

For example, Cain writes of a shared human yearning for what Christians might call the Garden of Eden, and/or heaven:

“I call this place, this state that we’re longing for, ‘the perfect and beautiful world,’ In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s the Garden of Eden and the Kingdom of Heaven; the Sufis call it the Beloved of the Soul. There are countless other names for it: for instance, simply, home, or ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ or, as the novelist Mark Merlis puts it, ‘the shore from which we were deported before we were born.’ C. S. Lewis called it ‘the place where all the beauty came from.’ They’re all the same thing—they’re the deepest desire of every human heart…It doesn’t matter whether we consider ourselves ‘secular’ or ‘religious’: in some fundamental way, we’re all reaching for the heavens” (xxviii).

That strikes me as really true, and really beautiful. In some Christian circles the idea of heaven is something that divides people into two groups—those going to heaven, and those going to hell. What if, instead, the idea of heaven could be something that unites us and connects us as humans in our shared longing for a “perfect and beautiful world”?

4) This was a tidbit I’d like to hold onto: 

“I found out that [Leonard Cohen] drew especially from the Kabbalah—the mystical version of Judaism which teaches that all of creation was once a vessel filled with holy light. But it shattered, and now the shards of divinity are scattered everywhere, amidst the pain and ugliness. Our task is to gather up these fragments wherever we find them” (p. 67).

That feels totally right. And I like that it’s not just a way to understand the world—as shards of divinity scattered amidst pain and ugliness—but also a call to action. There’s a sense of purpose. It’s an invitation to start looking for and gathering up those fragments of divinity. Even—maybe especially—in the worst, most pain-filled places.

5) Cain writes about how there are particular large-scale losses (like the death of someone close to us, or the loss of a job) that we are societally “allowed” to mourn. As in, most people in our workplaces or in the dominant U.S. culture in general totally understand, in these cases, that we might need some time off, and that we’ll feel sad for a while, and that sort of thing. But there’s often no such grace or understanding for losses that might seem smaller but are actually also very much worth mourning. 

Cain writes of these “everyday losses, the kind we feel we have no permission to mourn—the ones that psychologists now call ‘disenfranchised griefs’” (129), and of the need to make space for ourselves and others to process these griefs. That made a lot of sense to me. How do we make it more “normal” to feel sad about things other than what might seem like the Really Big Things—and to feel through this sadness rather than stuff it inside because we don’t think we should be so affected by it?

6) I liked these questions Cain asks:

“How do we get to the point of seeing our sorrows and longings not as indications of secret unworthiness but as features of humanity? How do we come to realize that embracing our inner loser as well as winner—the bitter and the sweet—is the key to transcending them both, the key to meaning, creativity, and joy?” (p. 135)

I like the idea of reframing the things we might see as “indications of secret unworthiness” as, instead, “features of humanity.” And this idea of “embracing our inner loser.” She writes about how dominant U.S. culture tends to divide people into categories of winner and loser, which is just wrong as well as super unhelpful. Among other things, it makes us desperate to not fall into the “loser” category. 

Really, though, it’s the nature of being human to experience both success and failure. The disappointments we experience and the mistakes we make do not make us bad or unworthy. They’re just part of life, and we do best to embrace that reality rather than try to deny or hide it.

7)  In general, Bittersweet strikes me as kind of a broader research-based nonfiction version of Kate Bowler’s more memoir-y (and more specifically Christian) books Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) and No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear).

I appreciate both authors’ commitment to unpacking and critiquing what Cain calls “a culture of normative sunshine” (xxix) and Kate Bowler calls “a fever dream promising infinite choices and unlimited progress” (No Cure for Being Human, p. 16). So, if you like the idea of Bittersweet and are looking for more emo books, Kate Bowler’s are really good too. 

Hope you enjoyed these thoughts and enjoy the book if you read it—both the bitter and the sweet!


*That’s a not-so-subtle reference to Mary in Luke 2:19.