Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Send Lazarus!

1 Tim. 6:6-19; Lk. 16:19-31[1]

I think most of what the Bible has to say about money falls on deaf ears with us. Money is so much a part of our existence, it seems impossible not to place at least some degree of trust in it. For me, I began learning to trust in money when I was a boy. My parents and grandparents went through the great depression, so they had a lot to say about money. Mainly, money is what keeps you from going destitute. They kept gold coins and jewelry in their safety deposit boxes as security against another catastrophic deflation of currency. My Aunt Ruth gave me a $2 to keep in my wallet at all times so that I would never be “broke.” My grandfather taught me about compound interest and about the importance of putting your money to work before I became a teenager. In a wide variety of ways they reinforced the notion that money is what keeps you from going destitute. They taught me to trust in money.

But I suspect I’m not the only one who has a hard time with our Scripture lessons for today. I think St. Paul’s advice that we who have this world’s goods not set our hopes on “money, which is here today and gone tomorrow” (1 Tim. 6:17, MSG) comes across to us like a Latin mass. We hear the words, and we understand that they’re supposed to be important, but we don’t have a clue what they mean.[2] Our whole way of life is oriented around setting your hopes on money. Which one of us can say that we are not setting our hopes on money—at the very least when it comes to retirement? To some extent, that may not be a bad thing. It’s simply a feature of what it means to live in an economy where currency is the primary means of exchange.

But from another perspective, that can be disastrous.[3] St. Paul said it most plainly (though he is mostly misquoted!): “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Of course, this opens the door to recognizing that it is we who are the problem. Money is just one among many means of exchange in the various economic systems that have come and gone in the world. As such, it can be neutral. But it is our desire for money, and what it represents to us, that is the problem. We look to money as if it were a genie who can make all our wishes come true. In a very real sense, St. Paul wants to warn us that having money is not what gives us true life; rather it is “godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). Trusting in God who supplies our needs and being satisfied with what we have is what leads us to the life that is truly worth living.

That’s all well and good, but we still live in this culture where “money makes the world go around!” How can we learn to be satisfied, to be truly content with what we have, given the fact that we live in a world that is so completely oriented around buying and getting more? Perhaps St. Paul gives us a clue here when he instructs those of us who have this world’s goods to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18). Sharing generously is a means of learning to be content with what we have. I’m not talking about the token charity that we use to salve our guilty conscience—I’m talking about real generosity. It is a matter of solidarity: letting ourselves “be affected by the suffering of other human beings”; it is a matter of “sharing their pain and tragedy.”[4]

You may be thinking that we’ve gone from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak: How can we have the confidence, the courage, and the faith to do as Paul says—to share what we have generously? Father Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers should listen to Moses and the prophets. We still have Moses and the prophets, but I’m not sure we do any better job hearing them than the rich man or his brothers.[5] We also have Jesus, the apostles, and the saints through the ages, but I think it’s all too easy for us to “bracket” them out of our reality. So what do we have, or perhaps better, whom do we have who can teach us to share what we have generously? Who do we have who can be prophets to us, who can convict us and rebuke us and instruct us and point us toward the life that is truly worth living?

We do have Lazarus. In fact, we have many Lazaruses all around us: the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised. But I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is whether they can help us. In the parable from our Gospel lesson, in spite of the fact that the rich man begged for Abraham to “send Lazarus” to help him, Abraham explained that he could not help. We might say that the rich man already had his chance to learn from Lazarus, and he refused. But we still have a chance to learn from the Lazaruses of our world.

So how can the poor, those who suffer injustice and oppression, and those who have been cast out in our world teach us how to share ourselves generously? Well, it seems to me that if we take Jesus seriously when he says, “I was hungry,” then we have to reckon seriously with the possibility that the Lazaruses of our day are the very ones in whom Jesus, the crucified Lord is present.[6] In a very real sense, they become our prophets and apostles, because they bear witness to us about the good news of a God who is present with us in our suffering.[7] They are our prophets and apostles because they teach us that the life that is truly worth living always has been and always will be characterized by compassion and generosity.[8] Although Lazarus could not help the rich man who ignored his plight, I think perhaps he might help us. I think he can point us to the Lazaruses all around us, poor and oppressed and outcast people who represent the God who shares our suffering. And when we take to heart this good news that the “crucified people” around us proclaim, we have the chance to be converted to a life of sharing the suffering of others. When that happens, we have the chance to live the life that is truly worth living.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/26/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Wade P. Huie, Jr., “The Poverty of Abundance,” Interpretation 22 (Oct 1968): 403, where he observes, “the biblical word about the poor and the rich can pass by me, for I am not poor and do not feel rich.”

[3] Ralph Wood, “A Passion for Lesser Things (1 Timothy 6:6-19),” The Christian Century (Sept 13-20,1995), 843: “few desires corrupt our hearts more than the desire for financial security.” Cf. also J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:828

[4] Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 19.

[5] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 192-98, where he explains the theological framework that the Pharisees used to justify a “gospel of wealth.” It illustrates the ease with which any of us can turn Scripture into a justification for whatever we want.

[6] J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 127, 129.

[7] Sobrino, Where is God?, 23.

[8] Cf. The Study Catechism: Full Version with Biblical References Approved by the 210th General Assembly (1998), question 16, , which puts this into the framework of the reason for our creation: “God created us to live together in love and freedom” and “to be loving companions of others so that something of God’s goodness may be reflected in our lives.” Cf. also Cf. Huie, “Poverty of Abundance,” 409, where he points out that while Lazarus needed the rich man to provide food and clothing and medicine, the rich man needed Lazarus to teach him “what it means to be human.”


Becky Ardell Downs said...

I like this sermon a lot Alan. Thanks for sharing it online!

Rick Behrens said...

Thank you, Alan. This was a very helpful reflection! Peace.

Rick Behrens said...

Thank you, Alan. This is a very helpful reflection. Peace.