Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
29 September 2019
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We Christians believe that Jesus is our source and guide to matters of the spirit. He teaches us how to pray, how to worship God, how to live out the life of faith. But when we turn to the Gospels, we find that for a spiritual leader, it’s surprising how often Jesus talks about money. Of the thirty-eight parables that he preached, including today’s story from Luke, sixteen of them deal with money. And, believe it or not, one out of every ten verses in the Gospels touches on money in some way. So why the attention on money?
Today’s Gospel tells the story of the rich man who lives it up, wearing the finest clothes and eating the best food. And right on his doorstep is the beggar Lazarus, who would have been happy even with the rich man’s table scraps. Both men die. While Lazarus is carried up by the angels to be with Abraham, the rich man ends up in Hades. The two men’s fortunes are reversed in the afterlife. Now Lazarus is the one who enjoys the comforts, while the rich man suffers in agony and torment. The rich man appeals to Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so that he can warn them. He doesn’t want his five brothers, who are leading the same lifestyle, to join him in Hades. Abraham replies that they have already received the message through Moses and the prophets. And since they haven’t heeded the message from Moses and the prophets, why would they listen to Lazarus?
Like most parables, Jesus does not explain the meaning of this story. But it’s not difficult to interpret what that would be in this case. Money gets in the way of faith. Money can even drag us down to hell. Jesus tells this parable in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees, identified a few verses before as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). Today’s Epistle reading from I Timothy issues a stern warning against the “lovers of money”: “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” (I Timothy 6:10). The pursuit of wealth and status is fraught with all sorts of temptations and dangers that can lead us to stray away from God and from our neighbor. People lie, cheat, and kill for money.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he repeatedly attacks the wealthy while holding up the poor. In his very first sermon, Jesus declares that he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). And in the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20-24). It is clear that the poor occupy a special and privileged place in Jesus’ ministry, while the wealthy are warned about the perils of their status. But then this begs the question: what can the wealthy do to be saved? What can they do to avoid the fate of the rich man in today’s parable? It seems unfair that an entire class be condemned without some means of redemption. Isn’t Jesus’ message of salvation for all people?
One option for the wealthy is to give it all up and join the poor. And this is, in fact, the message that Jesus has for some of his followers. When a rich young ruler approaches Jesus and asks what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. The young man sadly turns away. Jesus then makes the colorful and well-known comment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:18-26). But many others do respond to Jesus’ call to give up everything and follow him. Throughout Christian history, we have many examples of those who have believed that to follow Christ is to take a vow of poverty. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, was born into wealth, but he gave it all up to become a monk and take a vow of povertyt. And he required all those who joined the Franciscan order to do the same.
But what about for us today? Whether we are rich, middle-class, or whatever socioeconomic status, giving up everything we own is not a viable option. Moreover, if all Christians were to do this, there would be dire consequences for the Church. For one, we would not be able to worship in such a beautiful space as this church or enjoy the sublime music of our choir. Nor could we support any of our ministries. The fact is, Christianity as an institution would not survive if all the believers were to take a vow of poverty. We would follow the fate of the Shakers. They were once a thriving Christian group, but because of their vow of celibacy, they are now on the verge of extinction. A collective vow of poverty would have a similar effect. It is simply not sustainable for an institution.
Nor is it what Christ expects of us. While many of Jesus’ disciples and followers led lives of poverty, others maintained their wealth and used it to support Jesus’ ministry. We read in the Gospels of his well-to-do followers – tax collectors and the like – who hosted Jesus in their homes. And in the early Church, it was in the homes of the wealthy that the first communities of believers met to worship. Yesterday was the feast day of St. Paula on the church calendar. Paula was born in the fourth century into one of the wealthiest aristocratic families in Rome, and she used her vast resources to set up monasteries and convents, and to support the poor. I bring up St. Paula and these other examples not as a way to rationalize our wealth and possessions, but rather to point out that there are different ways of using our resources for the work of the Church in the world. There is no set formula for everyone. Some do give it all up. Other tithe ten percent of their income. Still others give as they are able. It is ultimately up to us to discern individually with our conscience what God is calling us to do with our money. I didn’t intend this to be a sermon on stewardship – it’s a bit early for that, but it looks like it’s turning into one.
Returning to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, let us pose a hypothetical question. What if Abraham had consented to the rich man’s request that he send Lazarus to his brothers? What would be Lazarus’s message? For one, he would inform them that their brother is in Hades for being a pig. But what else? I believe that Lazarus would tell them to open their eyes to the poor in their midst, to have compassion, to be generous, to share what they have. This is what the rich man failed to do.
St. Mary’s has a long tradition of serving the poor, whom our Lord Jesus held up as the object of his special care and concern. And soon we will renew and expand our commitment to the poor through the work of the Social Justice Committee. As we begin this new chapter in our church, let us pray for wisdom and discernment as we seek to make the best use of our God-given resources – our money, our talents, our time. And however we individually respond to Jesus’ call to serve the poor, let compassion and generosity be our common guide.
 “Statistic: Jesus’ Teaching on Money,” Christianity Today, 2019 (https://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1996/december/410.html).
 Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31,” Working Preacher (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1784).
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