September 29, 2019 Together
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
The lectionary readings don’t give us any breaks do they? Once again, we are confronted with Luke’s favorite topics: wealth and poverty. And I would not blame you to suppress a quite sigh, and think to yourself: “Here we go again.” This was exactly what I thought when I read the readings when I prepared for today’s sermon. But once I got thinking about these topics, once I did my research, prayed about the message, I suddenly realized that my initial response was based on economics and not theology. Let me explain, if you approach these text from an economical perspective, that is looking at money, production, productivity, use of resources, good and services, then one could conclude that the rich man was simply more productive, better at money management, better at using resources and perhaps better educated and better at investing. He had a competitive edge and that is why he was wealthy.
Taking the same economical approach, Lazarus was not as productive, not as savvy with using his resources, and not as skilled in money management. Furthermore, he was ill, covered with sores; he as at a competitive disadvantage. An economical approach could justify the situation and would explain the so called Gini coefficient, the statistical measure of distribution of economic inequality, measuring income distribution among a population.
However, using an economic model to explain the text would result in us missing the theological purpose of Luke’s Gospel. What then is the theological purpose of the story of the rich man and Lazarus?
Luke is the only Gospel that tells the story of a rich man and a poor old soul named Lazarus. The contrasts between the rich man and Lazarus could hardly be starker: the wealthy man is dressed in the royal color of purple and fine linen and he eats sumptuously every day. Lazarus, on the other hand is lying at the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, satisfying or rather longing to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. His only companion seems to be animals that were considered unclean animals back then.
Both of them die and the contrasts after death are actually starker: angels carry Lazarus away to be with Abraham and the rich man opens his eyes in Hades being tormented. He, who previously had everything his heart desired and perhaps never asked for anything in his life, now desperately needs water – for he is in agony in these flames. He is reminded that the wheel has come full circle, the shoe is on the other foot, the chickens have come home to roost.
The first question that of course comes to mind is: “What did the wealthy man do wrong?” All of us are tempted to unlock the world with this key: If something bad happens to you, you must have done something wrong. If you are poor, sick suffering, you must have done something to deserve this. And when things are going well, you are prosperous, healthy, you must have done the right things.
You see, if we can determine what the rich man did wrong, then we can avoid doing that and then we will avoid his fate.
So, we try to reconstruct what his sins were: Perhaps this man was punished because he was not compassionate, he did not share his wealth, he did not care about the poor man’s health, he did not provide the occasional meal! Maybe he was greedy or dishonest, or maybe he cheated people. We know that the Bible speaks out against greed and dishonest business practices. But the text does not say he did anything wrong!
So, in one ancient text of this parable someone tried to fix it by actually adding a reason for his punishment. Someone added: “he did not give Lazarus something to eat”. This addition to the text explains that the rich man is punished and is suffering for did something wrong: he did not give Lazarus something to eat.
Another commentator says that the rich man was only thinking of himself –even after his death he would ask Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool “my tongue”. The conclusion is clear: The wealthy man’s great sin was – selfishness – and that was why he was punished!
However, the problem is of course that the text does not say that the rich man did something wrong. He was wealthy, that is all! He was punished in this parable not because of what he did- but because of the wealth he had! So, instead of discussing wealth and poverty from an economic perspective, it is important to discuss the theological problem of wealth!
If the parable tells us that the wealthy man is suffering in Hades not because of something he did, but simply because of the abundance of his possessions, what can we learn from this? What is the theological problem with wealth?
Does it mean God does not like wealthy people? Does it mean it is impossible for wealthy people to enter God’s kingdom? Last week I mentioned that there are many examples in the Bible of faithful people who were also very wealthy: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job, David, Solomon, , Zacchaeus, the tax collector, Joseph of Arimathea and Lydia are a few examples.
We therefore cannot simply conclude that God is not interested in wealthy people simply because they are wealthy. Wealth in itself does not disqualify people to be committed people of faith.
The Bible however is clear that there are real dangers and temptations in being wealthy. And let us be very honest here again: all of us here are in terms of the world’s population extraordinary well-off!
Without taking anyone on a guilt-trip the question is this: What are the dangers and temptations that wealth present to faithful living?
I. Wealthy people are generally self-sufficient and independent. That is why we call them independently wealthy. And when one has enough resources it is very hard to ask for help or to rely on others. A wealthy church that I served had an interesting problem: we recruited the best candidates to be trained as Stephen Ministers, we provided them with the best training, they were commissioned during a beautiful service and then, after being commissioned, they waited to serve, caring for a care receiver – and they waited. The problem was that people were independent and they never needed any help. The times they did need help, they paid for it. It was a transaction and not really help. They owed no one anything! They were embarrassed to ask for help. As a matter of fact, asking for help was a sign of weakness. It took us a few years to change the view that asking for help when you need help was a sign of strength – not a sign of weakness!
Wealthy people may think that they don’t need others, they don’t need a community; they think that they can do it all alone. And often because they are self-sufficient they expect everyone to be self-sufficient. They don’t see a need to help others!
Once again, being independent and self-sufficient are good from an economical point of view. But it is not so good from a theological one.
You see, God in divine wisdom, wants us to be part of a community (Remember these words, “It is not good for man to be alone”. God made a covenant with Israel, and the church is the body of Christ, a community). Theologically speaking we need each other, and we need to be available to help one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-15: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,” and “the body does not consist of one member but of many.” It is possible to survive all by yourself but it without community it really is not living a full and meaningful life!
Christian theology teaches me – and this is confirmed by secular sciences- that human beings- whether they are wealthy or poor- need community. I am me because of you! “A person is a person through other people”. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am.” (Ubuntu theology by Desmond Tutu).
II. There is a second theological reason why wealth challenges us as people of faith. Because wealth enables people to be independent in the full sense, wealthy people may find it hard to ask and accept help from God! Asking God for help can be seen as irresponsible and weak.
Have you noticed in our reading from Luke that the wealthy man does not have a name? Some theologians say that is so that we could add our own names.
The poor man on the other hand has a name: Lazarus. Back then names had meanings! There is a specific reason why this man’s name is Lazarus! I wonder if anyone knows the meaning of Lazarus? Lazarus means: “God helps”. The poor Lazarus trusted God for help, he relied on God for his future; he was forsaken by his community and others, but not by God. He had nothing else to trust or to fall back unto.
The danger of having so much as we all do, is not necessarily what we do with it – even though what we do with our wealth often illustrates our worldview. No, what makes it really challenging is the willingness to wholeheartedly place my trust in God alone and not in the security of what I have.
The Apostle Paul picks up the theme in First Timothy 6:17 and it is no surprise that his theology is exactly the same as Luke’s. Wealth per se is not wrong- but it does present serious challenges: “ As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
This is easier said than done, isn’t it? How do you keep your eyes on the future, storing up treasure in heaven when the culture and Zeitgeist are focused on the here and now? Is it at all possible to resist the spirit of our time that bombards us with constant and powerful messages that money makes you happy, and now is the time to enjoy life and make yourself the center of the universe? The powerful trend today is one of instant gratification. We all know that past generations were more focused on what was called “delayed or deferred gratification”. We live in a time when it is very hard, even for people of faith, to keep in mind that there is more to life than this world. Materialism has become the most dominant philosophy of our time: “Materialism is a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.”
The church is one of a very few institutions that can provide an alternative to materialism. The church’s message is, or should be clear and simple: “Seek first the kingdom of God and it’s righteousness and all these things shall be given to you as well”.
Let me conclude: Biblical theological warns us against two dangers of being wealthy:
1st. The danger of thinking that we don’t need others or others need me. The danger of thinking that we don’t need community. The danger of thinking that I can live my life without others.
2nd. The danger of relying on and trusting in my own resources. The key to the poor man’s final destination is in his name: Lazarus, “God helps”. He trusted in and relied on God’s help – unconditionally. It was perhaps easier for him to embrace God’s help because he did not have anything else to rely on.
The theology of these readings challenge us. How will we respond?