“The Rich Man and His Wall”

~ Luke 16:19-31/Amos 6:1, 4-7 ~

The history of the world is replete with walls. Walls for all kinds of purposes. There are fortress walls, built to defend against invaders. European medieval castles, great sandstone fortresses in Mali, frontier stockades, the Great Wall of China – all designed to keep out the bad guys. This summer Linda and I went to Quebec City, with its fortress walls built over a couple of centuries by the French to fend off the British. They didn’t seem to work. Today Quebec City is a French-speaking city in a British Commonwealth country. Go figure.

Some walls are built to keep people in. Prisons. If you ever ride the Larkspur ferry you’ll drift by the massive walls of San Quentin. A couple years ago Linda and I were in Berlin and walked along the remnants of the Berlin Wall. With plaques and story boards and maps and all, a poignant tribute to a wall that in the end couldn’t keep people in. People found a way; over, under, around, they found a way.

There are walls built to separate – political, ethnic, religious separations. We know about walls in the occupied territories of Israel designed to separate out the Palestinians. A lesser known wall is one that runs the entire length of the country of Western Sahara. Morocco occupies a large swath of Western Sahara and they built a wall to enforce their presence against the nomadic peoples of the desert. In this case, Muslims separating out other Muslims. It is an illegal occupation. I was able to introduce an overture at General Assembly a few years ago that spoke to divestment of funds from companies that do business with maintaining that wall, much like the divestment of funds for the wall in Israel.

But one main reason walls are built is to separate the rich from the poor. All over the world, walls built to keep out the riff-raff. Walls exposing dramatic contrast between the shanty towns of the poor and the opulence of the rich – Lima, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Nairobi – a few years ago Linda and I were in Nairobi and saw huge walled compounds, the sole purpose of such to provide some sense of security for the rich from the desperate poor living just on the other side of those walls.

This morning we are talking about walls. Because, you see, Jesus told this story about a rich man and his wall. Admittedly, the story we heard Dawn read is usually referred to as the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. But it really is about the rich man’s wall. You might be thinking to yourself, “I didn’t hear anything about a wall in this story.” But the wall is there; it’s just not obvious. What we do have is a gate. “…at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus,” it says. And if there’s gate there has to be a wall. In Jesus’ day, rich people lived inside walls, just as they often do these days.

Again, I realize this is not obvious. That’s because almost all the artists’ renderings of this parable show Lazarus in close proximity to the rich man, maybe even in the same room, at the foot of the rich man’s table waiting for crumbs to fall. However, the story doesn’t say he actually got any of those crumbs. No, it says he “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” But he didn’t get any crumbs because he was out by the gate, outside the wall, where the dogs licked his sores. Just for the record I did find one picture showing Lazarus laying outside a wall – the picture on the cover of your bulletin.

What I find particularly poignant about this story is that Jesus doesn’t spiritualize it as is often done. Growing up, I was taught that the point of the story is that the rich man didn’t believe in Jesus and, thus, wasn’t saved, but poor Lazarus did believe in Jesus and therefore was saved. The only relevancy of the rich vs poor distinction was the idea that being rich can’t buy you a ticket to heaven.

But that’s not the story Jesus tells. Jesus gives us no aside or footnote to give us any comfort that we are all, metaphorically, Lazarus if we but believe, or if you don’t believe, well, look where the rich man ends up. This isn’t a story about “who asked Jesus into their heart” and who didn’t.

Instead, this is one of those parables where Jesus did mean it literally.  We can’t ignore the central premise of the story: Consequences await for those who ignore or mistreat the poor and needy on the other side of that wall. Jesus is echoing the tradition of the prophets who also spoke truth to power and to wealth. Jesus’ description of the rich man “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” is not unlike Amos’s description of the wealthy “who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp.” Amos’s warnings to those who feel secure and at ease are not unlike what Jesus says happened to the rich man in his story. “The revelry of the loungers shall pass away,” said Amos.

So, what would Jesus say if he were here today and heard all this talk about building giant border walls and shutting out the poor and needy who, like Lazarus, can only dream at the thought of eating the scraps of food we toss in the garbage? Is it possible that those who support and champion such walls (and concentration camps, for that matter) are in danger of the same plight as the rich man who found himself in torment looking across a great chasm? If Jesus were here today might we find him on the other side of the wall from us, the rich?

Now, I suppose it could be said that nations need to be able to secure their borders. In a world of nation-states, a fairly recent phenomenon in the history of the world, nations do have the prerogative to build walls to keep people out whom they don’t want. It is not surprising that those people are called “invaders.” But, please, don’t pretend this is a Christian thing. Jesus, who defied all kinds of borders – political, religious, cultural – isn’t really interested in our border security issues.

We live in a time in which our neighbors are experiencing a severe crisis of poverty and violence – more than most of us could ever imagine. To pretend that building a great big wall to keep those poor neighbors from wandering into our neighborhood is the right and moral thing to do is a slap in the face of Jesus.

Tomorrow night we, Noe Valley Ministry, are hosting a Community Forum about such issues. Now, I realize we don’t often schedule events on Monday evenings. OK, we never do. But I hope you will seriously consider attending this Community Forum. And bring guests. Again, I say, it is “we” who are the hosts.

International Peacemaker Rev. Arlington Trotman is an immigrant to the United Kingdom from Barbados and is a leader in the struggle for racial justice in England and Europe. On the face of it, this forum will tackle the issue of racism, in Europe and in the United States. But racial justice is just one aspect of a much larger issue: the migration of peoples around the globe. Rev. Trotman is involved with many programs dealing with race and migration. One of the most important involvements is his participation in the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME). The migration of peoples is much more than merely a nation’s immigration policy. As others have noted, migration is integral to the basic human condition. People have been moving about the earth for eons. Thinking of the issue in terms of “migration” has profound theological implications. Or, in other words, Jesus cares greatly about how we regard those come from other places.

Much of our liturgy today reflects these perspectives. The prayer of need today, based on Psalm 146 that extolls God’s work of justice, interweaved our complicity to ignoring God’s perspective. In a little while we will participate in a congregational reading that helps us face the issues of those in poverty and the walls we construct. And then a hymn that reflects on that reading. All this, actually, written by a Presbyterian husband/wife team, Bruce and Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.

But first a song. This is a song that has haunted me ever since I first heard it almost 40 years ago. I song by Ken Medema who, I admit, I inflict on you fairly often. Joshua sang an arrangement of Ken’s a couple weeks ago, Jesus Lover of My Soul. This song speaks to the very heart of what I am trying to say to you this morning. It’s called Kingdom in the Streets. It’s about what Jesus thinks of walls.


Come walk with me in the darkness

And as we walk along I’ll tell you quite a story,

And I’ll sing you quite a song.

I’ll sing of light and darkness, of victory and defeat,

Corruption on the mountain and compassion in the streets.



For it’s a long night, and weary grow the feet that walk the long road,

but the morning will come sweet. Yes, it’s a long night,

and the Prince is in the streets tonight.


We’re walkin’ to the city, and Chaos is its name,

And in its streets and alleys are the blind, the sick, the maimed.

And the children cry for water, and relief seems out of sight,

And they dream about tomorrow in the darkness of the night.


Well, just outside that city, far from the blight and pain,

Is a holy mountain fortress where life seems calm and sane.

There’s feasting there and singing, by tranquil waterfalls.

And the street folks never come there, ‘cause they cannot climb the walls.


At the gateway to the fortress the man of sorrows cries.

A Prince in beggars’ clothing with compassion in his eyes.

And the mountain folk won’t hear Him, so He turns his feet around.

And the ruler of the mountain becomes a servant in the street.


Well, I see his kingdom coming and I see the victory day.

There’ll be no need of fortress walls, for there is a better way.

The Prince will lift the lowly, and the proud will taste defeat.

Don’t look for the kingdom on the mountain, for its coming in the streets.

Words and Music by Ken Medema (1980)

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