September 19, 2016
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 her gripping book, Enrique’s Journey, journalist Sonia Nazario paints vignette after vignette of the abject poverty that exists just south of the U.S. border in lands like Mexico and Honduras. The poverty in these countries is staggering as is the extremes of behavior to which that impoverished state drives people. In Luke 16 we are told that the poor man Lazarus pined for mere crumbs from the master’s table or sweepings from his kitchen floor. What we sometimes forget is that such longing, such pining for food—ANY food—is no exaggeration or caricature.
In one particularly sobering part of her book, Nazario talks about how the children of Honduras are frequently reduced to scavenging for food in city landfills and garbage heaps. Here is how she described it:
“[Children] as young as six and seven . . . have to root through the waste in order to eat. Truck after truck rumbles onto the hilltop. Dozens of adults and children fight for position. Each truck dumps its load. Feverishly, the scavengers reach up into the sliding ooze to pluck out bits of plastic, wood, and tin. The trash squishes beneath their feet, moistened by loads from hospitals, full of blood and placentas. Occasionally a child, with hands blackened by garbage, picks up a piece of stale bread and eats it. As the youngsters sort through the stinking stew, black buzzards soar in a dark, swirling cloud and defecate on the people below.” (Enrique’s Journey, Random House 2007, p. 26).
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Author: Scott Hoezee
A real estate deal seldom had it so good. All through the Bible you can find a recurrent theme related to real estate, to land, to who owns what. It all began with a promise of land to Abram (who for some reason had to leave behind the land he already owned to set out for a place he knew not of). Abram never got very far, however. Indeed, by the time he died the only plot of land he owned in the Promised Land of Canaan was the tiny square he purchased for Sarah’s grave. It would be many centuries before Abraham’s descendants would occupy the entire land for themselves (only to re-lose it eventually before coming back later) but the idea of the land and its theological significance has been prominent in the Bible almost from the get-go.
In the case of Jeremiah 32, the simplest of real estate transactions takes on a monumental and a divine significance. Jeremiah is urged to purchase a part of his family’s allotment of the Promised Land, and although at any given moment in Israel’s history this would have been a commonplace, at that precise moment it was anything but an ordinary transaction.
This was like buying up a lot of stocks at the very moment the stock market was crashing. This was like purchasing a house and signing on the dotted line at the very moment when the foundations of the home were starting to slide down into a sinkhole. This was like donating a kidney to someone with terminal cancer and who the doctors claim has at most 2 weeks more to live.
Israel was on the verge of being conquered by the Babylonians. The vandals were at the gates. The barricades were not holding. The land was being pillaged and it was only a matter of time before everyone was carted off far from the land. And if anyone knew that, it was Jeremiah because he had been the prophet of doom and gloom for quite a while already. Ironically, in Jeremiah 32 Jeremiah is even under arrest and under lock and key on account of those very predictions. King Zedekiah had finally had enough of Jeremiah’s being a nattering nabob of negativism and so to shut up his mouth the king shut Jeremiah up in the courtyard of the palace.
Curiously, however, God was already ahead of the curve (as God so often is!). Even as Zedekiah is stewing over the difficult words Jeremiah had been speaking, God was giving Jeremiah a brand new message that was in the end an exceedingly hopeful message. It’s as though God was saying that the stuff that had Zedekiah twisted in knots at that very moment was yesterday’s news (even if the terrible events themselves still had to happen in tragic ways) but that God was looking to the future, and it was a better and more hopeful future at that.
Jeremiah bought some land not because it made any sense to do so at the time but because it pointed to a better and coming time when it would make sense for the people of the covenant once again to buy and sell and own pieces of the Promised Land. They would return. A new day would come. Jeremiah’s real estate transaction may not have been a counter-cultural act exactly but it was surely a counter-intuitive one given the circumstances and the impending doom that was descending on Israel. But by being counter-intuitive, God through Jeremiah opened up a new intuition, a new set of things to know that spelled hope for all.
Reading this story makes me wonder about the things Christian people do even yet today. To the minds of many in our society today, a lot of what we Christians do in worship, in our lifestyle choices, and in how we raise our children may well look like the equivalent of buying a house on the Gulf Coast even as a Category 5 hurricane is bearing down on it. Living as we say we do out of the riches of God’s kingdom and behaving (again, as we say we do) as citizens not first of all of this world’s kingdoms but of God’s kingdom makes no sense to people who see only the day-to-day reality of commerce in a me-first, celebrity-driven, power-hungry society.
Why waste time on a Sunday morning singing to God and listening to sermons (of all things!). You could better stay home and watch “Wall Street Week” and find out how to invest your money and make a fortune in the here-and-now as opposed to investing in the fantasy world of God’s New Creation. Why brainwash your children with Bible stories and claims that there is a Lord who watches over them when what they really need to know to survive in a harsh world like this one is that they have to look out for good old #1 and not count on some divine help swooping in from above.
Of course, this all is troubling enough. More troubling still, however, is the fact that a lot of us who profess to be Christians are sensitive to these kinds of criticisms and so sometimes try to hide our Jeremiah-like transactions. We domesticate our faith, treating it as a kind of hobby in ways we hope will distinguish us from fundamentalist fanatics. We turn our worship services into coffee house-like experiences so that they don’t look so other-worldly after all even as in some places sermons seek to be as practical as possible so as to help Christians get along better in this world (“Five Ways to Grow Your Business” and “Seven Ways to Raise Successful Children” are not unusual titles for sermon series these days).
Jeremiah was under arrest for having the courage to speak God’s truth. Then he opened himself up to looking foolish on account of transacting a land deal that was finally nonsense on the face of it. It takes the courage of faith to do that. Here’s hoping we still have that pluck and that faith today.
In the 1978 film Superman, the news media gets wind of a story that ends up creating something of a sensation. Because eventually the news gets out that a mysterious, anonymous person had been buying up huge stretches of useless desert in the American Southwest, and paying top dollar for the land at that. Indeed, the prices this unknown investor was willing to pay were ridiculous by every real estate standard and norm. Someone would need to have a very good reason for such odd land deals.
Of course, in the fictional world of Superman it turns out that the mysterious land buyer is the nefarious Lex Luthor and the reason he is buying up all that “useless” land is because he plans to detonate a nuclear bomb in the San Andreas Fault, the result of which would be having almost all of California drop into the Pacific Ocean and thus making all that formerly useless desert property now beachfront property on the ocean worth billions of dollars.
It’s a wildly silly premise but then it’s only a science fiction movie. Still, Lex Luthor’s apparently strange real estate transactions forced the conclusion that he must have had a reason. And he did.
So did Jeremiah in a land deal that must surely have also raised eyebrows and caused many people to wonder just what could possibly be behind such a purchase. Happily in this real-world, non-fictional scenario, there was a very good and happy reason: it pointed to God’s renewal of his covenant and of his people.
Author: Stan Mast
The book of Psalms ends as life should, with a flurry of ever-increasing praise to the God who has given us life and breathe and all things. Psalm 146 is the first of five Psalms that begin and end with the familiar Hebrew words hallelu yah, “Praise Yahweh.” But in between the summons to praise in Psalm 146 is a piece of Torah, instruction, that is important for our congregations in the politically charged atmosphere of the American elections. It’s a good example of that familiar saying so disheartening to us preachers, namely, that people learn more theology from their music than from our sermons.
Before we get to that election year theology, however, there are some important things to note in the call to praise in verses 1-2. Notice that after the general call to praise, the Psalmist appeals to himself to join the praise. All honest preachers and listeners know the importance of such a self-summons. Given the shape of the world today, praise does not spring naturally to our lips. It takes some discipline based on solid faith to praise God in the midst of all the blood and sorrow of this veil of tears. We must summon praise deliberately.
Further, the Psalmist’s vow to praise God “as long as I live” is a bold promise. Yes, we can express bursts of praise when things go well, even compose long symphonies of praise during the happy chapters of life, but it will take a great deal of faith to sing praise to God all the days of life. Only someone who knows and believes the instruction that follows in Psalm 146 can make and keep such a vow.
The first piece of instruction answers the deep existential question that troubles everyone. Whom can you trust in this world? In America, folks on the left and the right and in the middle are asking who is more trustworthy, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The great majority of people (nearly 2/3 of the entire American electorate) are saying, neither. They both lie too much, people say. Psalm 146 enters the fray by saying, in effect, don’t trust either one. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save.”
Now, it is important to note that the Psalmist does not base his advice on the moral character of our “princes.” So we don’t have to take sides in the political debate as we preach on this Psalm. In fact, to do so would cause our people to take sides and miss the deep messages the Psalm has for us. We should carefully point them to the fact that the Psalmist’s skepticism about human leaders is based not on their fallibility, but on their mortality. They all die and all their promises and plans die with them.
This is not to say that human leaders are unnecessary or not useful. After all, says Paul in Romans 13, God chooses to rule us through them. So, our “princes” matter, for some things, in the short term. The problem with them, says verse 3, is that they “cannot save.” That’s the problem with investing so much in the political process. Ultimately, these leaders cannot do the main thing we need. They cannot save, either for eternity or for time, as verses 7-9 will so poetically show. They cannot save the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the sick, the alien. The problems they address in their campaigns and in their terms of office will long outlive them. They cannot save us. No wonder the political process leaves so many people deeply disappointed and unhappy. That doesn’t mean we should forget about finding good leaders. It only means, as Raymond Van Leeuwen put it, “Humans are only secondary or tertiary agents in a cosmic drama of death and life, whose ultimate outcome lies solely in the hands of God.”
That is the great instruction point in Psalm 146. The only one you can trust to save is God. The Psalmist makes that point with an extended contrast between “princes” and Yahweh. Princes are mortals who cannot save, who return to the ground, whose plans come to nothing. Yahweh is the God who has entered into unbreakable covenant with Jacob and his seed, who has made everything in the universe, who remains faithful and true through all the changes in our lives, who takes care of the helpless, who loves the righteous and frustrates the ways of the wicked, who reigns forever.
The Psalmist introduces God with an upbeat word, blessed, asher in Hebrew. The word is perhaps best translated “happy.” Happy is the person who looks to this God for help and places her hope in him. Our princes promise to “make America great again” or to “keep America great.” When they win, the band often plays, “Happy days are here again.” But, in fact, says Psalm 146, our only hope for happiness in this world and the next lies with the God so beautifully described in the coming verses.
The campaign managers and staff in our elections work hard to show that the character and the actions of their candidates are worthy of our trust and our vote. That’s exactly what the Psalmist does in verses 6-9. The Beatitude of verse 5 is followed by “5 poetic measures with hymnic particles as predicates” in verses 6-7a: “the God of Jacob (a covenantal reference), the Maker of [everything in the universe], who remains faithful forever, who upholds the cause of the oppressed, and who gives food to the hungry.”
These 5 are followed by another 5, in which the name of Yahweh is repeated like a drumbeat: “Yahweh sets prisoners free, Yahweh gives sight to the blind, Yahweh lifts up those who are bowed down, Yahweh loves the righteous, and Yahweh watches over the marginalized but frustrates the ways of the wicked.” In both his character and his actions, our God is able to save, and does.
So, however much we may get involved in the political process (whether in government or church or school board or country club or social action groups), Psalm 146 tells in no uncertain terms that only this God can deliver the happiness we crave. So, don’t put your trust in princes, but in Yahweh who is our help and our hope. That’s the first great word of Torah from Psalm 146.
The second has to do with the kind of help Yahweh gives. An overly political reader might think that verses 7-9 read like the platform of the Democratic Party with its emphasis on social justice. But don’t let your sermon go there. This is not a political platform; it is the agenda of the God of the Bible. Over and over again, the Old Testament uses the word in verse 7, mishpat in Hebrew, which means justice. The God of Israel is concerned with justice. Yahweh makes things right.
The words used to outline God’s pursuit of justice can be interpreted individually and corporately, physically and spiritually. God is concerned not merely with individuals, but with groups, not merely with spiritual needs, but with physical as well. Conversely, God is not only concerned with social justice, but also with personal morality, not only with helping the poor and needy, but also with taking care of the righteous and frustrating the ways of the wicked. In other words, neither Republicans nor Democrats (nor Green Party nor Libertarian nor Communist) can claim that theirs is the party that serves God best. Indeed, the warning about not trusting mortals should alert us to the fact that party platforms and political programs are not the secret of justice in this world. Only God can bring this comprehensive justice. It is up to us to align ourselves with God, not to try to show that God is on our side.
Some alert listeners may notice that this business of “the righteous and the wicked” seems out of place in the list of justice issues. Psalm 146 has been talking about God’s care for the marginalized and the helpless. That is certainly what many people think of today when they talk about social justice. Then Psalm 146 introduces this language that seems more like old fashioned talk about judgment. And, indeed, it is. God doesn’t just care about those on the edges of society because of racial discrimination, economic favoritism, or social exclusion. He also cares about those who are oppressed because of their commitment to God, that is, the righteous. Psalm 146 promises them that God not only loves them, but will also frustrate the wicked who oppress them. This is an important word to Christians who feel increasing pressure from the forces of secularism in our society.
I’ll close this explanation of the second word of Torah in Psalm 146 with these helpful words from James Luther Mays. “’Righteous and wicked’ doesn’t seem to be in the same category as the others here, but part of God’s help is keeping the moral order of the universe. In a world where right and wrong have no meaningful place in the order of the universe, nothing at all can be trusted.” And the main concern of Psalm 146 is whom we can trust. So, thank God that God cares about the righteous over against the wicked. We can trust God to take care of those who serve him.
The third important instruction in this Psalm of praise is not so obvious, until we ask the question, where and when do we see God doing the things Psalm 146 assures us God does. I mean, we live in a world filled with oppression and injustice, where the hungry go unfed and the sick die and the aliens wander homeless and the righteous are persecuted. God seems to be missing in action. Are these lovely words of Psalm 146 empty promises like those made by politicians running for office?
We find the answer to those agonizing questions when we notice how directly the words of verses 7-9 foreshadow the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus launched his ministry in his home town of Nazareth by reading the words of Isaiah 61:1,2, which almost exactly parallel Psalm 146. Then he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus ministry of healing and exorcism was not incidental to his saving work. It was both revelatory and redemptive.
John the Baptist had proclaimed Jesus to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” But when Jesus’ ministry took a different direction than John had anticipated, he sent word to Jesus asking if he really was the Expected One. Jesus replied in Matthew 11:4-6 by pointing to the kind of ministry we hear predicated of Yahweh in Psalm 146:6-9. Earlier Matthew summed up Jesus ministry of healing in Matthew 8:16 and 17, where he connected that physical healing to the spiritual forgiveness of sin by quoting Isaiah 53:4. In other words, God did the work of justice described in Psalm 146 through the life and death of Jesus.
Jesus is our help and our hope. Don’t leave Psalm 146 until you have proclaimed that Christ-centered message. And don’t leave this Psalm until you have called on the Body of Christ to continue his ministry of healing and compassion and social justice and disciple making. God’s agenda in Psalm 146 and in Jesus’ ministry throughout his life and in his death must be our agenda.
In our sermon on this Psalm, we must be careful not to be partisan in our call for justice and mercy. This is not about being Democratic or Republican. It is about being Christ-ones. It may be that governmental action is the best way to address some of these issues. Or it may be that private effort is most effective. Or it may be that the church as an organization must take a more active role in bringing the concerns of God to the public square. Don’t prescribe a particular political program.
Preach the Good News that God is concerned with justice in all its dimensions. And point to Christ as the One who is bringing the Kingdom of justice and peace to this world. Do your people a great favor and preach Psalm 146 this Sunday, so that they get some relief from the constant political blather, some hope and help and happiness, as they face the grim choices of Election Day.
Americans like to keep track of their Presidents by number. George Washington was, of course, Number 1. President George H.W. Bush was Number 41, while his son, W, was known as Number 43. President Obama is 44 and either Trump or Clinton will be Number 45. We need such numbers to keep track of the ever-changing political scene. God needs no number, because “the Lord reigns forever… for all generations.” Presidents rise and fall, succeed and fail, but our God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Author: Scott Hoezee
Perhaps the single most striking feature of these closing verses of 1 Timothy is the glorious doxology that fairly erupts from Paul right in the middle of his advice related to riches and money and such. It’s as though Paul’s spirit had suddenly soared into the throne room of Almighty God himself and what Paul saw in this vision was so stirring that he just has to express it. Sometimes things just got away from Paul when he wrote his letters and his pen could not keep pace with the places to which his heart is racing. It’s a wonderful glimpse into the heart of the Apostle.
“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.”
He just couldn’t hold it in!
But then in verse 17 it’s as though he shakes his head a bit and says “Now then, where was I? Oh yes, the rich people!” And then he returns to what he had been saying earlier before his rapturous moment of ecstasy.
Mostly, though, these verses warn people away from fleeting, vain pursuits—the gathering up of money and earthly riches—in favor of recommending a godly life in pursuit of righteousness and Christ-likeness. Contentment with what you have is the key—provided you have enough anyway—and that contentment is the antidote to greed. “Get caught up with wanting more and more money,” Paul essentially writes, “and you will soon find yourself tempted to engage in dirty business practices. You’ll start cheating people, swindling people, lying, covering things up and next thing you know, being a disciple of Jesus first and foremost starts to recede in the rearview mirror of life.”
None of that is particularly novel with Paul. Jesus said similar things with some frequency as recorded in the four gospels. Also, most of the Old Testament tradition of the Law was likewise extended calls to a life of fairness and generosity, even if it means living that way at the expense of piling up more treasures for yourself. If all things were equal in ancient Israel, then all people would be pretty equal too. The poor would not stay poor in perpetuity but would have estates and such returned to them in the Year of Jubilee. Charging interest was banned even as farmers and others were told to make special provision for the poor. At any given moment there might be richer folks and poorer folks but society was supposed to be structured so that care was extended to all. The rich weren’t supposed to keep getting richer by taking lands that then never got returned to those who possession it had been in the first place.
And the reason Israel was to do all that was the same reason Paul said what he did in 1 Timothy 6 and both reasons tie in closely with that doxology that seems to come from out of nowhere in this passage (but that actually does come from somewhere). And what is that reason? Because God is dwelling in our midst. If God was to make his earthly home at the Temple in Jerusalem, then the people had to lead distinctive lives as a result. If the people got unholy, God’s own holiness would be threatened and God would have to leave. (Ultimately that happens, too, as we can see in the Book of Ezekiel).
But now God has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ even as now God dwells inside each believer by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that comes upon us at baptism. If God is our all in all, then everything else in life needs to be seen through the divine lens. When that happens—according to the Old Testament Law anyway—then one of the first things to get relativized and put into its proper (and not all that important) place is money.
When serving God and honoring the presence of God in your life has first place, then everything else, starting with money, falls down the rankings of importance accordingly. So actually Paul’s apparently random lapse into doxology here is not so random after all. It was God’s holy presence through the Spirit that animated Paul’s entire life. Seeing the glory of the immortal, invisible God was never far from his mind and all the advice he ever gave in his various letters—including advice on money and riches—was framed up inside that abiding presence of God.
How much might change in our lives—what priorities would we set, what would we find moving us to tears and what might we find boring as all get out—if only that God-perspective were as dominant for us as it was for Paul? Preaching on this passage might include teasing out the implications of all that for believers today.
But we should note one other thing: once Paul finishes his burst of doxological language and gets back to the subject at hand in verse 17, notice that he does NOT say that this would mean there would never be wealthy people among God’s people. However it happens in life, some people will be better off than others and some will be spectacularly better off. Paul does not say here that a rich person cannot be a Christian person. But he does say that WHEN you have rich people in your church—as apparently Timothy in Ephesus did or else why would Paul write this?—then the key is to help them avoid the arrogance that so often accompanies wealth and to remind them again and again that the only riches that matter eternally are being rich in good deeds.
Live as Christ lived. Be rich in grace. Be rich in mercy. Be rich in forgiveness. Be rich in the Fruit of the Spirit. Because when the day comes when $100 bills and Fortune 500 companies are as worthless as a bag of fallen oak leaves, it will be grace and mercy and forgiveness that will pave the road that leads to an eternal kingdom of shalom. And in that kingdom, grace will be better than gold and mercy sweeter than honey.
From Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, pp. 80-81.
“The more you think about [money], the less you understand it. The paper it’s printed on isn’t worth a red cent. There was a time you could take it to the bank and get gold or silver for it, but all you’d get now is a blank stare . . . Money has worth only if there is not enough for everybody. It has worth only because the government declares it has worth and because people trust the government in that one particular although in every other particular they wouldn’t trust it around the corner. The value of money, like stocks and bonds, goes up and down for reasons not even the experts can explain, and at moments nobody can predict, so you can be a millionaire one moment and a pauper the next without lifting a finger. Great fortunes can be made and lost completely on paper. There is more reality in a baby’s throwing its rattle out of the crib.
There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up.
Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Maybe the reason is not that the rich are so wicked they’re kept out of the place but that they’re so out of touch with reality that they can’t see it’s a place worth getting into.”