Sermons That Work

The Danger in Dealing…, Proper 21 (C) – 1998

September 27, 1998

The danger in dealing with such a familiar parable as that of “Dives” (the rich man) and Lazarus (the poor man) is that its familiarity may cause us to miss the vitality of its meaning. All three of the lectionary passages delve into a subject we would rather ignore: the use of money and its role in our lives. For when it comes to money none of us is holy. Those who are rich think they have too much to lose, so they would rather ignore these portions of scripture; and those who are poor run the danger of slipping into false pride or sloth; so it is easier for both groups to avoid looking carefully into the matter of riches.

But, like every Scriptural passage that hits us where we hurt, it is much better for our souls if we listen at the lessons squarely and courageously and hear what they have to tell us.

Reading Amos is like a plunge in icy water, startling, frightening, and bracing. He addresses all those who are “at ease” and who “feel secure.” He asks the people who consider themselves God’s chosen: “Are you better than these kingdoms?” meaning the kingdoms of those who don’t know God. And then he hits at the “loungers,” and those who drink wine from bowls, and those who anoint themselves with the finest of oils – in other words, those who live in the lap of luxury – and declares that they will be stripped of their security because of their pride and lack of justice.

Like everything else in Scripture this must be understood in its context. Amos warns the people not because of their wealth and luxury but because they have misplaced their trust. Instead of putting it in the God, who rescued them from danger, they put their security in their riches. The results are disastrous, he warned them, and history proved him right.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story that has been used through the ages to prove various favorite theories of the day: the existence of heaven and hell; the evil of riches; the nobility of poverty; the utter impossibility of change after death, and so on. But what Jesus is focusing on here seems to be the stark and painful truth which would eventually lead him to the cross. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,” he portrays Abraham as telling the rich man who begs from Hades. The rich man had just asked Abraham to send somebody from his side to warn the rich man’s relatives who were still living on earth.

The conclusion of the parable has very little to do with riches; it has to do with our response to the good news of God sent to us first through the Prophets and then through the Son.

Jesus is more direct in John’s gospel: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” These are sad words, and they come out of Jesus’ painful realization that the people who heard his good news of God’s love, chose not to believe him.

The riches on which they put their trust took many different forms. Some, like the rich man in the parable, lived in luxury, while poor people sat at his gates begging for crumbs. How many individuals, how many nations, how many of us fall in that category of passing by, of ignoring the poor and the dirty and the outcasts among us? Others, like the Pharisees and those who were out to get Jesus, put their trust in their knowledge, in their pride and conviction that they were right. They were not poor in spirit. How many of us fall in that category? Who or what can change hearts? Miracles did not change those who were not willing to believe in Jesus. His loving acts did not impress them. His wonderful words left them cold. His contemporaries, like our contemporaries, probably thought that they were rich because God rewarded them. But God’s values are different from those of human beings and, in the end, the condemnation falls on those who ignore mercy and compassion in favor of luxury and the easy life here on earth.

In the first epistle to Timothy, the writer echoes both the Old Testament and the parable of Jesus in the words of verses 17 through 19 in Chapter 6. These are simple and clear words that have as much meaning for us today as they had two thousand years ago. He warns the rich not to set their hopes in “the uncertainty of riches.” Here it is again: Amos’s warning to those who put certainty and security in riches. How easy it is for us to think that we are secure if we have money in the bank! Yet, money still is unable to buy love, or good health, or life eternal. Instead of riches, our hope should be in God, who provides us with everything for our enjoyment, the epistle writer says. It is very interesting that he doesn’t say that God provides for our needs; he says: ‘for our enjoyment.’ This goes beyond need.

The beauty of nature is for enjoyment; the song of the birds in the morning, the lovely aromas and colors of flowers, the wondrous sounds of music, the comfort of good books, the satisfaction of a nourishing meal when one is hungry, the sweetness of a drink of cool water on a hot day… all these are given for our enjoyment and are not limited to those who have money.

But the exhortation does not stop there. The rich are not condemned; they are, rather, pointed in a direction that is beneficial not only to the recipients but to the rich themselves. The rich are urged to do good and to be rich in good works (you see again where the emphasis of riches is put not on material wealth, but in the wealth of goodness); they are told to be generous, ready to share. And why all this? In order to store up treasures that are for the future. This means both the immediate, earthly future and the future after this world. It has the benefit of giving one a hold in the life that is really life, the writer says. What does that mean?

Life lived only for the self and for acquisitions becomes boring and empty. Life lived for others becomes enriched. This is a reality easily tested. May we all “take hold of the life that is really life” by paying attention to those we see daily, to those it would be easy to ignore. May we look at them and share with them before it is too late. Above all, may we hear the words of Jesus and respond to his call as he reveals to us the loving heart of God. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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