Talking About Money (and Hell) in Church

Jason Micheli —  October 22, 2013 — 1 Comment

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.

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Jason Micheli

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One response to Talking About Money (and Hell) in Church

  1. Jason, I enjoy your blogs. But this one is so totally on the mark that I plan to bookmark it and refer back to it. On target. Thanks.

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