Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 September 2007.
This has been edited since it was first posted on 29 September 2007.
The other day I attended a meeting about a financial program. I did so to help a friend in the program meet a goal. In order for me to help my friend I had to attend this meeting which was essentially designed to get me interested in the program. This was somewhat defeating because I had already been exposed to the information.
The premise of the financial program is that financial success comes from planning and the establishment of financial goals. A second premise is that meeting these goals comes through time and cannot be accomplished overnight. As far as that goes, it was an example of good stewardship.
But the presentation itself bothered me. It was a presentation that said there was no hope in what we do. There were three presenters at this meeting and all three presumed that those who were attending the meeting were in jobs that offered little financial reward, no hopes for advancement, and very little overall job satisfaction. The only reason that they offered for going to work was because one needs a paycheck.
But they suggested that with each payday comes the possibility of job loss as well. You got the impression that though there were other options that one could take, the only true option for job satisfaction, advancement, and financial reward was their program and its offers of riches and security.
I don’t deny that there is some truth to what they said about work. There are many individuals who are truly stuck in a job with no hope for advancement and which provide no satisfaction. There are many people for whom each payday does bring the possibility of job loss or reduction. The recent UAW strike against General Motors pointed this out very vividly.
We too often equate job security with hope for the future. The future is often unknown, a dark and fearsome place in which we dare not tread. We seek security as a means of anchoring our lives so that we can make tentative steps into the future. But when we anchor our lives in the present it becomes very difficult to move forward.
We also equate the size of our paycheck with job satisfaction and security as well. With enough financial resources we can get whatever it is we need to find security, happiness, and enjoyment in life. We live in a consumer-oriented society that says that the “one with the most toys wins!” Maybe, just maybe, we tell ourselves that if we get enough of the right things, then everything will turn out right.
I have also noticed that there is an increase in the number of casinos in this country. Once, many years ago, gambling and casinos were limited to Nevada but now it seems as if there are casinos is every state in the Union. Similarly, the lottery was almost non-existent or limited. Now, it seems that almost every state has a lottery of some sort. People flock to casinos because there is the lure of immediate riches and lotteries promise fantastic sums of money to the winners.
I don’t deny that it is fun to go to casinos and enjoy the entertainment and perhaps partake of some of the games that are offered. I don’t deny that there is a thrill in putting down a dollar or two in hopes of multiplying the returns by thousands or perhaps millions. But you do so with the understanding that you don’t gamble with money that you can’t afford to lose; you don’t gamble with the grocery money or the mortgage payment. And you had better understand that the odds of winning millions in a lottery so that your future is insured are incalculable or improbable. The people who win consistently at the casino work at the game they play and the casino is not always happy that they come. Casinos want the person who does not understand the game, not the student. And the casinos do not help when it turns out that a player is addicted to gambling; they take the money and leave the person to deal with the consequences.
And while the United Methodist Church has voiced its disapproval with gambling, it has not been a loud voice. I would have thought that the United Methodist churches in Mississippi would have voiced a concern about the building of the bigger and more structurally-stable casinos on the Gulf Coast following the destruction of the gambling industry after Hurricane Katrina two years ago. But I guess the desire for an economic base was stronger than concern for the destruction of family and life.
That is the problem with the quick fix theory of economic riches. People accept casinos because there is the promise of jobs, even if the jobs are service sector type jobs. People accept the lottery in their state because it comes with a promise that other areas, such as education, are supported. There seems to be enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that the promises made with regards to the profits from casinos and lotteries are not always met. In cases where money was promised for educational support, it has been diverted to pay other state bills. There was a promise of hope but it was not delivered.
I suppose that it wouldn’t be so bad but we hear the same message in too many churches on Sunday and on multiple cable channels throughout the week. The message of the prosperity gospel tells us that our own satisfaction and rewards come when we plant a seed in the minister’s garden. Unfortunately, the only ones who seem to enjoy the harvest from those gardens are the ones who encouraged the planting of the seeds and sowed the false gospel.
Why do people insist on giving money when it seems so obvious that the only ones asking for the money are charlatans and fools? Why do people jump into business ventures that promise enormous riches with little effort? Is it because they see no hope in what they are doing at the present time or in the future?
Planning for the future is the centerpiece of today’s Old Testament reading. (Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3a, 6 – 15) The people of Jeremiah’s time were more concerned with the impending doom of Israel. Jeremiah was imprisoned for telling the truth and warning Israel about the troubles that were to come. But while Jeremiah is sitting in the jail cell, he arranges to buy some property. His act of investing is a statement that he trusts God and that he, Jeremiah, knows that good things are about to happen. We will learn in a few weeks that Jeremiah is set to announce a new covenant between God and the people of Israel. It will be a covenant that foretells the coming of the Messiah. It is an announcement that brings the people hope and that is what we should be considering as well.
Can we find hope in what we do and the money that we earn? We probably have all heard that “money is the root of all evil.” Thus, we might be surprised that it is not money but the “love of money” that is the root cause. (1 Timothy 6: 9) So what is the outcome of life if we pursue a job for money only or if we accept that premise of the prosperity gospel that it is proper and acceptable to seek riches for riches sake? If we are so eager to seek riches and riches alone, will we not be like those who Paul characterizes as wandering away from the faith and piercing themselves with many pains? (1 Timothy 6: 10) Can we conclude that our search for riches that drives our lives and which Paul so wants to discourage us from doing blinds us from what we should be doing?
In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 16: 19 – 31), Jesus speaks to that point. Each day a rich man walked by a poor man named Lazarus and each day the rich man ignored him. Now, this rich man would privately tell you that he kept the commandments, paid his tithe at the temple, and was a righteous man. But each day he still ignored Lazarus and when he died, he found out what his ignorance meant.
It is important to first note that we live in a society where the rich and powerful have names and the poor and helpless are unknown. Yet, in this parable, it is a rich man who is unnamed and it is the poor man who is named. As with so many other examples, Jesus turns the rules of society backwards.
When this unnamed rich man dies, he finds himself condemned to the fires of Sheol and tormented by unimaginable pain. Only then does he become aware of Lazarus. Only then does he see Lazarus, who each day lived in unimaginable suffering, being welcomed and comforted by the angels of heaven. It was a scene that the rich man never imagined and it could only have added to the pain from the fires that he was feeling. And when he begged Abraham to send a message to his brothers not to make the same mistake that he had made and Abraham told him that the message had been sent but his brothers would not listen, the pain grew even more severe.
What then should we do? C. S. Lewis portrayed hell, not as a flaming inferno, but as a dark, shady, chilly, and above all boring place. Its proud citizenry could actually choose to leave whenever they wanted to do so. But, just as they did on earth, they choose separation from God, misery over joy, and hollowness over reality. Now, one might ask, “if they can choose, why do they not choose heaven?”
Because, in spite of the misery that comes with the choice, they always insist on choosing to keep something. There is always something they prefer to joy. It comes down to two things.
Either you say to God, “Thy will be done” or God will say to you, “thy will be done.” If God speaks to you first, then you will be like the rich man caught in a hell longing for a comforting drink of water.
The rich man’s hope was right outside his door. Lazarus was his neighbor, figuratively and literally. His own salvation was as close as the other side of the door yet the separation was wide as a canyon. The rich man could not go the few inches that separated them in the real world so he could not cross the massive chasm that separated them in the afterlife. He chose not to cross when he could and it prevented him from crossing when he wanted to cross.
Could the rich man have saved his soul by tossing a nugget of gold to Lazarus? What if every now and then he had told his servants to give a few leftovers to Lazarus? Would that have been sufficient for God to proclaim “well done, good and faithful servant!” Hardly, for the opposite of poverty is not wealth but rather community. Those in poverty are often shut out or shunted aside by society. A community cannot go forward if there are any left behind.
And as we learn from the case of the rich man and his treatment of Lazarus during his life, it is impossible to change the results after you died. We often see Christianity in single terms, in terms of what it means to us alone. But even though we choose to follow Christ individually, we are part of a community and a community that leaves some out or ignores them will not grow.
Good stewardship is more than good planning of one’s resources. It is about using one’s resources, however limited they may be, so that others may benefit as well. Paul’s advice to Timothy this day is not about money nor is it about avoiding those who seek only money. I think Paul’s advice is about the quality of life one leads. Is it a life that enables not only the individual but those in whom he or she comes into contact to have a good quality of life as well? Is it a life in which the qualities of Christ are evident?
Stewardship is more than just financial planning; it is about a quality of life that brings security and happiness. Jeremiah planned for the future that would come with the Messiah; we know that the Messiah is here and our lives reflect that presence. If we are to have the good life, are we to do it in a way that offers no hope and very little security? Or are we to have the good life in Christ with the promise of victory over sin and death? The good life is truly ours for the choosing.