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QUESTIONS OF WEALTH 1 Tim 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-end

A highly successful businessman was once asked to make a substantial donation toward an urgent charity appeal. The businessman listened to the case presented then said, "I can understand why you approached me. Yes I do have a lot of money, and yours is an important cause. But are you aware that I have a lot of calls upon my money? Did you know my mother needs 24 hour nursing care?" "No we didn't" came the reply. "Did you know my sister is struggling to raise a family of eight on her own?" "No we didn't" came the reply. "Did you know I have one son in a drug rehab clinic and another doing voluntary work overseas?" "No we didn't" "Well, if I don't give them a cent, what makes you think I'll give it to you?!"

Jesus’ Parable of Rich and Poor
Jesus told a number of stories about rich and poor people. As with all his parables they are enjoyable and meaningful. But why did Jesus tell this particular one about the rich man and Lazarus? It seems to be aimed at the Pharisees by the context in which Luke places it. It is also deeply ironic, because the punchline says: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” In retrospect Luke can see that Jesus was speaking of himself. But Luke also places this parable after the one about the dishonest manager. Here is a series of parables about wealth and Luke tells us that the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, ridiculed Jesus. So perhaps also Jesus told this parable as part of his teaching about wealth.

“What is this parable about?” A number of answers present themselves. On one level it is a satisfying story about the turning of the tables. A rich man with all the trappings of wealth, whom it might have been assumed, was blessed by God, ends up in the flames of hell. Notice also that the rich man is not given a name, whilst the poor man does have a name, Lazarus, and though he lived a wretched life on earth, he ends up in the arms of Abraham in heaven.

On another level we could say that it is not really about wealth at all – it just uses wealth as a device. It is really about the fulfilment that Jesus is of the Law and Prophets – to attend properly to the voice of Scripture will lead to the acceptance of he who would be the first to rise from the dead. Even such a miraculous thing as coming back from the grave will not convince those whose hearts are hardened to the message of the Law and Prophets. Connected to that may be another lesson which is not necessarily about wealth itself: what you do in this life determines your destiny. The rich man was selfish, did nothing for Lazarus and ended up in hell where no more could be done to change the situation.

The Silver in the Mirror
All of these interpretations have something in them. But it is still a story about rich and poor. Perhaps this non-biblical story can help us understand what Jesus’ parable was about.
A rich but miserable man once visited a rabbi seeking understanding of his life and how he might find peace. The rabbi led the man to a window and said "What do you see?" "I see men, women, and children," answered the rich man. The rabbi then took the man and stood him in front of a mirror. "Now what do you see?" he asked. "I see myself," the rich man replied. "Yes" said the rabbi. "It is a strange thing is it not? In the window there is a glass and in the mirror there is a glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, and you see only yourself."

What appeals to me about this story is that it illustrates how riches can blind us to realities that are around us. The rich man in Jesus’ parable does not notice Lazarus until he is suffering in hell. Jane Williams suggests that he swept by in a horse or a carriage, as he went to and fro through his gates. He had servants to run his errands and look after him. His riches cocooned him from seeing who sat outside his home – it seemed the only creatures to notice Lazarus were the street dogs that cleaned his wounds. What we see or fail to see provides us with a way of understanding this parable from all the suggested meanings we have mentioned. Riches can blind us to realities around us. The Law and the Prophets contain sufficient truth to point to the truth that is Christ. Our destiny lies in what we see and respond to in the here and now.

The Miser and His Gold
I want to tell another story to help our thinking move further on.
Once upon a time there was a Miser who used to hide his gold at the foot of a tree in his garden; but every week he used to go and dig it up and gloat over his gains. A robber, who had noticed this, went and dug up the gold and decamped with it. When the Miser next came to gloat over his treasures, he found nothing but the empty hole. He tore his hair, and raised such an outcry that all the neighbours came around him, and he told them how he used to come and visit his gold.
"Did you ever take any of it out?" asked one of them.
"Nay," said he, "I only came to look at it."
"Then come again and look at the hole," said a neighbour; "it will do you just as much good." You might recognise this as one of Aesops Fables and it teaches us that wealth unused might as well not exist.

We may struggle with money, be aware of our many commitments and feel that we are not rich. But we are relatively wealthy. The former bishop of Oxford wrote a book entitled Is There a Gospel for the Rich? In it he tackles the question of Christian obedience in a capitalist world. Telling us that riches are evil is not good news for us and is not actually what the Bible teaches, either. The letter to Timothy suggests that the congregations he pastors have wealthy people in them. Timothy is to teach the well-off in his pastoral care not that wealth in itself is wrong but that pursuing wealth for its own sake is misguided. As Aesop taught, unused wealth might as well not exist.

Timothy’s Teaching
Verses 17-19 of 1 Tim. 6 express a proper Christian attitude to wealth using the imagery of economics. Three things are emphasised: first, that the rich should set their hopes on God rather than on uncertain riches; secondly, that the wealthy are to be rich in good works; and thirdly, that the wealthy who live like this are to see it as investing in life that really is life. Like so many other powerful things such as power or sex, money is a form of energy that can make things happen. It is neutral – what we do with it is what determines our ultimate destiny. I think you may well agree with this basic teaching. I want to leave you with another story which brings this to life and I hope will inspire you.

Pascal and the Poor
Blaise Pascal was an influential French scientist who lived in the 1600's. He was also a devoted Christian who wrote thoughtfully about the life of Christ and the Christian. Through all this Pascal realised that his faith, though intensely personal, could not be merely individualistic. Increasingly Pascal deprived himself so that he could give more. He sold his coach and horses, his fine furniture and silverware and even his library in order to give to the poor. One day he applied his genius to the practical matter of transport. Noticing a crowd of people all headed in the same direction to work he came up with the idea of the bus and in 1662 helped form the very first bus company. He received an advance of 1000 francs for his bus and immediately sent the money to the poor in Blois, who had suffered from a bitter winter. He then signed over his interest in the company to the hospitals of Paris and Clermont. When Pascal died at the age of 39 in 1662 his funeral was attended by family, friends, scientific colleagues, worldly companions, converts, writers, and the back of the church was filled with the poor, each and every person there someone Pascal had helped during his life. (Charles Kummel, The Galileo Connection)

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Creator God,
you made us all in you image:
may we discern you in all that we see,
and service you in all that we do;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.