Wealth
Luke 16, 19-31
 

Do any of you have any regrets in life? Do you? Anyone want to share them? Oh I'm not looking for the heart searching ones that you may regret going public on "I wish I'd never got married" or such like. But what about all those smaller ones that keep nagging away at us?

I've got plenty. One that I will happily share with you is this - I wish I could do what Andrew does! No seriously, I do. Now that's got you wondering hasn't it? I mean, that I regret never having learnt to play the piano. When I hear someone play the piano really well - or even when I hear Andrew play, I regret that I never learnt to play.

Oh but I hear you say - that shouldn't be a regret because you can do something about it. And, of course, you are absolutely right. I could do something about it. I could learn. I have occasionally taken a notion, a whim, to eliminate this particular regret from my life. I remember when we first bought an electronic keyboard many years ago when the children were babies. I spent a few evenings with the teach yourself book. I learnt a few chords and made some noise but it seemed a huge task and I soon got tired of it.

More recently with 2 of our 3 children learning to play the piano, we bought a decent electric piano and, once again, my enthusiasm was briefly rekindled. After all, it shouldn't be that difficult. I can read music so that's a start. I play a few other instruments so I have some limited sense of melody and rhythm. So I got the books out again and had another go but, once again, to no avail.

I kept forgetting the things that I could do, like reading music and remembering the things that I couldn't, like reading the bass clef! Not much use being a one handed pianist! So, I decided that playing the piano could stay as one of my regrets. Putting it right was just too difficult. I hadn't got the time or the patience. Maybe I'll come back to it when I retire!

That's the problem with regrets isn't it. Putting them right seems much harder than just living with them and so, we just live with them. The same is often true of our spiritual lives. Well it is for me anyway - maybe you have yours sorted and have no regrets. I often find that I look back on things with a more critical eye than maybe I had at the time and then come the regrets. I think about situations where my faith is tested in many small ways and see myself failing again and again.

You may recall me relating this before but I remember watching a Songs of Praise programme many years ago and one of the people interviewed was a young South African business man who described how he imagined having Jesus with him throughout his working day; sitting beside him in the car, or across the office from him. Jesus was there as a friend, someone whom he could talk to and confide in but also, someone who was a witness to everything he did during that day.

I've often thought of that and tried to imagine the same for myself and I usually find myself filled with regret, convinced that my behaviour would not stand such close scrutiny. We can sit in church and nod and agree with the words of scripture that we hear and to walk out of here and live lives that bear no connection to that. As James tells us, be doers of the word and not merely hearers.

It is all too easy for us to sit here on a Sunday morning listening to the gospel reading or epistle and the preaching that follows and to nod in sage agreement. To pontificate and to intellectualise on what it takes to be a good Christian within these four walls and to then go out from here for the rest of the week and live lives that do not come close to reflecting our intellectual faith.

Our gospel reading today is a real challenge to that intellectual faith. This is Luke firing from the hip giving us the front page of the Daily Star when we're more used to the letters page of the Times. Jesus relates the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar. I say 'story' and not parable because it is not clear whether this is actually a parable or whether Jesus implies the actual existence of these two as real people rather than fictional characters from a parable. No matter, the story is pretty straightforward.

The rich man lives well. He has great wealth and he enjoys it, feasting every day. At his gate is a beggar; Lazarus, who is covered with sores and is starving. He dreams of 'feasting' on even a few crusts from the rich mans table but instead, all he has for company are the dogs who lick his open sores. They both die and Lazarus, who has led a blameless life is lifted by the angels to heaven where he sits with Abraham. The rich man goes to hell where he is tormented.

He sees Lazarus and Abraham in the far distance and in a neat role reversal begs that Lazarus help him to quench his thirst by dipping his finger in water. Abraham tells the rich man that this is not possible, that his suffering is a result of his wrong doing in life and that there is a 'great chasm' between heaven and hell that Lazarus could not cross even if he wanted to.

"Then Father Abraham", says the rich man, "send him to warn my brothers on earth what is in store for them if they don't change their ways". Abraham replies that if his brothers won't listen to the words of scripture and to the law of Moses and the prophets then they are no more likely to listen to Lazarus risen from the dead.

So there you are, a pretty blunt piece of scripture that hardly needs unravelling by me. The message is loud and clear. You only get one chance to get it right. Sin now in haste and repent at leisure. You shouldn't need miraculous apparitions to persuade you of this, it's all been written down for you. Heed it now or regret it forever.

But I think this reading does raise a number of issues that are worthy of a bit more thought. The rich man goes to hell and the beggar to heaven. What does that tell us? That wealth is sinful and poverty is a blessing? Remember the beatitudes; "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven". Well if it is true that wealth is sinful then we've all got problems because in a community like ours everyone has wealth. The poorest person in Bunbury is wealthy when compared to those begging on the streets of Bombay. So if wealth is sinful then we've got no chance.

While we reflect on that far from comforting thought, I think we'll take a break for a song.

Hymn -

Now where were we - oh yes. If wealth is inherently sinful then we wealthy folk in Bunbury have got no chance. But is that the message of Jesus? That wealth is sinful and poverty is the only acceptable state. Elsewhere in Luke's gospel, we have other references that could support that conclusion. Jesus tells his disciples to give up everything and follow him. Luke 5 tells us that Simon, James and John "left everything and became his followers". Remember the rich young man in Luke 18, who is a devout Jew who genuinely wants to work for his salvation but when Jesus challenges him give up his possessions, he cannot do it.

All this points to poverty being the only route to salvation and we come back to our comfortable middle class dilemma - what should we do? But this approach is too simplistic and hides the true teaching of Jesus. For that, we need to delve a bit deeper. Did Jesus dissociate himself from the wealthy? No he did not. He had many wealthy friends and often enjoyed their hospitality. In Luke 19, Zaccheus gives up half his goods to follow Jesus but is not required to renounce them all.

Going back to our gospel reading, Abraham, the father of the kingdom of Israel was himself wealthy. So possessions and wealth are not, of themselves sinful. What is sinful is the misuse and abuse of those possessions and what is blessed is the appropriate attitude to and use of the wealth with which we have been blessed. Once again, the gospels show us the way through many references to the proper use of wealth and possessions.

Can you remember the parable of the rich fool? The man who had so much grain he didn't know what to do with it so he built bigger barns to store it but then died so he could not enjoy his hoarded wealth. The message here is clear. The man is not being made an example of because he was rich but because he had no concept of the way to use his riches for good. In the parable Jesus says that "The law of the kingdom requires that superfluous fruits be spent in ways beneficial to the poor".

The only thing that the rich fool could see was his own self centred security. Had he listened to the law of the kingdom and used his abundant wealth for the good of the poor, he could have had friends on earth and riches in heaven. Shakespeare captured this well in one of the sonnets:-

Why so large a cost,, having so short a lease
Dost thou upon they fading mansion spend?…
… within be fed, without be rich no more.

The rich fool regarded wealth as a means of acquiring perfect happiness in his life but forgot that we become what we love. If what he loves perishes, then he will perish with it.

Which brings us back to our gospel of the rich man and Lazarus. Like the rich fool, the rich man in the gospel story is preoccupied with enjoying his possessions; in living life to the full. Live for today, to hell with tomorrow (truer than he might think)! Subconsciously, he should have remembered his own religious teaching and the law of Moses which clearly puts the onus on him to help the poor.

How could he do that? Well he had the perfect opportunity with the unfortunate Lazarus outside his gate. Lazarus had a right to hospitality, which he was denied by the rich man's selfishness and dreadful consequences follow. He failed to see that his possessions put him into a state of crisis; of danger and opportunity. The danger was the wrath of God that will inevitably ensue from the abuse of privilege and the opportunity was the blessings that will come from the appropriate use of wealth to help the needy. As disciples of Jesus, the message is clear for us. We have been given wealth are we to use it or abuse it?

The truth of Jesus' teaching on wealth was that he effectively preached one simple and memorable principle to all, rich or poor. We should depend on the goodness of God and not create false dependence on material things. Possessions in themselves are neither inherently good nor inherently bad; it's the choices we make concerning them that determines their significance.

I was listening to "Thought for the Day" the other morning on Radio 4. I came in half way through so I can't be sure who was speaking but I think it was Indarjit Singh, a Seikh. He was reflecting on the current crisis in the world and the attitude to the refugees that are created from the conflicts that seem to permanently plague us.

He drew a very stark comparison between the approach of the Australian government to the few hundred refugees that had been rescued from their sinking ship by the Norwegians and that of the Pakistani government to the millions of Afghan refugees now crossing into Pakistan.

On the one hand, we have a wealthy country turning it's back on the needy and, indeed, breaking maritime law to do it. On the other, a poor country who understand their duty to their neighbours in their hour of need. Which is the more Christian approach? That of the nominally Christian Australia or that of the non Christian Pakistan.

Lest anyone think I am picking on Australia, I am not. I am a great fan of Australia and the Australians, and there are any number of so called civilised countries that could have fitted the bill - Australia happened to be the most topical.

Now you may accuse me of being naïve in drawing this comparison. After all, we all need to control our borders otherwise where would we be - but I think there is a balance that we sometimes miss and I think it does us good to be reminded of it as forcefully as we are with today's gospel. Our duty as Christians to those worse off than ourselves is simple. We must help them - no conditions, no caveats - we must help them.

Our duty as wealthy Christians is to use that wealth wisely to help the poor. This applies at a national level in encouraging our government to spend our money on aid and to provide shelter and comfort for the poor. It applies within our community in ensuring that we do not exclude those in need because they make us feel uncomfortable or make the place look untidy. It applies within our church when we consider whether we are spending our money and resources on helping those in need or on helping ourselves and, most importantly, it applies to us as individuals.

Can we say that if we had the modern day Lazarus outside our gate that we would respond as we should or would we, like the rich man, walk past and suffer the consequences. We've been well warned as to what those consequences are. Let's make sure that our behaviour now will not give us cause for eternal regret.

Tom Crotty