On Being Rich

(from Eric)

Every weekday morning, from 7:30-8:00, there is a hospital staff devotion.  Many of our hospital staff are pastors, since no pastor can afford to be a pastor full-time here, so there are no shortage of people to share.  One of the pastors, who is also an administrator, spoke yesterday on Jesus's story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16), a somewhat thought-provoking and even disquieting story for many of us.  I didn't catch that much of it, since it was 100% Kirundi, but I did understand the first thing he said when he finished reading the story.  "This rich man...We are all of us rich men."

I think what he meant was that, because we have jobs or are students who could get higher education, we are rich men.  Never mind the lack of electricity in your home, the complete absence of means of transportation beyond a bicycle, and the occasional periods of hunger when your food supply becomes a bit insecure, you are rich in comparison and you know it.

And therefore we must identify ourselves with the rich man in this story and the warnings that go with it.  And that takes courage.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to guess how such a statement would make us feel.  We are quite a bit wealthier.  Orders of magnitude, really.  We have been on an airplane.  Many times.  We occasionally eat out at a restaurant where one person's meal could be $10 or more.  We have laptop computers.  I personally have never, not even once, had to worry about being hungry as a result of not having enough money.

There is a funny little mind trick we often play on ourselves, which is to compare ourselves to those richer than us, even if that segment of the population is small.  Why do we do this?  It's because being rich feels uncomfortable.  We feel obligated in vague ways.  We maybe feel guilty.  I know this because I live in a place where it is impossible to avoid feeling rich.  I cannot read Lazarus and the Rich Man and feel comforted.  I have to feel challenged, because I am the rich man.

I would rather identify with the poor man and hear a simple promise of comfort that is coming, but I must admit that this is yet another way or neglecting the reality of the poor in our midst.  If I'm the poor guy, then I remove my duty to help the real poor guy.

It's easier to avoid this feeling in the US.  I can find wealthier people, and maybe see myself in the poor role.  And if I remember global statistics on poverty, I can use it as a moment to do a theoretical thought exercise to be thankful that I "at least have something" and "am not as needy as I could be."  But in the end, this is a mistake, a falsehood.  Comparing ourselves to a global standard is not an exercise to appreciate things on a relative scale.  It is rather the truest and most absolute way to locate ourselves on the scale of poor to rich.  But it's too much to bear.

I'm writing this now for two reasons.  The first is to share a part of our struggle, in our continuing attempt to describe a holistic image of our lives here.  The second is to encourage us all, as a first step, to own our role as the wealthy.  I claim no virtue in having done that, because here it is utterly inescapable.  However, I keep coming back to this as an essential first step in stewarding well what we have been given.  To deny it is to run from the whole question of how to own anything.  But maybe, if we can do this, we can see a bit clearer as our hearts and our minds try to figure out how to manage resources in the world that God loves and in which he has placed us.

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