September 25, 2022, Playing with Fire, Luke 16:19-31 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click the link above.

There is a story that Carroll and I find amusing, about friends we knew in St. Louis years ago, a couple, Chuck and Teresa Schmidt. They were young – we were pretty young, too, at the time – and they had a biggish family, like ours. It was near Christmastime, and Teresa was trying to convince Chuck that they should do something charitable, as a family project, for Christmas. “We should do something to help the poor,” she told Chuck. But Chuck’s response was, “Honey, we ARE the poor.”

I begin with that story, because the common theme in the readings today is the danger of being wealthy, and we really can’t hear what is being said, not properly, if we don’t acknowledge that we are NOT the poor – that we are, in fact, quite wealthy, both by the standards of the Bible and the standards of the world. We just read that Paul counseled his young friend Timothy to be content with food and clothing, and not to get drawn into the desire for more and more, and yet I’m pretty sure that there is not one person here whose possessions consist merely of food and clothing. We have cars and houses and televisions and pets and books (some of us have lots and lots of books). We have vacuum cleaners and washing machines and any number of other possessions that we pretty much take for granted. By Paul’s standards, we are definitely rich.

And we are equally among the wealthy by the world’s standards. The gap in this country between the very rich and everybody else just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I think sometimes that distorts our view of what it means to be rich. In 2015, Oxfam determined that the 62 richest people in the world possessed as much wealth as the whole poorest half of people in the world – that’s 3.6 billion people. We’re not that kind of rich, obviously. On the other hand, to be counted among the richest half of the world’s population, you only need to possess $3200 in net assets. If you have a car or a house or a modest savings account, you’re more than there. But we don’t even really have to give our wealth a dollar amount. Do we go to bed hungry? Do we even have a bed? Are we terrified at the coming cold of winter, wondering if we’ll be able to keep warm? Were we and our children able to get an education? When we are sick, are we able to get medical care? These and so many other questions remind us that we are among the wealthy, in this nation, and in the world.

And it is really important for us to know that, because God has made it very clear that being rich can be hazardous to your health, and that is a warning we should take seriously. In the Old Testament reading, Amos, the prophet, proclaims God’s judgment on those who have become so rich and so comfortable and so complacent that they have turned a deaf ear to God’s warnings, so much so that they couldn’t care less about the moral decay of their people. They had fallen prey to the “I got mine” philosophy of life. Their wealth had deadened their sensibilities to anything but a desire for their own pleasure and ease. And God’s warning for them is harsh: “The revelry of the loungers shall pass away,” Amos tells them. In plain English, God is saying, “The party’s over. In fact, you’ll be the first to be taken into exile.”

In the New Testament reading, in his letter to Timothy, we read Paul’s very familiar words, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” And he warns Timothy – and us – that those who desire wealth often come to very bad ends. I think we need to be very careful to listen to what Paul is saying, because we tend to be all too quick to find comfort in his wording. “What a relief! Paul doesn’t say that MONEY is the root of all evil, he only says the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” Because who among us thinks that he LOVES his paychecks and his 410K? But we fail to really take to heart Paul’s warning that acquiring wealth is playing with fire. “Watch out,” Paul is telling Timothy – and us, “or you might be badly burned.” Remember what Jesus said to his disciples when the rich young man turned sadly away because he just couldn’t bring himself to sell his possessions and follow Jesus in the freedom of poverty. “Listen: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Of course, by the grace of God rich as well as poor find their way into the kingdom, and Paul also gives practical advice here for rich Christians. He gives three important pieces of advice. First, wealth likes nothing better than to set itself up on the altar of our hearts, and it’s very good at doing that. Keep wealth in its proper place, Paul says. Be sure to set your hearts firmly on the one who is the giver of every good thing, God and God alone. Let your hope rest only on what will last, and avoid the pride and arrogance that accompanies wealth. Second, since you are rich, use your wealth for the good of others. Be generous; be rich in good works, not in goods. And third, in all that you do, make sure you are building a real foundation for the future, for the life that really is life. Don’t be deceived by the false promises that wealth makes to you.

And then there is the gospel reading – Jesus’s strange and disturbing parable about the rich man and Lazarus. It’s important to remember that this is a parable. It’s not a theological description of how heaven and hell work. It’s not a future episode in the life of the other Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raises from the dead. Lazarus was a fairly common name that means “God helps,” it’s a form of the name Eliezer. The point being that this is a parable, which is basically a picture painted in words.

And the picture that Jesus paints here takes the way the world sees things, and turns it upside down, beginning with the two main characters in the story, the Rich Man and Lazarus. Now, in the real world the name of the Rich Man would have been a household word. Everybody knows you are if you are wealthy. Your life is big: your home is big, the gatherings of people at your home are big, the feasts on your table are big. Needless to say, your bank account is big. On the other hand, people like Lazarus, in the real world, are just part of a nameless, faceless multitude. Their lives are small, and dirty, and beneath the notice of the more fortunate. Remember the story of the man who was born blind, how after Jesus healed him, people weren’t sure if it was really him or not. They had to ask his parents to identify him, because even though they’d seen him begging on the side of the road his whole life, for twenty or thirty or forty years, no one had ever really looked at him closely enough to know his face.

But in Jesus’s story it’s the filthy beggar, starving, covered in sores – he’s the one who has a name: Lazarus, God Helps. And at the end of the lives of these two men, it is Lazarus who winds up reclining at table with Abraham, the great Patriarch, and the nameless Rich Man who finds himself in the place of the dead, in torment, with no comfort and no hope. Remember, this is a word picture. It’s not a theological or a political statement condemning all rich people as demons and beatifying all poor people as saints. What it is, is a vivid picture illustrating what Paul would later write to Timothy, about what constitutes a life that is really a life. And it’s not what the world thinks it is.

When Jesus told his disciples that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to squish through the eye of a needle, their reaction was astonishment. “Then who CAN be saved?” they said. To them, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. The rich were the favored ones, successful, attractive, happy. The thinking of the disciples was: if the rich don’t have first-class tickets to heaven, then what hope is there for common ne’er-do-wells like us? Now, in modern times, maybe we don’t have as rosy an image of the wealthy as those disciples, but I would say that we are at least as likely as they were to be tempted to see success and comfort, health and wealth, as signs of God’s approval. We modern people are just as likely as the ancients to suspect that those who are poor and miserable must be somehow to blame for the misery of their lives, individually or as a society, or to feel that a disaster in our own lives is somehow a punishment from God.

But Jesus’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus turns that world view on its head. It exposes the deceptive nature of wealth, which promises glory and, in the end, delivers only despair and pain. Wealth is a seductive and cruel master, and as Jesus said in last week’s reading, you can’t serve both God and wealth – you’ve got to make a choice. We can certainly use wealth for great good: to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to work for justice and rebuild what is broken. That is the proper use of the wealth that God has given to us. But this picture that Jesus has painted for us stands as an uncomfortable reminder that riches are a dangerous thing. There are a lot of theological insights that can be drawn from the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, but at the very least it stands, vividly, as a wake-up call for us, who live in a world addicted to wealth, enslaved to comfort, and hardened against the call of compassion. If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, let us take that warning to heart today. +

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