In recent weeks much has been made in some social and political circles about Liberation Theology. This particular expression of Christianity interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. Liberation Theology sees Christ aligned with the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope. To some, this sounds like Marxism or even Communism. To others, this sounds like the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I was first exposed to Liberation Theology at the Lutheran Center on one of this congregation’s pilgrimages to Mexico City. ELCA pastor Kim Erno offered four Biblical arguments for Liberation Theology
The first passage is Luke 4:16-21
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
The kind of “good news” that Jesus came to bring is not for the wealthy, but for the poor. He also proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favor”, otherwise known as jubilee. This isn’t “jubilee” in the sense of being happy. Old Testament jubilee happened every 50 years. It was a time when all the debts were cancelled, lost land was restored, and slaves were freed. In technological terms, it was, in essence, a rebooting of society’s operating system.
The second verse offered by Pastor Erno is Matthew 5:38-42
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
There are several obvious aspects of this text (don’t repay evil for evil), and a few not-so-obvious things.
It’s interesting that Jesus specifies the RIGHT cheek. If a right-handed person (which everyone was back then; even those born left-handed) strikes a person with an open hand, their LEFT cheek is struck. However, Jesus is talking about a back-handed, humiliating, demeaning strike on the cheek.
Another item of note is when in Jesus’ admonition to “go a second mile” . Roman law dictated that soldiers could only force a slave to carry their pack for 1 mile. So when Jesus tells the oppressed to carry the soldier’s pack a 2nd mile, he’s not just talking about an ability to endure suffering. He is inviting the soldier into a relationship. I wonder what happens between master & slave in the 2nd mile?
The third Liberation Theology text is Acts 2:42-47. Acts, as you may know, was written by the same Luke that wrote the gospel of Luke.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
This description of life in early Christian communities includes four components -- share your stuff with who has need, live together, eat together, worship God.
The fourth and final Liberation Theology text is today’s gospel - Luke 16:19-31, commonly known as the parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus. This story, like the others, proclaims GOOD NEWS to the poor and oppressed. The “moral of the story” seems clear -- rich people have their reward on earth and are punished in afterlife...and, conversely, poor people suffer on earth and are rewarded in the afterlife. In other words -- rich people go to hell.
It doesn’t take much to find “good news” for the poor man, Lazarus, in this text. As such, the first thing many of us do when Jesus tells a story is to try to align ourselves with the good guy. In this story, we may find comfort in thinking of the people in our lives with more money, bigger homes, fancier cars, or better jobs.
But, if we stop and consider that 80% of the people in the world live on less than $10 per day, then we quickly realize that most - if not all - of us reside in the other 20%...and, therefore, are more closely aligned with the nameless rich man than with poor Lazarus. Which is a frightening thing...
Maybe we should take a closer look at the rich man.
An argument could be made that the rich man was “doing his part” by allowing Lazarus to glean table scraps in front of his lavish estate. The practice of gleaning (which comes from the Deuteronomic Holiness Code) is collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Since the rich man had no crops, he instead “shared” his leftover food with the poor man. If I was the rich man, I might say “aren’t I doing what I’m supposed to do?”
We often go down this road when trying to assuage our own guilt about the wealth we accumulate.
“I give my $5 every week to the church”
“I help with IHN a couple of times a year.”
“I donate food to our monthly homeless shelter meal.”
“I pay taxes that support universal healthcare and welfare.”
Aren’t I doing my part to help the poor?
Maybe it isn’t about “doing my part” but about BEING a part.
Maybe Jesus is telling a story that underscores the importance of being in an authentic relationship with the poor, not just doing a few good deeds and throwing a few table scraps in their direction.
But even that approach sounds like works-righteousness for the wealthy. “In order to get into heaven, you have to do a bunch more stuff to, with, and for poor people.”
So what is the gospel - the GOOD NEWS - for the rich man in this story and, by extension, us?
* * *
Back in Mexico, I met a pastor who had spent nearly 20 years serving a few upper-middle class congregations in Pennslyvania before moving to Mexico. When we met, the pastor was in his 8th year in Mexico City doing God’s work among the poorest of the poor. Attempting to be affirming and supportive, I said to him, “This must be the hardest ministry you’ve ever done.” Without missing a beat, the pastor replied, “the burdens of the rich are much greater than the burdens of the poor.”
The burdens of the rich are much greater than the burdens of the poor.
Mortgage payments...2nd mortgages...home improvement projects...car payments...auto repairs...new, trendy clothes...crippling credit card debt...communication gadgets and devices...on-demand entertainment...the right schools...the right club sports...the right music instructors...the right brand of coffee...and on and on it goes.
Brothers and sisters, we are burdened...overwhelmed...suffocated by our own love of wealth. And it’s such a pervasive part of our lives that we don’t realize just how much we are in bondage to this sin.
Maybe the GOOD NEWS for we who are RICH is that we can be LIBERATED from the burdens that our wealth places on our relationship with God and others. We can be assured that God, who is faithful and just, will be with us as we take steps to free ourselves from our dependence on our stuff. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 8:9 that “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Jesus died for the wealthy, too, and continues to lead us into a future that liberates us from the bondage of wealth and brings us into a fuller communion with all of God’s people.
Let us pray...
God may your word be fulfilled by what we have heard and by what we will do in response. Amen.