As we continue our Lenten journey to the cross, we come to yet another parable. The first week we heard the parable of the merciful Samaritan challenged our desire to justify ourselves. The second week, it was the parable of the unfruitful fig tree challenged our temptation to delay in repenting, to take our own sweet time about changing our hearts and lives. Last week we heard the parables of the found sheep, the found coin, and the father who loved two sons and we were challenged to give and receive unfair amounts of grace. This week, the parable is about money.
Now before you groan and switch to someone else’s church service, take a deep breath. I haven’t taught about money directly very often since I became your pastor. And I think that I have done you a disservice in that. Because if you are at all like me, you spend a good amount of time thinking about money. Probably even a good amount of time worrying about money. Whether you are trying to pay your bills or save for your kids’ college educations, or survive on a fixed income from Social Security, you are thinking about money. And if Zion is the place that you come to have your minds opened to the way of following Jesus, then I have neglected to address a significant area of how your faith intersects with your daily life. Because Jesus talks about money A LOT. In fact in the book of Luke he talks about it constantly. Most he talks about the Kingdom and second most he talks about money and often he’s talking about the Kingdom and money at the same time. That’s the case this morning.
This parable comes very quickly after the three parables that we heard last week. Chapters 15 and 16 and the first half of 17 are one big long teaching that Jesus gives in the presence of “sinners” and his disciples and some Pharisees. He addresses all of them at different points and tells stories that will make sense to all of them. Right before the story we are going to read this morning Jesus was telling a parable to his disciples. He ended by asserting, “No slave can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and wealth.”
The very next verse says this: The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. (They mocked him. They ridiculed him. They made fun of him for his teaching that you can’t serve both God and wealth.) He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God.”
And then he tells them this story. Let’s pick up in Luke chapter 16, verses 19 through 31 and I’ll be reading mostly from the Common English Bible.
“There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.
“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side.
He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Moreover, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.
“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”Luke 16:19-31
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Told you this was about money. But it’s also about an afterlife that includes conscious torment, so now you really want to find a different church service! I’ll be honest with you. This sermon was almost twice as long because I felt anxious about needing to explain all the stuff about torment and flames. Because that’s what scares us. When we first hear interpretations of the scriptures that open the door for grace upon grace upon grace with no room for shame and scare tactics, it seems too good to be true since many of us are so used to hearing the gospel presented with shame and fear. And then when we come across something that sounds like hell, we get really nervous. Or we decide we’re just going to ignore that part. But for me that’s not a good move because then I’m left having to decide what I’m going to accept and what I’m not and that’s a slippery slope until I’m just accepting the things I like and already understand and then I never grow. So. Let’s not do that. But let’s also not go off the deep end about hell here. Let me give you just a few bits of understanding that were helpful for me when experiencing this story.
First of all this genre of story where two different people die and have radically different experiences in the afterlife that turn the tables on their earthly life, this genre is found in many cultures in the ancient world. This is another story type, like the “three guys walk into a bar” joke.
Second, we don’t have enough other texts besides the Bible to know for sure what Jews actually believed about the afterlife at this time in history. And just like now, not everyone believed the same thing. So we want to be careful about assuming that this parable (a definitely fictional story) is meant to provide a factual description of the afterlife.
Finally, the details provided here don’t match up with any other descriptions from the Bible that seem to talk about the afterlife. Seeing people who are having different experiences, being able to talk to them but not get to them, we don’t find that anywhere else.
What I’m trying to say is that if what we take away from this story is a factual description of hell, then we’ve missed the point. If you want to take this description literally then you should also take literally the point that the only people who wind up in hell are people who have experienced material comfort in this life, which is probably everyone listening today.
So. Let just not take that literally. OK? But let’s do take it seriously. Let’s do take seriously, in this Lenten season when we are called to pay special attention to the spiritual discipline of charity, let’s do take seriously our love of money. Let’s do take seriously our fear of scarcity. Let’s do take seriously the excuses we make for ignoring the needs around us. Let’s do take seriously considering how we can be more generous with our resources. Because Jesus apparently takes all that stuff very seriously.
The book of Luke does not condemn money in general. The father who loved two sons was wealthy. Jesus’ most common image of the Kingdom of God is a huge party or an elaborate feast. So we would be oversimplifying things to say that Jesus says it’s bad to be rich and it’s good to be poor.
But it is clear that God has what is called a “preferential option for the poor.” That doesn’t mean that God loves poor people more. But it does reflect that throughout the Bible God is concerned with the physical, tangible, material needs of people who are hungry and thirsty, who are sick and suffering, who are refugees and immigrants, who are without a safety network of kinship or community. God takes those needs seriously. God demands that God’s people meet those needs. And God says that when we meet the needs of others, then we will feel the connection and presence of God that we all long for.
Throughout the Bible, people learn the hard way that monetary wealth is a sword that cuts both ways. When used according to God’s design, money can be a blessing for those who have it and for those with whom it is shared. Native Americans speak of money as medicine, as a force of healing that can restore balance. But when money is not used according to God’s design, it corrupts. Having wealth makes us more self-reliant and less God-reliant. It increases our focus on our own comfort and acquisition. And it leads us to assume that we have it because we deserve it and that therefore those who don’t have it don’t deserve it because there’s something wrong with them.
We may not say it quite that blatantly, but that’s the pattern that develops in our mind. Having wealth usually makes us less compassionate.
And lest you think that I’m pointing fingers at you, I am in the same boat. Several years ago my best friend Jill pointed out to me that my line for an ungodly standard of living was always just a little above where I was at the time. As I got more wealthy, my standard for what was acceptable to God also increased. Ouch. And she was right. I was being a hypocrite.
So I’m not going to stand up here this morning and tell you how much money Jesus wants you to make or how big your house should be or how new your car should be or how many boats or jet skis you can have or what kind of vacations you can take and still be a faithful follower of Jesus. That’s dangerous. And icky.
But as your pastor, I am going to remind you that how we spend our resources is hugely important to God. Not because God wants to cramp our style. Nor because God is a communist who wants to redistribute all the wealth and not reward people for working hard. No, that’s not it. Our standard of living matters to God because what God wants most is for us to be free. And the best way to be free from a love of money and a fear of scarcity is to be generous. The more I try to hoard, the more I focus on saving up because something bad might happen, the more I think about something bad happening. The more stuff I have, the more I worry about protecting my stuff. Hoarding, worrying, being anxious, having to justify myself, and feeling the need to judge others is no way to live. It’s not what God wants for us. A truly free life is a life where I share as much as possible. Where I am generous at every opportunity. Not because I’m afraid of going to hell, but because I’m not afraid of anything. Because I am trying to fully embrace the amazing grace of having been blessed in order to be a blessing.
Honestly, the teachings about money and wealth in the Bible are deeply challenging for me. They are radical beyond what I can imagine myself implementing in Delaware in 2021. But that doesn’t mean they are wrong. It means that there is room left for me to grow in my imagination of what is possible in God’s Kingdom. If I really take God’s word seriously, even what we read just in the book of Luke, then I would freely and joyfully give away everything that I don’t immediately need, trusting that when I have an immediate need someone else’s generosity will meet it. You guys, that’s crazy. But it’s only crazy to me because I’m wealthy. It’s possible. It’s possible to be that free, to be that unworried, to be that focused on the good of others, to be that joyful about participating in the healing of the world.
I know it’s cliché, but I honestly believe you can’t outgive God. The people I have seen who are crazy generous, who are stupid generous, those people are never lacking. Several years ago I traveled to Korea and had the privilege of visiting many different churches, Buddhist temples, and what we would call charities. At the one that was the most impressive to me in terms of what they were actually accomplishing in the lives of people who were in need, I asked the founder why he thought they were so successful. And the first thing he said was, “We give away as much as possible. Everything we do is free unless there’s some reason it just can’t be and then we charge as little as we can for it. We give away as much as possible.”
If we truly believe that God is the source of all goodness, that everything belongs to God and we are stewards of it, then I trust that the better stewards we are, the more we will be given to work with. Water finds its way to flow best through unobstructed channels. When we are channels that are open to let God’s resources flow through us, more comes to us. Will will be free from the fear of scarcity. And we will experience the joy of being blessed with resources that we can use to be a blessing to others. Amen.