Proper 21 (Sept 25-Oct 1)
Texts: Luke 16:19-31;
Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Tim 6:6-19
STEWARDSHIP 101: THE DEAD-END OF HOARDED WEALTH
We are talking about stewardship for several weeks, meditating on some basic principles. Last week, we began with our offertory hymn:
We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.
The most basic point is that what we have really isn’t ours to do with selfishly as we please. Our time, treasure, and talents are gifts from God that we steward for God. They are a trust that we manage for God and especially in the furtherance of the coming of God’s kingdom, God’s reign in this world through Jesus Christ.
Through the puzzling Parable of the Unjust Steward last week, we gleaned the principle that we are to use the wealth God gives us to “make friends,” to build community. This morning, with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, I think we have a doubling down on that principle, showing us the danger of wealth: if we use our wealth selfishly, it becomes isolating and self-destructive.
To read today’s parable properly, I think we have to first of all bracket-out our view of the afterlife as two different places, one called heaven and one called hell. We see neither of those places named in the parable. In the First Century there was only one place for the dead in the afterlife. It was called sheol in Hebrew, Jesus’s main language. In the Greek world, it was called Hades. That’s what we have named here in the Greek New Testament, Hades. Now, thinking in terms of that one place, Jesus tells us that there’s a chasm fixed between Lazarus and the rich man in Hades, such that they experience this place completely differently. Lazarus resides in the comfort of his ancestor, in Abraham’s bosom. The rich man experiences the same place as a fiery place of agony and anguish. It is the reverse of their experiences in life, where there was a seeming chasm, a gate we are told, between them. That chasm was the rich man’s greed which isolated him as seemingly above his fellow human beings. He did not use his wealth to “make friends.”
I’d like to amplify today’s parable with one from recent generations — no one is quite sure of where it came from — but it’s likely you’ve heard it before. It’s called the Parable of the Long Spoons.
One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what the afterlife is like.”
God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of vegetable stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering.
Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful vegetable stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.
The man said, “I don’t understand.”
God smiled. It is simple, he said, Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves . . . .1
Another parable that I know you’ve all heard — or more likely seen, in one of its many versions, including one by the Muppets — is Charles Dickens’ fable of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. One Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, who gives us yet another very different vision of the afterlife. Marley’s ghost drags with him a long chain that he says he unknowingly forged in life. He tells Scrooge that the chain he has been forging is even now longer than his own. He can’t see it now, but he will in the afterlife. And for Marley, the afterlife isn’t a place. It is a wandering from place to place, which he explains to Scrooge in this way:
“It is required of every person that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow human beings, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”2
Marley foreshadows for Scrooge a different path to choose in life. We are to share life with our fellow human beings. And for a wealthy man like Scrooge that means also sharing his wealth. The dangers of his wealth are that it isolates him from those he thinks beneath him. He no doubt thinks himself free in this life because his wealth affords him many choices that others don’t have. But Marley shows him that this isn’t truly freedom. Rather, he is forging for himself a chain that he will drag with him in the afterlife, wandering the earth to see what he could have shared in his life and didn’t. We know the rest of the story. Scrooge is visited by three other ghosts that Christmas Eve, who show him the choices he has made throughout his life that led to the chains of isolation rather than the freedom of sharing life others. He wakes up on Christmas morning dedicated to making different choices for the rest of his life, becoming a kind and generous person who helps to make the world a better place.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol shares in common with the Parable of Rich Man and Lazarus a frightening picture of the afterlife. One difference, though, is that Dickens’ uses someone brought back from the dead to warn Scrooge, namely, Marley’s ghost, and then the three ghosts of his own Christmas past, present, and future. In Jesus’ parable, the rich man asks Lazarus to send someone from the dead back to his brothers to warn them. The rich man asks for a ghost to visit his brothers! Abraham refuses in the parable, telling the rich man that his brothers already have what they need, the law and the prophets, to show them how to live loving and generous lives.
But the aim of both these parables is the same. It’s not so much to show us what the afterlife is all about as it is to show us what this life is supposed to be about. You don’t need to believe in the picture of Hades that Jesus sketches in order to get the point. It’s a parable! Fiction! Not a treatise on the afterlife. Similarly, we don’t need to believe in visitation by ghosts to get the point from Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. In short, both parables using frightening portraits of the afterlife as a means of showing us how we are supposed to live in this life, where wealth can be a blessing but so often is a danger. If we don’t understand the basic principles of stewardship, in which all that we have is a gift from God to use to bring together God’s family, then our life is on a dead-end path of becoming increasingly isolated from our fellow human beings. Wealth is meant as an instrument of peace, where true freedom comes from people learning to share the prosperity of God’s creation.
So what stewardship principle do all these parables relate to us? Let me connect this all to the revitalizing of the Gospel message we’ve been talking about since I’ve come here as your pastor. We’ve been trying to talk about how our message has been too focused on the afterlife. Yes, there is the promise of the afterlife in the Christian message, but it is secondary to the promise of God leading us into more abundant, more truly human, ways to live this life. The afterlife is part of the promise that God is saving this world, especially from human violence and greed. This salvation is a long project that likely won’t be completed until long into the future. So the afterlife is a promise that we will someday enjoy its completion. But the main message involves being invited now, today, to participate in what God is doing to save God’s good creation.
This invitation could itself be characterized as stewardship. God needs for us to be caretakers of the earth and of each other that we were created to be. We human beings have fallen into a rut of selfishly thinking it’s about Us getting the fruits of creation over against Them. We have fallen into a rut of stewardship that creates division and isolation rather than bring the whole human family together. This project of fully enjoying the abundance of God’s creation can only work if it includes everyone. So any wealth we receive is only for the benefit of shared prosperity, of wisely using one’s wealth as means to bring the human family together, never to divide it. And never, never, as a means to isolate ourselves as individuals or families, to think of everything in terms of Us against Them.
Since this project of God’s through Jesus Christ involves the entire creation and the whole family, it must involve politics and economics. It must involve seeing that God’s way of reigning in the world is very different from what our human way has fallen into. We’ll see if we can’t shed some more light on that in the next couple weeks (Proper 26C, Proper 23C, the third and fourth sermons in a four-part series on stewardship). Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, September 25, 2022
1. This version of the parable is based on: https://sofoarchon.com/heaven-and-hell-the-parable-of-the-long-spoons/
2. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 2010), page 26.