A Sermon about what the real treasures are, Preached by Ms. Leslie Spatt
Money, plus rich people and poor people – two seemingly different messages in the readings this morning, both of which are often taken at only superficial level. But they actually are related to each other if we go deeper into them. The letter to Timothy has one of the most misquoted lines in the Bible – usually repeated as ‘Money is the root of all evil’. But, as we’ve just heard, the actual sentence is ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ Something quite different. Money…. Does it make the world go round? How do we get it? How do we spend it? Are rich people automatically bad and poor people good? So many questions about something which is a topic of potential controversy and a constant worry for many.
Just in the past week we’ve heard government pronouncements about spending, taxes, benefits; a Budget which seems to satisfy nobody and which the more rabid part of the media is denouncing as only letting the rich grow richer. Well,…. whatever your political beliefs, the tone still comes across as being rich and having money is bad. And it’s very true, as the first reading says, ‘those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.’ Loving money, needing to get it in order to feed the temptation to keep up with your friends or neighbours and maintaining appearances. It’s embarrassing not being able to show the same standard of living as your friends. Or admit to needing foodbanks, just to use one example. Money then does become a root of all kinds of evil, and the love of money takes that love away from God and neighbours.
Money, of itself, is morally neutral. It’s how it’s acquired and how it’s spent that leads to making judgements about it. We could start by asking ‘what’s need and what’s greed?’ People who have gifts and talents – and, yes, sometimes good luck – which result in being well paid are often great donors to charity and give away a lot of their earnings. And there are some who have earned or inherited wealth who have no care at all for anyone else and hang onto every penny. They should be reminded that we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it. Or, as a friend of mine says – there’s no pockets in a shroud.
When we look at the Gospel reading, it’s not particularly about money as such – but more about behaviour. The real, deeper point of the Gospel reading needs teasing out. It could be read as a simple story about the rich mistreating the poor and facing God’s judgement of what looks like hell for the rich and heaven for the poor, until we realise that it’s about getting people to change the way they behave – that word ‘repent’ again. Repent is one of those words which drags a huge amount of churchy baggage around with it. Repent isn’t about grovelling to God, believing that we’re miserable sinners and need to punish ourselves because we’re bad. Or have God punish us. The original word in the text – metanoia – actually means ‘change the direction you’re going’ or ‘change your behaviour’. Some translations say it’s a transformative change of heart.
Jesus tells this parable about two people at completely opposite ends of society. The rich man has everything he might want. Lazarus has nothing. He only dreams of eating scraps from the rich man’s table, but nothing ever lands in his begging bowl. The rich man is oblivious to anything or anyone but himself. He eats and drinks and enjoys life the way he wants it. He’s possibly aware of a nameless beggar at his door but doesn’t do anything about it. Not only is he unmindful of other people, he’s unmindful of God and the Law where the obligation to ‘love your neighbour’ is one of the two Great Commandments. However, ‘love your neighbour’ simply doesn’t factor in the rich man’s life.
Then both men die. The rich man ends up in torment, and sees Lazarus being comforted in a much nicer place. Abraham refuses to let Lazarus help the rich man – not even to send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s family. If we were good, or even bad, first century Jews listening to this, we might well think, ‘Oh so the rich man is finally coming to his senses. He’s finally showing some concern for somebody besides himself, asking Lazarus to warn his brothers about the consequences of not living the way God wants us to live. But as 21st century Christians, we need to look at the deeper meaning underneath that rather easy conclusion in order to realise what Jesus is telling us.
I don’t think Jesus is saying that the rich are necessarily bad. The rich man is condemned because of his indifference to Lazarus’ condition and his total lack of hospitality, not because he’s rich. Throughout the Gospels, whenever wealth comes into the conversation, Jesus seems to be more concerned about what people do with their riches. Do they care for their neighbours? Do they see the ones at their door or in the next street who have far less than they do?
When it comes to us, we make choices all the time. This story applies to us about how we make those choices and what they are. Who we listen to and who we ignore is one of those choices, as well as who to love and who not to love. The ones who have more than enough feast, not thinking about the suffering that their words and our choices might have caused. Jesus’s aim is to remind us that we are making huge decisions every day about how we are living our lives. He doesn’t give us answers in this parable – and the Gospel passage doesn’t have a nice tidy ending. It leaves us sort of hanging there – wanting an answer; but lacking directions from Jesus, we’re left to make up our own minds.
Have we ever thought about what would convince the people we know in our neighbourhood, our community and the ones we elect to make decisions on our behalf – government officials – what it would take for them to change their behaviour towards the less fortunate and make a real difference? We’re at the start of a process here in Battersea, facing a rather bleak-sounding time ahead, trying to discover how all of us could bring the love of God and neighbour to those around us who might be struggling: what people need, who are the ones who need help the most, how we might be able to help. All three things are often difficult to find out, mostly because admitting that we need help is often incredibly hard – and asking for it even harder.
We have enough to make informed decisions. We have the teaching of Moses and the Prophets included in our spiritual heritage. We have Jesus teaching us about what the Kingdom of God could be like, what it means, and how we can help to make it real. What more do we need? What’s keeping us back from letting go of our self-centred life and taking up the God-centred, Christ-centred life we’ve been created to live, which we’re being called to live right now. We have this opportunity, a chance to get it right; to choose to follow Jesus and make his teaching something active instead of just offering nice sounding but empty words. To realise the bad things we’ve done to the people in our lives and change the ways where we might have gone wrong.
Jesus is giving us the opportunity to bring our lives in line with his. Perhaps we need to be shocked into wakefulness and then action when we do find out what the needs and deprivations are in Battersea. To actually live out the great commandments of loving God above all else, especially money; and to love our neighbours as ourselves even if we might not like our neighbours very much. And discover the metanoia of changing our minds and our hearts.
Perhaps a good way to end this morning is to quote the last bit of the Timothy reading about the rich: ‘They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.’ I wonder if we can discover how to do that, however rich we might be. And it isn’t only about money.
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