Archives For Money

38681_1409539809500_674056_nIn most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Some may want to “Make America Great Again” and others may want to “Lean Forward” but all agree that our Adjusted Gross Income is our own damn business.

Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God. Or not.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues: rp_faith4.jpg

If you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re screwing or how much they earn in salary…almost everyone will opt for Door #1 to the boudoir.

We’re even more reticent to be called out for our recalcitrance regarding Door #2.

Recently, my friend and apprentice-turned-colleague Rev. Taylor Mertins wrote a blog post (you should subscribe) on Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 6: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith…” In the post, Taylor asserted, with a blandness necessitated by the obviousness of the observation, that clergy are not immune from being captivated by and captive to the Mammon. As an example, Taylor cited the “Appointment Workbook.” It’s available for viewing on the website devoted to the United Methodist Church in Virginia.

Said Taylor:

“If you click on the link you will have access to a list of all the pastors in the Virginia Conference, how long they served, how many new people are attending their churches, how much their churches are required to pay in apportionments, what percentage of the apportionments have they paid, AND their annual compensation. This is good and important information for the life of the church, but the fact that the entire list of pastors is not organized by name, or region, or new disciples, but by salary, shows how we have wandered away from the faith.”

Taylor promptly was bombarded with complaints that clergy are immune to the idolatry scripture says is at root in all of us and that, regardless, he should never criticize or cast aspersions upon the capital C Church.

To channel Stanley Hauerwas, I call bulls#$% on such bulls@#$.

One would think the Gospels themselves, where the clergymen-called-Pharisees plot Jesus’ undoing and one of his disciples betray him to that end for a bag full of cash, should be sufficient corroboration of Taylor’s point. After all, if Jesus was fully human it stands to reason Jesus’ people, preachers included, are less human than Jesus and, so, susceptible to sin. Indeed since in those same Gospels Satan shows himself most acutely wherever Jesus is at work, it stands to reason that the Church especially, where Jesus is at work, more so than any other place or institution in the world, would be ground zero for the Enemy’s infections.

Never mind how the refusal to criticize the Church, honestly and in love, smacks of the very institutional inauthenticity for which so many of Taylor’s generation (and mine) have written off the Church.

There is a problem with Taylor’s post, however, deserving of a rejoinder, but the problem with his argument is not his assertion that clergy can be captive to idolatry of Mammon (we are) or that the Church is sinful (it is). We are, all of us, sinners who apart from Paul’s mighty “yet” of Christ’s cruciform love deserve God’s wrath. Of course, our s#$% stinks.

The lack and error in Taylor’s argument, vis a vis the Appointment Workbook, is not in accusing Christ’s clergy and Christ’s Church of being comprised of sinners. Not only is that not news it’s the freaking good news! No, the strike against Taylor is that he doesn’t go full monty on the Hauerwas. He doesn’t connect how odd and dysfunctional it is that clergy salaries in the United Methodist Church are available to the public but the salaries of laypeople in the United Methodist Church, who determine the salaries of their pastors, are a secret not even Donald Trump’s Russian Hackers can ferret out. Taylor’s correct that our Appointment Workbook betrays a captivity but he doesn’t go far enough in smashing the idols.

The problem isn’t (simply) that pastors measure themselves and their future appointments according to pay; the problem is that those whom the pastors serve in those appointments do not have to make themselves accountable in like fashion.

What Taylor’s post missed is the lack of mutual vulnerability in our congregations when it comes to money. Pastors’ salaries and the appointment process are but the rattling chains of a deeper captivity. Christians in the Church think that how much they make and what they give should be “between them and God” which is to say “It’s none of your damn business. It’s mine.”

Every fall United Methodist clergy gather in “Charge Conferences” where their clergy’s salary is discussed, debated, and voted upon by a committee of (not necessarily informed) lay people. Even in the best of church settings (like my own, for example) it’s an awkward experience, having your worth sized up in front of everyone like you’re a 4-H cow or the #2 pitcher who might not be worth ace money next hot stove league.

Considering the circumstances- even making modest salaries- clergy feel compelled (if only in their head) to justify their pay and prove their usefulness. But no other church persons gathered there for such conferences ever get asked to stand, a la Hauerwas, and reveal their own income. And that’s the problem Taylor missed.

The red-faced shame among clergy about the Appointment Workbook is but a symptom of the larger secrecy which exists in our churches around money.

The problem exposed by the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals the Church’s possible idolatry; it’s that it reinforces the extent to which, in every other part of the Church’s life, clergy aid and abet their congregations’ secrecy about money.

The “wandering away” Taylor points out isn’t that we know this about clergy and their income; it’s that very often this is the only thing we know about money and income in our churches.

What I mean is –

In most mainline churches, congregations convey and clergy uncritically receive the mandate that pastors should not know what their parishioners give to the church.

The thinking always goes…If I know who gives what then I might not minister to people equitably.

This is a rationale whose obtuseness, I think, could only be produced by a latent idolatry to Mammon. Having served in the same place for 12 years, I know, for example, the parishioners who’ve cheated on their spouses, who’re alcoholics and drug addicts, who don’t talk to their kids or whose kids don’t talk to them, who suffer from PTSD or who inflicted it. I know the Democrats and the Republicans, the abused and the abusers, and who thumps their bible to keep their doubts at bay. I recognize the hand-writing on anonymous notes and I’ve trimmed the grape vine so it’s as fast as my iPhone.

I minister to all of them. It doesn’t even occur to me to triage them according to merit.

No one would ever suggest I shouldn’t know the addicts in my congregation because then I might treat them differently. Why should addiction to Mammon be any different? The many pastors who espouse a “see no evil” attitude over their congregants’ giving would never likewise argue that they should remain ignorant of all of their congregants’ other imperfections and particularities for fear of ministering to them inequitably. So what does it say about us our relationship to money that we don’t believe our pastor should know how much we’ve got and how much we’ve given? If learning every other secret about our flock makes us better shepherds, what does it reveal about us that we think money is the one secret better left alone?

The problem with Taylor’s post then is that he didn’t go far enough. The problem with the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals a secret; it’s that it helps perpetuate a different one.

S.O.S from the Outer Darkness

Jason Micheli —  September 5, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s the sermon from this weekend from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.

     Hey-

Hey, you got a flashlight? Or even a match?

Yeah, I figured as much.

What about ear-plugs? I’d give a kidney and my last pair of clean undies for some ear-plugs. I mean that gnashing sound is one thing. If you’ve ever been married, then it doesn’t take too long to used to that gnashing of teeth sound.

But the weeping? The weeping can mess with your head after a while. And because of the darkness, because you can’t see anyone, after a while you start to think the weeping is in your head. That it’s you. That you’re the one weeping.

You know that Groucho joke about how I’d never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member?

Yeah, that’s this place.

With the weeping and gnashing, you’d expect it to be a lot louder than it is. Instead it’s just creepy quiet. And even though it’s dark, you can just feel it- there’s a lot of people here.

A lot of people, though not the ones you’d expect. I haven’t bumped into one atheist, adulterer or TMZ reporter. Neither the Donald nor Hillary is here.

Other than Justin Bieber, nobody here are the sorts of people you’d expect to find here.

Mostly, they’re all people just like me. Just as surprised to be here as me.

I suppose that’s the money question isn’t it? Why am I here?

So-

Just before my Master went away, he tells us this story- my Master was always telling stories. To people who weren’t his servants, he never spoke in anything but stories.

He told this one story about a kid who wished his old man dead, cashed in his inheritance, and then left home and blew all the money. And when the snotty kid comes crawling back home, what’s the father do? Blows even more cash on a welcome home party.

I know, right!?

My Master told this other story about an idiot shepherd who had 100 sheep and goes off and abandons 99 of them to search for the one sheep too dumb to stay with the flock. It’s like that Woody Allen joke. Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, shepherd.

My Master was always telling stories like that.

And just before my Master went away on a journey, he tells us this story about another master who had 3 servants.

The master gives the first servant 5 talents, and the master gives his second servant 2 talents- and 1 talent is worth about 20 years’ income so we’re talking a crazy, prodigal amount.

Even the master’s third servant, who gets a single talent, gets more cash than he’d ever seen in his life, more than he could possibly know what to do with.

And that’s the thing, that’s what I’m thinking as the Master is telling this story about a master. What kind of fool would risk wealth like that on…nobodies…like them? I mean, at least Lehman Brothers knew how to handle money.

And what kind of bigger fools would take that master’s treasure and jeopardize it? Gamble on it?

But in the Master’s story that’s what the master’s first two servants do, and lucky for them (or lucky the master came back when he did) because they managed to double their investment. 5 talents becomes 10 and 2 talents becomes a fourscore gross.

And their master praises them for it: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

The third servant though- the one with the single talent that was still worth a fortune- he does the prudent, responsible thing.

He buries his master’s talent in the ground, which is what you did in those days when you didn’t have a bank or a safe, especially when it’s not your money to risk. Plus, interest is forbidden in scripture so by not investing his master’s money I’m thinking this third servant’s doing the faithful, biblical thing.

No.

Wrong.

In my Master’s story, when the master returns he calls this third servant wicked.

And lazy.

Wicked and lazy.

Pretty harsh, right?

That’s what I thought too. Then this master ships his servant off to the outer darkness where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

At the time, I thought outer darkness was just a rabbinic euphemism for Cleveland, but it turns out I was wrong.

So just before my Master went away he tells this story, and, sure, it didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s how it was with most of his stories.

Still, because it was one of the last stories he told before he went away, I figured it was important so I tried to live my life according to it.

I tried it produce with the financial blessings the Master gave me.

I didn’t try to hide my stinginess behind caution or prudence.

I took some risks for a higher yield, and other than a Bowflex and Redskins season tickets I never wasted the wealth God gave me.

I earned as much as I could so that I could give as much as I could. That’s the point of the story, right? A rising tide lifts all boats?

But then-

When I saw the Master again?

No gold watch.

No ‘My servant is good and faithful’ bumper sticker.

Not even a Starbucks gift card.

No, instead I end up here, which I assume is the outer darkness. If there’s a sign, it’s not like I can read it. But there’s definitely weeping and if that sound’s not teeth gnashing then someone should call a plumber.

I guess this beats being cut up into little, tiny pieces- that’s what happened to the fall guys in one of the Master’s other stories.

And maybe it’s better than what I would’ve guessed it be like, fire and brimstone. But it’s God-awful cold here in the darkness.  And, for as crowded as it is, it’s terribly lonely.

What day is it anyway? Or year even?

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it’s still hard to believe I ended up here.

Or not hard to believe at all I guess.

The truth is-

How I heard my Master’s story reveals an awful lot.

About me.

It shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money. If it’s possible to see anything clearly in the dark, it’s obvious to me now.

I really believed the only real, realistic wealth in the world was cold, hard cash. Not only did I believe it made the world go around, made me ‘successful’ and made my family secure; I believed you needed it to change the world.

That you can’t fill the poor with good things if you’ve got empty pockets. That before you can give gifts you need to earn money to buy them. That you can’t make a difference in a life, in the world, without investing aggressively the financial blessings God gives you.

Like I said, it shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money.

Now, in the darkness, I can see the light. Or, see how stupid I was.

Why would I think he was talking about money? As though my Master was some sort of economist. He didn’t even HAVE money!

This one time- right after he told this story actually- some hypocritical clergy (which might be redundant) tried to trap my Master with a question about taxes. And he tries to answer them with an illustration. So he asks them if any of them have any money on them…as a sort of visual-aid.

He asks them if they have any money on them. Because he doesn’t. Doesn’t carry it. Doesn’t have it. Doesn’t have anything positive to say about it at all for that matter.

So why- how could I be so dumb- would I ever think my Master’s story was really about money?

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story like that? What does it say about greedy, unimaginative me that when I heard this story I just assumed it was about money? And making more of it. And being rewarded for it. And being encouraged to go make still more of it.

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story that just reinforced all the other stories we tell ourselves?

How could I be so blinded by greed that I didn’t see the obvious? The master in this story is supposed to be my Master.

And money- talent- that’s not the treasure he gave us before he went away.

I don’t know how I missed it before. He wasn’t vague or coy.

The gifts the Master left us before he went away weren’t cash and coin or CODs.

No, he gave us bread and wine. He left us water, for baptism. He taught us how to pray and interpret scripture. And he showed us how to reconcile and forgive.

Before he went away, he gave us wisdom and knowledge and faith and prophecy and healing and miracles and love. Which is just another way to say that the gift he gave us, to each of us his servants, is the Holy Spirit.

And, sure, that gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough.

More than enough-

To shape communities of mercy.

More than enough-

To bring his healing grace to conflict and suffering.

More than enough-

To set captives free and to lift up the lowly and bring down the proud and the powerful.

It’s more than enough to bring about forgiveness and redemption and resurrection.

The gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough for each of us to do everything that Jesus did, which includes training others to do the things that Jesus did.

Even the servant with 1 gift- the ability to pray or receive the sacrament or forgive- even that servant is sitting on a fortune large enough to change the world. That’s what my Master wanted us to know before he went away.

Should, woulda, coulda.

It wasn’t until I was shocked to wind up here that the shock of my Master’s story finally hit me.

Think about it:

After spending so much time with his master and then being given a life-changing, world-redeeming treasure, one of the master’s servants still don’t know how to do the things the master had done.

One of the master’s servants acted as though the gift they were given still belonged to someone else, as though it were someone else’s job to do something with the gift.

After so much time and such treasure, one of the master’s servants somehow thought their relationship with the master was just between them. Personal. Private.  Which makes the gift about as useful as hiding it under a basket or flushing it down the toilet or hiding it in the ground.

Here’s the punchline:

There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 servant like that. There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 disciple like that. There’s not. Or else I wouldn’t be here, rubbing my teeth down weeping. The joke’s on me.

In the story, the master says to his servant:

 “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own plus some.”

But what the Master says in real life sounds more like:  “After all the time you spent following me? Worshipping me? Learning from me? Listening to me? After seeing how I share food with the outcast and bring all sorts of sinners around my table. After seeing the way I transform people and heal brokenness and refuse to condemn. After seeing how I forgive. How I invite people to follow me and how I challenge them to lead an eternal kind of life. And then after I give you all the gifts you need to do everything I’ve done…you don’t?! You don’t!? What were you thinking!? Whose job did you think it was?! My Kingdom isn’t just good news; it’s responsibility. You can’t accept my Kingdom without being enlisted by it. And don’t I say I didn’t warn you, didn’t tell you that my disciples will be held accountable. Therefore, for a worthless disciple like you it’s outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

You’re sure you don’t have any ear-plugs you could spare?

No?

Well, make sure you pack some for yourself.

I mean, obviously I’m not a gambling man, but if I had to make a bet…you’ll be here too someday.

 

Midrash in the Moment: Money

Jason Micheli —  November 26, 2013 — 1 Comment

IMG_1470Nothing tightens a congregation’s collective sphincter, quite like the subject of money.

Preaching about money and giving and generosity just makes people uncomfortable. This weekend I thought I’d turn the tables; perhaps it should be my turn to be uncomfortable.

And nothing makes me more anxious than preaching without any notes.

So on Friday, I asked people to send me scripture passages about money that they found challenging, confusing, or obscure.

I wrote them down on a spinning wheel and then ll just shot from the hip and thought through the passages as we landed on them at random.

As I mentioned in one of the services, if we were to put every scripture passage that speaks about money onto a spinning wheel like the one above we’d need a wheel that was 233 times bigger than this one.

Each of the 4 sermons were different this weekend; unfortunately, I’ve only got the recording from the 9:45 service.

Here it is. You can also download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. Midrash-in-the-Moment-J-Micheli-11-24-2013.mp3

 

Midrash in the Moment: Money

Jason Micheli —  November 22, 2013 — 5 Comments

ac05_03-04This weekend we’re closing our November sermon series on Generosity.

Preaching about money is a sure-fire way to make church people uncomfortable.

I figure turn about is fair play, right?

I get away with inflicting dis-ease on a biweekly basis so perhaps it’s time for me to be made uncomfortable.

If money is the one thing that makes church people uncomfortable, public speaking on the fly is the one thing that makes me ulcer-inducing uncomfortable.

So here goes:

Submit a scripture passage about money/giving/generosity/poverty that you think is particularly challenging, question-raising, troubling, or just worth a second look.

I’ll throw them all together and preach on them at random, extemporaneously this weekend.

You post your scripture passage in the comments below or email it to me.

Deadline is 4:30 Saturday.

 

ac05_02a

We’re nearing the end of our annual commitment campaign as well as a sermon series on Generosity and Simplicity.

There’s nothing that will tighten the sphincters and of people in the pews like preaching on $$$.

Here’s a little-known gem of a bible story sure to raise the collective blood pressure; it shows, in economic fashion, money’s tendency to lure us into deceit:

Acts 5

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.3‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us* but to God!’ 5Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6The young men came and wrapped up his body,* then carried him out and buried him.

7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ 9Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

In case you skipped past the scripture, here’s the married couple, Ananias and Sapphira sell some property, hold back some of the proceeds for themselves instead of giving it to the Church, lie about it and then they’re struck dead, presumably by God.

The Lord may love a cheerful giver, but Acts 5 suggests God may kill stingy givers. Or deceitful ones.

And there’s my question to you.

As a pastor I hear a lot of folks repeating the ancient heresy: that the God of the Old Testament is angry, violent and full of wrath while the God of the New Testament is loving, gracious and forgiving.

I usually respond by pointing out some of freaky scary things Jesus says in the Gospels, but Acts 5 may be the best example of all.

Ananias and his Mrs being struck down instantly with no offer or opportunity for repentance and forgiveness seems like a story we’re more likely to find in the Old Testament not the New.

NT Wright says we can’t have the awesome deeds of power, miracles and mass conversions in Acts without also taking the more ominous displays of the Spirit like here in Acts 5. I don’t know how persuasive that view is even if it is logical.

So….

What do we do with a story like this?

How do we explain justify God killing them?

What are we to take away from this story other than our reflexive fear and distaste?

hand-over-the-money-sirThis week we kick off our annual stewardship campaign, that time of year when people who give to the work of the Church say ‘It’s about time the preachers are talking about money’ and the people who do not give to the work of Christ complain ‘There they go again, always talking about money.’

The theme of our sermon series for the campaign is Enough, which could be taken as a double entendre given that a good many people just want to scream ‘Enough!’ over any mention of money in church or any suggestion that discipleship manifests itself through sacrificial generosity.

Oddly, United Methodists have made it impolite to talk about, much less preach about, two things that any honest reading of the Gospels shows consumed Jesus the Preacher:

Hell

&

Money

Just take this old sermon from 5 years ago. The text is Luke 16.19-3. Proving why we eventually crucified him, Jesus delightfully combines both those taboo topics, money and hell, into a disarming parable.

Last weekend I officiated at the wedding of a friend of mine in Farmville, Virginia. After the marriage ceremony was over, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the church, shaking hands with people, when this middle-aged woman with horn-rimmed glasses rushed up to me, thrust her hand out and began pumping my arm up and down.

“Reverend, that was so wonderful!” she said.  “Your sermon was so warm, lovely and uplifting. Most of the preaching I’ve ever heard is either about money or its all fire and brimstone. Do you know what I mean?” she asked.

I didn’t say anything one way or the other.  I just smiled and moved on to shake the next hand, but I could’ve said: ‘Excellent! You should come to my church next weekend- Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria. Next weekend we’ll be talking about money and hell.”

Did you know:

Jesus talks about Hell more than Paul, Peter, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel combined?

Did you know:

In St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus is constantly talking about money?

Now that I can see that you’re totally pumped about today’s sermon, let’s get started.

To understand this morning’s parable you need to know that it’s not told in a vacuum. This isn’t just an isolated, independent story. It has context. You need to know who Jesus is talking to here. You need to know that Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees, the wealthy religious leaders who have been standing on the sidelines, sneering sarcastically. By the time you get chapter 16, they’re openly mocking and ridiculing Jesus.

Now, to really hear this parable you also need to understand how the Pharisees read scripture. For the Pharisees, wealth and possessions and material prosperity were signs of God’s blessing and favor. Today we call their way of thinking the ‘prosperity gospel.’ If you can picture the Pharisees as a bunch of grumpy-faced Joel Osteens- minus the capped teeth- then you’ve got the right idea.

For the Pharisees, if you HAD it was because God gave it to you…because you deserved it. So if you didn’t have it was because, well, in God’s eyes you didn’t deserve it. In other words, for the Pharisees money was not a means to some other good, it was a good in itself. It was a possession. It was a sign that God had found favor with you. Money was not a means to further God’s Kingdom it was instead a sign that God’s Kingdom had blessed you over others. And, as you can do for anything else, the Pharisees found plenty of scripture to justify themselves.

And then this Jesus comes along, and he doesn’t conform to what they think a religious person does or what a rabbi looks like. And they hear this Jesus say things like:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God will be yours, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your consolation.”
  • “Whoever would follow me, first go and sell all that you own.”
  • “Do not worry about your wardrobe or your budget or you house or your groceries. Worry only about furthering God’s Kingdom and God will take care of everything you need.”
  • “If your wealth’s not serving God’s Kingdom, then you’re serving your wealth. You can’t serve both of them, Money and God.”

And that’s when they start to sneer. You see, for the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t just different, he was dangerous. It’s not simply that Jesus didn’t conform to their expectations; it’s that he would change everything about the way they lived their lives. Jesus would invite God into parts of their lives where they didn’t want him.

So in verse 14 of today’s chapter, the Pharisees start to mock Jesus, ridicule him, hoping to diminish him in the eyes of the crowd. And Jesus, since he’s Jesus, responds by telling a story.

I normally hate people who explain stories, but today Jesus’ parable is too pregnant with subtlety and meaning to do otherwise. So, humor me and pull out your bibles and turn to Luke 16.19 and I will try to unpack this for you.

Verse 19- “There was a rich man…”

The parable Jesus tells is actually a storied version of what he preached in his sermon on the plain: ‘Blessed are you who are poor/Woe to you who are rich…You’ll get the Kingdom/You’ve already gotten your reward.” Jesus begins his parable by laying a trap for his hearers. He says: there was a rich man who wore the kind of clothes you can’t find in a store, clothes only Paris Hilton can afford. This rich man ate extravagantly every day.

And already Jesus’ listeners- the Pharisees- already they don’t know where Jesus is going with this. They would hear Jesus describe this man’s threads and his dining table and, just based on that, they would say: ‘This guy has made it made. This man is blessed. This man is righteous.’

Verse 20: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…” 

Like many wealthy people, this man has isolated himself from the rest of the world, from the needs of others. Jesus says the rich man lives in his very own gated community. Outside the rich man’s gate, lay a poor man. The word your bibles translate as ‘lay’ actually in Greek means ‘dumped.’ This poor man outside the rich man’s gate was dumped there by someone else. So not only was he poor, he was probably crippled too.

You will see that Jesus sets up the poor man as a mirror contrast to the rich man. The rich man is covered with fine linen, the poor man is covered with open sores. The rich man feasts opulently every day, the poor man begs for what falls from the rich man’s table- and Jesus doesn’t just mean scraps of food. In Jesus’ day, the wealthy would eat with their hands and then, rather than a napkin, they would wipe the grease off their hands with a piece of bread. Then they would dump the piece of bread onto the floor. The poor man’s not begging for leftovers or scraps. He’s literally begging for the rich man’s trash. Instead Jesus says dogs from the alley treat him like garbage, licking his open wounds- which, just to add insult to injury, makes the man ritually impure. Evidently, the poor man is too weak to even scare off the dogs.

The poor man is a contrast to the rich man in every way. As much as the rich man has, the poor man lacks that much more. Just as the Pharisees would’ve assumed that the rich man was blessed, this poor man- they’d say- was cursed. He must have done something to deserve his life.

But Jesus sets up an even more striking contrast. Notice: the rich man doesn’t have a name, but the poor man does. Lazarus. The poor man’s name means ‘God is my helper.’ You can even translate it: ‘God is on my side.’

In all of Jesus’ parables, in all four of the Gospels, Lazarus is the only character with a proper name. The rich man has everything, but he doesn’t have a name. The poor man has nothing, but he does have a name. What’s Jesus getting at?

The rich man is nothing more than his possessions; what he has is all that he has. He’s built his identity around his possessions so that he has no identity apart from them. This is Jesus saying that if you don’t build your primary identity around God, you don’t really have a ‘you.’ You’re defined instead by your stuff, success, things, title, job, or rank. Like any story, Jesus wants you to wonder who you are in the story. Do you have a name? Do you have an identity rooted in God? Is there a you beneath your material life? Are you about something bigger than you?

Verses 21-22: “The poor man died…” 

Death comes to both men, Jesus says. No one tries to save Lazarus’ life, but neither can the rich man’s wealth protect him from death. The rich man is buried because he can afford it. Lazarus is not because he cannot. Probably his body just lay abandoned in the alley until it was scavenged by dogs, burnt or carried off to a dump. In Jesus’ day, not to receive a burial was considered a mark of shame, a sign of being cursed by God.

Instead of shame, Lazarus is carried off by angels while the rich man, Jesus says, goes to Hell.

Verse 23- “In Hell, where he was being tormented…” 

I imagine this is the point in the story where Jesus really had the Pharisees’ attention. Dennis begged me this week not to say anything at all about Hell- especially given that it’s the stewardship campaign and we’re running a deficit- but I just want to look at what Jesus is getting at here, and Dennis can plug his ears for the next few minutes.

Sometimes people will ask me: ‘You don’t believe in a literal Hell, do you? With literal flames and physical torment?’

And to be surly, sometimes I respond by saying: ‘Oh no, I think Hell is much worse than that.’

Today’s parable gets at what I mean when I say that. Probably, most of you all have in your minds a caricature of Hell. Hell, you probably think, is a place God sends people against their will for some sin or lack of faith they committed. Hell, in other words, is where God sends such people and shuts the door and closes off any chance for them to repent. And maybe you even think God enjoys the justice of it.

Now compare that to Jesus’ parable. According to scripture, no one’s trying to get out of Hell- that’s what makes it Hell. According to scripture, you’re only in Hell as long as you choose. Hell according to Jesus isn’t a place God sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen but false identities. Look at verse 24 to see what I mean.

Verse 24- “Father Abraham have mercy on me, and send Lazarus…” 

So, he’s in Hell. Notice what the rich man doesn’t ask for:

  • He doesn’t ask to get out.
  • He doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
  • He doesn’t ask for God’s presence.

What does he do? He says: ‘Father Abraham, it’s kind of hot here. Send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Those of you who are perceptive, close readers will notice something: the rich man knows Lazarus’ name. It’s not that Lazarus was hungry and begging outside the rich man’s gate and the rich man was ignorant of his need. No, he knows his name. The rich man ignored him. It’s not that he didn’t know. He didn’t see Lazarus as someone worth the expense of his time or his wealth.

‘Father Abraham,’ the rich man says, ‘send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Even in Hell, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an object, as someone who should serve him. In other words, he doesn’t see Lazarus at all because, even in Hell, the rich man still clings to his false, material identity. He still thinks his stuff makes him something above others.

Verse 27-28: “…send Lazarus to my father’s house…” 

Skip down to verse 27. The rich man still shows no repentance. He still doesn’t ask to leave. He still sees Lazarus as someone who exists only to serve him.

“Send Lazarus to my father’s house,” asks the rich man, “send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that they won’t end up here too.” Now the rich man is worried about his brothers, but he has yet to realize that his problem, his sin, is that he never saw- still doesn’t see- Lazarus as his brother. The rich man goes to Hell not because he’s rich but he’s let his wealth pull down the shades on his brother’s need.

Actually, the rich man’s not really concerned about his five brothers either. Look again at what the rich man says in verses 27-28: “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that this doesn’t happen to them.” What’s the implication of the rich man’s request? He’s saying: ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen to me. This isn’t fair. My judgment’s unjust.’

Verse 29: “They have Moses and the prophets…” 

In effect, in verse 29, Abraham replies to the rich man: ‘You don’t need special signs from God to know what God wants with you in the world. What are you waiting for? God has told you again and again, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Amos and Hosea and Micah and Zephaniah and Malachi and Isaiah and Jeremiah. God has told you over and again that you’re to care for the poor. You’re to lift up the lowly and bring your brother to the Table. That’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.’

Verse 30: “…if someone goes to them from the dead…” 

But the rich man doesn’t give up. He says: ‘Still, if you send Lazarus back from the dead, then you will get my brothers’ attention and they’ll repent.’

Verse 31: “…neither will they be convinced…” 

You know…some people are scared of fire and brimstone. But scares me…what’s terrifying about the way Jesus ends his story is his warning that we can believe more in the worth of our material lives than we believe in what God finds worth in.

What scares me is Jesus suggesting that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the importance of our stuff, our possessions, our self-made, false identities- we can get so caught up in our material lives that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change. That, sounds like Hell.