1 Timothy 6:6-19

Luke 16:19-31

Some parables are so straightforward that I hardly need to preach them, aren’t they? Did anyone miss the moral of this story Jesus told about the rich man and the poor man? Share with the poor, because God is ultimately on their side; the Universe’s final priorities are not about accumulating wealth, they’re about caring for others. Nothing there is new, including (I think) Jesus’ story. This sounds like a folk-tale theme if ever there was one, the reversal that should teach us that our good fortune could easily have been the hardship we see someone else dealing with. “There but for the grace of God go I,” as we sometimes say.

But again, you already knew that. You may not have known this parable, but you surely already knew that God directs us to share our abundance with those in need. Did you notice that the poor man, not the rich man, has a name in this story? Jesus means something by that. The name ‘Lazarus’ (El’azar in Hebrew) means “God helps.” Not “God helps those who help themselves,” which is from Aesop, not the Bible. Just “God helps.” God promises to help this one who has no one to help him and no way to help himself. Which is to say that when we help him, we’re working with God. It’s holy work, this being compassionate and giving. In that way, this parable is just as simple as it looks.

But at the same time, it’s not really that simple. It stopped being that simple pretty early in the life of the church. Our reading from 1 Timothy comes from a context where it was getting hard to share. Just before this teaching about “true riches,” we heard about some other preacher who promised that following our religion would be a key to riches and power. We don’t know exactly what this other person said, but you can probably imagine it. The message took the goodness of God, replaced it with the power of wealth, and said that it’s available to anyone who does what our religion tells you to do. A god who will give you unbelievable wealth is really tempting to those of us who don’t feel like we have quite enough.

And we don’t often feel like we have quite enough, do we? This opposing preacher from 1 Timothy gets to most of us, convincing us that what we really need is more of whatever they’re selling. I’m willing to bet that every one of us in this room has been told already today that we don’t have enough of something. That if we only had more of something, our life would really be complete. You’ve been told that because you turned on the radio or the TV or the Internet, and there was that false preacher waiting for you. You’ve been told it because you got in your car and drove here, past any number of billboards and signs, all preaching the same message: you need more. You’re not happy yet, because there’s more stuff to be had, and until you have more, you can’t possibly be really happy.

Of course, that’s at odds with the real truth, which is that “God generously gives us all things for our enjoyment.” And of course advertising would take issue with that truth, because how do you convince people to buy your stuff if they’re already happy with what they have? So the best way to advertise is to make people unhappy with what they already have, so they’ll buy more of what you’re selling. And if you hear that false message enough, it really is hard to be happy. Which is the whole point. And it’s been the point since before the beginning of the Christian church. We have more media saturation now, which means there are more advertising messages confronting us every day, but we’re still dealing with the same thing the early church dealt with. It was difficult then, just like it is now, to keep your bearings when it seems like every voice in the world is telling you that you don’t have enough.

I’ve been thinking of it sort of like the feeling when you’ve been driving on the highway and you lose track of how fast you’re going. You’ve set the cruise control at the speed limit (more or less), so you’re okay on that count, but after a while you don’t really notice the fact that your personal ton of steel is covering the length of a football field every three seconds. Then you slow down because you’re coming into town and all of a sudden you’re “crawling along” at 40 miles an hour. The speed limit signs and all the other traffic have been telling you how fast to go, and you’ve lost track of just how fast that actually is.

I think that’s what this feeling is, this sense that we just don’t have enough stuff – even though the poorest person in this room is wealthier than most of the rest of the world. It’s not that we genuinely want to have more at everyone else’s expense, it’s that we just have a hard time keeping our perspective. Everyone else on our part of the road seems to be going this speed, and we have to go at least that fast too. I think the rich man in Jesus’ parable had the same feeling. He was unable to really see his wealth, because he was unable to see poor Lazarus suffering at his gate. He was unable to see Lazarus because all he could see was that he “needed” more wealth.

So I don’t have to tell you to be generous. We all know the simple moral of Jesus’ story: share what you have with the rest of the world, particularly with those in need whom God especially wants to help. But if we’re like me, we don’t feel like we’re able to give as much as we’re called to give. We have debts, bills, dependents, and descendants to worry about, and they keep us so busy that we have trouble remembering what we actually have. We have trouble remembering who our neighbors are.

That’s why the church has always been called to be a community first, before it gets on to the moralizing. We’re called to be here with each other, first of all, to remember who we are and what’s deeply true about this human life we share. We’re called here to see each other, to recognize who our neighbors are, and to let that knowledge guide us through the rest of life. We gather to listen to the old truths, to put them in old and new words, to hear again that the final word of life is God’s love.

We already know the moral lesson, that giving away what we have is more blessed than wanting more of what we didn’t need in the first place. We even know, on a deep level, that true wealth comes from holy satisfaction with what we have. We show up here to be reminded of what we already knew, and to discover together ways of living that help us keep sight of the real truth. God is our help, because in God we already have everything we need. Because God loves us, we can be free from worries about more, and we’re able to share more than we ever knew we had. Thanks be to such a generous God.

Amen.

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