If it’s not a church-goer’s nightmare, it’s probably at least a very bad dream – a gospel passage and a sermon about money, about our relationship with it, and about how we use it – but it leads to helpful guidance for how to faithfully use the money entrusted to our care. I’m referring not only to today’s gospel lesson (Luke 16:14-31) but to Luke’s entire gospel and to one of the major themes running through the Christian scriptures. As today’s passage begins, Jesus addresses some Pharisees, “who were lovers of money” (v. 14), and right away you might feel your defenses going up. For who among us is not a lover of money to some degree?
In last week’s gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13), Jesus said we cannot serve both God and wealth (v. 13); we must make a clear, defining choice. And I remember how God detests lukewarm choices, saying to the church in Laodicea, “you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:15-17 abbrev.).
How like the rich man in today’s reading, the nameless, universal person more concerned with wealth and what wealth will secure for him than with God and what faithfulness to God requires. In the beginning of his gospel, when Luke describes in the song of Mary what God is about to do in Jesus, Mary sings of the God who “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53), like Lazarus and the rich man in today’s reading, like all of us today who have more than we need for a basic, minimal, simple, and sustainable life:
. . . while hungry neighbors go unfed or underfed, while homeless neighbors go unsheltered, while neighbors with health problems and without health insurance go untreated, while refugees yearning for hospitality go unwelcomed. Like all of us today who go about our business as usual and fail to see that our business is to care for the poor at our door.
So here’s the key question I believe the gospel presents. How will I use the wealth with which God has blessed me, the wealth God has entrusted to my stewardship, no matter how great or small it may be, to serve the needs of the poor at my doorstep? Put more simply, how will I use the money I have in my relationship with those who have little or none? Because I sometimes need practical advice as much or more than I need preaching, here’s what I believe are three simple rules for the faithful use of money. (In the interest of full disclosure, they’re rules taken almost directly from one of John Wesley’s sermons.)
The first rule is, gain all you can. We’ve been given talents and resources that the world values and is willing to pay for, sometimes dearly. It’s our responsibility as faithful stewards of God’s gifts to use them wisely and effectively, to gain as much return on their value as possible. However, and this is a big exception, we must gain all we can without harming our physical, mental, or spiritual health, and without harming our neighbor in any of those ways, and without harming any aspect of God’s creation. So if you gain money by gambling, or working in the tobacco industry, or working in a job that degrades the environment and contributes to climate change, you probably should rethink your involvement there. Redirect your energy to gain all you can in a responsible, healthy, lifegiving way.
After you’ve gained all you can, the second rule is save all you can. Good, faithful stewards don’t squander the resources entrusted to their care. Don’t waste anything on unnecessary pleasures or self-indulgence, and don’t spend your hard-won gain on things or experiences of low quality. Don’t buy an expensive new automobile, for example, when a less expensive used one of good quality will serve the purpose as well. (The best automobiles I’ve purchased were previously owned: a year-old Camry that I traded eleven years and a quarter-million miles later, and a year-old Ford I started driving four years ago and feel I’ve only now broken in.)
And don’t waste anything on pride or to gain the admiration of others. A forty-dollar Timex will keep time as well as a $50,000 Rolex or a $500,000 Cartier. A modest home will shelter you as well as a mansion in a gated community, and it might offer better opportunity to heed God’s call to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house (Isa. 58:7). And you might be surprised to recognize the well-dressed neighbors who buy their clothes from Goodwill or the Salvation Army. How much wealth is one willing to invest in possessions that end up possessing them and preventing them from seeing their destitute neighbor at their door? After you’ve gained all you can, choose to save all you can.
Finally, after you’ve gained all you can and saved all you can, the third rule is to give all you can. Our faith tells us, God blesses us as God blessed Abram, our ancestor in the faith, so that we will be a blessing to others (Gen. 12:1-3). We are here not to serve our own status and comfort; we are here to serve God as agents in the healing of the world, serving the welfare of the least, the last, and the lost, and remembering that whatever we do to the least of those who are members of Christ’s family, we do to Christ (Matt. 24:31-46) – and on that basis we will finally be judged.
Provide what’s necessary for you and your family to live a simple, basic, healthy life – healthy food, simple clothing, adequate shelter, basic transportation, education, health care, etc. – without self-indulgent extras. With whatever is left after that, as far as you are able, do good to all people. Live within the limits of your resources and ability to respond, then turn your energy to correcting systems that institutionalize poverty and injustice. If you have doubts about how to care for the wealth entrusted to your stewardship, ask yourself these questions: Am I using this money not as its owner but as God’s steward? Am I doing so in obedience to God’s word, under God’s guidance? Can I offer this use to God as a sacrifice through Jesus Christ? Do I have reason to believe that for this work I will have God’s approval?
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is more than a warning to anyone who has resources to share for the welfare of others. It’s also a call to offer to others more neighborly respect, more neighborly courtesy, more neighborly dignity – in short, to see one another as equals, as children of God called to live together in love.