Divine Dignity

Divine Dignity

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

September 30, 2007

Scripture: 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

“There was a certain rich man…” — Luke 16:19

There are two parables in Luke 16 and each is about a rich man and how he used his riches. The first rich man has to fire his steward because the steward has been defrauding him, and the second rich man goes to hell because he treats a beggar badly. Each of these stories can be read singly, and make a single point, but when read together the comparison enriches the message greatly. Singly or together they present two facets of the same subject, namely, the use of riches. The former rich man uses his wealth to save human dignity and the latter uses it to humiliate a human being. I believe Jesus told them close enough to each other for the comparison to work, and that their presence together in the same chapter is not simply the editorial decision of Luke. They really only make sense together, and the sense they make is the warning never to humiliate a fellow human being. If you do you will go to hell, which is a hot and thirsty place.

Let’s establish at the outset that the average human being simply cannot stand humiliation. If you humiliate someone you make an enemy with a long memory. At the heart of the present Arab discourse about Israel is the fact that the simple existence of the state of Israel humiliates the Arabs every day, and more and more acutely with every victory the Jewish state wins over Palestinian fecklessness. Not only Israeli economic success and military superiority but also, and possibly more so, Arab incompetence and corruption spreads humiliation among the Arabs like salt on raw nerves. We might extend the range of that pain-causing salt to the tender nerves of the whole of Muslim civilization, whatever that today might be, that thinks it was once actually superior to the Christians and their technology and continues nevertheless to be intrinsically superior, morally, humanly and in any other way that counts, but mysteriously finds itself scorned and patronized by a civilization so much more productive and predominant. That experience is humiliating, and is, I believe, one of the more powerful causes of insanely motivated terror attacks.

These two parables of Jesus about two rich men are each and together parables whose point is: whatever you do, do not humiliate anyone. Last week the rich man fired his CEO for embezzlement and fraud, but unlike the practice here in Silicon Valley, did not change the locks immediately and cut off his access to his line of company credit. Do you think the boss in this story was simply incompetent, that he forgot to protect himself in this way? I do not think so; he intended to remain vulnerable to the former employee, to leave himself open to further defrauding because he did not want to humiliate the man he had to fire but rather wanted him to be able to leave with dignity and move on to an existence which would be morally comfortable to him. He would rather lose more money than destroy the self-esteem of the crooked steward. He commends the steward for stealing more of his money and thus taking care of his future dignity.

Our story for today features a rich man who behaved in the opposite way. Instead of saving the dignity of Lazarus, he rubbed in his humiliation. He dined sumptuously every day, virtually in the hungry man’s presence, and vaunted his haute couture clothes before a man who barely had a thread. Yesterday I read the Pope’s household preacher’s sermon on this text and he, Fr Cantalamassa, makes much of the phenomenon of Italy’s haute couture, where a dress can cost tens, even hundreds of thousands of Euros, and suggests that that world of high fashion is like the world of Dives in our parable, where the rich will pay as much for one suit of clothes as will feed a village of starving children for half a year. The iniquity in this situation is multi-layered, not only the sheer greed of it all, but also the violence of comparison; no garment is intrinsically worth the prices asked but wearing it sets one above those who cannot afford to wear it, and thus humiliates them unnecessarily, and builds oneself up on the back of that humiliation. Lazarus could not avoid this effect because this couture was displayed before him every day. He could not avoid the context of empty competition where he always lost dramatically. Furthermore he was made to compete with the dogs for the scraps he ate, and usually lost. Poor Lazarus, in competition with the dogs, and constantly reminded by his rags of his exclusion from the human world!

This latter rich man went far to humiliate his fellow man, while the former one went far to save his fellow man from humiliation, even at cost of further loss to himself.

The lesson is simple, is it not? The good rich man is an image of Jesus’ Father, that is, a picture of what our God is like, and the bad rich man, the humiliator of human beings, who went straight to hell, is the opposite of Jesus’ Father. The lesson is simple but its ramifications are far-reaching, if not complex. (I resist the use of complex in this kind of discourse because when someone says “This is a very complicated matter,” it usually means, ” I know exactly what this means and what I must do, but I am not going to do it, and I do not want to confess that, because it will reveal to others and to myself what a lazy, immoral or careless scoundrel I am. “). There is no time to discuss the architecture of Hell or speculate on the climate there; it may well be a hot and thirsty place. Of course it could also be like an Italian fashion show; one does not have to go to Hell to behold the walking dead, one need only go to Armani in Milan and watch the zombie boys with bitty breasts presenting on the runways.

My friend EP Sanders, one of the best historians of Jesus in my generation says that any credible account of Jesus must explain why they crucified him, and he points out that if Jesus went around calling for repentance as usual the religious leaders would have welcomed him. If, however, Jesus said that God dealt with us like the rich man dealt with his steward he would be subverting good religious order. The scoundrel does not repent; nevertheless he receives a great boon, he gets the gifts without any strings; who knows he might wake up to gratitude and go home to such a generous father, who gives before he asks, loves before he expects to be loved, and never treats us a less that fully independent and free men and women of inalienable dignity, inalienable especially by God. And if you treat you human beings callously, ungenerously, you will go to Hell.

The religious people especially could not stand so generous a God. There must be a quid pro quo, and some groveling, and yes humiliation is good for the soul.