“I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” That’s how J. D. Vance begins his fascinating book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Vance was born in Kentucky and raised by his grandparents, as a self-described “hillbilly,” in Middletown, Ohio, home of the once-mighty Armco Steel. His family struggled with poverty and domestic violence. His mother was addicted to painkillers, then heroin. His community was overwhelmed by economic and social despair. The book is beautifully written but also gut-wrenchingly painful, filled with deep hardship. Vance escaped their fate by joining the Marines and serving in Iraq. Then he attended Ohio State and Yale Law School, now works for a Venture Capital Firm in San Francisco.1
In “Hillbilly Elegy” Vance wrestles with how his family ended up the way it did, and why. Poverty in Appalachia, like poverty in the western parts of our state, looks and feels very different from the poverty we encounter in the dinner line at Urban Ministries. But for Vance its personal – he’s talking about family. He wrestles with not only the reasons underneath the despair he experienced growing up, but also about the distance, real or perceived, between his family or origin and the people he has gotten to know. His experiences as he begins Yale are particularly telling. “I went to a mediocre public high school, my parents didn’t go to college, and I grew up in Ohio. The same was true of nearly everyone I knew. At Yale these things were true of no one.” He invited a friend to lunch at Cracker Barrel and got laughed at. There are a few hilarious and sad scenes when he gets invited to fancy law firm recruiting dinners at restaurants in New Haven and doesn’t know what to do with the silverware, how he spit out the Pelligrino they brought him because he had no idea what sparkling water was. But he also was introduced to the social cues that make up life in elite society. He was overwhelmed by how DIFFERENT he felt, how out of touch, like he wouldn’t ever truly belong.2
The immediate context for today’s verses begins on the way to dinner at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees” in chapter 14. The conversation continues, then the crowds gather as he leaves. By 15:1, “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Chapter 15 consists of three parables that build upon each other – lost sheep, lost coin, lost brother. Luke 16 begins a discrete unit – the convoluted text Taylor wrestled with last week, and today’s – which begins and ends with a parable. Both begin with, “There was a rich man…”
A set of contrasts are laid out:
- A rich man who was dressed in purple – the color of royalty. Wearing the color purple was regulated by law; how much purple one wore indicated one’s status within the Roman system.3 This man feasted, sumptuously, every day.
- A poor man, Lazarus, who has a name, in contrast to the nameless rich man, lying outside of the security booth in the rich man’s gated community, COVERED with sores, longing to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table, a table he hasn’t seen and won’t see. Lazarus doesn’t need to come to the banquet, I think it’s important to note. He wants scraps to eat. Lazarus is a form of the Jewish name Eleazar, which means “God helps.” But no one helps him. Dogs lick his sores.
- Next, the poor man – he is first this time – dies and is carried by angels to be with their ancestor Abraham. The rich man dies, too.
Next surprise. The rich man is in Hades being tormented, and through some miracle he can see Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He also doesn’t get how things have changed. He calls to Abraham, cries out for mercy, asks him to send Lazarus to help cool him off a bit. This scene feels terribly sad to me. The rich man is surely suffering – in agony in these flames – but he still treats the poor guy who sat at his gate as someone who exists to meet his needs.
Abraham lays out the new situation. Child, do you remember? In your lifetime you had it pretty good. The rich man wasn’t necessarily a bad guy, but he had his time. Remember Lazarus?, he had it much worse. But now he is comforted, and you are in agony. Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed, roles reversed, the kingdom of God turning things upside down.
But the rich man doesn’t get it. I know you said ‘chasm,’ but let me make a couple of phone calls. At the very least we can help some of my people. Abraham responds, “What else do you need? You have Moses and the prophets!” NO, the rich man says, but if someone goes to them from the dead they will listen! I doubt it, Abraham replies. If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, the scriptures that have given you all you need, neither will they be convinced – and this next line is thick with irony for Luke’s post-resurrection community – they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
This is what got me thinking about Vance’s experience at Yale, and the differences between us, real or perceived. In this parable Jesus has diagnosed a problem of vision. But – and this is hard, but worth exploring, I think. It is not Lazarus who has the problem, or certainly not as much of a problem. He sees the rich man, he sees the people passing by, folks coming in and out of those feasts at the rich man’s home. He sees, maybe TOO CLEARLY. It is the rich man who is blind. What I don’t know, and I don’t think the parable resolves for us, is how blind the rich man is. He knows something of Lazarus, for by the time they die and the rich man is in Hades and he sees Larazus with Abraham, the rich man can call him by name. The rich man knows Lazarus’ name, which I must confess is more than I know about most poor and homeless folks I see, even folks I recognize. Either way, the rich man’s blindness encompasses almost everything past that. The rich man is so caught up in who he is and the rules he thinks are in place that he doesn’t really see Lazarus. His name is ‘God helps’, by all means, and the rich man not only doesn’t help, he doesn’t seem to be able to acknowledge, maybe even didn’t believe in his fundamental humanity. That is, until he needs something from him when he’s looking for a drink of water later on.
In this parable Jesus has diagnosed a problem of vision. Rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, republican, democrat, make your own list. We disagree deeply over so many things. We move in our own relatively insulated circles so effortlessly. We don’t see each other. And when we do, it’s to judge, to categorize, to figure out what we can get out of someone else. The rich man was so stuck in his own stuff, own concerns, that he – and I have made the interpretive leap and assumed that we are more like the rich man than like Lazarus – his eyes were clouded over. Which makes me wonder what it might mean for us to let Jesus the Christ clean the muck out of our eyes, so we can SEE, really see each other, see the world of God’s own purposes in people right in front of us, lying at the gate.
So I’d like to suggest something. In this intense and exhausting election season I think there is a particular blindness emerging, coupled with a kind of self-righteous condescension. The next time you see an email from a friend or neighbor who you can’t believe is going to do something ridiculous like vote for Donald Trump, or vote for Hillary Clinton, and you mutter something under your breath about either one of them or about the whole system, I want you to pause. Just for a moment. And think about what you might or might not be seeing about those candidates, or their supporters, or that friend who posts things that make you so angry. That doesn’t mean there aren’t important ideas to be debated, ideas that can do good or be dangerous. But we get so caught up in the media narrative of the day that we don’t think. We don’t listen. We don’t see our leaders, we don’t see the coworker we hold a grudge against, we don’t see the family member that drives us crazy. My gosh, in Tulsa, in our own dear Charlotte this week. Even when we do see a little all we see is color, or our broken assumptions about color. We don’t see the poor and left out and left behind, we barely see the folks around us, unless they stumble in our path or get in our way. We need Jesus to help us see something in each other, help us recognize the fundamental humanity in each other, that we are too willing to disregard.
These are hard days, to be sure. Lazarus sits by the gates, waiting. And we, with Christ’s help – the church MUST have a role to play in our world that is so blind – still have the chance to SEE each other. And Lazarus waits. And he waits.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Much of this summary comes from Joshua Rothman’s review in The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-lives-of-poor-white-people
2. JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, (New York: HarperCollins, 2016) this section mentions the events from pages 200-220.
3. Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 244.