Weekly Meditation: 25th September 2016
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Opinion is divided regarding the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Is it an account of heaven and hell? Or is it a lesson about wealth and poverty? Its context within Luke’s gospel would suggest the latter. Jesus had already given the parable of the shrewd manager in which he addressed the subject of using worldly wealth wisely, and had spoken his famous maxim, ‘You cannot serve both God and Money’ (Luke 16:13). His audience included the Pharisees ‘who loved money’, and to whom Jesus said, ‘What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight’ (16:14-15).
The central character of the story is a man, richly dressed and living ‘in luxury every day’ (16:19). He is contrasted with Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gate, desperately hungry, ‘covered with sores’ and pestered by dogs (16:20-21). The rich man clearly gave little thought to the plight of Lazarus. Jesus could not have intended his message to mean simply that all rich people go to hell, or that being destitute provides a certain ticket to heaven. However, it is evident that once the rich man had died, it was too late for him to change his ways. Nor was it worthwhile to warn his brothers; they had all had a lifetime in which to listen to ‘Moses and the Prophets’. The Law, given through Moses, and the prophets such as Isaiah and Micah, had taught that God’s people must ‘share [their] food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter’ (Isaiah 58:6-7), and should ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly’ (Micah 6:8). If that instruction was insufficient, not even someone returning from the dead would convince them (16:31).
To use one’s riches selfishly and heedlessly, then, has dire consequences. This is also Paul’s message in his first letter to Timothy 6:6-19. Contentment with what we have is of paramount importance, because those who are determined to get rich are easily led astray, being tempted by ‘foolish and harmful desires’ that can lead to ‘ruin and destruction’ (6:6-9). That is not, of course, how the world views riches. Those who succeed in becoming rich and who “live in luxury every day” like the rich man of Jesus’ story (Luke 16:19) are envied and emulated; their life-styles are reported and drooled over in the gossip magazines. Such focus on wealth and success, however, can lead to ‘all kinds of evil’ and ‘many griefs’ including loss of faith (16:10). As an antidote to such thinking, Paul advises Timothy to ‘Flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness’ (16:11) – in other words, ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ (see Galatians 5:22-23). He must ‘take hold of eternal life’, seeing everything in relation to that gift, putting wealth into its proper perspective against ‘the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords... who lives in unapproachable light’ (16:12-16). Similarly, Timothy is to warn the rich to put their trust not in uncertain wealth but in God who provides all they need, and, instead of gaining worldly wealth, to be ‘rich in good deeds, generous and willing to share’ so that they store up ‘treasure as a firm foundation for the coming age’. In that way they will “take hold of the life that is truly life’ (17-19).
Clearly, then as now, wealth was a snare and a temptation, and this teaching remains as difficult to put into practice as it has always been. Psalm 91 is comforting because it reminds us of the utter security we have if we take shelter ‘under God’s wings’ (91:1-4). God truly is our refuge both in times of danger and also when we are tempted to put our trust in such things as riches. He will rescue us, provide for us and reveal to us his salvation (14-16).
By Susan Thorne