Dives and Abraham: Martin Luther King Jr. demolishes Mitt Romney’s talk of ‘envy’

The Rude Pundit points us to the sermon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968, the final Sunday of King’s life.

That sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” includes an extended look at the parable of Lazarus and Dives. The character of “Dives” isn’t actually named in the parable — but it’s the traditional name assigned to him because Dives is Latin for The 1 Percent.

King’s remarks on Jesus’ parable are a direct refutation of the infernal nonsense about “the politics of envy” or “class warfare” most recently embraced by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Romney criticized and dismissed those who are concerned about poverty and growing economic inequality. “You know, I think it’s about envy,” Romney said. “I think it’s about class warfare.”

King’s discussion of Jesus’ parable shows that Romney’s “it’s about envy” defense of irresponsible wealth is damnably foolish and foolishly damnable. It’s not about envy. Abraham did not envy Dives. Nor did Jesus. Nor, even, did Lazarus:

Jesus told a parable one day, and he reminded us that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor. His name was Dives. He was a rich man. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who was a poor man, but not only was he poor, he was sick. Sores were all over his body, and he was so weak that he could hardly move. But he managed to get to the gate of Dives every day, wanting just to have the crumbs that would fall from his table. And Dives did nothing about it. And the parable ends saying, “Dives went to hell, and there were a fixed gulf now between Lazarus and Dives.”

There is nothing in that parable that said Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a rich young ruler came to him, and he advised him to sell all, but in that instance Jesus was prescribing individual surgery and not setting forth a universal diagnosis. And if you will look at that parable with all of its symbolism, you will remember that a conversation took place between heaven and hell, and on the other end of that long-distance call between heaven and hell was Abraham in heaven talking to Dives in hell.

Now Abraham was a very rich man. If you go back to the Old Testament, you see that he was the richest man of his day, so it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven; it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he was passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world — and nothing’s wrong with that — this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.

 

  • Daughter

    Beautiful.

  • P J Evans

    I wish that Mitt would get that sermon every week between now and the next election. Because he needs to hear it.

  • Vladimir

    What does it mean to say that concern about poverty and growing economic inequality is envy? I don’t get it. Sure, one who is in poverty could be — not necessarily, but could be — envious. But, how does it make sense to say that relatively well off people, or modestly comfortable people, are motivated by envy to be concerned about poverty, growing income inequality, or a lack of opportunities for all?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    Has Romney ever not been rich? I get the feeling that he’s one of those guys who was born in a wealthy family and has always been surrounded by opportunity and prosperity. He may know intellectually that there are many people who aren’t like him (and even that people like him represent only the tiniest fraction of a percentage of Americans, much less the entire world) but he doesn’t actually comprehend what that means.

    Herman Cain, a former frontrunner for the GOP nomination, made this exact same comment a couple of months (!) ago. It was as wrong and stupid then as it was now, but with Cain I can at least see where he’s coming from. He came from a poor family and worked his way up through his own effort (and of course the luck of the draw played a part). It’s very slightly less irritating when he says things like that because at least he’s in a position where he can say that he legitimately climbed his way up. Romney undoubtedly worked hard too, but he strikes me as (to use the expression) “someone who was born on third base and thought he hit a home run”.

  • Lori

    No, Mitt has never not been rich. His father grew up poor, made his fortune and as is so often the case, managed to raise an child with a gigantic sense of entitlement and a complete unwillingness to acknowledge that he has always been rich. 

    Paul Campos has a good summary over at Lawyers, Guns & Money:

    http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2012/01/whats-the-matter-with-romney

  • friendly reader

    I’d never thought of the money dynamic when it came to Abraham; it’s easy to forget that slaves and herds of sheep and cattle was the equivalent of gobs of money back in the day.

    Anyway, if there’s anything that Abraham should’ve been punished for, it wasn’t his money but the way he treated the women in his life. Sending away Hagar, letting Sarah get picked up for another man’s harem – and in both cases God has to step in to help the ladies in question because Abraham doesn’t have the guts to the right thing (stand up to his wife or stand up to the Pharaoh).

  • Anonymous

    Yep. And all of those things would be bad even if he was a Phoenician dirt farmer.

  • vsm

    It is true that one day a rich young ruler came to him, and he advised him to sell all, but in that instance Jesus was prescribing individual surgery and not setting forth a universal diagnosis.

    What about the part that came next, the one about a needle’s eye and a camel? I know some insist the eye refers to a narrow gate in Jerusalem, but as I understand it, there’s no evidence of such a structure ever having existed.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Dunno if anyone’s noticed but the Recent Comments sidebar has been stuck for a few days now, it seems.

  • Lori

     
    What about the part that came next, the one about a needle’s eye and a camel?  

    If you look at that verse it’s descriptive, not prescriptive though. It doesn’t say that rich people will be condemned because they’re rich. It uses what, as near as I can tell, is hyperbole to point out that most rich people are going to do the sort of things that will result in them not going to heaven. 

  • FangsFirst

    Seems to stick and unstick every eight hours or so for me. Really stuck right now though…

  • Anonymous

    Dives and Lazarus was King’s favorite sermon topic, with exactly the point Fred highlighted. When I was reading Taylor Branch’s history, I got the feeling that Branch felt that every time King brought them out for a sermon, it was a sign that King was too busy to write something original.
    Maybe, but it is so important who cares?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GT42BFIJXRQVBCBSSCGW7SKYNA isabel

    And ironic googlead of the week goes to “Why evangelicals should support Mitt Romney and feel good about it”.

  • Anonymous

    I do like how the 1% and their lackeys are so anxious to protect the rest of us from the sin of envy or from grievous violations of the Tenth Commandment. Truly an example of getting a splinter out of someone else’s eye.

  • MaryKaye

    The litmus test for envy is:  do I want this thing because it’s a good thing, or because someone else has it?

    If the 1% didn’t have good health care either, would I still want good health care for my family?  Of course I would.  I’d want it for their families too, because no child should be preventably ill.

    If the 1% didn’t have excellent schools, would I still want an excellent school?  Of course I would.

    If the street leading up to Microsoft had just as many potholes as my street, would I stop wanting my potholes fixed?  Don’t be silly.

    This is not envy.  If I thought there was a way to get what my family needs–health care, schools, infrastructure, etc.–and leave the 1% just as rich as they are now, that would be fine with me.  But when there is not enough to go around, those who have plenty need to share.

  • Anonymous

    I think the prescription is to give up what you are deeply attached to and to put others first.  It could be your porn collection, the ’68 Mustang you rebuilt as a teenager or that antique teacup collection that’s been passed down for generations.  It could even be something nonmaterial, such as the approval of others, or power and prestige.

  • Lori

     
    I do like how the 1% and their lackeys are so anxious to protect the rest of us from the sin of envy or from grievous violations of the Tenth Commandment. Truly an example of getting a splinter out of someone else’s eye. 

     

    Yeah. If I didn’t know better I’d almost think it’s not us they’re trying to protect. 

  • Anonymous

    I said this in an earlier thread about the so-called “envy” driving the discussion of income inequality:

    I’ll cop to it: I am envious of the lower unemployment we saw with higher taxes.  I am envious of the infrastructure we built with higher taxes.  The scientific discoveries we made with higher taxes. The technological advances.

    I am envious of my parents and grandparents- all public school teachers- and the interest rates the banks paid them, their ability to buy homes in pre-balloon housing markets, the security of their pension funds, the fact of no one threatening to cut or privatize their Social Security rather than make easy fixes.

    I am envious of the booming economy that we enjoyed when I went to college under the slightly higher tax rates of the 1990s, as compared to the economy and job market of historically low tax rates that followed.

    It must be envy, right? Why else would I think the current economic conditions and practices are not optimal?

    I am resentful of anyone who with a straight face can suggest that the eras of greatest growth in American history were actually a socialist nightmare and that any calls for a reversal of the policies that turned a surplus into a deficit and turned 4% unemployment into 10% unemployment and saw the rate of deep poverty rise to the highest level since 1993 (coincidence?) are merely petty envy and resentment.

    And I say this as a fortunate member of the 53%. As I heard a rich Obama supporter say in 2008, higher taxes on more money beats lower taxes on less money. At least for 99% of us.

  • Anonymous

    I said this in an earlier thread about the so-called “envy” driving the discussion of income inequality:

    I’ll cop to it: I am envious of the lower unemployment we saw with higher taxes.  I am envious of the infrastructure we built with higher taxes.  The scientific discoveries we made with higher taxes. The technological advances.

    I am envious of my parents and grandparents- all public school teachers- and the interest rates the banks paid them, their ability to buy homes in pre-balloon housing markets, the security of their pension funds, the fact of no one threatening to cut or privatize their Social Security rather than make easy fixes.

    I am envious of the booming economy that we enjoyed when I went to college under the slightly higher tax rates of the 1990s, as compared to the economy and job market of historically low tax rates that followed.

    It must be envy, right? Why else would I think the current economic conditions and practices are not optimal?

    I am resentful of anyone who with a straight face can suggest that the eras of greatest growth in American history were actually a socialist nightmare and that any calls for a reversal of the policies that turned a surplus into a deficit and turned 4% unemployment into 10% unemployment and saw the rate of deep poverty rise to the highest level since 1993 (coincidence?) are merely petty envy and resentment.

    And I say this as a fortunate member of the 53%. As I heard a rich Obama supporter say in 2008, higher taxes on more money beats lower taxes on less money. At least for 99% of us.

  • Lori

    Totally OT, but something that people may not have heard—quite a few websites are going dark tomorrow to protest the horrible proposed anti-piracy laws, SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate.  

    Most of the sites will be dark 8-8 EST, including high traffic sites like reddit, 4chan and LOLcats. Wikipedia is going dark for a full 24 hours starting at midnight tonight. A list of sites known to be participating can be found here: http://sopastrike.com/

  • Anonymous

    (sorry for the double post- I don’t know how that happened)

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Yeah, I noticed that “recent comments” wasn’t updating last week.  I’d thought it was working again, though.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NR2MMC4EJXJWJMLH6IF457XL64 Alex B
  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Add another item to the list of good things Obama has done, next time someone tries to insist he’s not better the Republicans.

  • http://caffinatedlemur.wordpress.com/ caffinatedlemur

    SOPA is on its way out, but as far as I know PIPA is still on the table. However, I did hear rumblings that the hearing may get pushed back so they have time to ‘retool’ some things. I read/blogged through SOPA, but forgot about its twin.

  • Lori

    Yes, SOPA has been taken off the House calendar, at least for now (thank you, President Obama). However, as of this morning PIPA is still going forward and indications are that SOPA’s backers haven’t actually given up, they’re just retrenching. The strike is still going forward, the hope being to prove the point that both bills need to be totally dead. There are going to be a lot of 503 error messages tomorrow and it’s better not to be surprised. 

    ETA: Mark up of SOPA is apparently set to continue in February, so it’s definitely not dead yet. The MMPA is having a fit of the vapors over tomorrow’s strike. Oddly this does not seem to be convincing anyone that the strike shouldn’t happen.

    http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/013466.html

  • vsm

    It uses what, as near as I can tell, is hyperbole to point out that most rich people are going to do the sort of things that will result in them not going to heaven.

    That’s a reasonable interpretation, but even then Jesus’ suggestion is a lot closer to a general principle rather than something mostly applicable to the specific individual, contrary to King’s point. Of course, he couldn’t have exactly preached the opposite view even if he wanted to, given how certain people were already trying to paint him as a bloodthirsty communist.

  • vsm

    It uses what, as near as I can tell, is hyperbole to point out that most rich people are going to do the sort of things that will result in them not going to heaven.

    That’s a reasonable interpretation, but even then Jesus’ suggestion is a lot closer to a general principle rather than something mostly applicable to the specific individual, contrary to King’s point. Of course, he couldn’t have exactly preached the opposite view even if he wanted to, given how certain people were already trying to paint him as a bloodthirsty communist.

  • vsm

    It uses what, as near as I can tell, is hyperbole to point out that most rich people are going to do the sort of things that will result in them not going to heaven.

    That’s a reasonable interpretation, but even then Jesus’ suggestion is a lot closer to a general principle rather than something mostly applicable to the specific individual, contrary to King’s point. Of course, he couldn’t have exactly preached the opposite view even if he wanted to, given how certain people were already trying to paint him as a bloodthirsty communist.

  • vsm

    Ugh, Sorry for the triplepost. Disqus was being mean yesterday.

  • http://caffinatedlemur.wordpress.com/ Caffinatedlemur

    Caffinatedlemur here, forgot my disqus password (it’s saved on my other computer):

    Let me get this straight, the MPAA is crying about an ‘abuse of power’ from Wikipedia? The irony, it burnssss us preciousss. Haven’t gotten to PIPA yet, but reading through SOPA was an exercise in out-of-touchedness. “US-directed sites?” really?
     
     

  • JohnK

    I get it! It’s an abuse of power to take down *your own* website, but it’s NOT an abuse of power to demand the power to take down *every other website*? That’s some pretty twisted logic, but damned if it don’t make sense!


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