As in the game of Chinese Whispers, it’s possible to get the message of the bible garbled at times. One famous misquote is that ‘money is the root of all evil’. This is not actually what Paul said. Both Jesus and Paul teach on the issue of the LOVE of money and on what our attitude to money should be. Jesus illustrated this in his parable about the rich man and Lazarus, turning on its head the belief of the Jews that riches indicate God’s favour. The Bible teaches in many places how we should care for the poor and vulnerable. We are without excuse if we choose to ignore this teaching.
The readings at our Sunday noon SLT service were Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-end. My reflection follows:
I imagine that many people have come across the party game called Chinese Whispers, even if under a different name. A message is whispered from one person to another and when it gets to the end of the line the final message is compared with the initial one, often with hilarious results. Of course, the reason that the message gets garbled is that it’s whispered and anything that isn’t fully heard is guessed at to fill the gaps. The recipient probably makes their best guess but it can be very far wide of the mark as often as not.
In the reading today from Paul’s letter to Timothy is a phrase which has become garbled in much the same way as the Chinese Whispers message. Paul says that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ What we actually hear quoted often is that ‘money is the root of all evil.’ That is a very different thing indeed. Perhaps it’s as a result of this misquote that we find ourselves talking of ‘filthy lucre’ which usually means money gained by dishonest or shady means. We almost expect money to be a bad thing (although that doesn’t stop people wanting more of it as often as not).
In the gospel passage for today we only get the story which Jesus told. What we don’t hear is who Jesus was talking to. We need to get the context right to fully understand. Last week we had the reading about the dishonest manager and that ended with the famous statement from Jesus that you can’t serve God and money. There were Pharisees listening along with the disciples and they are described as ‘lovers of money’. They were no doubt still listening as Jesus told this next parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus and Paul are both addressing love of money, not the possession of money.
The rich man had all that that society could provide – the best of housing, food, clothes. Every meal was a feast. I imagine that, as now, there was a fair bit of waste as a result of all that feasting. All Lazarus desired was to be fed with the leftovers, what would be thrown out to be disposed of. He wasn’t asking for a roof over his head. For all we know he may have had a place of some sort to live in. He wasn’t asking for clothing, though I suppose if a piece of the ‘fine linen’ had become a bit old and past its best, he would not have said no to wearing it. All he wanted was the waste from the rich man’s table. He just wanted to keep body and soul together.
Eventually the inevitable happened and body and soul of Lazarus were separated, hastened no doubt by the straitened circumstances he lived in. For the rich man too, death came, possibly also hastened by his circumstances. Too much rich food is not good for anyone.
The general belief in those days was that being rich was a sign of God’s favour. That being the case, the listeners would expect that favour to continue after death but in Jesus’ story things were turned upside down, as happens so often in his teaching. Lazarus was welcomed into Abraham’s company, thus recognizing him as a valued part of Abraham’s family, the chosen people. The rich man found himself separated by an impassable chasm, cast out from the family in death, much as Lazarus was an outcast in life.
In the conversation with Abraham, it was not the man’s riches, nor the man’s evil deeds, which landed him in calamitous circumstances. Abraham simply pointed out all the good he had had in life and how that had been denied to Lazarus. It seems the man understood what the problem was as he wanted his brothers to be given a chance to repent. Repent of what? We have to assume that it was of the attitude which the rich man had and which his brothers shared. He was able to enjoy a wonderful life and he allowed that to blind him to what he could do for others. He was so tied up in all that his riches afforded him that he didn’t even see Lazarus and his need, even though he probably nearly tripped over Lazarus every day.
As Abraham pointed out, the rich man was without excuse, as he had Moses and the Prophets to teach him. A huge proportion of the Bible addresses the attitude we should have to the weak, vulnerable and poor and the responsibility to care for them and speak up for them. I find it interesting that even in Hades, facing the consequences of his inaction, the rich man was still self-centred enough to expect Lazarus to do something for him by giving him a drink, although he had done nothing for Lazarus in life.
We, like the rich man, have at least adequate housing, food and clothing. Compared to the billion people worldwide who live on less than a dollar a day, lacking so much which we take for granted, we are rich indeed. Paul’s advice in his letter is exactly what we need to take heed of; the passage of time has not removed the relevance of what he says at all. Like the rich man, like the Pharisees, we are without excuse.
Paul mentions being content if we have enough to eat and wear (note he doesn’t even mention a place to live). Contentment will protect us from the harmful desires which come with wanting to be rich. Concentrating on winning the lottery or getting promotion and so on can lead us away from a focus on our faith and what it teaches us. Our focus is to be on righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
For those who actually are rich there is advice also. Don’t think highly of yourself because of all you possess. Riches are uncertain and not to be depended on (as the recession has taught us). As the psalmist also said, we can’t depend on human power, but only on God. God is the source of all we have and he gives it to us to enjoy. But, we are not to be so taken up with enjoyment that we forget to pay attention to doing good, using our money generously as we share with others. In this way we are storing up real treasure for our future, knowing we can’t take our earthly treasure with us.
I’d like to give the last word to Alistair Stevenson who is Public Policy Officer for the Evangelical Alliance in Scotland. He was writing about reality tv and the way people are fascinated by watching the lives of others:
‘Everyday in the workplace, our universities, the supermarket or the sports-field our lives are being watched by the world around us, speaking volumes through the way we relate to one-another.
In the first two chapters of Peter’s first epistle he writes that God’s people are called to be a chosen people, foreigners in a strange land, sojourners, a holy nation set apart – a calling to live distinctive lifestyles in the society around us. As we do this we become part of the continual narrative for how God is redeeming this world, started by the Israelites and continued by us. As God’s people we transform the world through fascination.
As Christians our lives should be distinctive, not through desperate attempts to keep people’s attention, but through a Christ-like lifestyle of radical and sacrificial love. The way that we live should consistently reflect something of the transforming power of Christ in our lives; and as we do so we will be transforming the world through fascination – the ultimate reality of what it means to be a Christian.’