(Scripture passages of the day – I Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31 – can be found at the end of this article.)
Last week’s gospel lesson was the parable of the dishonest manager. In case you weren’t here last week, at the end of last week’s gospel Jesus calls money “dishonest wealth”, and tells the disciples money is something that’s offensive to God. And he criticizes the Pharisees for loving money more than they love either people or God.
That’s what I preached on last week when I was at Fairhaven and Spencer. After the sermon last Sunday, one of the members of Spencer sent me a story on Facebook. It was a story about a rich man who was dying and wanted to be buried with all his money. He wanted to take it all with him. He told his wife this was his final wish. She tried to talk him out of it of course, but he insisted. “All my money, in the casket with me” he said. And he pestered her and pestered her until she finally agreed. On the day of his funeral she slipped an envelope into the casket.
Now a mutual friend who knew what he had asked her to do, saw this and said, “you’re really going through with this?” And she said, “Yup.” And the two of them went together to the graveside service. The envelope was still in the casket when they closed the lid, lowered it into the ground, and shoveled the dirt on top. The friend said to her, “You really did it! You put all his money in the casket with him.” “Every penny,” she said. “Just like I promised. I wrote him a check this morning and stuck it in the envelope.”
Scripture has a lot to say about money, in both the Old and New Testaments. In today’s readings both Jesus and Paul give us warnings about money, and a lot of the warnings have to do with getting attached to money. The funny thing is, God actually does give us a way to take it with us. I’ll come back to that at the end, but let’s start at the beginning…
It’s interesting the Bible doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with being rich. A lot of people who have money are afraid it does, and end up feeling guilty about what they have. But some of the greatest people in the Bible were wealthy: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph was rich and famous. King David was rich. And his son Solomon was so rich people still talk about his wealth 3000 years later. Joseph of Arimathea, who gave the disciples a place to bury Jesus, was rich. Nowhere in scripture does God criticize any of these people for having money.
So it’s not having money that’s the problem. It’s not even earning money or inheriting money that’s the problem. The problem is people’s attitude towards money.
Paul says in our New Testament reading for today “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” It’s not being rich that’s a sin, it’s wanting to be rich. It’s not in the having, it’s in the desire.
The parable Jesus tells in our gospel reading for today speaks to this. (Just as an aside, today’s gospel lesson is not primarily about money – it’s about faith or a lack of faith. But Jesus says some important things about money on the way to making his point.)
So in Jesus’ story there is a rich man – whose name we don’t know – dressed in purple, which tells us he was very rich. Purple dye back in those days was very expensive. It was mostly kings who wore purple. So this man was basically living like a king… while the poor man, Lazarus, sat outside his gate, wishing he could eat what fell from the rich man’s table.
As we read the story, it makes us wonder: can’t the rich man see this poor man suffering in front of his gate? Doesn’t he care? Jesus says even the dogs had compassion on Lazarus. The rich man didn’t even show the kindness of a dog.
God sees these things. And when Lazarus dies, he is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. And then the rich man dies and finds himself in Hades. And the rest of the story doesn’t deal with money. For us, the point is it’s not money that decides where the two men go… it’s how they lived. It’s the attitude of the heart.
One of the greatest spiritual dangers of wealth is becoming blind and deaf to those in need, which is what happened to the rich man. “There is no part of the soul which money will not corrupt. It perverts judgement, it blinds the conscience, it hardens the heart. And in the world, money inspires injustice, oppression, fraud, theft, and murder.” (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines, modern paraphrase mine)
Even rich people who claim to stand with the poor in public often have no contact with the poor in their private lives. It’s as true in our day as it was in Jesus’ day. When Jesus was speaking these words, he was speaking to (and about) the Pharisees, who were listening in while Jesus was teaching. The Pharisees were famous for being lovers of money. And “it gives the faith a bad name when people who claim to be believers, especially clergy, are more interested in gain for themselves than they are in advancing the cause of Christ.” (Simeon, ibid., paraphrased)
Which leads us to Paul’s letter to Timothy. Timothy, as you remember, was a young church leader being trained up by Paul. And Paul advises Timothy that people like the Pharisees who claim to be believers but who are more interested in personal gain… Paul says “withdraw from them.” They are a disgrace to the name of Christ.
And who would know better than Paul, who used to be Pharisee? Paul then adds, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”
Think for a minute about the Ten Commandments. How often are the commandments broken for the sake of money? “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” If we stopped people on the street and asked them, “What’s more important to you, God or money?” – how many people would say “God” and how many would say “money”?
How about the commandment “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy?” In our time the Sabbath day has all but disappeared because people are so anxious to make money 24/7. How about “You shall not kill”? How many people die every day for the sake of money – in human trafficking? in the drug trade? Or how about “You shall not steal”? Or “You shall not bear false witness”? How many times do people lie – in or out of court – in order to get money or to keep money?
Or how about “You shall not covet”? Paul says where people are going to spend eternity hangs in the balance on this commandment. He says in Colossians 3:5, “covetousness is idolatry”. And idolatry is worshipping something that is not God.
Paul says to Timothy, “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But 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.” (I Timothy 6:7-9)
Paul’s concern – and God’s concern – is with people, not things. People are what matters. The human heart, the human will, human life. God created people to be in relationship with God, and we are incomplete until we find that relationship. Paul’s advice to Timothy – and to us – is this: “[people] of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life…” (I Timothy 6:11-12)
“Godliness” as Paul describes it includes:
- Trust in God and in Jesus – knowing that we are sinners saved through the blood of Christ.
- Being devoted to God – seeing God’s kingdom as our goal, and ourselves as subjects of the King
- Being thankful to God for God’s mercy and goodness
- Having a desire to become more like Jesus in the power of the Spirit
So in other words, we need to chase after righteousness, and faith, and love, and eternal life, with the same intensity and passion that other people invest in chasing after money. We need to make it our aim to be rich in the things of God and the things of God’s kingdom, rather than rich in the things of this world which is passing away.
Living as we do in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, giving up chasing after money is easier said than done. It is completely and totally counter-cultural. And if we try to live this way, we will stick out. We will be different. And that’s a good thing… I’ll come back to that in a moment.
When we follow Paul’s advice, money becomes a tool to achieve God’s ends, rather than an end in itself. Money becomes our servant and stops being our master.
Paul wraps up his words to Timothy about money with instructions that are as good today as they were 2000 years ago. He says: “As for those who in the present age are rich” – and that’s all of us, no matter how much we make – “command them not to be haughty [that is, proud] or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches…”
Paul’s words remind us of Jesus’ parable about the rich man who says to himself, “self, you have enough stored up for many years… eat, drink and be merry.” God says to him, “this very night your soul is required of you, and then who will get all your wealth?”
So it’s not having money that’s wrong. It’s not wrong to save for retirement. But as one wise man once put it, “The happiest person is not the one who owns the most, but the one who has the least number of worries.” (Simeon, ibid, paraphrase)
Paul goes on to tell Timothy to set his hopes “on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Our God is not stingy. In fact one of the characteristics of our God is extravagance. Just look at nature: the variety of flowers, the variety of animals, the variety of people. The amazing food we have to eat. God provides for us so richly, so far beyond anything we can imagine.
Money comes and goes, but God is always there. Money doesn’t last forever, but God does. So Paul says set our hopes on God rather than on money, and God will provide richly.
The other thing Paul tells Timothy is that rich people should “do good, be rich in good works, generous… ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (I Timothy 6:18-19)
In other words, there is something about how we handle money in this life that prepares us for the world to come. This is not the only place in Scripture that says so. Jesus said the same thing in last week’s gospel, in Luke 16, when he said, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”
How we use our money effects our future in the Kingdom. And when we use our money to invest in other people’s lives, we are investing our money in the kingdom. We are ‘taking it with us’ in the only way it is truly possible to do that.
In this life, money is deceptive and temporary. But how we handle it prepares us for a future in God’s kingdom when we will have true wealth. And that’s what we’re aiming for.
You want to be rich? Go for the wealth that never passes away. Go for the currency of God’s kingdom. Go for faith, hope, and love – expressed in compassion for others. That’s what builds up wealth in God’s kingdom. That’s how we can “take it with us” – by giving it away! Isn’t that just what Jesus told us – that those who try to hang onto life will lose it, but those who give up our lives for God and for the sake of the Gospel will find it?
A moment ago I mentioned something about being counter-cultural in our approach to money and how it attracts people’s attention. At Carnegie UMC, we’re working our way through a book called Walking with Nehemiah. The book and the class that goes with it have to do with re-birthing or re-growing a church. But when you dig into the text, what the book is really talking about is engaging the community around us. It involves following the leading of the Holy Spirit, as God speaks to our hearts and touches us with the needs around us. This doesn’t just have to do with money. It has to do with our time, and abilities, and relationships, and all kinds of things we can share with the community.
But I guarantee you if we chase after righteousness and faith and love the way most people chase after money, we will get people’s attention.
What Israel learned from Nehemiah in the book we’re reading, is the same lesson the disciples learned from Jesus, and the same lesson Timothy learned from Paul. We all need to be rich in doing good works, giving generously to anyone in need. We need to be ready to share from the abundance God has given us. Because that is what builds up the Kingdom of God – in this world and the next. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/25/16
1 Timothy 6:6-19 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But 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. 10 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.
11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time– he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
Luke 16:19-31 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– 28 for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
(scripture passages quoted from the NRSV)