St Stephen’s, Harrisburg– Luke 16:19–31
I’m probably not the only one in the room this morning who can say this, but I have from time to time indulged in fantasies about what I would do if I won the lottery in a big way. I would, of course, ensure the financial security of my family, but most of my fantasies involve giving money away—being able to support institutions and causes that mean a great deal to me. Of course, I’ve been predictably unlucky in playing the lottery, owing in part to the fact that I don’t actually buy lottery tickets but maybe once a decade, and, as they say, if you don’t play, you can’t win.
But, given what the scriptures have to say about the spiritual hazards of wealth, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’ve been lucky by not ever winning. Just to cite a few of many possible sources, there’s the rather stunning language about reversal of fortune that we find in the text from Luke’s gospel that Anglicans use at Evening Prayer—the Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Then there’s the teaching of Jesus about how it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And it’s certainly a dominant theme in this morning’s gospel parable about the rich man and Lazarus.
Just as the saying goes that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” we can say that wealth corrodes the soul and great wealth corrodes the soul greatly. (Now, just for the record, everyone in this church today is, by world standards, greatly wealthy, so … the saying applies to all of us.) The acquisition of great wealth sets one on a slow but inexorable slide toward spiritual corrosion. When I fly, as I do several times a year, I surely don’t spring for first class, but I do pay the extra thirty or forty bucks or so for seats that have slightly more leg room and are closer to the front of the plane. I can justify it on a number of levels, like the fact that I’m claustrophobic, or that being more comfortable on the place will make me more effective in doing whatever I’ll be doing when I arrive at my destination, but it’s just a few steps away from an attitude of entitlement: I’ve earned this perk … by being 68 years old, by being the Lord Bishop of Springfield … whatever. And the end of the arc that begins with the airline seat selections I make, is where the rich man in the parable lives: In contemporary terms, clothed in custom-made designer apparel, and eating food from five-star chefs at every meal.
This all leads to the nth degree of the sin of Pride, which is such an inflated and developed degree of entitlement that one puts oneself in the place of God, becoming completely self-absorbed and self-referential. The rich man is licked literally by the flames of hell, as St Luke’s text presents the parable, not for being rich, per se, but for not being mindfully rich, for being callously rich, for not being prudently rich. His cluelessness is only compounded when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus—by name, no less (!)—to bring him a drop of water and then to go warn his brothers to clean up their act, so they don’t end up where he is. The rich man knew by name the beggar who had lived right in front of his house—so, he can’t plausibly plead ignorance of Lazarus’ condition—he knew the name of the beggar with whom he had failed to even lean momentarily in the direction of generosity.
So, wealth is dangerous because, if we’re not super-careful, it can put us on the wrong side of the great gulf that separates those who walk in the presence of God and those who are eternally separated from God. The rich man, too late, recognizes this, and realizes that his brothers, who are also rich, are vulnerable to his fate, and he begs Abraham to somehow warn them.
Now, the key to understanding a parable is usually to place yourself within it, to identify with one of the characters. How would we approach this parable that way? I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t be inclined to identify with Abraham, nor could I, or any of us, plausibly identify with Lazarus. There might be a bit of pressure to see ourselves as the rich man, but none of us, to my knowledge, employs a celebrity chef on our household staff, so … maybe not.
Well, who’s left, then? Why, it’s the rich man’s brothers! WE ARE THE BROTHERS! It’s not yet too late for us. We have time to change our ways, to learn to use our wealth prudently, to cultivate the habit of generosity, to be faithful stewards, to be good neighbors. But who will warn us? Who will bring us that message that the rich man hoped Lazarus would bring to his brothers?
Today’s good news is precisely this: WE HAVE BEEN WARNED! We have not only “the Law and Prophets,” as the rich man’s brothers did, but we actually do have someone who has come back from the dead, and we meet on the first day of every week to eat and drink and celebrate our union with that One who has come back from the dead, that One by whose teaching, example, and grace we are able to triumph over the sin of pride, and offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a living sacrifice to God, the One from who we can learn the humility and generosity that enable us to become threads in the beautiful tapestry of redemption that God is weaving.
The only question is: Will we hear and heed the warning and repent of our self-absorbed, entitled, imprudent use of the wealth that has been entrusted to us, and for which we must one day render an accounting as stewards? Appropriating the grace of this Holy Communion is a good place to start down that road of repentance.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.