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13 “No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” 14 The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus.
19 “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. 20 At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.
22 “The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. 24 He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. 26 Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’
27 “The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. 28 I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ 30 The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ 31 Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
Like the good Samaritan parable (cf. Luke 10:25-37), this story aimed to greatly stretch the limits of people’s definition of “neighbor.” Jesus didn’t tell the story to satisfy our curiosity about details of the afterlife, but to challenge a flawed view about the values we follow in this life. He built the story on folk ideas about the afterlife common in his day. The “place of the dead” was hades in Greek; the fire imagery came from Gehenna, Jerusalem’s garbage dump where things were always burning.
Lord Jesus, give me a heart receptive to the life-giving principles found in the Bible. Help me to always read its messages in the light of your loving, generous life, death and resurrection. Amen.
In Jesus’ time, wealth was very closely tied with morality, hence the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ initial statement that man cannot serve both God and money. Wealth was seen as God’s blessing, and by proxy, a measure of a person’s character—wealth was always a good thing, and there was no such thing as too wealthy. That’s why Jesus made such bold statements about wealth: he wanted to dispel the notion that wealth meant a person was more virtuous. But that’s all different today, right? I mean, we don’t have any problems equating wealth with morality today—right?
It’s funny that we so often mention this mindset in Jesus’ day like it was some far-off and foreign concept. The reality is that we still think that way today, we just do it in more subtle and seemingly innocuous ways. People born into generational wealth are usually described as “good businessmen,” and some pastors (not at our church, thankfully) will proudly tell people that God rewards the faithful with showers of money. People without much money are often held in low esteem and told to spend less rather than addressing complex systems of privilege and injustice that have made it very difficult for some people to acquire wealth. Wealth is equated to hard work, and hard work is seen as one of the ultimate virtues of our times, but the reality is that some people have a much easier time acquiring wealth than others.
Before I go any further with this talk on privilege and unjust systems, let me say that, while I stand against systems like this, I have to acknowledge that I have benefited from them without even meaning to. While I have a crippling mental illness (that’s fun), I check a lot of the other boxes for privilege and it has been easier for me to move up within the systems of injustice than it has been for some other people. Privilege does not make anyone a bad person; it’s our response, or lack of a response, to injustice that can make us good or bad. Similarly, privilege does not mean a person has not worked hard; it just means that our hard work pays off in ways that it doesn’t for other people.
Passages on wealth in the Bible are often skirted around in modern society, with justifications for ignoring them. We don’t have to actually give up the wealth as long as we’re willing to—the willingness loophole. That’s one of many I heard growing up in the church. One that’s specific to today is that it’s OK if our neighbors are not fed as long as we’re seen feeding at least one of them. Society has advanced far past where we were in Jesus’ time, so we have to be thinking not just about feeding one neighbor, but how we can feed all of them. Feeding one person does not negate or fix systems of injustice and inequality that cause poverty for many.
The reason for Jesus’ original statement in this passage—that man cannot serve both money and God—is because choices to pursue wealth often come at the expense of things like justice and growth for the more vulnerable people in our society. It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma: the best thing for all of us is for all of us to sacrifice a little so everyone gets something, but the best thing for an individual is for everyone else to sacrifice so we get a little more. All too often, that’s how one goes about acquiring wealth. Jesus asks us for radical changes not on how much we can earn, but in how much we can give away. I’ll be honest, this is hard for me—as it should be. This will be something I’m working on for the rest of my life. That’s the point. You don’t have to have this figured out tomorrow, or even five years from now—it’s expected that we’ll spend our lives getting better at it.