Unchained from Our Desire for Wealth
Synopsis: Our attempts to avoid or ignore the beggars at our gate put us in the uncomfortable position of the rich man in Jesus’ apocryphal story about the rich man and Lazarus. But we miss the point if we think it’s about the afterlife; “the rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven.” Instead it’s about our belief that our wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, while we conveniently ignore the social structures that dictate wealth for some and poverty for others.
When Ruth and I took a mission assignment in the Philippines in the early 1980's, we lived in the university town of Los Banos and attended church at the Church Among the Palms. The picturesque but simple church building was nestled among gorgeous tall palm trees. It was a lively United Church of Christ congregation and I soon became friends with the pastor Emile Puerto. The poor people, who lined up outside the church gate following the Sunday morning service to beg for handouts, made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t accustomed to something like this but it was quite common in the Philippines. I often walked to church, as our house was nearby, and I soon figured out how to slip out the back way to avoid the beggars at the gate.
In Jesus’ story of the great reversal, this makes me the comfortable rich man and all those beggars at the church gate are perhaps relatives of Lazarus. Then, when I became the pastor of our church here in Fairfax, I discovered that some of Lazarus’ distant relatives will occasionally knock on my office door. I have $20 Safeway gift cards in my desk drawer that I can give to them. One woman, who occasionally shows up, is often in a panic because she needs to buy a breathalyzer for her daughter who’s having an asthma attack. She recently got a part-time, temporary job at the community center across the street. Last week she stopped in to tell me that she wants to return one of the gift cards so I can give it to a homeless man she met at the Lamb Center. She still hasn’t done that so I assume some other need took priority.
Another man, who has occasionally stopped by, is a charlatan who once convinced a church member to loan him several hundred dollars to fix the transmission on his car. When I offer him a gift card he always wants more. I tried to connect him with Fairfax County Coordinated Services and gave him their telephone number but he insists they won’t help. I give such information to everyone who comes for help. I tell them that the gift card is only a band-aid and they really need to work with a Coordinated Services counselor. I have even called the number myself when someone comes for help in an effort to put them in touch with a counselor. It’s hard and I’ve never been very successful.
This week, as I was working in my office, I heard the front door open and someone call out. Out in the foyer I met a disheveled, barefoot young man. He begged for water, saying he had already walked more than four miles and desperately needed to get to his friend’s house in Falls Church. He was from out of state, happened to be walking past our church, and decided to come in to see if anyone could help him.
I have no idea what trouble the young man had gotten himself into and I wasn’t going there. After he drank some water and calmed down a bit, I explained that he could get a bus on the street that would take him to the Vienna Metro Station where he could take a metro train to Falls Church. He told me he has lost his wallet and didn’t have any money. I gave him $20, showed him where the bus stop was, and sent him on his way. He was very thankful and said he’ll bring the $20 back when he’s able. I don’t really expect that to happen. It would be a first.
In Jesus’ story of the great reversal of fortunes, I still wonder if I’m that comfortable rich man and those people who show up at our church door are Lazarus’ distant relatives. If so, perhaps they occasionally get a meal from the gift cards in my desk drawer. But focusing on those crumbs misses the point. Jesus tells the story in response to other religious folk who mock his stance in support of the poor. They think their wealth and social standing is a result of their piety and God’s blessing. He wants to grab their attention and make them think again. This is about the obscene wealth gap between those of us who are comfortable and nearly half on our world’s population that lives on $2.50 or less a day. Every bit as obscene is the gap between the top 1% of people in our country who own 40% of our nation’s wealth, which is more than the bottom 90% combined.
Societies create all kinds of barriers to separate those of us who are rich from those of us who are poor. We miss the point if we think Jesus’ story is about what happens in the after live, “The rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven.” No, it’s about God’s concern for the poor and about holding the rest of us responsible for the hell that powerful people create here on earth. I am my brother’s keeper.
I draw your attention to the painting of Jesus’ story on our bulletin cover. It’s created by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa and depicts village life in their place. Notice how much closer Lazarus and the rich man are both in physical distance and in wealth than in our part of the world. It pushes us into the vulnerability and risk of relationship. The rich man is not only missing an opportunity to redistribute his wealth but a chance to encounter God in the life of Lazarus.
The rich man, now in torment, in Jesus’ story pleads with father Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his relatives. But Abraham says it won’t do any good, even if a dead man came back asking them to repent. Julian DeShazier, senior minister at University Church in Chicago, comments:
To this request we hear perhaps the mightiest nugget of this story: it shouldn’t take a miracle for us to repent. What we need to do better is right in front of us—no earthquakes, no cancers required—and we should take advantage while we are still in the land of the living.
The writer of 1 Timothy had similar concerns. As biblical scholar Thomas Oden explains, some were falsely teaching that godliness would be a means of financial gain:
The gospel was backlit with the color of money. They may already by this time have developed the habit of charging fees for their pastoral “counsel.” Once again religion had become a step toward upward mobility. They expected piety to yield dividends.
So how can we be unchained from our desire for wealth? How can we be unchained from evaluating the worth of people by how much money they have? This is especially difficult in our capitalist, consumer driven society. We value those more who have more money. Money speaks and gives us power and influence. This is even true in our churches.
When I was a young man, my Dad reminded me that money itself isn’t the problem; it can be used for great good. The problem is our love for money. He was right but I now wonder if that way of framing it overlooks how persistently we get chained to our desire for wealth. Like Jesus, the writer of 1 Timothy seeks to grab our attention by challenging those who link religion and making a fast buck. Listen to his words in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible:
A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough. . . Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble.
So how do we untangle ourselves from these chains? As in Jesus’ story, we will want to relate to those who are poor; to Lazarus and his relatives who sit at our gate. That’s not easy! It can be filled with frustration and misunderstanding. But we do it because we meet God in the lives of the poor and we learn to know our world and ourselves in a new way.
We will also want to make personal choices that free us from the hold money can have on us.
It may mean taking a job that pays less but gives you more time with your family or enables you to better serve your community. We will want to be generous in giving our money to causes we believe in. Money itself can’t make us happy but putting an inordinate value on money can make us miserable.
And we will want to treat the money we have as a trust that has been given to us. We can’t take it with us when we die. Make a will that specifies how your estate will be distributed when you pass away. Or perhaps, depending on your circumstances, you will want to begin distributing the bulk of your estate before you die. Karen Zehr’s uncle Ray Martin recently did that when he donated the bulk of his estate to start the Center or Sustainable Climate Solutions.
Finally, we will want to remember that poor people often give most generously that those of us with more resources. It’s the poor widow that Jesus held up as an example because the copper coin she dropped into the temple treasury was more than those who flaunted their wealth by giving large sums. They had given what they could easily spare while she gave everything she had.
 Julian DeShazier, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (September 11, 2019), 19.
 Thomas Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 104.