Transforming society justly
The unbridgeable structural chasm of inequality created by the rich and powerful
1. As the churches around the world set aside this Sunday as Social Justice Sunday, in our reading from Luke 16:19-31 the Lukan Jesus creates a parable about the unbridgeable structural chasm that divides the rich person from poor Lazarus who lives in extreme poverty. This great divide is illustrated by the image of the afterlife, in which when they die their roles were reversed.
This story is not just about wealth. It is about the power of the few rich people who structure life in their society in is such a way that it favours them and marginalises and impoverishes people.
Bruce Malina’s and Richard Rohrbaugh’s notes on Luke 14:15-24 in their Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels illustrate the divide in this way:
The rich man not only controls resources like land and money, but also controls systems of taxation that perpetuate the “great divide” between him and Lazarus. Furthermore, the rich control the Temple and related institutions that place value on avoiding impurities that the rich could hire others to deal with, but the poor could not. These divides in arenas of wealth, civic power, and religious power (which is also political power!) are clearly visible as well in the physical layout of the city, as elites occupy the geographical centre of the city as well as the centre of power. The neighbourhoods in which the elites lived alongside Temple and palace were often protected with fortifications, while poorer residents of the city lived in ethnic and occupational groups at the city’s edge, and the poorest — beggars, prostitutes, and those in marginalized occupations, lived completely outside the protection of the city walls. During the day, the poorer people in the community were let in through the walls to provide the goods and services the elites wanted; at night, they were locked out.
2. Those who hold power create the truth, knowledge and identities for the whole of society. And then, “society functions as something obvious, something given, almost natural” (Renata Salecl, Choice). And as Jesus suggests in v 26: “And in all these things, there is a great divide set up”.
Both groups exist in separate spaces, in different discourses. This allows the rich to feel justified in how they live and treat others. This is why they can justify the condition of poverty around them. But this is an illusion. To use the words of Renata Salecl, this is a wilful forgetfulness, which requires denial of the reality of suffering. And we all collude in such social conditions, living in cultural blindness.
3. In this parable, Jesus declares a deep love and compassion for the poor, identifies the chasm created by the economic and political powerbrokers, and challenges this chasm of brokenness. Our brokenness which in its anxiety, fear and desire for power and comfort, creates a world of division and exclusive discourses in which we find refuge; which separates us from those who are different.
This parable is really a wake-up call for all of us. As William Loader writes,
The rich man is not portrayed as an overt evil-doer. His crime is his self-preoccupation with which he prevented himself from caring about others as he cared for himself.
Through this parable God seeks to lead us out into new structural relationships with others, calling us to identify structural inequalities, and to work to provide justice and care for the poor.
Rev Vladimir Korotkov