Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2018

The prosperity gospel is alive and well in our culture. If you are rich, you are blessed. You get massive tax breaks. You can travel wherever you want to go. You can go by a Rolex any time you want to. You can spend money on things and experiences that no ordinary person could ever dream of.  

The prosperity gospel is alive and well in churches too. Preachers still talk of the financial blessings you will receive if you become a believer. And that you should share abundantly of those new blessings with the church, if not with the preacher himself or herself. It sounds good, because it talks about the value of sharing blessings with the church, but its focus is not really on that. The prosperity gospel is a get rich quick scheme disguised as a good work.

Paul and Jesus both make it very clear that the prosperity gospel is not what a life of faith is about. Paul is talking to his disciple Timothy, giving him instructions about how to live faithfully and to be an example to those he will minister to. He has just finished excoriating people who use religion to make money and now he turns to financial gain in general as probably the most important thing Timothy should be aware of.  

Money is dangerous. It is so tempting to make money an end in itself. It is alluring to be able to have all the things and experiences you want. Money is an earthly tool that one can use to pretend one has security in this world. But money is a brutal master. People who want to get rich are in trouble in terms of faith. The wanting of earthly treasures in antithetical to wanting heavenly treasures. Last week’s gospel told us that one cannot serve God and money.

So what happens when you serve money? The first thing is that you lose contentment. You are trapped by desires that are senseless – does anyone really need all those things as symbols of success? The desires are also harmful. They are harmful to you because you become a slave to them, almost without knowing it, and your vision narrows to your own getting and spending, shutting out the ability to focus on the needs of others. Love of money is simply a root of all kinds of evil, the very worst being the certainty that you will wander away from the faith, thinking you are blessed because of what you did and not because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross. The love of money creeps up on you and causes you pain that you really don’t even notice because you are so committed to a life of acquisition. It will be harder for you to get into the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

But the Christian community Timothy will pastor has rich people in it. What is he supposed to teach them? To sell everything and give to the poor, as Jesus advised the rich young ruler? Well that is an option if one is called to that way of life. But the growing Christian movement needs benefactors, people who are willing to use their money to support missionaries and to have house churches. If they are not to succumb to the dangers that possessing money brings, they are to do good, to be rich in good works. They are to share their money generously. Their attitudes should be broad and not narrowed by serving the money they have. The need to see God’s whole creation, all of God’s people, maybe even some people who worship with them, and recognize needs and meet them. They have the resources, and using their money to help God’s kingdom come in by supporting the growth of the church and helping the poor, who are particularly blessed by God, will help them store up treasures in heaven by using their treasures on earth.

In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, we see an example of what the love of money can do and what the consequences of this attitude are. First we have the rich man. It doesn’t say he is out there grasping for wealth each day; perhaps he inherited money. His purple clothing indicates that he may have some royal background. The man’s life is centered on himself and his own importance. He feasts sumptuously every day and one assumes that the rest of his life is all about spending his wealth on himself.

Then we have Lazarus. Lazarus has nothing. He is the poorest of the poor, with no source of income. Perhaps he is ill because he is covered with sores. He has arrived at the rich man’s gate and has absolutely no options. He is so badly off he can’t even try the house of someone who might be more generous.

Lazarus and the rich man cross paths when the man comes in and out of the house. We are not told that the man beats Lazarus or even is unkind to him and refuses him food because he ought to get out there and get a job. It seems like he is so self-absorbed, he doesn’t even ignore Lazarus. He simply doesn’t see him. The rich man is blinded to the needs around him by his own wealth, which makes him feel secure and insulates him from what is really happening in life. Unlike Lazarus, he has a choice. He could be generous but he doesn’t even know it.

Lazarus and the rich man both die. The angels carry Lazarus to heaven, where he is with Abraham and for the first time feels safe, comfortable and fed. The rich man is in hell being tortured by flames. And he is still imperious. Send Lazarus to cool me with water. Abraham says no one can cross the chasm set up between heaven and hell. Send Lazarus to my five brothers so they will not meet my fate. It won’t work, says Abraham. If they are not going to pay any attention to Moses and the prophets, they are not going to pay any attention if someone rises from the dead.

So Lazarus is blessed, and the rich man, who had all he needed on earth but was oblivious to others, is cursed. The love of money that is the root of all evil has separated him from God and God’s love.

We all try to identify with characters in parables, but none of us is rich enough to be the rich man and none of us is poor enough to be Lazarus.  What are these lessons about for us then? First, money is not a sin. It is not a bad thing to want to provide for yourself and your family in a way that you are not living hand to mouth. It is not a sin to have a retirement account. It is a sin to count on money as your security, when you should be storing up heavenly treasures by trusting in God and not money to meet your needs. It is God that help you get the things you need and all that you have is God’s, to be used the way God wants you to. The word from Paul and Jesus is that to live a life of faith, we must do good works and be generous and share. That applies to all of us in all ways. Being able to be generous with time, talent and treasure is a blessing from God designed to bring us to closer relationship with God, to increase our faith. Sharing with others connects us with our neighbors and helps us bring in the kingdom.

The love of money narrows our perspective until all we can see is ourselves and our lives. We don’t see the Lazaruses at our gates. Serving God by being generous with our money broadens our perspective and opens our eyes to what God wants to do with our help to bring eternal life on earth and in heaven. Lazarus had absolutely nothing to give, but we do. The rich man could not see beyond himself, but we can. There are so many needs in our culture, we won’t have any trouble finding somewhere to give of ourselves, in whatever way we can. Give generously. That is the way to eternal life.