Choose the Right Side
Choose the Right Side
Choose the Right Side
As many of you know, the thing I like to talk the least about is money. I’m happy to stand here and ask for help when one of our brothers or sisters is in need, but talking about the offering or church finances publically makes me terribly uncomfortable. I was having a conversation with the Wardens who concluded that one of us needed to stand up one day and say something about our finances this year, and I flat out said to them, “It’s not going to be me.” I say this because, after being jokingly told last week that I should have preached on the Gospels, I fully intended to do so this morning, and if you were paying attention, you already know my problem. This morning’s reading is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Ok, so maybe another week preaching from the epistle won’t be bad, and then you get to verse 17:
1 Timothy 6:17 (ESV)
As for the rich in this present age ...
And our OT reading and our Psalm are no help either, so it would appear that the lectionary has forced me into a corner, and I have no option but to preach my way out. So, here we go.
The Bible is full of hyperbole. I appreciate this because I speak hyperbolically all the time. Something is either the best, or it’s the worst. It’s either my favorite, or it’s terrible. There is very little in between. I do not have a list of my top 10 favorite movies, but there are about ten dozen movies about which I have said, “It’s my favorite movie.” If we don’t recognize hyperbole for what it is, we can misunderstand what someone is saying, and this is especially consequential when it comes to the Biblical text.
Jesus says in Luke 18:22
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
The church has always interpreted this type of language as hyperbolic. It was meant to push the rich young ruler and expose something in his heart. It has never been commonly interpreted as a commandment for all of the people of God to follow. Instead, more commonly what we find for the people of God is instruction like we heard from 1 Timothy 6 this morning:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
That is to say that the Bible doesn’t condemn people for having wealth but does charge them not to set their hope on their finances, but instead to set their hope on God because he is the one who provides. And those with means are to use this gift for good, to be rich in good works, as Paul says, and to be generous and ready to share so that they are investing in eternity and not merely in their retirement. So that’s one thing the Bible says repeatedly about money. If you have, use it to do good and don’t set your hope on it.
But there’s something else the Bible says frequently about money and wealth, and at first glance it’s a little hard to square with what the Bible says elsewhere about using our wealth for good. The Bible is unambiguous in its belief that new covenant brings with it a great reversal in which the high, mighty, and rich will be thrown down and the poor and lowly will be elevated.
Mary sings of it:
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
Jesus teaches on it:
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
And in the next verse:
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
There is a reversal coming upon the world in which the poor and hungry now will inherit the kingdom of God while the rich are sent away empty. That’s what’s going on in our parable this morning as well. And please, remember, this is a parable. I know far too many people who want to draw their ideas of the afterlife from this parable, which, you shouldn’t because it’s a parable, but also because this story is common across the ancient near east. This tale is not unique to Jesus. This is not his special insight into life after death. This is a commonly told story that illustrates a future reversal for the haves and the have nots.
So, how does all this square with Paul what Paul says in 1 Timothy where he doesn’t say, “hey, if you have money, you better give it all away so that when the great reversal happens, you’ll be poor and inherit the kingdom of God.” Since that’s not what Paul says, how do we reconcile the two?
I want to get a bit outside our readings and solve this dilemma with a phrase used elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus is referred to in Matt 11 and Luke 7 as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus was known, and even the most critical of NT scholars won’t deny this, for being a friend to all the wrong kinds of people, in particular, sinners, the poor, the needy, the outcast, and sick. This is to say that when the great reversal comes, God won’t be checking your bank account to see which side you’re on. Jesus is going to side for the poor. Jesus is going to side for the hungry. Jesus is going to side with the stranger and the outcast and even the imprisoned because he has chosen to be on their side. He has chosen to be their friend, to identity with them to such an extend that he can say things like this:
For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
That’s how much Jesus identified with the least of these in the world, and that’s our way out of this problem. Jesus doesn’t generally command his people to sell all that they have and give it away to the poor. But he does say, or technically his mother says, that there is a reversal coming upon this world, and the hungry will be filled with good things, and the rich will be sent away empty. So… pick a side. No one is asking you to give up every dollar that you have. But Jesus does insist, for your own benefit, that you choose to identify with all the wrong kinds of people. Be known as the friend of the poor. Be known as the friend of the hungry. Be known as the friend of the stranger and the sick and the imprisoned. Be known even as the friend of sinners. Because the reversal is coming when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead, and he won’t be asking to see your bank statement. He’ll be asking which side you chose. He’ll be asking with whom you identified most in the world. Was it the rich, the powerful, the influential? Or was it the poor, the hungry, and sick? Be sure to choose the right side.