There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores. — Luke 16:19-20
I hesitate to admit, especially after reading this passage from Luke, that my greatest heroes have been filthy rich.
Perhaps the greatest U.S. president of the 20th century was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the wealthy scion of Hudson River Valley gentry.
My grandparents, who operated hardscrabble farms less than an hour’s drive from Hyde Park, hated FDR. They abhorred his politics but most of all they hated his aristocratic accent, his aquiline nose, and the supercilious way he sat looking up at people through his pince-nez eyeglasses.
My grandparents didn’t know FDR had to sit down because his legs were as useless as a ventriloquist’s dummy’s.
But mostly they hated FDR because he looked so rich.
In a 1936 photograph taken at the 300th anniversary celebration of Harvard University, Roosevelt looks like the archetypal capitalist. Dressed in a top hat and pinstriped pants, he oozes smug noblesse oblige. The smile on his face belies the fact that he has been sitting for so long in a steady rain that his boxers have started to mildew. One observer whispered to his neighbor, “This is Harvard’s way of soaking the rich.”
Most fortunes grow from invidious roots, and Roosevelt’s riches paled in comparison to the copious wealth amassed by his contemporary Joseph P. Kennedy. It is unclear how Joe Kennedy got so colossally rich, though he seems to have accomplished it through shrewd stock-trading, mob-abetting, Hollywood deal-making, and clandestine bootlegging.
The sheer weight of Kennedy’s fortune borders on the incomprehensible. A couple years ago a friend drove me past an immense mansion in Bronxville. The multi-tiered, elegantly cavernous house was surrounded by marble steps, classical fountains, and Italian landscaping. “Nobody knows for sure,” my friend whispered (as if there were Kennedy agents lurking within earshot), “but they say Joe Kennedy built this house for his mistress, Gloria Swanson.”
It is also claimed that in New Jersey, the Gloria Crest Estate, a 24,00-square-foot mansion on five landscaped acres containing eight bedrooms, 14 baths, four complete kitchens, an elevator, a seven-car garage, a pool, pool house, and aviary, was also a gift from Kennedy to Swanson. The estate has been listed for $40 million.
No one could accuse Joe Kennedy of trivializing his pursuit of mistresses with flowers and Godiva chocolates. What Swanson must have given in return for this munificence staggers the imagination.
Joe Kennedy was not one of my personal heroes, but his son was. President John F. Kennedy was the richest president in U.S. history, leaving a personal fortune (measured at 2010 rates) of a thousand million – that is, one billion dollars.
FDR ranks ninth among the richest presidents, worth a mere $60 million. (The poorest president, according to Web sources, was Harry Truman.)
But FDR and JFK and many White House residents – all but nine were millionaires measured in 2010 dollars – would make the rich man in Jesus’ story seem pitifully deprived. What is disturbing is that this particular rich man makes rich people look bad.
I’m sure Jesus didn’t care that the man was rich enough to live in a gated community, dress in purple, and eat sumptuously. There is no sin in being rich, just as there is no sin in being poor.
It’s what you do or do not do with your resources that imperils your soul, Jesus warned.
Jesus didn’t tell us how the rich man amassed his fortune, so we might assume he was a virtuous man except for one major omission.
He was indifferent to the greatest commandments: to love God, and love your neighbor.
The rich man was so absorbed by his opulence that he failed to notice the starving man outside the gate.
It was a sin of omission that cost the rich man his soul. The imagery in Luke 16:19-31 is uncomfortably vivid, beginning with the disquieting description of dogs licking the poor man's sores and continuing with the rich man's agony in hell.
The notion of Father Abraham as the arbiter of souls never made it into the creeds, so perhaps Jesus’ spine-chilling description of hell is poetic. It’s interesting, though, that this Father Abraham is an obdurate hard ass when he dismisses the rich man’s entreaties for mercy. Jesus offers no alternative to heaven or hell, so later theologians ignored this story when they posited Purgatory.
But ancient metaphysics aside, the more compelling point of Jesus’ story seems to be this: the responsibility of every person, regardless of net worth, is to love your neighbor.
The responsibility to love net-worthless neighbors rises in proportion to the size of one’s net worth. The richer you are, the greater is your responsibility to relieve your suffering neighbor, to feed your hungry neighbor, to clothe and shelter your destitute neighbor, to assure justice for your reviled neighbor.
Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were far too rich to fully understand the suffering of their neighbors. Historians have noted both men had a profound sense of privileged entitlement.
But both presidents managed to transcend their plush limitations in ways the rich man in Jesus’ story did not.
FDR’s devastating encounter with polio crippled him for life and forced him to experience what it was like to suffer and depend on others. He invested nearly two-thirds of his net worth to establish Warm Springs as a therapy center for thousands who suffered as he did. When he became president, many of his New Deal programs aimed at sustaining the millions of Americans who lived outside the gates.
JFK admitted his only knowledge of the Great Depression was through reading about it in college. Even Kennedy’s admirers acknowledge he suffered from large character defects, most notably sexual addiction. But chronic illnesses and physical suffering deepened his character and empathy for others. Many measures aimed at helping persons living outside the gates – Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the war on poverty – were initiated in his presidency.
There is little doubt these two rich men could have done more for the poor persons outside the gates than they did.
But, unlike the rich man in Jesus’ story, they did not turn their backs on the poor. They set reasonable examples for what persons of means can do to alleviate the suffering of others.
They also set reasonable examples for the moral test of government, which Hubert Humphrey said was measured by “how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
This is a sound biblical exegesis of how the rich should relate to the poor. It makes one wish more of our current political leaders, including the so-called Tea Party wing in Congress, would read Luke’s gospel before they vote to close the government next week. Although most pundits doubt it will happen, the aim of the Tea Party is to defund the Affordable Health Care Act, which would deprive millions of Americans of health insurance.
Other budget proposals as they stand now, according to the New York Times, mean more than 57,000 students will not get their Head Start seats back, and 140,000 low-income families who lost their federal housing assistance will be stuck in unaffordable or substandard homes.
These are just the most recent examples of what happens when politics gets in the way of helping persons outside the gates.
On Sept. 19 the House of Representatives passed a bill that will further cut SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) by $40 billion over the next 10 years.
The legislation is now with the Senate. If passed, the bill would leave up to 4 million poor, childless adults hungry and 210,000 children without free school meals. These cuts would be on top of substantial across-the-board cuts coming on November 1 due to the expiration of the 2009 Recovery Act. Tea Party efforts to reduce the food stamp program border on cruelty, said one columnist.
Even more than that, these efforts miss the point of Jesus’ story about the rich man who was callously indifferent to the suffering outside his gates. Tea Party efforts to slash government programs that help the poor cannot be dismissed as trickle-down politics. These efforts fail the moral test of government, and they violate the greatest commandments to love God and neighbor.
I wish it were possible to send messengers to warn the politicians who are turning their backs on persons behind the gates, but I doubt it will do much good. If they are not listening to Moses and the prophets, they are not likely to listen to one risen from the dead.
But Christians who hear Jesus’ story of the indifferent rich man will feel the heat of judgment on their backs.
And they will pray that all who have ears to hear will listen.