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A Christmas Parable

First Published JCF Newsletter December 2016

By GARY ALLEY

Now listen, you rich men, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you… Your gold and silver are corroded and will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire…The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you…You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence…You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. 

James 5:1-6; 4:17

We all know the story.  A rich man dies and goes to an afterlife of suffering.  He returns to warn his equally avaricious “brother” about the torment to come.  These rich men have spent their lives worrying about “the bottom line” while ignoring the needs of those around them.  They have grown wealthy by their tightfistedness to the detriment of others.   While they might have lived by the letter of the law, never breaking a commandment of commission, their guilt lies in what they did not do—sins of omission.

Since its publication in 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become synonymous with Christmas tradition in the West as a morality tale that challenged the 19th century industrializing world which was forgetting its humanitarian mores.  Its miserly protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, a recognized byword in English literature, today, for penny-pinching parsimony, had lived a selfish life, in pursuit of gain, with no compassion for those under him.  In Dickens’ novella, seven years after the death of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner, Marley’s spirit appears to Scrooge on Christmas Eve warning Scrooge of his awaiting eternal doom.  Contrary to Marley and Scrooge’s successful trade of accounting, Marley preaches to Scrooge about what true “business” involves:

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most.  Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!  Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

If Scrooge will not change his stingy and uncharitable ways, he will be destined to an endless afterlife of wandering, bound by heavy shackles created by his own deeds.  The gold and silver he hoarded in this life, and did not share, he will carry for eternity; Scrooge’s stockpile of precious metals will be forged into chains that will weigh down his every step in the life to come.

But, fortunately, Scrooge does atone, and his life, and those around him, are changed for good.  The story teaches that one person’s choices can bring life or death, not just for himself but can also affect the community surrounding him.  These personal decisions include not only what they do to others but also what they choose not to do to help others.  After its dark and foreboding beginning, A Christmas Carol happily ends with repentance and redemption, punctuated with the well-known Tiny Tim-ism—“God Bless Us, Every One!”

Whether Charles Dickens realized it or not, A Christmas Carol was predated by “A Christmas Parable.”  In Luke 16, two parables, in fact, are spoken by Jesus about rich men.  These parables offer different riffs on the ethical chord of A Christmas Carol—our temporal choices involving others can have eternal consequences.  

Luke 16’s first parable tells the story of a financial manager who is accused of wasting his boss’s wealth and will soon be fired.  To create job opportunities after his looming dismissal, the manager gives his boss’s customers a significant discount on their debts.  Not only is the manager’s boss impressed by his ingenuity, Jesus also affirms the manager’s strategic generosity.  Taking this example, Jesus declares a larger principle from the parable’s punch: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Lk 16:9).”

The second parable in Luke 16 is about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus who lived outside the rich man’s gate.  After some time, the rich man and the beggar die and enter the afterlife—the rich man suffers in Hades and the beggar is comforted at Abraham’s side.  The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn the rich man’s five brothers so they will not be eternally tormented like him.  Abraham says to the rich man, “If they do not listen to Scripture (Moses and the Prophets), they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead (Lk 16:31).’” 

What the rich man did wrong and what the beggar did right is somewhat muted in the story.  A simplistic reading could argue for riches being a sin and poverty a virtue.  But life and Scripture teaches us that it’s always more complicated than that.  It can be inferred from the story that the rich man neglected the beggar who sat outside his mansion’s gate day after day.  But it could also be understood that the rich man made a practice of mercifully feeding the beggar his left-over food.  That would explain why Lazarus sat outside the rich man’s gate, attesting to their symbiotic relationship.  Perhaps, the parable is saying that the rich man did both—he gave the scraps from his table to Lazarus but never truly invested in him as a friend. 

If this were the case, could we interpret this parable of the rich man and Lazarus through the earlier parable of the shrewd manager?  “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Lk 16:9).”  Instead of Hades, would the rich man have dwelt at Abraham’s side if he had made Lazarus a friend?

When we share with those in need, we are investing in eternity. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Lk 12:33-34).” 

Not only are earthly actions towards others important, Scripture portrays these actions as coming forth from our hearts, like gold coins spilling out of a treasure chest.  In the Hebrew tradition, the heart is the mind; it’s the place we think and make decisions.  The heart-mind is our moral compass.  We can only truly define whether we are wealthy or impoverished by the status of our hearts—how full or empty are our “treasure chests”?  Jesus says that our hearts will decide to inhibit or enable the flow of generosity based on our spiritual health and not because of the extent of our funds. 

Contrary to A Christmas Carol, Marley’s ghost is not necessary to remind of this truth.  According to Jesus, it’s not about the messenger but the Message.  “If they do not listen to Scripture (Moses and the Prophets), they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead (Lk 16:31).’”  Let’s go out of our way this season to help others, to build relationships, and to make friends.  It’s not good enough that we “mind our own business,” because, as followers of Jesus, humanity is our business.  As Father Rick Thomas often said, we can’t share the Good News if our lives are the bad news.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.  In this way, they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.  1 Tim 6:17-19