September 29, 2019
Money makes the world go ’round? – J. Barry Vaughn – Sept. 29, 2019
“A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound… money makes the world go ‘round.” So sings the Emcee in Cabaret, but it’s not a new idea. Karl Marx was wrong about almost everything, but he was right about one thing: Consciously or unconsciously, we usually act in accordance with our economic self-interest. But long before Marx Jesus said much the same thing.
All of today’s readings are hard on rich people:
- Amos condemns those “who are at east in Zion… who recline on beds of ivory or lie on couches… who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music…”
- Writing to his disciple Timothy, Paul says, “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 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.”
- And finally, Luke gives us the well-known parable of the rich man “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table…”
Years ago my late and dear friend, the Rev. Prof. Peter Gomes was asked to talk to a group of Texas businessmen about the topic of wealth in the New Testament. They especially wanted Peter to talk about the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus told him to go and sell all that he had and give the money to the poor, and the young man went away sorrowful for he had “many possessions.” (Mark 10)
Peter said that in the New Testament wealth is not a sin, but it is a problem, and the wealthy Texans didn’t like what he had to say.
Frankly, it’s not something that I like to hear, either. I’m not as wealthy as some of you are, but I’m wealthier than some others are. And the fact is that everyone in this congregation who has three meals a day and a roof over their head would have been considered wealthy in first century Palestine.
Of all the stories in the New Testament the story of the rich man and Lazarus is probably the one that makes me most uncomfortable, because I know how often I have gone right by a poor man or woman and not paid the slightest attention to them.
By the way, when St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the fourth century he gave the rich man the name Dives, and the name has stuck, so I will often be referring to the rich man in this story as Dives.
A few years ago, the last time I preached on this parable, I quoted at length from a marvelous sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I’d like to remind you of the some of the wise things Dr. King said.
First of all, King said that “there is no hint that Dives was condemned because he gained his wealth by dishonest means. From all indications he gained his wealth from the discipline of an industrious life. He probably had a genius for wise investment. His wealth did not come through some corrupt racket or vicious exploitation. Moreover, Dives was not a bad man by the world’s standards. He was probably well-respected in his community.”
“There is no implication in the parable that being rich was Dives’ crime. … Jesus never condemns wealth per se. It is the inordinate worship of wealth that he condemns.”
“Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.
“Dives was condemned because his selfishness caused him to lose the capacity to sympathize… He saw men hungry and fed them not, he saw men sick and visited them not, he saw men naked and clothed them not. And so he was not fit for the Kingdom of God. He was only fit for a place of torment.
“Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus.
The sin of Dives was the he felt that the gulf which existed between him and Lazarus was a proper condition of life. Dives felt that this was the way things were meant to be.
“He took the ‘isness’ of circumstantial accidents and transformed them into the ‘oughtness’ of a universal structure.
“Dives is the white man who refuses to cross the gulf of segregation and lift his Negro brother to the position of first class citizenship, because he thinks segregation is a part of the fixed structure of the universe. … Dives is the American capitalist who never seeks to bridge the economic gulf between himself and the laborer, because he feels that it is natural for some to live in inordinate luxury while others live in abject poverty.
“So when Dives cries to Abraham to send him one drop of water at Lazarus’ hands, Abraham replies, ‘There is a fixed gulf between you now.’ There was a time when Dives could have bridged the gulf. He could have used the engineering power of love to build a bridge of compassion between himself and Lazarus. But he refused. Now the gulf is fixed. It is impassable. Time has run out.” (excerpts from “Remaining awake through a great revolution” (March 31, 1968) and “The impassable gulf” (Oct. 2, 1955); sermons by Martin Luther King, Jr.)
I would like to add one more observation about Dives and Lazarus: Dives seems to have been incapable of seeing Lazarus as his brother, his equal. When Dives dies and finds himself in a place of torment, he begs Abraham to “send Lazarus” to cool his tongue with a drop of water. And when Abraham reminds Dives that there is an impassable gulf between Dives’ place of torment and Dives’ place of comfort, Dives once again beseeches Abraham to “send” Dives to warn his brothers so that they can change their ways and not end up in a place of torment, too.
Note that Dives never addressed Lazarus directly. He asked Abraham to order Dives about like a servant. Even in hell, Dives thought of himself as the master and Dives as an anonymous servant or even slave. Unbelievable!!
Dives illustrates the problem of wealth: Wealth can blind us to the needs of others.
What can we do about this?
Our Buddhist sisters and brothers talk about the problem of attachment. They tell us that the central problem of life is suffering, and suffering is caused by being too attached to things such as wealth that are really ephemeral and have no lasting value. I think this is very close to what the New Testament tells us about wealth.
Whether we are wealthy or poor in the eyes of the world, we have to learn not to be too attached to our possessions. Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be. This is very close to what Paul was saying to Timothy: The “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
I believe that one of the reasons that God puts us in the world is so that we can learn how to diminish our attachment to wealth and to the other things that tie us too tightly to this world.
The story is told of a wealthy man who instructed his wife that when he died he wanted her to put everything single thing he had earned into his coffin and bury it with him, and she solemnly assured him that she would do as he wished. So when the day of his funeral finally came, and the service was over, and he had been buried, the minister came to the man’s widow and asked her how she had managed to carry out her late husband’s wishes. “It was simple, really,” she said, “I just wrote him a check and put it in his casket!”
Like that foolish man, we can’t take our wealth with us, either, but we can teach our hearts to treasure the things that God treasures: to feed the hungry, to find shelter for the poor, to stand up and speak out for the oppressed and persecuted. We do that by taking the money that God has given us (and make no mistake – every penny we have is a gift from God) and put it to work doing God’s will. And as we do that we will find that our hearts change, and they start to love and treasure the things that God loves and treasures.
And we will also find as we change our priorities that we no longer ignore the beggar at our gate, and we may even begin to regard Lazarus and his friends as our sisters and brothers.