Friday, September 30, 2022

Choose Life

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, Choose Life. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 16:19-31

Last week, we were looking at the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-9). Jesus tells the parable to teach his disciples that they should use money in such a way in this life that they will have a home to go to in the next. Using money wisely means not valuing it more than its worth. Jesus drives the message of the parable home with a series of short sayings about the importance of being faithful in how we use money (Luke 16:10-13). Jesus says that we can’t expect God to give us true wealth if we have let him down in our use of false riches. Jesus could not be clearer. Jesus says:

‘No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.’ (Luke 16:13)

The Pharisees, who St Luke describes as ‘lovers of money’ (Luke 16:14), ridicule Jesus for saying this. We immediately have an impression of the Pharisees as being totally fixated on material wealth. I suspect they were no more lovers of money than most Christians. They simply don’t see that there is any conflict. They would have resolutely rejected any suggestion that it was alright to love money before loving God. Their attitude would have been to ask why you can’t love God and love what money buys and enables you to do. After all, that is what loving money is all about. The Pharisees can point out in their justification of themselves (Luke 16:15) that, in the Old Testament, riches and material well-being are seen as a sign of God’s blessing and a reward for faithfulness to God’s Law. The Pharisees were committed to God’s Law and probably thought that material wealth came to them as a consequence. Money was precisely what was given to you if you did love God.

Jesus’ statement that you can’t love God and money is, therefore, a radical one. Jesus is saying that you can’t have both God and money, and that if you try to have both, you will inevitably find yourself preferring one against the other.

Many Christians, however, think exactly the same as the Pharisees. Many Christians are committed to what is known as the ‘prosperity Gospel’. Quite simply, this teaches that if you are faithful in your obedience to God, God will reward you with money and material things. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ‘prosperity Gospel’ is particularly popular amongst some Christians in the United States.

Most of us, I think, would not express it quite so crudely, but many of us, without even realizing it, believe a version of it. We instinctively equate God’s blessing with things going well for us in this life. This is why we have so many spiritual problems, doubts, and questions when they don’t. If you listen carefully to people’s prayers, they are often for material things and for God to give them to us or to make it possible for us to get them.

Jesus says some things about money that we find difficult to accept, so we, like the Pharisees, seek to justify ourselves and try to explain away our love of money. Jesus warns that God knows our hearts. Jesus tells us that what we value and think important as humans is an abomination in the sight of God (Luke 16:15).

In our churches, clergy and church leaders themselves have a somewhat ambivalent attitude to money. This results in the church giving out mixed messages. On the one hand, we don’t like talking about money, but then, on the other, we never stop asking for it. It is rare that you are able to go to a church meeting without being asked for money.

Despite being ridiculed, Jesus won’t back down or soften his teaching, but doubles down on his message, and he does so by telling another hard-hitting parable that makes for uncomfortable reading. After all that Jesus has already said about money in St Luke’s Gospel, you might wonder what else there is to say. Quite a lot, as it turns out!

Jesus tells the story of a rich man who is not only well-off but who has the money to enable him to live extravagantly. Jesus describes him as dressing in purple and fine linen and feasting sumptuously every day. Purple dye was expensive and while the Jewish people had several festivals during the year where there was feasting, this man feasted all the time. We might say today that he wore designer clothes and dined out at expensive restaurants. Not only this, we know he lived at an exclusive address. We know this because Jesus says that at his ‘gate’ lay a poor man named Lazarus. Gated properties were not common and only the seriously rich would have been able to afford them. Designer clothes, an extravagant lifestyle, and a beautiful home, it is what many aspire to. It is the lifestyle of the rich and famous that we enjoy reading about and following online.

Our society takes the attitude that people should be allowed to do what they choose with their own money. The Lazaruses of this world we simply don’t want to know about. If their presence is brought to our attention, we either respond with charity or blame, or both. The charity we give is often less than the cost of a meal at the restaurants we like to visit; the blame is of them for not doing more to help themselves. Lazarus, though, doesn’t ask for charity; he would be happy just to get what the rich man doesn’t want and which falls from his table without the rich man even knowing it is gone. Lazarus lies there at the rich man’s gate not because he won’t work, but because he can’t work. He simply hasn’t the strength.

Lazarus is as badly off as the rich man is well off. Lazarus is covered with sores that the dogs lick, making him ritually unclean in the process. These dogs are not the nice cuddly pets that people post pictures of on social media, these are feral dogs that will eat the corpses of the dead if they can get to them. The dogs licking Lazarus’ sores is the equivalent of vultures pecking on someone while they are still alive. It’s about as bad as it gets.

Then it all changes. Both Lazarus and the rich man die. Lazarus, who has been unable to walk, is carried by the angels to be with Abraham where he is comforted, while the rich man goes to hades where he is tormented. It is, in the next life, a complete reversal of what it was like for them both in this life. The rich man did indeed get to choose what he wanted to do with his money. It is his choices that have landed him in the fires of hades.

In agony, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side. He calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to just dip the tip of his finger in water to cool his tongue. In life, the rich man had ignored Lazarus, now he begs for his help. Abraham reminds the rich man of how this is the complete opposite of how things used to be. But it is too late to do anything about it now. There is a great gap between the two places that it is impossible to cross. In despair, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house where his five brothers live to warn them, so that they will not end up where he is.

Abraham’s response is deeply disturbing. Abraham points out that they have ‘Moses and the prophets’, that is, they have the Scriptures. They should listen to what the Scriptures say. If they did, they would know what they needed to do to inherit eternal life. The rich man knows that his brothers are not going to listen to what the Scriptures say, any more than he did. He also had the Scriptures, but he didn’t listen to them, and he knows his brothers won’t either. If, however, someone were to go to them from the dead, then, he believes, they would listen. Abraham is blunt. If they don’t listen to the Scriptures, they won’t listen, even if someone rises from the dead.

Often when people hear this story, they ask what it tells us about the next life. This is to miss the point somewhat. Jesus in telling this story is making use of popular ideas at the time about what happened when a person died. Jesus is not, however, telling this story because he wants to give us a detailed guide to the afterlife. Nor is Jesus only wanting to encourage people to be aware of the needs of others as well as their own, although he does want us to have such an awareness.

We need to be clear about this. Many rich people are generous with their money and genuinely seek to do good with their wealth. I think many in the Church are happy for people to be rich as long as in addition to spending money on themselves, they give to the poor and don’t ignore the needs of the poor and hungry. While Jesus certainly does criticize people who ignore the needs of the poor and hungry, Jesus is doing more than encouraging us to give money to the poor.

Jesus, in telling this story, is also showing us what happens when someone tries to serve God and money. What happens to someone when they love money doesn’t just happen to them in the next life. The effect on a person of serving money is to be seen in this life. It is what serving money does to someone in this life that results in what happens to them in the next. The destructive effect of serving money begins now and Jesus describes it in this story. It is because even now we ourselves are being brought under money’s destructive power that we can only see the consequences of serving money in the story when Jesus describes what happens when the rich man dies. Jesus, in fact, describes the destructive effect of money on the rich man from the moment Jesus begins the story. They are three-fold.

1. Loss of Identity

Let me ask a question. What is the rich man’s name? We know the name of the poor man. His name is Lazarus. It is the only time in Jesus’ parables that one of the characters in them is given a name. This only emphasizes the fact that the rich man is not given a name. We know what the rich man wears, what he eats, even where he lives. But we don’t know who he is. He has lost his identity to what he values in life. It may appear as if he is doing well in this life, but money is already destroying him, and the extent of his destruction will be revealed when he dies. By which time, it will be too late.

2. Blind to the Needs of Others

Lazarus lies at his gate and the rich man must have to go past him several times a day, but he literally doesn’t see him. It is not that he actively wishes Lazarus harm; it’s that Lazarus is nothing to do with him. It is as if Lazarus doesn’t exist. The rich man has become blind to the needs of others; he cares only about his own appetites and desires. Lazarus himself doesn’t even want the rich man to do anything; he would be happy simply to get what falls from the rich man’s table that the rich man doesn’t know or care about. But the rich man is too fixated on himself to think about anyone other than himself.

3. Deaf to the Word of God

The reason the rich man knows that his brothers won’t listen to the Word of God in the Scriptures is because he hasn’t listened himself, and they are just like him. The rich man would have been a member of the synagogue and would have attended services at the Temple. He would have heard Moses and the prophets read every week, perhaps every day, but he has become deaf to the Word of God. So deaf spiritually does money make people that they would not be convinced of its danger, even if someone rose from the dead to warn them.

The loss of his identity, blind to everyone except himself, and deaf to anything that anyone said to warn him. What does that sound like? It sounds as if Jesus is describing someone who has money in the way we would describe a drug addict. Drug addicts also lose their identity to their addiction. They too are blind to everyone’s needs but their own. They too are deaf to what anyone says to them; all they care about is their next fix. Yes, they initially get a high from what the drug gives, but the drug steadily takes everything away from them until eventually it destroys them completely.

When Jesus says you cannot serve God and money. He is making a statement of fact. The two are completely incompatible. A choice has to be made. The rich man made his choice and suffered the consequences. So, what about us?

Money matters

If there is one thing we can all agree on, it is the importance of money. We may feel we don’t have enough of it, or we may feel others have too much, but either way we know we personally can’t live without it. Money makes the world go around! Gone are the days for most of us when we can supplement our incomes by growing our own food or making our own clothes. Most of us are some form of wage slave.

We may react against that description, disliking the idea in these egalitarian and self-centred times that we are not free to live as we please. But while some may be able to live off inherited wealth or past investments, most of us for most of our lives need an income and that means we need a job. The reason unemployment is regarded as a social evil isn’t because we would be bored if didn’t have a job to go to. Indeed, many who are employed are bored by their jobs; they just have no alternative but to do them. Governments might pass laws to regulate the employment market and to protect workers from the worse excesses of their enslavement, but there is no escaping the necessity of work and the dire consequences of not having it. We need employment, quite simply, because we need the money.

That we need money is not in question, but we use the language of need to justify what we spend money on whether we need it or not. It sounds better to say that we need something than to say that we want something. What we need and what we want, however, are two entirely different things. We need food and clothing; we don’t need the latest iphone or model of car. Nevertheless, whether it’s to spend on what we need or on what we want, we still need money.

This much at least seems straightforward enough, but it is not just individuals who need money. Society, in general, needs money. Countries need a functioning and successful economy if there are going to be the jobs their citizens need to survive.

Understanding money

And it is here that everything starts to get far more complicated. We are not just individuals who can make independent choices about our lives, irrespective of what is happening in the community in which we live. We are part of and bound up with a world dominated by money. Politicians, economists, and bankers may try to understand and control it, but money defies understanding and control. Money has a mind and a life of its own. To take just one simple example: at the moment, across the world, central banks are struggling to control inflation. Yet only a few months ago, the bankers were confidently predicting that inflation was nothing to worry about. They are worried now!

So great is the hold that money has over us as a society that the only way it seems for our economy to survive is for us to print more of it, borrow more of it, or spend more of it. So, at the present time, governments, in an attempt to solve the problem that their economy isn’t making enough money, are giving their citizens money to spend on things they don’t need and often don’t want.

Understanding money isn’t simply a political and economic question; money is primarily a spiritual issue. Money is the means the Devil uses to keep both communities and individuals in his power and prevent them from serving God. The Devil offered Jesus the glory of all the Kingdoms of the world hoping that the temptation would be sufficient to get Jesus in his power (Luke 4:5-8). Jesus rejected the Devil’s offer insisting that worship should be offered to God alone. Sadly, the Devil has had more success with many of Jesus’ followers. St Paul writes to Timothy:

‘Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.’ (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

Some will argue that St Paul is exaggerating for effect here and that we should not see money as the root of all evils. Others argue that it is only the love of money and not money itself that is the problem. Many believers quite sincerely want to view money as something that is neutral in itself. They want to see it as something that can be used to do good or evil, depending on what choices we make. Money only becomes evil, they argue, if we do bad things with it, or if we allow it to have too big a part to play in our lives.

Seeing money as neutral and harmless in itself is another one of the many ways we ‘justify ourselves in the sight of others’. It allows us to have more of it than either we need or is safe. Convincing ourselves, however, that money is neutral and that we can have both money and God seriously misunderstands the nature of money and underestimates its power.

When talking about the relationship between money and power, many will respond that money is power, and crave for themselves the power that they think it gives. This again misses the real nature of money. Money doesn’t just give those who have it power, money is itself a Power. Money isn’t just the currency in our wallets or the numbers on our bank statement, money is a Power that first entices and seduces people, and then controls and enslaves all who love and serve it. It goes on controlling those it enslaves once they stop loving it. Like an addict, we may tell ourselves that we have our addiction under control, but like an addict in denial, money gets us hooked and renders us powerless to help ourselves.

Choose life

Jesus talks so much and so directly about money because he knows its power and that, as much as we may tell ourselves otherwise, money is not something that we can decide to use as we wish. Jesus warns that money is something dangerous and deadly, and that it needs to be taken seriously if we are to love and serve God. But if it is so powerful and integral to the world in which we live and of which we are a part, how are we to avoid falling into its power? How are we to love and serve God, not money?

Jesus said a slave cannot serve two masters either they will love the one and hate the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other (Luke 16:13). It’s a stark choice. We have to choose which master we are going to love and serve, God or money. We cannot serve both. It is only by loving God and despising money that we can be free from the destructive power and hold that money wants to have over us.

We mustn’t think this is easy. It isn’t. The Devil knows our weakness and knows how easy it is to tempt us with money and what it can give. The Devil shows us everywhere we look what could be ours if we had it: where we could live, what we could eat, the clothes we could wear, the things we could buy, the places we could go, even the good we could do.

In the same way that we can’t escape sin in this world, we can’t escape the presence and power of money, but we can make a choice to serve God, not money. Jesus told his disciples to seek God’s Kingdom and all the things they needed would be given to them as well (Luke 12:31).

It is by seeking God and loving him that we can begin to see how false and empty what money offers really is and, as the rich man discovered when it was too late, how destructive it is. The only way to escape the power of money is to discover the power of God; the only way to avoid the love of money is by falling in love with God. In the second reading this week, St Paul writes of the ‘uncertainty of riches’, that is, they can’t be trusted. God, though, is faithful, and he can be trusted. What money gives comes at a terrible cost. What God gives, he gives freely. St Paul wants Timothy to teach those who are tempted by money instead to take hold of the life that really is life. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

Money seeks to get us in its power by inviting us to accept all it offers; may we instead choose life.


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