Text: Luke 16:19-31
Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.
I’ve asked you this once before, but I wonder how you would describe yourself: rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle? And I don’t mean spiritually. I mean financially, in terms of money.
I spent years in graduate school and lived on very little. I always had part-time jobs and I borrowed to get by. During those years I didn’t travel, going out for coffee was a splurge, and at receptions and dinners I always took home left-overs in a ziplock. Well, I still do that. I was the grateful recipient of many household hand me downs.
Was I rich or was I poor? I had no money in my pocket, but I did have a roof, clean water, health care, and the privilege of studying. I might have been poor scraping by according to Bay Area standards, but on a global scale I was still well to do.
I was born in the country of Liberia, West Africa, and I lived there until the age of ten years old, so I have seen and lived with people in extreme poverty, which means mud huts, water that had to be boiled to be safe, the constant threat of hunger, rudimentary education, and extremely limited healthcare.
By any metric, we would all agree that, financially speaking, the average Liberian villager is poor.
On the other hand, an acquaintance remarked that her husband, a lawyer, had lost his job. He was looking for another but she commented that he might have take one in which he earned $100,000 less than he had before, and how tough that would be for the family.
When she said this, the rest of us seated at the table looked at each other and said “pfff” because none of us had had the opportunity to live on a $100,000, let alone $100,000 less than we were used to. Her husband has since gotten a new job at the same or better salary, so, are they rich? Yes. By US or global standards.
Our gospel text for this morning is about money. And Jesus really is talking about money. Mammon. Cash. This reading resists being spiritualized into a discussion of spiritual or cultural or relational wealth or poverty.
Let’s encounter this parable by putting it in context. Jesus has been engaged in extreme teaching. Three weeks ago we heard, “Whoever does not hate father and mother because of me is not worthy of me.” Two weeks ago Jesus told us that God would go to extremes, leaving the 99 in the wilderness to find the lost one.
Last week Jesus told a pretty unusual parable in which he commended greed, but his point was, “You should be this greedy about the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus is really pushing boundaries, and today’s teaching is just as extreme, just as edgy, it’s meant to shake us up and get our attention. It is an urgent and compelling teaching about our lives right now, while there is still time – for us and for others – and about the living faithfully with money.
This parable might be startling but it’s also crystal clear. What was the rich man’s sin? That is, why did he end up in Hades? It’s because he had a lot of money and didn’t share it. That’s it. He might have been a fun guy, great sense of humor, treated his dogs well, but he ignored the poor.
Lazarus lived literally outside his gate, wished for crumbs from the rich man’s table but obviously did not receive them, and was in need of medical care and did not receive that. The rich man had the means but did not help him.
And what did Lazarus do that was right, deserving of paradise? Well, nothing that is recorded here, except that he had been so sick and so poor, and so ignored in the previous life. So God lifted him up, filled him with good things, and sent the rich away empty, to quote the Magnificat, Luke chapter 1.
In this parable we find one of Jesus’ central themes about the Kingdom of God -- the great reversal. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God. When did we see you hungry, Lord, and naked, and not help you? I tell you, when you did it for the least of these, you did it for me. All of this is rooted in God’s love for God’s children – God cares deeply for their suffering, and wills that their suffering cease.
So we come back to the question of rich and poor, and we wonder, what are we? According to the how most people in the world live, we are wealthy. I think that’s not hard for us to see.
But the parable invites us to enter Jesus’s world, and to find our place there. Where and how do we fit, not only in this parable, but in the larger mosaic of God’s work on earth? How can we, with the wealth we have, be part of God’s great reversal? How do we open the gates? What does a godly relationship with money look like?
Remember that couple I mentioned who were afraid they’d have to learn to live on $100,000 less than they were used to? Well, I know them. They are deeply committed Christians. I know that they tithe at least 10% to their congregation, so it must be considerable, and they also give generously to other causes. Because the husband earns so much, his wife is able to have a career that pays little, but is a great service to others.
Most of all, though, this couple has a deep understanding that their money is a tool. Money is one of the things that can make good things happen. They are constantly in dialogue with each other about how to use their money, as a family, as Christians, in God’s service.
And there are those of us who earn, shall we say, less than that. How shall we regard our money or lack thereof? Someone might say, “How can I have an ungodly relationship with money when I don’t have any?”
And to that I would say, “Oh, it’s entirely possible.” Have you ever met someone who came to the end of their working life and was bitter? Angry that he or she had not achieved what they thought they deserved? Someone who felt cheated by the world?
A person in that state of mind is a slave to money, is serving the idea of money, of what money represents. That person is not living in gratitude, not living in the freedom of the gospel and enjoying the fullness of life in the spirit.
Many of us here are retired. Many of you are, for the most part, beyond the days of earning money, and now you are managing it. Potentially, your biggest concern is making your money last, stretching it to be there as long as you’ll need it. You’re making careful decisions with the resources you have.
Whether we’ve got a little or a medium amount, or a lot, we are called to be faithful with it.
If I were to hand out a dollar to each of you, or a dollar to some and ten thousand dollars to others, the gospel would still ask each of us the same question. What are you going to do with it? How will that decision be part of a lifetime of decisions made in faithfulness to God’s vision of abundant life for all people?
The writer of I Timothy says in chapter 6 verse 10, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, people of God, shun all this: pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. And then verse 19, “…so that you may take hold of the life that really is life.”
Maybe that’s the best way for us to get our heads around this. To think of the life that really is life. Community, friendships, supportive relationships of give and take, justice—helping others in need. A healthy, godly relationship with money will support a life that is rich in spirit, rich in love, and meaning. See how that works?
God’s vision for God’s people is a good one, one that is not a burden but a delight. Wellness, wholeness. God wants us to all to have enough and then some more to celebrate and enjoy. God’s vision is 100% communal. God does not wish that individuals rise, but that the whole community rises.
We know that our God is in favor of music, singing, dancing, food and wine, but God is 100% against God’s people partying inside the gate while others, sick, hungry and vulnerable, lie outside it.
Each of us in the end has to make decisions about our money. Each of us decides what it is that we need, what is enough for a good life, what we can do without, what we can give away. The good news of the upside-down gospel of Jesus Christ is that in giving, in doing and sharing, as we bring more and more people inside the gate, we find life. The good life of the Kingdom of God filled with love, relationships, parties and justice. The money helps.