Friday, November 23, 2007

“Ready to Share?”

Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31[1]

I can think of no better illustration of the principle that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) than the 2002 film “Changing Lanes.” The film depicts a story between two men due in court. Doyle Gipson is a recovering alcoholic who’s working hard to get his life back on track and is on his way to court to try to persuade his ex-wife not to move across the country with their two boys. Gavin Banek is a successful young Wall Street lawyer who is going to court for a probate dispute involving a $100 million foundation that he convinced a confused elderly tycoon to sign over control to the firm, which of course made them millions.

While he is changing lanes, Banek crashes his car into Gipson’s. In his haste, he tries to simply write a check for the damages. He ignores Gipson’s plea that “it is important that we do this right” and drives away shouting, “Better luck next time.” But in his haste, he leaves the crucial document “proving” their claim that the elderly millionaire turned over control of his foundation to them. He also leaves Gipson stranded on the side of the road—which means Gipson misses his court appointment, and fails to persuade his wife to stay. Thus begins the morality play between the two men. As they each try to outdo each other at revenge, their day goes from bad to worse to catastrophic!

Throughout the day, instead of simply owning up to his mistake, Banek keeps trying to cut corners to get what he wants. At one point, as Banek is beginning to have an attack of conscience, his wife (who is the boss’s daughter) asks him to come to lunch. She asks him, “Did you know my father had a mistress for 20 years?” He says no at first, but then adds, “Well, I didn't know it was for 20 years.” Her mother knew all along, she says, “but she decided it would be hypocritical to leave a man for cheating at home, when the expensive life she enjoyed so much was paid for by a man whose job was based on finding ways to cheat.” The point is that she wants Banek to do whatever it takes to maintain their expensive life. Later her father takes over and also tries to get Banek back “on board.” The ultimate justification for his dishonesty is, “At the end of the day I do more good than harm. What other standard have I got?”

Yes, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil! By his own confession, Banek had left the scene of an accident, paid a computer hacker to bankrupt Gipson, lied to his bosses, had been party to defrauding a charity, and was considering filing a forged document to the court. Dishonesty, embezzlement, infidelity, and so on. It’s all there in “Changing Lanes.” But all of that and more have always been around, haven’t they?

The prophets of old repeatedly warned against the dangers of wealth. In the Gospels Jesus echoes again and again the warning that wealth has a seductive way of taking over one’s heart.[2] In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders because they “loved money” and “justified” themselves for it (cf. Lk. 16:14–15)[3]—just like Gavin Banek’s father-in-law! The rich man in the parable was not condemned because he was rich. He was condemned because he loved his money so much that he couldn’t be compassionate toward a starving man at his very own gate![4]

The heart and soul of what God wants from us according to the Bible is to practice mercy, compassion, and generosity to others.[5] And here is this rich man, probably a respected “pillar” of his synagogue, who not only doesn’t show compassion, he probably didn’t even notice Lazarus at all! To some extent, one could say his “hell” was self-imposed by the isolation that wealth creates.[6]

It’s so easy to justify being wealthy—and make no mistake about it: in comparison with most of the 6 billion people on this planet we are for the most part wealthy. If you’re not sure about that, just look around at which groups of people do which kinds of work in our communities. And what does that mean for their children’s chances of going to college or for their prospects of retirement? When faced with reality, our justifications sound a bit like addicts coming up with all kinds of rationalizations to reassure ourselves that “It’s not a problem, I’ve got it under control.”[7] But when we say that, you can bet that our possessions have begun to possess us.[8] Although we may joke that we know it’s risky for us to be wealthy but we’d like to give it a try for a while, the stark reality is that the things of this world tend to enslave, destroy, and distort humanity—both ours and others’.[9]

Throughout the history of the church, the saints and heroes of our faith have consistently taught us that the only way to keep ourselves free from the love of money is to give as much of it away as we possibly can! That’s why Paul tells Timothy to instruct the wealthy Christians of their day to be “ready to share” and rich in good deeds. But, of course, that notion can also be a question—are we ready to share? That’s not a question regarding our financial commitment to this church. It’s a question regarding our life! So how about it? Are we ready to share?

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/30/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] R. Schnackenburg, Jesus in the Gospels, 194-95. Among the dangers listed in Luke, he notes greed (12:15; 16:14); self-indulgence (8:14; 12:19; 16:19; 21:34); vanity (14:7-10); neglect of the poor (16:20-21), and arrogance (cf. 14:16-20). See also Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 40-43; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 196.

[3]D. Bock, “The Rich Man and Lazarus and the Ethics of Jesus,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 40 (Fall, 1997): 70-71.

[4] Cf. 1 John 3:17: “But if anyone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help how can God's love be in that person?” (NLT).

[5] See Isa. 1:17; Mic. 6:8; Jas. 1:26–27. Time and again Israel was commanded to care for the poor and destitute (cf. Exod. 22:22; 23:11; Lev. 25:25; Deut. 14:29; 15:7; 24:12, 17; 26:12) because this emulates God’s care for the poor (cf. Deut. 10:18–19; cf. 1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 10:14; 12:5; 35:10; 140:12; Eccl. 5:8; Isa. 11:4; 25:4; Jer. 20:13; Lk. 16:22).

[6] Frank G. Honeycutt, “Hellish Indifference” in Journal for Preachers (2005):40-42; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 175; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 268-69.

[7]Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches,” The Christian Century (Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997): 831. He says, “Wealth becomes addictive. Luxuries become necessities. ... Yet in terms of the world’s population, such luxuries-turned-necessities are available to only an affluent few. Satisfying our appetite for more has devastating consequences for those who have less.” See also Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 595; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 172, 186-87.

[8] John Sheila Galligan, “The Tension between Poverty and Possessions in the Gospel of Luke,” Spirituality Today 37 (Spring 1985): 4-12. She warns against “the seductive lure of the power, pleasure, and security that are the by-products of being wealthy.” Cf. also Joel Green, Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 148: “Wealth becomes a master if it is not mastered.”

[9]J. Moltmann, “Political Theology” Theology Today, 21.: “Only the poor really know the oppression of wealth’s exclusiveness. Only the hated know the misery which hate causes. The rich, the oppressor, the hater are always a bit oblivious to the misery they cause, even if they are well-intentioned.” See also J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 330; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 268-69; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 175; Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 194; Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 177-78; Küng, On Being a Christian, 597.

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