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On Wealth and Poverty

Stewardship

We examine again today the story of Lazarus:

(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.'"

Today we must examine the rich man, as last week we examined Lazarus. We begin with the child's question: why?

Why?

Why did the rich man see Lazarus?

Think about it. There would seem at first no reason that anyone in hell could see, let alone converse, with someone in heaven. Why, then, did God allow this to be?

·         First, and most obvious, it is to show us the distinction between heaven and hell. The story is for our benefit; there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. We need to take heed. The comparison is all the stronger for the conversation.

·         Next, because God is just. As Lazarus saw the rich man every day in his comfort, so now the rich man sees Lazarus. What goes around, comes around.

·         As Adam could still see the Garden of Eden after he was ejected from it, and long for those days, so the rich man can see "what might have been." It is a fine form of punishment, and a lesson to all of us.

Why did the rich man call to Abraham, and not Lazarus?

Think about that. He knew Lazarus personally at least.

·         Perhaps because he thought that being a descendant of Abraham carried with it some weight in God's eyes. It does; it makes him more accountable because he had the Scriptures of the Old Testament before him. If you are related to a great saint, your burden is increased, because the example in front of you is so much greater.

·         More than that, it shows us his shame. Despite the fact that he knew Lazarus and did not know Abraham, he calls out to Abraham. I suspect he was ashamed of what he had failed to do, and was (even in torment) too embarrassed.

·         Perhaps too he felt that Lazarus would now treat him the same way he treated Lazarus. As he did in life, he now in hell tries to "pull strings." Though a righteous man like Lazarus would not turn him down (if possible) his own character shows up. It is that character which landed him there.

Why does he see Lazarus with Abraham?

Why not Moses? Or some other of the patriarchs?

·         Abraham regularly practiced hospitality. The Scripture records this fact for us, that despite his troubles he welcomed strangers into his home.[1] He did not grudge hospitality even to total strangers.

·         Abraham was generous to such strangers even without knowing their rank. He entertained the angels "unaware."

We are commanded to give charity "even unto the least of these."[2] At the very least we should take it as a command. But more than that, consider this: which is the greater act of charity? To host the rich, or to host the poor? Surely the kindness is greater when hospitality is given to the poor.

The Abuse of Stewardship

The rich man's sin is simply this: he abused the stewardship of wealth that God had given him.

Look at it this way. When you go to a play, particularly a play set in another time, you see actors clothed in differing garments. One is a king, another a beggar, another a soldier. You don't really think that the first actor happens to be a king that someone persuaded to walk on stage! No, you accept the performance. Now, life in this world is somewhat like that, and for that reason we are told not to judge. You look at one man and say, "How rich he is!" But is he really? You will not know that until the end. Right now he is wearing the clothing of the rich man, but when the play of life is over, who knows whether he is rich or poor?

The Definition of Wealth

To truly understand wealth, and what God desires in your stewardship of it, you must first define it. Most of us see wealth in terms of money, but it is not so. Wealth does not occur when your possessions are many but when your needs are few.

Why do our advertisers so diligently court teenagers? It is because they are wealthy! Think about it; what are their needs? Do they need a house, or car, or food? No, you provide all those things (one way or another) to them. So the small amount of money they have is wealth indeed (and our advertisers know it). You, on the other hand, having so much more money (but greater needs) may indeed be poor. Is there anyone so wealthy as a newborn baby?

Stewardship

The question then is not "when I'm wealthy" but "what am I going to do with the wealth God has given me?" This might just involve changing your wants, needs and desires.

You might first object, "I earned every dime I have. It's mine, and I can do with it as I please." Indeed, I'm glad if you earned every dime, but I suspect you wouldn't turn down a legacy from your rich uncle's will. Your parents might have something to say about every dime, too. Indeed, all that has really happened is that you have used what God has given you and turned it into money.

That might be good or bad. If you have been diligent in work, and charitable in spending, then all may be well. It might also be that you have neglected the greater things in order to amass money and possessions.

Stewardship, you see, is about the use of what God has given you. It is not concerned solely with the traditional ten percent tithe; rather, it is the use of the one hundred percent. For example, you may have to provide for a family member in an extraordinary way because of some illness. That too is stewardship. Do not ask, "Should I tithe on the gross or the net of my income?" That misses the point. The real question is, "What should I do with all of it?"

Dominion and Stewardship

Before the fall Adam was given dominion.[3] The word used means to subjugate, or to reign over. After the fall, creation was bestowed on him, or given.[4] No longer is subjugation included. Stewardship is not the same thing as dominion. If I have dominion, I can do as I please. God grants dominion only to the sinless (e.g., Jesus Christ) because only the sinless will exercise it perfectly. To the sinner he grants only stewardship - rule, with accountability. Stewards must have these characteristics:

·         They must be faithful in all things, great and small.[5] It does not matter how little you have been given. What matters is what you do with it.

·         They must also be watchful. Not only alert for the Lord's return, but diligent in performing their duties, whatever those might be. Self-examination (the infamous "audit" for management personnel) is a necessity.

·         If you are given much, much will be expected. If you are a steward who has been given talent, or money, or any other gift, you will be held accountable to God for the gift given. No comparison with the other guy will help.

How should the rich behave?

First, let us settle the question of who is "rich." So many of us have a standard of wealth which starts with the question, "Why is it that God won't give me more money?"

·         Perhaps he knows you too well! Maybe he knows what you'd do with it! As he tells us in James,


(James 4:3 NIV) When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

·         The poor man (by whatever definition) is a steward too. It's just that he has less. So the obligations apply to some lesser degree to him as well.

·         Did you ever consider that there is a "right" amount of money for you?

(Prov 30:8-9 NIV) Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. {9} Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

Giving to the poor

The teaching of the church from the earliest days (and indeed from the Old Testament) is clear. The virtue, the righteousness, of giving resides in the act of giving, not in the character of the recipient. It is sufficient that the recipient is in genuine need. How he got that way is of no concern. This statement is often objected to (shouldn't people "deserve" the help we give them?), but consider:

·         Need alone is the poor man's "worthiness" in many cases. We would not refuse comfort to a man dying of lung cancer just because he was a three pack a day smoker. Why then would we condemn an AIDS patient to die alone because he was responsible for the problem?

·         We are to be the imitators of Christ. God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. So should we shower our blessings on both.

There is the example of the Old Testament before us. As Job put it,
(Job 31:32 NIV) but no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler--

·         Think of the reverse. Suppose God told you that you were to give charity only to the truly worthy. How you would complain of all the time and effort it would take to investigate things! How you would complain about the complexity of the rules!

Lessons

We leave with a few short lessons:

·         For the poor, I ask you this: did Lazarus complain? Then why do you? (And if you complain when you are rich!)

·         For the rich: wealth without virtue to go with it is worse than useless. It is a solid gold boat anchor - thrown to a drowning man.

·         There is no chance for repentance in the next life. What charity could the rich man give to Lazarus from the fires of hell? What you need to do, you need to do here and now.



[1] Genesis 18

[2] Matthew 25:40

[3] Genesis 1:26; Hebrew radah

[4] Genesis 9:2; Hebrew nathan

[5] See Matthew 25:14-30

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