Jesus’ Views on Wealth & Why We Risk Hell For It
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Luke 16: 19 – 31. Focus – We are saved by faith, but judged by our actions. Be sure to check out Kelly Crandell and the choir.
Each of us likes to tell ourselves certain things to protect ourselves from the pain of those around us. Things like: “If only he hadn’t dropped out of high school. If only she hadn’t had so many babies. If he would just get a job, if she would just stop drinking.” It’s human nature to find some reason why people are the way they are, because it’s how we protect ourselves from the underlying fear that as long as I don’t fall into the same trap that they fell into I won’t become like them.
You can’t help but notice that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing not only in this country but also in the rest of the world. Whether you live in a city, suburb or in the country, we see homelessness and hunger almost on a daily basis. We all live, to some extent, in the uncomfortable tension between the rich man and Lazarus.
Most of us here don’t consider ourselves rich, maybe upper middle class but not rich yet most of us by the world’s standards are not poor either. If you make more than $34,000 a year, you are in the top one percent of the world’s richest people on earth and yet by American standards that would never be considered just above the poverty line. In America you have to make more than $400,000 a year to make the top 1 percent according to CNN Money.
And we used to believe in the great American myth that anyone willing to work hard enough could get rich in this country – After all this is the land of opportunity if you apply yourself, which is true. The only problem is that it’s not nearly all of the truth.
It might be completely true if everyone were standing at the same starting line when the gun went off, but that’s never the case. Some start from so far back that they can run day and night and never even see the dust of the front-runners.
Those are the hardest cases, I think, people who have inherited poverty as surely as they’ve inherited the color of their eyes or the texture of their hair. They may even hear the gun go off but it doesn’t really matter much. They don’t have the right shoes, can’t pay the registration fee, never got a copy of the rules and are in terrible shape.
People tend to look at them and think “losers.” Now this has been going on for so long that even people who start much further ahead in the race believe that it’s almost like God had something to do with it. After all Jesus did say, “You will always have the poor with you.” (Matthew 26: 11)
Maybe their misfortune is no mistake. Maybe it’s God’s punishment. It’s even written in the Bible: “For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” (Luke 8:18)
This was a popular view in Jesus’ day, especially among the Pharisees, who had no trouble finding passages of scripture to back them up. But Jesus couldn’t stand their interpretations of the Bible because they had no sense or love for people. They saw themselves as better than. They called the common people – Am ha’aretz. It meant the dirty people of the land.
When I look back over my life I can see those occasions where I’ve made some “heroic” effort to look a begging person in the eye and recognize them as a child of God but more often than not I avert my eyes and walk on by the person who’s begging: “Spare a quarter. Spare a dime. Spare some change.”
I was talking with my colleagues and most all do not give out money, but it’s always with the thought that they’ll just go out and buy booze or drugs with it. And yet not bat an eye at taking their family or friends out for drinks and dinner. And what scares me is how easy that is to do and almost how right it can feel. But what’s the difference then between me and the rich man? That’s why this is such a scary parable to me.
If you come to my house I’m going to feed you and give you the best I’ve got, but if you are a poor beggar on a street corner, not so much. Why do I do that? Maybe it’s because I don’t see these people as my friends. And there are all kinds of ways that we try and make it ok, but there’s one problem – This isn’t ok with God. In fact, Jesus tells us that to act like this rich man – to simply ignore the poor man Lazarus is all it takes to end up in hell.
When most of us hear this story there’s this tendency to plummet right into our own chasm of guilt and despair even though that’s not the point of the story.
For better or worse, there’s very little guilt in this story. As far as I can tell, the rich man doesn’t’ feel badly about anything except the place where his life of luxury has landed him. He was fine with the distance between himself and Lazarus when it was his own doing, but now that the distance seems fixed for good he’s in some distress, especially since Lazarus has something that he really wants – water.
But even on the far side of the grave the rich man doesn’t get it. He stills barking orders across the great chasm: Tell that poor man to bring me some water. He thinks Lazarus is Father Abraham’s gofer, someone to fetch water and take messages, but Father Abraham sets him straight.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes the scene this way:
“Cradling Lazarus in his bosom, he says, as Clarence Jordon, translates it in the Cotton Patch Gospel, ‘Lazarus ain’t gonna run no more errands, rich man.’ The rich man’s days of getting other people to do his bidding are over. Furthermore, there will be no special messages brought back from the dead for his brothers. They have Moses and the prophets just like everyone else, and if that’s not enough to get their attention then no ghost is going to get it either – End of story.” (Sermon – Message from the Dead? EthicsDaily.com)
Pretty harsh story, but I don’t think that Jesus is telling this story just to make the Pharisees or us squirm. He wants to get our attention for a reason. He wants us to see what the purpose of money is for. As we found out last week in the story of the shrewd steward. Jesus is saying money is a tool to make a difference in the lives of those around you. Money is not something you are to hoard or to think of as your own. It is a blessing from God to be sure – but it is a blessing with a warning label: Owner beware! Your stuff doesn’t ultimately belong to you. And if you think that it does then you are like the fool who built bigger barns.
Who do you think fixed that chasm in the story? Was it God or the rich man? Sometimes I think the worst thing we ever have to fear is that God will give us exactly what we want.
C.S. Lewis makes this point in his book – The Great Divorce. “Maybe this is hell, being forever stuck, curved in on ourselves. Its proud citizens may actually depart whenever they so choose. But just as they did on earth, people choose separation from God, misery over joy, hollowness over reality… There are only two kinds of people in the end; those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done.’ And those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell chose it.’”
The best thing about this story is that it’s not over for us – yet. It was told to the living not to the dead. It was told so that we would realize that there are consequences for being indifferent toward human suffering. It was told to remind us that while we may have four score and seven to live, we will have an eternity to reflect on how we lived it.
We are the rich man’s brothers and sisters and like them not only do we have Moses, the prophets and someone who has risen from the dead, but we also have this parable to warn us. All that remains to be seen is what we’ll do about it. Amen