The teaching about wealth and our proper relationship with wealth is relentless and provocative in Luke’s gospel. And this week’s readings particularly so (RCL Amos:6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy6:6-9; and Luke 16:19-31. ) After the last few weeks most of us have no where left to hide, no dance steps untried to avoid being in the spotlight. Scripture and news headlines all say that it is time that we all must really grapple with these issues.
In a way we are caught (in an ultimately fruitful way I think) between the two great mis-readings on the teachings about personal wealth in the Bible. One of the themes running through what we call the Old Testament (and that has re-emerged through abundance theology) is that material wealth is evidence of God’s blessing and therefore wealth is evidence of a positive judgment by God and poverty is a negative judgment! And the other great error of thinking probably comes in part from a misreading of this parable and the letter to Timothy, is that don’t worry about your suffering in this world because it will be made up to you in the next! Both of these views see all the power to be in God’s hands and the material wellbeing of people to be decided by God, thus letting us all off the hook for our own wellbeing and our neighbour’s situation.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man in purple is a critique of the view that material blessings indicated God’s positive judgment on the value of a person or group. Jesus is making it very clear that the wealthy person in this parable, and we know nothing about how he made his money, is not the admirable one! The rich man is not worthy of being declared particularly blessed or righteous. Indeed the poor man is the one given a personal name and his name Lazarus means ‘helped by God’. In this parable God is so clearly siding with the one who is poor, is unimportant, is broken and of no economic or social importance.
Foreshadowing this we know that many of the prophets provoked the chosen people of God to be aware that they would be judged as a community by how they treated the poorest and most marginal: the widow, the orphan and the alien. Somehow we also need to hold the teaching in the letter to Timothy and the attitude of finding gratitude for what wealth and comfort we do have, and of being generous with what we do have. And so both the prophet and the teacher point to the vital importance of how we relate to material blessings and our neighbours in this life.
So how do we hold in creative ethical tension a life giving way of relating to our material wealth? Firstly I think we need to remember that this world is God’s creation, God’s body, and we are part of this wondrous, precious and precarious web of being. How we relate to creation and our fellow creatures is how we relate to God. Acknowledging this then our rightful response is one of gratitude and awe leading to thankfulness and humble dependence. When we see all that makes for wealth as coming from God and being part of the whole then we cannot claim enjoyment for ourselves exclusively or at the expense of others. This interrelated understanding needs to permeate our understanding of ecology and economics, our social and political principles, and our personal decisions about where and how to live.
Because we must begin now - having inherited and participated in a world of less than interconnected respect and benevolence - with current reality we have to start somewhere less than ideal. And so we start with our relationships, with our side of relationships. We worship our Creator; we give thanks with gratitude for where we are and what we have; we are generous with what we have access to; we share – both giving and receiving – with our neighbours that are near; we are mindful of our dependence upon and impact on our neighbours further away; and we acknowledge that our neighbours include those sentient beings who are not human and entire ecosystems.
As we try and move from how things are now into how things could be we seek to live more simply and respectfully of the earth; we try and live not only within our financial means but the means of our material footprint seeking to not consume more than the earth can provide for everyone; we value and protect places of habitat for those other than ourselves; we support industries and communities that grow and produce in ways that respect the earth; once having met our own basic needs we share our surplus with others and when we do not have enough we trustingly accept that others will provide for us.
Most of us are not ready for or even inclined for the ‘commune’ but we also know that the ways we have been living, especially in western nations, is not sustainable ecologically or socially. The changes we have individually and collectively made have not been significant enough yet to turn the tide of destruction and injustice. So what changes must you and I make now, and what changes do we need to prepare ourselves for soon?
The parable is very clear that the time to change our relationships with wealth and our neighbours is now in this life. I am challenged, and I am challenging you, to decide at least one thing you need to change domestically about how you run your household (the car you drive, what you do with vegetable scraps, where your superannuation is invested); to change at least one thing about your relationship with your neighbourhood (is there a group in your community that need your gifts, an area that needs protecting or rehabilitating); and to change at least one thing about your relationship with neighbours far away (giving political, financial support to a cause or a country that is suffering from a problem you could do something about, being mindful of the country of origin when purchasing goods, naming a charity in your will). These are things for you to decide but we all need to be more practical and creative about how to attend to our relationships in our time in ways that make for life worth living. The time for gratitude and generosity is now!
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come open our hearts and minds to the many gifts and needs of our neighbours in you.