September 23, 2019
The Proper 21C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 16:19-31 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 32:1-3,6-15 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 146 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Timothy 6:6-19 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 125 (Lord’s Day 50)
Author: Scott Hoezee
The author Robert Farrar Capon was a master of parabolic embellishment, being highly adept at bringing these ancient stories up-to-date through vivid contemporary language and imagery. Sometimes Capon also did what those of us who preach occasionally do as well: he’d name the characters. And so in the Parable of the Prodigal Son maybe we’ll call the older brother Morris such that at the end of the parable the father is able to say something like, “Come on now, Morris, put on a party hat, put a smile on your face, and come in to the feast for your lost-but-found little brother!”
But, of course, what Capon does is just what anyone would have to do with Jesus’ parables: if we want to give a parabolic character a name, we will have to supply it ourselves because Jesus apparently never did so.
In Luke 16 we encounter the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who is given a name: it’s the poor man and he’s called Lazarus. The gospel writer Luke does all kind of things in his book to relay to us readers Jesus’ over-riding concern for the poor and the marginalized. From Mary’s “Magnificat” in the opening chapter (and its words about sending the rich away empty but elevating the status of the poor and lowly) to Jesus’ various words in Luke assailing the wealthy, Luke sets his theme clearly before us.
But in this parable Luke manages to tamp down into one tight package almost the entirety of this theme on loving the poor just by giving the poor man in the story a name (or better said, by making sure to remember that it was Jesus himself who gave this character a name). The poor are not faceless people with no stories. The poor are real people with names, identities, and a history. They are not statistics, they are human beings. They are not a one-size-fits-all economic category that we can describe in broad strokes but specific individuals.
The poor man had a name and packed into that fact is a whole lot of theology. Because we do overlook such people on the margins of life. We do act as though they are a socio-economic category more than families and folks with as real a life as anyone else. We forget that such people have names.
What was the line from the Beatles song? “Eleanor Rigby died at the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.” But Eleanor Rigby had been a real person, worthy of attention, worthy of love, worthy of extra care from the rest of society and especially from those who were doing well for themselves.
In the parable as Jesus tells it, this is all brought into bold relief for us as Jesus frames the details for us. There is nothing subtle about the set-up. The first man is flat-out said to be rich. He wears purple linen clothing (a royal color and fabric that in Jesus’ day reeked of money the same way a tailored silk Armani suit would do on a rich man today). He lived in the lap of luxury. Even the Greek word for “gate” in verse 20 was not the word you’d use to describe a small gate on someone’s white picket fence but was the word reserved for soaring portals–the kind of huge and heavy wrought-iron gates you see if you drive around Beverly Hills. Jesus wastes no time painting with a broad brush. We’ve got the picture. This isn’t merely someone who is comfortably well-off. This man is super-rich.
The depiction of Lazarus and his lot in life is no-less subtle. He’s not just a panhandler beggar but appears also to be lame and so only can lie at the gates. Worse yet, he’s diseased and so is covered with such dreadful open wounds as to attract the sniffing, and then licking, attention of the neighborhood’s stray dogs. He would have been happy to eat table scraps or even floor sweepings from the rich man’s dining room but you get the impression he didn’t get even those.
Again, Jesus is being deliberately extreme. Trying to picture Lazarus in your mind may lead you to say, “Yuck!” Have you ever seen a poor person pull a half-eaten sandwich out of a garbage can and promptly eat it? Your jaw instinctively tightens, doesn’t it? How bad off would you have to be to flick off pieces of coffee grounds and dirt from a stranger’s castoff cheeseburger before eating it?
Well, you’d be as bad off as Lazarus, for one thing.
And for those of us who find such a situation frankly unimaginable, that alone is an indication of how very much we do indeed have to be thankful for. In any event, in Luke 16 we have the heights of riches and the depths of abject poverty. No shades of nuance here.
The men then die and their roles are reversed. Again, there is no subtlety: Lazarus could not possibly have it better and the rich man could not possibly have it worse. But it is only now that this parable really takes off. It goes without saying that we should not conclude from Luke 16 that people in hell really will be able some day to see those in heaven (or vice-versa). For this parable to work these two men need to see each other.
And when they do, the first thing you should notice is that the rich man recognizes Lazarus and, more strikingly still, even knows his name. He had not been ignorant of the man who had long laid at his gates. So there’s the first zinger: the rich man at first appeared to be guilty of no more than a sin of omission, a passive failure to address a situation he maybe didn’t even know about in the first place. But his sin starts to look a whole lot more aggressive and active once you realize he was aware of this man, even to the point of knowing his name.
We maybe did not expect that to be true of this rich man. His knowledge of Lazarus makes us uncomfortable. And maybe just that is the point, too: we’re forced to wonder how much more we know about the poor people around also us than we are willing to admit or own up to. It’s easier to pretend we’re ignorant, that we don’t know the names of the poor (or cannot even find out). As this parable shows, however, the truth may be otherwise.
In any event, the answer to the rich man’s plea is “They have Moses and the Prophets” The rich man had requested a resurrection of Lazarus as a way to shake them up sort of along the lines of what it finally takes to shake old Scrooge up in the classic Dickens story of A Christmas Carol—it’s only after old Marley is sent back from the dead (and then unleashes three other ghostly spirits) that Scrooge finally converts from being a greedy miser to a generous benefactor for the poor. So also here: “Send dead Lazarus back to them,” the rich man pleads, “and then my brothers will become generous where I was stingy and so avoid this hellish fate!”
But no, they have Moses. They have the Prophets. And that ought to be enough. “They already have something better than a man returned from death,” Abraham says. “They’ve got their Bibles. They’ve got Moses. They’ve got the Old Testament Law. They’ve got prophets like Amos and Micah who ripped into the selfishly rich people of Israel long ago and whose prophetic upbraiding have been preserved as a warning to also future generations. If they won’t listen to the living voices of Scripture, neither will they listen to a dead man like Lazarus who will say to them the exact same things.”
In other words, those who find it easy to ignore Scripture will find it equally easy to ignore anyone who quotes Scripture to them. They have Moses. And if he’s not enough for them, neither would Lazarus be. Or anybody. The rich man before he died, and now his surviving brothers, had every opportunity to know better all along. When it comes to just treatment of the poor, no one with a Bible can claim not to have known any better.
“They have Moses,” Abraham tells the tormented rich man in hell. We have Moses, too. We have Moses. What’s more, now we have Jesus. In this powerful parable our Lord asks us what we will do with the knowledge we have by faith as that knowledge comes to us from the Word of God. What kind of lives will we lead? What kind of government policies will we get excited about? What kind of congregation should we be in the midst of the community where we find ourselves? We have Moses. We have Jesus. Will we listen to what they say?
In January 2019 I had the privilege of introducing New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as part of Calvin University’s “The January Series.” Here is the first part of that intro:
“Jesus told upwards of 40 parables in the New Testament. Each had a small cast of characters: waiting fathers and prodigal sons, women baking bread and laborers in a vineyard. But only once did Jesus assign a character a name: it was the poor man, Lazarus. Jesus knew that if we treat people only by categories like “the poor,” it is too easy to mistreat them, to forget who they really are But Jesus knew that each such person has a name, a family, a story. Giving Lazarus a name brought forward the humanity of “the poor.”
For decades Nicholas Kristof has been doing exactly this for victims of war, poverty, and genocide. The ethnic cleansing in Darfur was not about nameless groups of victims. It was about 2-year-old Zahra Adbullah beaten to death in front of her mother Fatima Omar Adam. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen is starving not faceless millions of children but specifically 12-year-old Abrar Ibrahim—the photo of her emaciated body was so searing, it basically was the entirety of Mr. Kristof’s column a couple weeks ago.
In short, sometimes we need names and faces to put to otherwise faceless, anonymous categories of people. It makes all the difference in what we see. No, in WHO we see.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Author: Stan Mast
After 29 chapters of gloom and doom with only an occasional glimmer of hope, we have come to Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation (chapters 30-33) in which some words of hope brighten the darkness of the present and the future. And here in this text, the words of hope become a deed of promise.
It’s as though Jeremiah is told by God to put his money where his mouth is. Anyone can promise good things as a way of propping up hope; talk is cheap. But this symbolic action by Jeremiah wasn’t cheap at all. God had promised Israel a future and here God sealed that promise with a commercial transaction that involved a piece of real estate and a goodly sum of money. To appreciate this text and preach it as good news for today, we must see how unexpected and how unbelievable it was.
Anyone reading Jeremiah from cover to cover will be surprised by the sudden emergence of the Book of Consolation. Again and again, God has said, in effect, I’ve had it. I’ve put up with your sin for generations now and it is clear that you aren’t going to repent. So now I’m going to punish you for your endless, stubborn sin. There’s no going back. It’s the last hour. Prepare to meet your doom.
Indeed, Judah’s doom was at the very door. All the outposts of Israel’s military defenses have been conquered. The army of Babylon has surrounded Jerusalem and the siege in its second year. Conditions in Jerusalem are horrific with disease and despair everywhere, even to the point of starvation breeding cannibalism. In just few months, the gates will be battered down and the walls will be breached, the army defeated and the civic leaders killed, the city sacked and the temple burned to the ground. The people will be deported to Babylon and the Land of Promise will be empty and desolate. It’s the eleventh hour. It’s nearly over.
But now here in the Book of Consolation, God offers comfort and hope. It’s almost enough to make one accuse God of being fickle. I mean, after all these thundering warnings about the imminence of disaster, why would God all of a sudden speak such hopeful words? Is God like a certain national leader who tweets out self-contradictory messages every morning? Does God change his mind on a whim?
No, God is still very angry and he will carry out his threatened punishment for the good of his people. But he is always loving as well and committed to the welfare of his chosen people and the world he will bless through those people. Even when he punishes his covenant people, his lovingkindness never fails. So, although these words of hope are unexpected given the situation in Israel, they are thoroughly consistent with God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises.
But we have to admit that God’s word to Jeremiah here is a bit unbelievable, even irrational. I mean, the city is under siege and Jeremiah himself is in prison for preaching a negative gospel. Soon the city will be in ruins. Jeremiah knows that. Indeed, his constant proclamation of ruin is what has landed him in jail. So, he’s not going anywhere and soon Jerusalem and its environs will be nowhere. Thus, God’s command to buy land in Jeremiah’s home town of Anathoth makes no sense whatsoever, not commercially, not personally.
It looks like a good deal only for Jeremiah’s cousin. The text doesn’t say this, but is he selling out so he can have the cash to flee to Egypt (which is exactly what many of the Israelites did, including Jeremiah, albeit a bit unwillingly)? Is this a fire sale? It doesn’t seem to be. The price Jeremiah paid, while not exorbitant, was not exactly cheap either. Almost any way you look at this deal, it’s a bad deal for Jeremiah. When the land is in ruins and the people are gone, what will Jeremiah do with his new purchase? It will be worthless.
But of course this real estate transaction isn’t a personal investment for Jeremiah; it is a promise from God, a vivid way of saying, “There is hope for his land and these people. And here’s a sign of the future.” As verse 15 says, “Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” God uses an everyday thing, as God so often does (think of bread and wine), to make a stunning promise for the future. God anchors that promise in the quotidian details of ancient real estate deals. What a fascinating insight into the way they did business back then! And what a fascinating way to demonstrate that God’s promise of a normal future is as real as the normalcy of selling a piece of real estate. There will be life on the land again, however impossible that may seem right now.
Jeremiah goes through with the deal, in spite of the fact that he sees the folly of it. He does that for one reason and one reason only. Verses 8b-9 put it simply: “I knew it was the word of the Lord, so I bought the field from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him 17 shekels of silver.” Five times we read that the “Word of the Lord” came to Jeremiah. He could see the situation for the disaster it was, but he heard the word of the Lord and believed it. He walked by faith, not by sight.
There is the challenge to us in this text—to look at the hopeless situation in which we find ourselves (under siege and in prison), and yet to walk by faith in the word of God. Keep walking by faith, even when it seems there is no hope of God’s word coming true. Jeremiah knew it would take a long time for the promise to come true. That’s why he had Baruch seal up the deed in a clay jar for safe keeping. (Remember that the Dead Sea Scrolls were kept safe for 2000 years in just such clay jars.) Jeremiah was under no illusions that life was going to return to normal any time soon. But he bet his money, his property, his life on God’s faithfulness to his word. That’s our challenge in the difficult days of our lives.
But this text is not just about the challenge to live by faith. It is, even more, about God’s ability to do what seems impossible. It is no accident that Jeremiah concludes his transaction with a prayer in which the key line is in verse 17. “Nothing is too hard for you.” God responds with a summary of Israel’s great sin and a promise of his greater mercy, which begins with the rhetorical question of verse 27, “I am Yahweh, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”
Those oft repeated words in Scripture give us our connection to Jesus Christ for our sermon on this text. At a time when the world was under siege by the powers of darkness and all of humanity was in the prison of sin, God came to a humble Jewish maiden living in a corner of the Land. God promised that she, though a virgin, would bear a Son who would fulfill all of God’s distant promises. When she asked how this could happen, since she had never had sex, the divine response was the familiar, “For nothing is impossible with God.”
The birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the sign of hope for a world bent on self-destruction. All the promises of God find their yes in him. When it seems as though there is no hope for you or your church or your nation, remember that God put his money where his mouth was, as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. God bought the farm so that we could have a place in the new heaven and the new earth.
To help people live into the hopelessness of Judah’s condition and thus the folly of Jeremiah’s transaction, remind them of similar situations in today’s world. Picture bombed out villages in Iraq or Syria, now deserted. Imagine being offered a piece of real estate, a two story house now reduced to rubble. Would you buy that house at any price, especially knowing that the prospect of peace there is near zero? Or more immediately, recall the devastation wrought on the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian. If someone had offered to sell you a piece of prime beach front property as Dorian was smashing into that island, would you have bought it? Where there is no future, people don’t buy land. Unless they believe that one day God will restore normalcy to that place.
I just read The Pioneers by David McCullough, which chronicles the acquisition and settlement of the Northwest Territories in the early days of America. That territory included the states around the Great Lakes, where I now live. Who would have thought that such a land deal would turn out so well? Along with the Louisiana Purchase, that was one of the greatest land deals in history. One historian, commenting on this story in Jeremiah 32, called it “the worst land deal in history.” That’s true, if you look at the historical context. But it’s not true, if you believe the promise of God.
Author: Scott Hoezee
When I read Psalm 146 to prepare this article, the thought occurred to me, “Didn’t I just do this psalm recently?” It took me a minute but then I realized why I thought that: the bottom line and final verses of this poem are nearly identical (in sentiment if not in actual words) to last week’s Psalm lection of Psalm 113. Last week’s selection also talked about God who, though high and mighty, regularly takes care of widows and orphans and poor people and tends to justice and brings about good things for the most vulnerable people. (And last week I reflected on how to deal with such sunny-side-up, non-nuanced promises in a world where we know things don’t typically work out so well for the poor and such.)
So if we were to pick up on that part of Psalm 146—and if we preached on Psalm 113 just a week or so ago—we would quickly find that we’re repeating ourselves. So if you did not preach on Psalm 113 recently but want to pick up on the latter verses of Psalm 146, then please visit our Sermon Starter Archive and look up what I wrote about that aspect of Psalm 113. If you want to take a different tack with Psalm 146, then read on!
Psalm 146 is, of course, one of the final poems in the Hebrew Psalter and is part and parcel of the revving up we get as the whole Book crescendos in a climax of praise. And there is no doubting that Psalm 146 is a song of tremendous praise. But that does not mean it has no time to teach a key lesson along the way. The first lesson that gets taught here reflects a tension that ran straight through the history of Israel. It goes back to the days of Samuel when the people began to agitate to get a king for themselves the same as all the other nations had.
Samuel was scandalized by the request. They already had a king: it was the Lord their God Yahweh! The people’s request for an earthly, human king felt to Samuel like a slap in God’s face. What’s more, Samuel tried to dissuade the people by saying that the problem with kings is that sooner or later the power always goes to their heads and they will tax you and mistreat you and just maybe make your life miserable. But the people persisted and in a somewhat surprise move, God himself tells Samuel to let it be. God would go along with it, he’d even tell Samuel where to go to find the first king.
I have always found it curious that God ostensibly tapped a man who would in the end prove to be a singular disaster. Saul may have had some noble qualities but he was also mentally unwell, could turn into a coward now and again, and was not averse to dabbling in necromancy and the darker elements of the spiritual realm. The kingdom is finally torn away from him and then we get David, of course. But I sometimes wonder: did God purposely choose Saul as a way to say to the people “Be careful what you wish for?” I mean, God had to see a lot of that—all of that?—coming.
In any event, the advent of a monarchy in Israel set up a history-long tension thereafter: in whom would the people place their ultimate trust and hopes? With the distraction of all those kings—the great ones like David and Solomon and the horrible ones like Ahab and Amon—could the people stay focused on God as their ultimate King and their final hope? The answer is that it was often tough to stay focused on God. The closer-to-hand help of a king with a good army seemed a safer bet and was in any event easier to see. Such a king was concrete, a visible reality. “If the king is strong, we’ll be fine, we’ll be safe, we’ll be prosperous. Long live the king!”
Thus in addition to praising Yahweh as the sovereign God of heaven and earth, Psalm 146 very early on gives a solemn admonition: do not put your trust in princes, in mere men, in mortals. They will die one day same as everybody else. There is a set and finite limit on what they can accomplish or on how many of their best-laid political programs they can carry out. What’s more, those dead kings cannot help you after they die and they surely cannot help when you die. The better bet is to put your trust in God alone because there is no limit, temporally or otherwise, to what God can and will accomplish.
Do you want to help set a secure future for your children and grandchildren? Well, even if King “X” does a great job and you are fully on board with his programs and policies, guess what? By the time your grandkids are adults, King “X” will be dead. But not God! God alone can secure things for Israel throughout all generations. Yes, perhaps God will use people, including kings and princes, to get his work done now and then, here and there. But God is the only sure through-line for all history and for however long history unfolds into the future too.
We are not really sure when the Psalms were composed but there is evidence they existed for a long time and were a key part of Israel’s worship. Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and even if he did not actually write every poem ascribed to him in the superscriptions in Psalms, he surely wrote some. Maybe even Psalm 146 was written and sung already during the reigns of David and Solomon. If so, it was probably more of a hard sell to get people really to embrace this poem. It’s one thing to tell people not to put their trust in princes when the king is a train wreck of a human being. But when the king is adored by all and is by all outward appearances a triumph of a monarch . . . well, then people might respond to “Put not your trust in princes” by saying, “Why not?!”
But Psalm 146 is not calibrating its theology to the relative success or failure of any given monarch. It is proclaiming a truth that endures over and above and beyond the ups and downs and the unpredictable vicissitudes of politics at any given moment. This psalm aims to celebrate the eternal Creator God who endures with goodness and mercy throughout all generations and forevermore. In fact, it is probably a psalm we all need to take to heart precisely in those times when we feel we have reason for high confidence in our leaders. Because those are the moments we are most tempted by the very political idolatry Psalm 146 warns against.
In the late summer of 2019 there was a brief dust-up when a Christian leader said something about President Trump along the lines of his being the “chosen one.” The President himself later tweeted something along those same lines even as not a few Christian in the U.S. regard this President as uniquely chosen by God, that his very election was a miracle orchestrated by God.
Whatever one makes of all that, the fact is this happens with frequency in all nations and in also the history of the United States. How many did not see Franklin D. Roosevelt as a kind of savior figure who would rescue people from the Great Depression? Abraham Lincoln was similarly regarded even though he did his best always to deflect to the guidance of providence and of the one true sovereign God. More recently millions invested all their hopes in Barack Obama, believing he would somehow be a transformative figure who would change the whole tenor of the U.S.
Inevitably many feel let down eventually by any given leader. None is perfect, few live up to the hype and hope that got invested in them. Barack Obama campaigned on “Hope and Change” but four years after his election, things had not unfolded in every good way many had thought would happen. So in 2012 when Vice-President candidate Sarah Palin mocked all that and wondered how all that “hopey-changey” stuff had worked out, people were offended but also chagrined: there was a glimmer of truth in what she said.
We are the most tempted to displace our ultimate hope in God when we latch onto leaders who embody everything we wish were true. And while we are right to support and help leaders who have the right goals, it’s a challenge to do that while not for one moment forgetting there is only One who is our true hope and that One will never let us down—not now, not ever.
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Author: Chelsey Harmon
“Take hold of the life that really is life.” What a catching phrase. It’s one of those that you can feel the truth of deep in your bones, but whose truth you can’t simply explain in a few words. What is “the life that really is life?”
We’re at the close of Paul’s first letter to Timothy in Ephesus, and though the encouragement to “take hold of the life that really is life” is technically addressed to the people in the Ephesian church who are financially wealthy, the statement applies to every member of the community.
Knowing Paul, the “life that really is life” is the life of Jesus Christ. Paul described Jesus in this section of the letter with lots of “ultimate” language: Sovereign, King of Kings, Lord of Lords… the only immortal one who is so full of glory that we really have no idea of his greatness… the one who all honour and eternal dominion belongs…
If Jesus is the ultimate, why do we bother to try to reach even a pale comparison here on earth?
When we humans start down the road to become ultimate, we’re usually headed in the opposite direction of Christ and his kingdom. Our idea of “ultimate” and “the life” are most often tied up with our riches—riches that can take the form of wealth… or possessions… or having children… or pursuing a certain status… or vying for professional success… or pretty much anything that other people can be jealous of and will therefore give us a false, fleeting (but momentarily satisfactory!) feeling of power or worth or purpose.
When we hear someone say that their “living the high life” or that they want “the good life” it is highly unlikely that they are talking about the same kind of life that Paul is in our Scripture passage today. And it’s highly unlikely that Jesus has the ultimate place in their motivation for such a life.
At the time that Paul was writing this letter, the false teachers—who make up the bulk of the reason that Timothy was on site and Paul wrote to Ephesus—had shown their true colours regarding money. Not only was their doctrine off, but their lifestyle goals were too. They were leading members of the community astray for their own personal financial gain, most likely charging people for passing on their “wisdom.” (It’s important to keep in mind that Paul wasn’t opposed to ministry workers being paid for their work or service. What he did oppose was both the why and the how of these false teachers. Some scholars argue that the false teachers were using young widows in the church community to do their dirty work, taking advantage of a disadvantaged and vulnerable sector of the community. Instead of guiding these women to faithful living in their present circumstances and helping them make an honourable and god-pleasing way in the world, the false teachers were doubly taking advantage of them—charging them money the women didn’t have to waste on bad ideas and information they didn’t need, AND getting the women to spread their teachings to other parts of the church in the city as they visited and gossiped their way from house to house.)
Paul was concerned that greed had such a foothold in the church almost as much as he was angry about the bad doctrine being spread. It seems that the false teachers were twisting good truths to meet their needs, including connecting their financial prowess and success to God’s pleasure and acceptance of their group (and therefore undermining Paul and Timothy).
Was this just another form of the prosperity gospel—a doctrinal and lifestyle issue that hasn’t gone away? I was once in a discussion with some family members about a very famous business person who’s questionable practices were coming to the public attention and scrutiny. I was shocked to hear one of my attend-church-every-Sunday cousins say, “But he must be godly, look at how successful he’s been!” Did Timothy hear the same about these other teachers?
How easy it is for us to lose sight of God’s truth when there are bright and shiny toys dangled in front of us! The love of money, and what we think we will gain from it, has this crazy effective way of pulling the wool over our eyes and distorting what we know is true. Throughout Scripture, for instance, we are reminded that the unrighteous are just as likely as the righteous to receive the bounty and possess the riches of the earth. But we want it to mean something special about ourselves—so we earned it, we hustled for it, we made it happen, or, we deserved it, it’s God’s gifts to us for our obedience, we made God happy and so he’s making us happy. But the real truth is, bounty is simply part of God’s nature—along with the expectation that his people will share with one another as there is need. Contentment that is paired with trusting God’s ways, one without worry or hustling for gain, gets us closer to the picture of the “life that really is life” than any of those lies we tell ourselves to justify what we’re doing to gain what we can in order to have what we want. In that head and heart space, even godliness becomes a means to an end rather than the end result of a life transformed by Christ.
Scripture paints a grim picture for those whom wealth has become ultimate, the end goal and measure. We see Paul do that here. Paul described greed as a path further and further into an abyss that leads to destruction, a path we set ourselves upon as we give in to temptation (which by definition, means getting something in an unholy way). We further our journey down the path when we keeping giving in; the danger that Jesus warns us about greed is that it is never satisfied. Until eventually, we serve the thing and our desires for it, more than we worship and serve the ultimate God.
The other path available, however, is one where we don’t give in to temptation but give ourselves to godliness and “take hold of the life that really is life.” A life, it turns out, modelled on the ultimate God’s plans, designs, and even his incarnational example.
Whether we’re wealthy or not so wealthy, the invitation to take hold of this “life that really is life” is available to us. But Paul’s words are particularly pointed towards those people in Ephesus (and today) who find themselves with more than enough. In the Western church, that’s pretty much all of us.
What does godliness look like? It looks like doing good (for others), being rich in good deeds (done to others), and having a reputation of generosity and a willingness to share (with others). It’s a life that’s full of rich blessings in the forms of relationships and a spirit that mirrors the Spirit of the ultimate God, living in his economy of sharing as there are needs, and knowing contentment. Like Jesus himself taught in the gospels, it’s this sort of life that understands every material thing here on earth is fleeting and that true treasures are stored in heaven as we live rich towards God and his kingdom. True godliness is living a future reality where everyone has what they need (material and immaterial) as part of our present reality. True godliness is sticking to the truth, keeping the faith through word and deed, and seeking the way of Christ for his glory, never our own.
As Paul urged Timothy, “the life that really is life” is found in fleeing from all pursuits that put others under our thumbs, takes advantage of them, and seeks to improve our positions at their cost. “The life that really is life” is characterized in pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. It is won by fighting the good fight of faith and taking hold and living the eternal life now for all the world to see.
Aesop’s Fables include more than one story about greed. The story about the mouse parallels nicely with Paul’s description of greed as a road to destruction: There once was a hungry mouse who noticed a basket full of corn. The corn was so tempting and the mouse really wanted to eat it! So he went to the basket to find a way in, and he was just able to squeeze in between some of the strips of the basket. Once inside, the mouse ate and ate and his belly grew and grew. After he was so full and he couldn’t eat anymore, he realized that he would no longer fit through the opening he used to get into the basket! All that would fit was his head. So he sat there in the basket groaning and moaning, because now his belly hurt from all that corn he ate, and because he was really worried about not being able to get out of the basket. A weasel came by and saw what had happened. “You’re stuck there because of what you’ve done,” the weasel said. “You’ll have to stay there until your belly gets smaller. Maybe tomorrow you’ll be able to get out.” The next morning, the mouse thought about getting out, but decided to eat some more corn. “I can always get out tomorrow, after I eat some more corn,” he thought to himself. After eating so much corn again that he was laying there with a belly ache in the basket of corn, a cat came by and noticed the mouse stuck in the basket… and that was the end of the greedy mouse.
John Wesley preached on the use of money; that sermon is widely paraphrased by its three main points: “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” However, it’s easy for these truths to be twisted for ulterior purposes, making Wesley’s subpoints as equally important as the main ones. We make all we can in honourable professions that do not bring harm to ourselves or others and allow for a balanced life. We save all we can by not buying things we (or our dependents) do not need, thereby wasting our money on earthly pleasures. By saving all we can, we’ll have more to give away. He offers this very practical advice: “If, then, a doubt should at any time arise in your mind concerning what you are going to expend, either on yourself or any part of your family, you have an easy way to remove it. Calmly and seriously inquire,
a.In expending this, am I acting according to my character? Am I acting herein, not as a proprietor, but as a steward of my Lord’s?
b.Am I doing this in obedience to his Word? In what Scripture does he require me so to do?
c.Can I offer up this action, this expense, as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ?
d.Have I reason to believe that for this very work I shall have a reward at the resurrection of the just?
You will seldom need anything more to remove any doubt which arises on this head; but by this four-fold consideration you will receive clear light as to the way wherein you should go.”
(sermon 50 available online at https://www.whdl.org/use-money-sermon-50)