P21c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.
One sign that fall has arrived, as sure and certain as the leaves on the trees turning from green to red and gold, is the appearance of another kind of green and gold — money — in the Scripture readings appointed for worship. This is no coincidence, as fall is the time when churches take up planning their budgets for the next year and engaging in stewardship campaigns. But money and its right use are major concerns not just for the church, but for every person trying to live an ordered and just life.
Money, in spite of the misquote of Scripture, is not the root of all evil. It is the “love of money” — as Paul reminds Timothy. Money itself is neither good nor evil. It is how you relate to it, how you make use of it — or how you allow it to make use of you — that is good or evil. Money is no more evil in itself than food, or sex, or relaxation. But all of these things provide a means to sin when they are misused. Something good, good when used as God intends, can become a gateway to evil when used to excess or to the wrong ends. Gluttony is the misuse of food; sloth is the misuse of leisure; lust is the misuse of sex; and greed is the misuse of money.
All of our Scripture readings today point an accusing finger in the direction of greed, and counsel ways around it or away from it. Amos issues a strong condemnation of the rich — not just because they are rich, of course, but because while they are rich, they “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph,” that is, about the impending day of doom that is about to fall upon Israel. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, these easy-chair loungers are oblivious to the coming disaster. They will be horribly surprised when their world collapses around them, and their lives end, having spent their wealth almost as a kind of anesthetic, insulating them — but not protecting them — from the realities of a troubled world.
For that “real world” breaks in, shattering the plans even of the virtuous, even of the innocent. Whether from a suicide bomber last week outside a church in Peshawar, or 50years ago outside a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or from a gang of terrorists invading an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, or a madman in a Navy Yard, horror and disaster can overtake even good and innocent people. As poet Kofi Awoonor, one of the victims of the attack in Kenya wrote in a prophetic poem,
We are the celebrants
whose fields were
overrun by rogues
and other bad men who
interrupted our dance
with obscene songs and bad gestures
If such horror can overtake even the innocent and perceptive, how much more the prideful and ignorant? In the midst of our shock and horror, it is well to learn the sad lesson that you can take your life in your hands even going to an upscale shopping mall, even going to a humble church. Upscale, downscale, or no-scale, Anglican or Baptist, — ruin can come upon you unawares.
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And so, being aware is part of what Jesus offers us in the cautionary parable of Lazarus and the rich man. We don’t get much detail about this rich guy, other than that he feasts every day but ignores — remains unaware of — that poor, sick man who lies at his gate. His riches seem to blind him to reality. Even the dogs pay more attention to Lazarus than this rich man does, this oblivious rich man. He is not even bothered enough to chase him away, far less give him something to eat. He is unaware — ignoring the poor man as much as those who were at ease in Zion and Samaria ignored the world falling apart around them. He reminds me of another verse in Kofi Awoonor’s prophetic poem:
On the seaside, the ruins recent
from the latest storms
remind of ancestral wealth
pillaged purloined pawned
by an unthinking grandfather
who lived the life of a lord
and drove coming generations to
despair and ruin
This rich man is clueless; he lives the life of a lord, but he is ignorant, he doesn’t even know what he is looking at. He is like that rich man who couldn’t believe it the first time he saw a one-dollar bill; he couldn’t believe they made money in such small denominations. It must be a joke someone cooked up! (He should have come to church more often...)
So too should have that the rich man in the parable — at least to the synagogue, where safe from bomb-blasts or not, at least he would have heard the warnings of Moses and the Prophets — perhaps risking his life, but hearing, learning, marking and inwardly digesting those words and so gaining his immortal soul. Instead, when his proverbial sell-by date arrives he is bundled off to Hades, there to suffer torment both physical and mental.
For not only is he roasted in flames, but he realizes that his five brothers are just as bad — and just as doomed — as he. They will join him in the pit of Hell if they do not repent and amend their ways — and yet when he shows perhaps the first spark of interest in anyone other than himself in his whole life, in wanting to warn them, he receives the sad sentence that nothing special will be done for them, any more than was done for him. The warning sign was there in the Law of Moses: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; and that warning was proclaimed by the Prophets.
But this man not only did nothing for his neighbors, he didn’t lift a finger to help a man dying on his own sidewalk. That poor, sick, starving man was a beacon shining right on his doorstep, a light that could have saved him, had he not closed his eyes and turned the other way, pulling the blinds of his heart, closing the door of mercy, and barring the gates of grace.
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We too are shown such beacons of need; they shine on every street-corner of this great and terrible city. I don’t think that any of us here is so rich as to be blinded by wealth, and are much more likely to find it enough to be content with our food and our clothing. Yet we are still called to share what we have — rich or poor — what we have, with those who have not, as Paul reminded Timothy, “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” And as for those who truly are rich, Paul has a word for them as well: not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on their uncertain riches, but rather on God who desires that everyone be rich in the Spirit, and richly provides us with everything we need.
So there is no way out of the responsibility to keep an eye open for the signs of need, those beacons of need — whether one is poor, rich or middle-class, there is always someone less well off who can be helped by one who has more. The important thing, as the parable reminds us, is to do this while we are able — for once the time of parting from this life arrives, all that we have accumulated will be beyond our reach. When the time of parting comes, we lose the power to do good with whatever resources we had, and only if we’ve made a will and given direction can they do any good at all, after we have gone.
This truth is brought out very poignantly in a scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley, unlike the rich man in the parable, is given the opportunity to warn his old friend Ebenezer Scrooge, so that Scrooge can escape his fate. And what is that fate? It is not quite like that of the man in the parable — whose punishment in part is not to be able to warn his brothers. No, Marley’s punishment, what he suffers, serves in itself as an additional warning to Scrooge when Scrooge looks out the window and sees, that, as Dickens describes it,
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s … One old ghost ... with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle... cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
Their fate is that terrible frustration not to be able to make use of earthly wealth — even for good — once they have departed earthly life. They end up helpless, chained to ghostly wealth that they cannot share in this world.
God calls us all to make use of what we have while we are able, as Dickens says, “to interfere, for good, in human matters.” We can still heed Moses and the prophets, heed the beacons of need on our doorsteps, on our sidewalks, and even more: heed the words of the one who did rise from the dead, who speaks to us still in the voice of Scripture and by echoing of the Holy Spirit in our own consciences — to do good, each as we are able, by the strength and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.+