Text: Luke 16:19-31
Last week we heard a story about a shrewd steward who moved from an economy of mammon to manna, where he shifted from the priority of money to the priority of relationships. Last week the story taught us that generosity and relationships are the currency of the kingdom of God. Today we will continue this theme of moving from an economy of mammon to manna as we look at the story about the interaction (or lack thereof) between a rich man and a poor man. This story is perhaps one of the most memorable parables of the New Testament, next to that of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. In today’s story, we find two main characters: Lazarus, and the rich man. Again, we face a sharp word from Jesus and a challenge to reconsider how we use the gifts (financial or otherwise) that God has given us.
Let’s begin by trying to re-imagine what this parable might look like if it were to take place in today’s world. Imagine a man and a woman. They are very wealthy, and they have a big beautiful house in South Hills overlooking Charleston. They wear designer clothes and host frequent dinner parties for their rich friends and drive BMW’s. One night, they decide to go out to celebrate their 30th anniversary at Tidewater Grill. They order multiple dishes of succulent lobster, crab meat, shrimp, blackened salmon. As they eat their scrumptious dinner, dipping the fresh lobster tail into warm melted butter, they think to themselves, oh, this is just so delicious! After an incredibly large amount of food and mouthwatering dessert of cheesecake, the woman says to her husband, “lets go on a walk honey. I am so full and bloated that I just need to walk off some of the calories!” So the couple walks out of Tidewater Grill and starts to walk east. They comment about what a pleasant evening it is, and before they realize it, they start to walk through the plaza. All of a sudden, they notice a homeless man lying on one of the benches just a few feet away from them. He is dirty and smelly and just appears to be all around skuzzy. The man mutters to his wife, “Don’t worry, we’re safe, it isn’t dark yet. He looks old and alone.” The wife replies, “Oh how pitiable. The poor man. Look at those rags, those worn shoes, that smell! Poor soul!” Averting their eyes, they try to walk right past him as if he isn’t even there. The ragged looking man says to them, “Got any spare change for someone like me?” The couple pause for a moment, and the husband says oh so magnanimously, “Sure, here you are,” as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out two quarters. He drops the change into the man’s hands, careful not to touch him, lest he catch some sort of infectious disease. Spontaneously, the rich man asks him, “and what is your name?” “Lazarus” the poor man replies. “My name is Lazarus. God bless you, sir!” “And God bless you too, Lazarus,” says the rich man as he walks away. He and his wife continue their walk feeling good about the meal, good about the encounter with the homeless man, and very good about their generosity.
Now for a dramatic scene change. We are now in hell. The rich man and his wife are trodding through an endless expanse of desert, sweating profusely in their designer clothing. They are absolutely miserable. There isn’t even a drop of water to quench their unbearable thirst. They continue to trudge along, almost faint with exhaustion and weakened by the extreme heat. Then the wife looks ahead, pointing, and says, “what’s that? Do you see trees? A lake?” “Yes, yes you’re right!” the man replies, suddenly perking up a bit. As they approach, they see that there is a big canyon between them and this oasis. So big, in fact, that they can’t even see the bottom of it. The rich man looks closely at the other side and shouts, “Hey, Father Abraham! I recognize that homeless man over there! I think his name is Lazarus! Yeah, I gave him 50 cents once. Can you have him dip his finger in the water and send him over here to touch my dried up tongue with a drip of cool water? I am absolutely parched!” Father Abraham shouts back, “Uhm, yeah, about that….I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but there is sort of this enormous chasm between us. We can’t get over there and you can’t get over here. You’re out of luck, buddy.” The rich man and his wife were so hot, so uncomfortable. He tries to wipe away the sweat that is dripping into his eyes. As he surveys the possible solutions, he realizes that there aren’t any. He starts to think about his brothers and sisters who are still alive, living back in Charleston, and Dunbar, St. Albans and Nitro. He shouts back to Father Abraham, “Well, can you at least send Lazarus back to my brothers and sisters to tell them to take better care of the poor and the oppressed so they don’t end up here, like me?” Father Abraham hollers back, “They have the Bible. They have the Old and New Testament. They know what they need to do. Even a man who was raised from the dead wouldn’t convince them into loving their neighbors the way that they should. Your brothers and sisters have already been given everything they need to know. It is all up to them whether or not they will listen.”
This parable is not about heaven and hell. It isn’t about the evil of money and the blessedness of poverty. Rather, it is a story that demands that we take a good hard look at ourselves and the world around us as we ask the question, “Are we truly living the way that God wants us to? What are we doing for Lazarus?”
God’s care for the poor is a consistent theme throughout the gospel of Luke. It is first established in Mary’s song while Jesus is still in the womb. She says, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their throne but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Ouch! Tough words! As we continue throughout Luke’s gospel, we witness this occurring in multiple places, but perhaps most prominently in today’s story. Here we see Lazarus, the poor man, being filled with good things and we see the rich man with nothing. Well, at least, we see that in the second half of the story.
What is the rich man’s fundamental problem? He is completely blinded to the world around him. Or rather, he chooses to remain blind. It isn’t as if Lazarus is some invisible, imaginary person halfway around the world. He is literally on the rich man’s door step. He is literally smack dab in front of him. And the rich man, who has so much wealth, so much excess, fails to even look twice at Lazarus. I’d say this rich man is definitely living in an economy of mammon. The rich man only considers himself and his wants and desires.
Maybe we aren’t as rich as this rich man. Maybe we don’t have everything that he has. But perhaps the only real difference between us and the rich man is quantitative, not qualitative. The difference lies in the amount of wealth, but not our attitude towards it. As Jesus speaks this parable then and now, he is speaking to an audience that is much more like the rich man than like Lazarus.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, preached many sermons on how Christians should approach money. His most famous sermon on the use of money offers a radical new paradigm for us to consider: it can be summed up in three simple statements: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. On first hearing those words, you might think, that doesn’t sound so radical to me.
But let’s look at each of these three statements in more detail. The first one is, gain all you can. You might be thinking, well, that sounds about right. Make as much money as you are able. Don’t we always enjoy a raise or getting a higher paying job? John Wesley says yes, gain all that you can, but then he puts a whole bunch of qualifiers around it. We are not to gain money at the expense of life or health. We shouldn’t take a job that does more harm to us than good. Life is always more valuable than money. We are to gain all we can without hurting our minds or our souls. In making money (among other things), the ends do not justify the means. If we are engaging in work that is detrimental to our moral character, then we, as Christians, need to reassess our priorities. Finally, the way in which we gain money cannot be at the expense of our neighbors. Here Wesley speaks of something that runs contrary to our capitalist society and the competitive nature of the free market: He says, “We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price. We cannot study to ruin our neighbor’s trade in order to advance our own.” Furthermore, our trade can’t be based on selling something that does harm to our neighbors. In short, Wesley says gain all you can by honest means that does not harm yourself or your neighbor in body, mind or soul. This first one isn’t so bad, and for the most part, we may already be doing a pretty good job with this. The rich man in today’s parable had not come into his wealth necessarily by dishonest means. The story doesn’t tell us, so we don’t know. The problem is not that he has gained money.
The next of Wesley’s principles is where it starts to get a little hairier. Save all you can. This doesn’t mean put all of your money into a trust fund and let it just sit there doing no good to anyone. Rather, what Wesley means here is don’t spend your money on excessive amounts of things. Don’t throw money away on stuff that isn’t really important or that you don’t really need. This is where I start to get a little uncomfortable. I have the problem of money tending to burn a hole in my pocket. If I have a little extra money, I have to do practically all I can to resist going out and spending it on something fun, just because I can and want to. This definitely goes against what Wesley means when he says, save all you can. Wesley advises against spoiling one another. He especially speaks against parents spoiling their children because this contributes to gratifying and further increasing, in his words, “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.” The rich man who lived in his house, wearing the fine robes of purple and feasting every day did not exactly save his money. He spent it on rich living for himself and his friends to feed his own desires.
So we have gain all you can, and save all you can, but here’s the real clincher: give all you can. Gaining and saving all you can is nothing if we stop there. Unless we are being good stewards with the gifts entrusted to us by giving all that we are able to the care of others, then gaining and saving by themselves are pointless. We are to use our financial resources to help one another. Generosity is the defining characteristic of living by the economy of manna that last week’s Scripture lesson pointed to. Wesley himself lived what he preached about money, though it took him a while to get there. He had an experience one year at Oxford. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately, the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward?” Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?” That experience may have been a turning point for him, and he began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds. Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.
That is pretty powerful testimony, and I know that I myself feel squarely put in my place. Wesley approached money in a radical way, in a way that was characterized by generosity and framed by his consideration of the other as greater than himself. Wesley is a foil to the character of the rich man in today’s parable. Throughout the Old Testament, we hear in the prophetic writings God’s command for Israel to hear the cry of the needy. He says over and over, do not let their cries fall on deaf ears, or I will not listen to you when you cry out. This is exactly what we are seeing in this story of Lazarus and the rich man. We really aren’t too different from the rich man. What are we doing for Lazarus? How are we using the gifts that God has given us to serve someone other than ourselves?
I, probably like many of you, still find myself stuck in the economy of mammon. I am still stuck in the way of thinking about me and mine. Ultimately this economy of mammon is not even about how much money we have; rather it is about how we think about what “belongs” to us. John Wesley’s motto on the use of money can be summed up as this: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. These three things are to be done with the purpose of serving others, rather than ourselves. These three things are to be done in order to build up the community, our family of faith, and to invite others into that family. If we truly could shift to that perspective on money, what would our life as a congregation look like? What would our witness to the rest of the world look like? I don’t pretend that this is an easy thing to do, or a change that we can make overnight. To move from the economy of mammon to the economy of manna may be difficult and a continual challenge; but this is what God calls us to. John Wesley said, “when I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find its way into my heart.” Maybe it is time for us to ask ourselves this question: what is governing our hearts today? Amen.