Sunday 29th September 2019, Trinity 15, at Llanos del Peral
Jer 32:1-3,6-15, 1 Tim 6:6-19 & Lk 16:19-31
The stories told by Jesus in our Gospel readings these last two weeks have been somewhat challenging. Last week Jesus appeared to commend some decidedly dodgy dealing by an Estate Manager, whilst this week, he presents an extremely unusual view of life after death. Such challenges are heightened because for some reason the compilers of the Lectionary decided to miss verses, which I believe contain the key to this puzzle. So last week, the Gospel Reading was Luke 16, verses 1 to 13, and this week we read verses 19 to 31. So what was contained in the intervening verses that could shed light on these two, otherwise strange stories that Jesus told?
Well verses 14 and 15 read “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So Jesus said to them, ‘You like to justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
The Pharisees, who should have been guiding the people in the ways of God, were so devoted to money and Worldly values that their understanding of God was completely upside down. This led them to ridicule Jesus as he tried to correct their error, explaining that they look for praise from other folk, unaware that God sees through their hypocrisy and that Human Values, which they prize, are an abomination to God. So, Jesus in both accounts is deliberately targeting Mammon, the greedy pursuit of wealth or profit, and reversing expectations. So last week, Jesus uses his story of the cheating Estate Manager to illustrate the levels to which folk go to protect their future in this life, whilst entirely failing to consider the need for any such investment in eternity, finishing with the devastating conclusion “you cannot serve God and Mammon”. And it was this statement, which completely undermined their lifestyle, that so riled the Pharisees, prompting Jesus to continue with his second story, showing even more dramatically how human values are “an abomination to God”.
So as Jesus told this second story, his listeners would immediately have felt a level of respect for the rich man, clearly a person of distinction and a very successful businessman, whose wealth, they would probably have presumed to have been an indication of God’s favour. Jesus makes no adverse comment about lifestyle, other than the hint that he may have been oblivious to the needs of the poor man lying at his gate, though he was clearly aware of his existence. The description Jesus gave of the poor man, hungry and covered in sores may well have evoked pity from some of his audience, but far more likely a sense of disgust and revulsion from the Pharisees, who would have seen his condition as an indication of God’s judgement and would probably question why the rich man had allowed him to remain at his gate.
But then Jesus turns the whole picture upside down as viewed from God’s perspective at their lives’ end. The order, let’s note is reversed; the poor man being now mentioned first in death, when it’s made clear that God knew his name as Lazarus and cared for him, so that he was carried away by angels (a timely reminder of their role on this the feast of Michael and all Angels) to be with Abraham. [The NRSV is a bit impersonal here; NIV says he was carried to “Abraham’s side” and NKJV, as with AV reads “to Abraham’s bosom” which gives far more of a feel for God’s love and care for this man.] Jesus then recounts the death of the rich man, and all would doubtless have been expecting a far more glorious reception, but Jesus simply states “the rich man also died and was buried”. That in itself would have created immense shock, but Jesus continues with worse, describing the rich man, now of course penniless, in Hades awaiting final judgement and in torment. The story continues indicating that the rich man had known the name of Lazarus and had also considerable concern for his brothers, who he wished to warn, so was not entirely without care for others. The roles had been completely and irretrievably reversed. Despite tradition, the rich man isn’t even named. However good or caring in some areas he may have been, he had simply served Mammon all his life so his values were “an abomination to God”. This, I believe, is the message of both these stories; a message which we ignore at our peril.
And my guess is that St Paul had this in mind when he wrote his closing comments in his first letter to Timothy, which we’ve read this morning. It’s highly likely that Luke was with Paul at the time as he wrote this letter, so the words of Jesus which Luke recorded would have resonated with him as Paul wrote “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out” and “the love of money is the root of all evil”. But we should note that Paul did not write, as some incorrectly suggest, that money itself was the problem. God may indeed bless some of his servants with wealth. The Andrews Sisters in 1946 were completely wrong with their song “Money is the root of all evil”, for it’s “The love of money, that’s the root of all evil”! And it’s that love of money; that serving Mammon, that characterised the Pharisees to whom Jesus addressed these stories and has led to so much evil in our World; so much hurt, despair and damage to the Church. And it’s this problem that Paul is addressing in this passage, which we, both as a Church and as individuals really need to understand.
So there’s nothing wrong with money, nor with having it. It’s how we treat it and how we use it that matters. The problem for us is that we all tend to be conformed to the world to some degree. It seems natural for us to strive to earn more, to pay less for goods and services, and to accumulate more for the future. But what a dangerous outlook; so easily, as Paul warns, leading us into Satan’s trap of avarice. So we need to remember that since we are going to share in the riches of eternity, then striving for wealth here on Earth is a waste of time and effort. We’d be far better served in using our opportunities here, in preparation for eternity. We need to understand that the talents and money we have are not ours to squander as we wish, but lent to us by God to administer on his behalf. If only we could truly view our wealth in this way, how much richer we as individuals, the Church and yes, the World too would be. For if, as King David stated (1 Chron.29:14), we truly believed that “everything we have is lent to us by God, so all we give is His anyway”, then our question, both as individuals and as a Church would no longer be “How much can we afford to give?” but rather “How much may we retain for our own purposes?” And with that mindset, as Paul suggests in vs 7 & 8, we can know the joy of contentment, requiring no more than food, clothing and a roof over our head, rather than the stress of trying to accumulate wealth and status.
So how should we, who in Global terms are so wealthy, live in order to serve God rather than Mammon? In the words of St Paul, “ Do good, and be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for yourselves a good foundation for the time to come, that you may lay hold on eternal life.”