Monday, 23 September 2013

Luke 16- God and money

Jesus’ parables have a way of sticking with you. It’s as if they have barbs. They roll around in our minds and hearts. There are parts we like about them and parts we don’t like and there are parts we just plain don’t understand. But, eventually, if we spend enough time with them they start to unfold and reveal their purpose.    
There are parts we don’t like about this first parable. The hero is a manager that mismanages his master’s money and then gets fired. When he finds out he’s fired he makes some shifty deals that result in his boss losing more money, but the end result is that because the manager makes these deals people owe him favors.  When he is tossed out of his master’s house he will have people who owe him a favor and who will open their door to him. Then, confusingly, the master praises the manager. Jesus then tells us “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” When we first read these teachings it’s hard to know what to do with them.         
What Jesus seems to be teaching us is not that we should be dishonest and corrupt when dealing with other people’s money.  Rather, Jesus is teaching us to think about the goal and use of money. Money is a resource. It helps us reach a goal. Even a corrupt manager knows this. The manager is about to be fired for misusing his master’s money and he cuts some deals with people who owe his master.  One man owes him nine hundred gallon of olive oil and he makes a deal and cuts his bill in half.  The second man owes one thousand bushels of wheat. The manager makes another deal by cutting 200 bushels off the bill. Effectively he has just put two people into his debt. He has used the resources he was responsible for to build relationships so that when he no longer had any resources to manage he would have a place to stay. The heart of the lesson is this- Jesus says “…use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Jesus is showing us that even corrupt managers sometimes understand something about wealth that we miss. Even a corrupt manager under the right conditions knows to use wealth to build relationships. How much more should the children of God understand this? If the corrupt understand this principle, then shouldn’t the followers of God? Shouldn’t we also use the way we manage our wealth to develop friendships with our neighbors and with God?  If even a scoundrel who is just trying to save his own skin understands this, shouldn’t the followers of Jesus? This manager understood how the wealth he was entrusted with could serve a larger purpose.  We too should see our wealth through this perspective.
The way we use our wealth effects relationships. We can use our wealth to build relationships, or we can use our wealth to seperateus from others.  Later in chapter 16, Jesus uses another parable to explain this. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus teaches us that there are consequences when we use our wealth to separate us from others rather than build relationships as the manager did.  
There are all kinds of questions about how to hear this parable, and it is a parable. It is not a description of a historical event. And as a parable it isn’t necessarily telling us about the afterlife. The main point being taught is that the way we use our money has an effect our relationships with others and also with God. The rich man and the poor man, Lazarus, were separated by the rich man’s use of his wealth. The rich man wants everyone to know how wealthy he is and so he dresses the part. He wears expensive purple robes. He lived in luxury behind a gate that protected his belongings and kept the rabble out. He used his wealth to physically and socially separate himself from Lazarus.  
            Just outside the rich man’s gate is a beggar. Lazarus is not clothed in purple, rather he is covered in sores. He longs to eat the table scraps from the rich man's table, but he is given nothing.  The rich man seems to not notice him. The guard dogs lick his wounds showing more compassion to Lazarus than the rich man. The rich man doesn't abuse or remove Lazazrus from the front of his house, he just ignores him. He pretends he doesn’t exist and uses his wealth to keep them separated.  
            Eventually both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus is brought to a place of honour beside Abraham. The rich man is in Hades- the place of the dead- and is suffering. The rich man recognizes the poor beggar Lazarus standing beside Abraham. In death, the way the rich man separated himself from the poor Lazarus persists. The gate he bought with his wealth became a huge chasm that no one could cross. This time, however, he has found himself on the wrong side of the divide.  Interestingly, the rich man still will not speak to Lazarus. The rich man has now become a beggar and begs Abraham, his ancestor, to order Lazarus to give him water. He is not repentant. In fact he is trying to order Lazarus around- as if he was a servant- as if social barriers and class distinctions existed even in death. In life he refused Lazarus human acknowledgement, and this persists in death. The rich man divided himself from poor Lazarus by creating the physical barrier of the gate, but the personal divisions persist as well.
            Abraham speaks with compassion calling the rich man his "dear son". Abraham gets no pleasure from seeing the rich man's suffering. Abraham and Lazarus even seem willing to help the suffering rich man, but there is a great chasm that makes it impossible to cross over to him. This is no mere gate that is easily opened to give the man a drink of water.  
Our apathy towards the poor is challenged by this parable. Poverty causes suffering and we have a compassionate God, who chooses the side of the poor. We serve a God that takes sides. As we read through the Scriptures we see that God has little patience for those who can alleviate the suffering caused by poverty, but don't. Over and over we are warned that wealth is not to be used to divide us from each other. Instead, it is to be used to build relationships.  
In the parable, the rich man wants someone to warn his brothers so they don’t end up like him.  Abraham says that they have Moses and the prophets to teach them and warn them about the consequences of misusing their wealth. This basically is a reference to the Old Testament. So it’s worth looking in the Old Testament to see what it tells us about wealth.  
One message it gives us is that having money is not inherently wrong. Private property is assumed.  The Ten Commandments condemn stealing and coveting, and Israel is encouraged to be generous. So it is not wrong to have 'things'. It is assumed that we will have property and goods.  The Old Testament also promises rewards to people that live rightly. For example, in Proverbs 3:9-10 we read  "Honour the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine".  The Promised Land itself was promised to be a place of prosperity. The people are encouraged to celebrate and have feasts. So wealth in itself is not evil. In fact, it is considered a good thing. …. On the other end of the spectrum, the Old Testament never says that poverty is a good thing. Poverty causes suffering and so it is not what God wants for His people.
            While we do have some rights to our property we are also taught that in essence all that we own really belongs to God. We are managers of the resources that have been given to us. It is a difficult concept for most of us because individual ownership has been emphasized in our culture.  We don't really believe that our bank account, or house, or car, belongs to God. We tend to think that God would be stealing if God drove off in our car. But Deuteronomy 10:14 reminds us, "To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it." 
            We are managers of what God has given us, and we have certain rights as managers when it comes to property. However, the Old Testament teaches that care for the poor overcomes our rights to private property. The Bible teaches that when the people harvested they should not try to harvest too efficiently so that the poor could come and harvest some as well. Our property rights give way under the obligation to care for the poorer and weaker members of society.
            Some of these laws are a bit alien from our world. Most of us don't harvest, and most of our poor are in the inner city. But, the essence of the message still speaks to us. Our own rights to private property must give way to our obligation to help the poor. Wealth cannot be used to divide human beings. Wealth is to be used to build relationships, not to separate people. The rich man was obligated by the Law to help Lazarus, not build a gate to keep him away where he won’t have to see him.
            The Bible also speaks to us about the spiritual dangers of wealth.  Wealth is often associated with a lack of ability to repent, to greed, gluttony, and covetousness. Wealth can become a false god when we trust in it rather than in God- especially when we pursue it as an end in itself. Wealth has the ability to mimic deity by giving us a sense of security, inspiring intense devotion, and by granting a sense of freedom and power.
            There is much more that the Old Testament has to teach us in matters of money and property, but I think we have the overall point. To be religious without any concern for justice or the poor is to live a lie. If we can reject the poor, or ignore the poor, then we cannot embrace God. This is because God chooses to align himself with the poor and oppressed. In Jesus' parable, if the rich man who ignored the poor Lazarus at his front gate had followed the teachings of Moses and the writings of the prophets, then he would have understood that his riches were given to him to manage- they were God's riches. God gave instruction as to how do deal with his wealth. If he followed the teachings of Moses and the Prophets he would have realized God's compassion for the poor and there would have been no surprise that the poor Lazarus was with Abraham in the afterlife. If the rich man was reading the scriptures and taking them seriously there should have been no surprise. He should have known that there would be consequences.
            If we were to find ourselves in this parable, we would most likely be the 5 brothers of the rich man- who he wants to warn. If we follow the teachings of Moses and the Prophets we would see a very clear image of how to deal with our wealth. In the parable, Abraham says these words should be enough.  But, we stand in an even better place in terms of being warned. We have someone who has come back from the dead. We have been given the message from beyond the grave that was denied the 5 brothers in the parable.
            When God took humanity onto Himself, being born as Jesus, he was born to a poor couple out of wedlock, and he was laid in a feeding trough. He was born as a part of a people oppressed by a politically superior Roman Empire. Jesus so identified with the poor that he taught his followers that when the poor are clothed, and fed, that his followers are in fact feeding and clothing him. If Jesus saw himself in the Parable he would be Lazarus, locked out of the rich man's home. By locking Lazarus out, the rich man locked out Jesus, who is the means to his salvation.

Our wealth is to be used to build relationships. We, like the manager in the first parable, are to use our wealth to build relationships so that when the day comes we have built relationships with our neighbor and ultimately with our Lord and so will be welcomes into eternal homes. If we use our wealth to separate us from others we may find that the gate we have built has become an impassible chasm and that we are on the wrong side of it. Wealth is a resource to be used not a god, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” We must make a choice were we will store our treasures- here on earth, or in the eternal reality.  

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