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On Wealth and Poverty

Rich Man's Request

(Luke 16:19-31 NIV) "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. {20} At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores {21} and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. {22} "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. {23} In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. {24} So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.' {25} "But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. {26} And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.' {27} "He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, {28} for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' {29} "Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.' {30} "'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' {31} "He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

The Tip of My Tongue

The rich man makes his first request: send Lazarus. The request is striking in its pitiable nature; who could refuse even the most evil of men such a mercy? Indeed, we have no record of what Lazarus wanted to do. But we do have Abraham's reply, and from it we can gather some conclusions:

·         Note the phrase "your good things." In the Greek there is the sense that he has received in full that which was due him. In other words, he had earned the good things he enjoyed in this life. So often those who are rich, by anyone's standards, justify their conduct by saying, "I earned every dime of it." This may be true, but not exhaustive of the facts. Indeed, God's answer here is, "and you got all the benefit you earned."

·         The phrase "your good things" may also mean "the things you thought were good." You chased wealth; you caught it. You got exactly what you asked for; how can you complain about that?

·         It also tells us that no one is totally evil, and therefore we should not judge. This man earned good things. Temporal good things, to be sure, but could we not conclude that he worked hard, and is not hard work a virtue?

·         He is not evil; he is fallen - like the rest of us. Man was designed by God as good and has been corrupted by sin. The question is, what shall we do about it?

Abraham also points out the "great gulf fixed," as the King James put it. He would like to help - note how he calls him "my son" - but when God fixes a gulf no mortal may pass it. This too is a lesson to all of us:

·         It is a symbol of the finality of God's justice. As long as we are in this life, there is hope of repentance (therefore pray for the death of no man). Once we die, there is no further possibility. Time is short, eternity is long, hell is hot, but Jesus saves.

·         Does it also not show the futility of "preaching them into heaven?" It is at a funeral that much may be learned of a man, when he is not there to hear. So often the family wants the deceased to be ushered into heaven on the merits of his family and friends - when only the blood of Jesus will do.

·         More to the point, note that the rich man does not begin with an argument asking why is he in hell. He knows it is futile to argue now. As the Psalmist put it,

(Psa 50:16-22 NIV) But to the wicked, God says: "What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? {17} You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you. {18} When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers. {19} You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. {20} You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother's son. {21} These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face. {22} "Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue:

Send Lazarus to my father's house

The rich man now makes his second request of Abraham: send Lazarus to my father's house. From this we can learn two things:

·         First, we can see that he has learned some kindness in his torment. He does not strike out in anger but in anguish begs that nothing worse happen. We should look at this as an example. Sometimes our sufferings are to produce a change of heart.

·         However it's not all good. Note that this is his second request. He still is number one in his own eyes

Abraham's reply is likewise instructive.

·         God has already sent such messengers. You see, he cares for us (and for these five brothers) much more than we could. We could not improve on what God has done, despite what we think. He loves us so very much, even to having sent one who died on the Cross for us - and did rise from the grave.

·         It can also be viewed another way. Moses was a very powerful figure, made so by the hand of God. If they would not listen to him, and to his testimony, then would they listen to Lazarus? If they scorn Moses, the leader, what chance would Lazarus, the paralytic, have? Even those who saw Moses were stubborn and unfaithful.

·         Look at it this way. Suppose God literally did such a thing, as Marley to Scrooge. Sooner or later the same excuses which bar the Scriptures from the mind will return. It must have been a dream; it's not a rational thing; it couldn't have happened. Circular reasoning? Yes, but quickly grabbed by the evil heart.

·         Indeed, a man named Lazarus did rise from the dead. What was the reaction of the Pharisees? They plotted to kill him! He was much too embarrassing a witness.

What would work? An angel? Would that too not be dismissed as a hallucination? Indeed, Jesus is Lord of all, Lord of the living and the dead, Lord of the angels themselves, and by his authority he has given us the Scriptures. No greater word will we get until He returns. If this is not sufficient, it is because the sinner wants it so.

I draw from this a conclusion: we need to know what to do with our wealth, and consider well the things we have and what should be done with them. You may argue, "But I'm not wealthy!"

Consider it this way: wealth is the state of having more possessions than need, not desire. Poverty is the reverse. Are your needs met, and more? If so, you are wealthy. That is not the question. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Questions for the Believer

How do you obtain your wealth?

·         Do you obtain it at the expense of others? This is often criminal and always wrong, but often praised. Do you find those in distress and give them more trouble to take what little they have to add to your hoard?

·         Do you obtain it by stepping on others? What would you do for the next promotion?

·         More commonly, do you obtain your wealth by ignoring others? "No harm intended," you say. But do you take care that in gaining material things that no harm is done?

What are riches in your eyes?

·         Do you see riches as the object of your life? After all, what should a man be working for? By now you should know the folly of that.[1]

·         Some of us see riches not as the object but as a method - a method of obtaining luxury. We don't work to become rich, but we do desire luxury; the nicer car, the bigger house. Not riches for riches sake, but for what they can buy. This too will pass; there are no pockets in a shroud.

What do you see as the purpose of wealth?

·         Is it the measure of self-importance in your eyes?

·         Is it the by-product of your work? A doctor may work to heal the sick, or because he's delighted with the prestige of being "doctor" and deferred to, or he may work to make money. It is interesting to see the difference.

·         Do you see it as a tool for God's work? Are your possessions at God's service?

Dorothy Sayers gave us an essay which I think covers this:

The Church says Covetousness is a deadly sin - but does she really think so? Is she ready to found Welfare Societies to deal with financial immorality as she does with sexual immorality? … Is Dives (the rich man), like Magdalen, ever refused the sacraments on the grounds that he, like her, is an "open and notorious evil liver?" …

The Church's record is not, in these matters, quite as good as it might be. But it is perhaps rather better than that of those who denounce her for her neglect. The Church is not the Vatican, nor the Metropolitans (Eastern Orthodox), nor the Bench of Bishops; it is not even the Vicar or the Curate or the Church-wardens: the Church is you and I. And are you and I in the least sincere in our pretence that we disapprove of Covetousness?[2]

(Items in parentheses are explanatory and not her original).

I leave you with one final thought:: the thermometer principle.

(Mat 6:21 NIV) For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I am a Bible teacher. I do not get paid by the church congregation to do this. On the contrary, it costs me time and money to do it (and gladly given). I am not concerned about your money. I am concerned about your heart. Look where your treasure is; look at the names on your checks. Ask where your heart is - and where it should be.

[1] 1 Timothy 6:9-10

[2] Dorothy Sayers, The Disreputable Ethics of Christianity, from Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, R. Jellema, ed., Eerdmans, 1969.

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