Monday, 30 September 2013

Po' Lazarus

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
September 29th 2013

Luke 16:19-31   "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,  21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.  22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.  23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  24 He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'  25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'  27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house--  28 for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.'  29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.'  30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'  31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

Amos 6:1  Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria
Amos 6:4-7  Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall;  5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music;  6 who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!  7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

This week a British man
            who lost four relatives in the Kenyan shopping mall massacre
            said he hoped the attackers would “burn in hell”.[1]

And in saying this, he articulated the feelings of many,
            who share with him in his outrage and his grief
            at the violent wrong that has been done to so many innocent people.

Whether in a shopping mall in Nairobi,
            or a refugee camp on the Syrian border,
Whether in the marketplaces of Iraq or Pakistan,
            or at the funeral of a little girl in mid Wales,
There are those moments in life
            which are so heart-rending,
            and where justice seems so evidently to have been bypassed,
            that an appeal to some kind of cosmic or divine retribution
                        can seem an entirely natural and appropriate response.

And our gospel reading for this morning,
            the troubling and difficult parable
            of the rich man and Lazarus,
raises for us the issue of the extent to which
            actions committed in this life
            have eternal consequences.

In many ways it is a deceptively simple story,
            which seems to owe its origin
            to the Egyptian story of Setme,
                        who observes the elaborate funeral procession of a rich man
                        and the absence of any procession for a poor man
                                    who is being carried to the graveyard.
            Setme thinks the rich are much better off,
                        but his son expresses the desire that Setme, at his death,
                                    will experience the funeral of the poor man.
            Setme is initially devastated that his son seems to be wishing him ill;
                        but then his son takes him on a tour of the realm of the dead,
            and Setme sees an elegantly dressed man seated close by the god Osiris.
                        It turns out that this is the poor man, dressed in the rich man’s clothes,
                        and he is being honoured because his good deeds
                                    had been more numerous than his sins
                                    and he hadn’t been compensated during his earthly life.
            The rich man, however, had more sins than good deeds,
                        and is seen being punished by having a hinge-pin
                        from the gate to the realm of the dead impaled in his right eye.

            The lesson from the Egyptian story seems to be
                        that whoever is good on the earth,
                                    will find that underworld is good to them.
                        Whilst whoever is evil on the earth,
                                    will find that eternity goes badly for them.

This conviction that wrongs will be righted,
            and imbalances redressed, in the afterlife
Was also common in Greek and Roman mythology,
            with the idea of some kind of judgment after death
                        resulting in punishment or reward in eternity
            being found in both Plato and Plutarch.

Interestingly, the Jewish view was less clear-cut,
            and there are a variety of traditions within the Hebrew scriptures
            as to how the Jews thought cosmic justice might work.

What we need to be very alert to is that our contemporary understanding of ‘hell’,
            with all that it means to us,
owes far more to Greco-Roman mythology
            and to some of the developments of theology in the middle ages,
than it does to either the Jewish tradition
            or to the teaching of Jesus.

In the Hebrew Bible,
            there was a tradition, originating from the book of Deuteronomy, which asserted
                        that those who are good will have good lives
                        whilst those who are bad will have bad lives.
And the logic of this was that
            if someone was having a bad life,
            they must in some way have deserved it.
Whilst those who had many good things in life,
            were free to enjoy their blessings that came from God.

However, this rather simplistic cause-and-effect theology
            certainly wasn’t the only attempt to understand the relationship
                        between behavior, and reward and punishment.
The book of Job, for example,
            is an exploration in narrative form
            of why it might be that bad things happen to good people,
            and the conclusion of Job is that the eponymous hero didn’t deserve his fate;
                        rather his troubles were sent to him to test his faith.
However, he still eventually receives an earthy reward
                        for his faithfulness through his difficulties,
            with a new wife and family and possessions given to him
                        at the end of the story
            to compensate him for those that had been taken from him.

It’s actually fairly late in the Jewish tradition
            that the idea of reward and punishment occurring after death
            starts to become part of the thinking.
And even by the time of Jesus, it is a far from universal belief
            that God judges and then rewards or punishes people after death.

For example, the Jewish group known as the Sadducees
            were well known for not having a belief in the afterlife at all (Lk 20.27).
Whilst the Pharisees had a fairly well developed understanding
            of an afterlife that comprised either reward or punishment.

There are three key words which it’s worth knowing about
            if we’re going to try and get to grips
            with the background to the story of the rich man and Lazarus,
and these are Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna.

The first of these, Sheol, is an Old Testament, Hebrew word,
            which is used to describe ‘the place of the dead’
It occurs 65 times throughout the Old Testament,
            and mostly does not appear to mean anything more than ‘the grave’, or just ‘death’,
                        rather than to any understanding of ‘life after death’.
What we know of Sheol from the Old Testament is that it is down, dark, and silent.
            It is the unknown void into which people pass
            and from which they never return.

When the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament as we call it,
            was translated into Greek,
The Greek word Hades was used for the Hebrew word Sheol.

And this brought with it into the Jewish tradition
            all of the Greek connotations that the word Hades had already acquired.

In the tradition of Greek mythology
            the name Hades was primarily used to refer to the god of the underworld,
                        who, together with his brothers Zeus and Poseidon
                        had defeated the Titans to rule over the entire cosmos.
            Zeus got to rule the air, Poseidon got to rule the sea, and Hades got the underworld.

            In time, Hades also came secondarily to refer to the underworld itself

Within the Greek mythology,
            it was possible for people to make visits to Hades,
                        with Heracles learning the secret entrance to and from Hades.

And so it was that the Hebrew concept of Sheol,
            the place of silence and darkness,
started to acquire the characteristics of the Greek underworld Hades,
            where people could have adventures,
            and where exciting or terrible things happened.

This fusion of Sheol with Hades
            led to the development of the idea within Judaism
                        of the afterlife as a place of punishment and reward,
            with Hades being somewhere
                        that both the righteous and the unrighteous might go.
            So, in Acts 2, Jesus is spoken of as going to Hades at his death,
                        returning from there at his resurrection (Acts 2.27,31).

Sometimes in the later Jewish tradition,
            Hades was thought of as a place not so much of punishment,
                        but more like a holding cell,
            where people are detained until some future judgment day.
But sometimes, as in Jesus’ parable,
            it is a place where punishment is already taking place.

The New Testament uses the word Hades only ten times:
            four times in the gospels, a couple of times in Acts,
            and four times in the book of Revelation where it is always teamed up with death.

The third word that we need to know about as a place of judment,
            in addition to Sheol and Hades,
            is the word ‘Gehenna’, a word adapted from the Hebrew ge hinnom,
                        the valley outside Jerusalem
                                    which had been a site of child sacrifice in 2 Kgs 23.10
                        and became a pit for burning garbage.
This word, Gehenna, is usually translated into English as ‘Hell’,
            and typically refers to the place where bad things are burned away.
So, for example, Jesus says it is better to cut off your sinful hand and throw it away
            than it is for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.

And that’s it, as far as Hell is concerned.
            We have the dark silent void of the grave in Sheol.
            We have the Greek mythological underworld of Hades,
            and we have the fiery city rubbish tip of Gehenna.

The problem with the word Gehenna being translated into English as ‘Hell’
            is that just as when Sheol became Hades it inherited all the baggage
                        of the Graeco-Roman understanding of the underworld,
so when Gehenna becomes ‘Hell’ it inherits all the medieval imagery of Hell
            that isn’t part of the Jewish or early Christian tradition.

Hell, as far as the biblical witness is concerned,

contains no pitchforks, no Hieronymus Bosch, no Dante’s inferno,
            no limbo, no purgatory,
            In short, no hell as we often think of it.

And it is within this context
            that we need to encounter Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus.

Jesus is not offering a description of a future post-mortem existence
            where the damned and the saved can see each other across the divide.
He isn’t setting forth a comprehensive account
            of what happens to people when they die.

Rather, he is telling a story
            to make a very important point.
And the key to understanding that point
            lies in just who he is telling the story to.

The clue lies just a few verses earlier, in v. 14:
            ‘The Pharisees, who were lovers of money,
                        heard all this, and they ridiculed him.’

Jesus’ story is aimed at the Pharisees:
            the one Jewish group that had an especially well developed concept
            of who was going to spend eternity suffering apart from God,
            and who was going to spend eternity safe within the embrace of father Abraham.

This parable isn’t Jesus systematically setting out
            his own cosmological understanding
            of the relationship between the here and the hereafter.
Rather, he is engaging, as he does in so many other places,
            with those who think they have a monopoly on the ‘right’ answers
            to the questions of life and death.
And Jesus tells this story to show the Pharisees,
            that their carefully wrought certainties
            might not be so certain after all.

The Pharisees were convinced that by their meticulous religious observances,
            and by their careful ethical practices,
they had earned themselves the right to call the shots
            on who was eternally in,
            and who was eternally out.

And it is precisely this certainty,
            that Jesus is seeking to overthrow in this parable.

The Pharisees were rich, both materially and spiritually,
            and they believed they were rich because they were blessed,
            and they believed that because they were blessed,
                        they would spend eternity with God.
They also believed that those who were not like them,
            and were poor in body and spirit,
                        were that way for a reason,
            and that their poor state would also continue into eternity.

So imagine the effect of Jesus story,
            when the rich and apparently blessed man finds himself in Hades,
with the poor man Lazarus safe with Father Abraham.

Jesus is taking the clinical and judgmental logic of the Pharisees
            and turning it against them.

The warning could not be more stark:
            those who judge others
                        are at most risk of themselves being judged;
            those who do not exercise forgiveness and compassion towards others
                        may not experience forgiveness and compassion themselves.

There are some of us Christians who are very quick to point the finger
            at those whom we are quick to condemn,
And there is a warning here that we ignore at our peril.

It’s interesting that the rich man doesn’t do anything overtly evil to the beggar.
            This rich man is not a wicked or a cruel man.
            In many ways, he was probably a very good man.
But, and it is a very big but, he simply fails to see Lazarus:
            he is blind to the suffering of the poor,
            he cannot see beyond his own comfort and his own security.

And his failure to recognise the humanity of Lazarus,
            is a failure that carries eternal consequences.

You see, whilst we may not want to extrapolate from this parable
            to a medieval view of punishment in the afterlife,
neither does it offer us the opportunity
            of thinking that our lives carry no eternal value.

This is no mandate to eat, drink, and be merry
            for tomorrow we die.

In fact, quite the opposite.
            It seems that the message of Jesus is very clear.
            How we live today determines, in a very real sense, how we shall be eternally.

If we live life for the rewards of the here and now,
            without heeding the call of God to have regard for the lives of others,
then the contribution of our lives to God’s eternity
            might turn out to be less than we would like to think it is.

We need perhaps to be less concerned with our avoiding hell in the hereafter,
            and more concerned with the circles of hell that we create and perpetuate
            for others to inhabit in the here-and-now.

Albert Schweitzer, the theology professor and world-class organist,
            gave up his life of wealth and status,
and became a missionary doctor in Africa.

When asked why, he pointed to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In his mind, the parable seemed spoken directly to Europeans,
            and he said ‘We are the rich man,
                        [whilst] out there in the colonies sits wretched Lazarus.’

This situation has not changed,
            and it is not limited to Africa.

Listen to how Tom Wright puts it:

We have all seen him.
            He lies on a pile of newspapers outside a shop doorway,
                        covered with a rough blanket.
            Perhaps he has a dog with him for safety.
                        People walk past him, or even step over him.
            He occasionally rattles a few coins in a tin or cup, asking for more…
            As I see him, I hear voices.
                        It’s his own fault, they say. He’s chosen it.
                        There are agencies to help him. He should go and get a job.
                        If we give him money he’ll only spend it on drink.
                        Stay away – he might be violent.
            Sometimes, in some places, the police will move him on,
                        exporting the problem somewhere else. But he’ll be back.
            And even if he isn’t, there are whole societies like that.
                        They camp in tin shacks on the edges of large, rich cities.
            From the door of their tiny makeshift shelters
                        you can see the high-rise hotels and office blocks where,
                        if they’re very lucky, one member of the family might work as a cleaner.
            They have been born into debt, and in debt they will stay,
                        through the fault of someone rich and powerful
                        who signed away their rights, their lives in effect, a generation or two ago,
                        in return for arms, a new presidential palace, a fat Swiss bank account.
            And even if rich and poor don’t always live side by side so blatantly,
                        the television brings us together.
So we all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor.

And Lazarus is currently living in hell,
            and it is a hell that others have had a hand in creating.
            It is a hell that we have had a hand in creating.

And Jesus calls those of us who are not currently living in hell,
            to see Lazarus sitting in poverty at the bottom of the pile,
            and he calls us to dip our finger in the water of life
                        and to offer it to Lazarus to cool his tongue.

Poverty is not to be sanctified,
            and neither is wealth to be vilified.
Poverty is not a gift from God but a problem,
            often the result of sin by numerous people,
            which needs relieving.
Wealth may indeed be a blessing of God and the result of hard work,
            but also, as the Greek dramatist Menander put it,
                        ‘property is a veil for many evils’.

Jesus’ parable attacks a particular kind of wealth,
            it attacks the wealth that does not see poverty and suffering.
It attacks the idea that possessions are for one’s own use,
            and that they are owned without responsibility to God and other people.

This is not, as some have feared, an opiate for the poor
            which will keep them satisfied with a handout.
The parable does not tell us how the wealthy are to assist the poor,
            but it insists that the poor are brothers and sisters of the wealthy,
            and that the injustice of the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty
                        cannot be tolerated within God’s eternal perspective.

Our lives matter eternally to God,
            and when the dross is cast into Gehenna to be burned away,
            and when we pass through Sheol to the arms of Father Abraham,
            there will be a question to answer.

And it may well be this:

Did you see Lazarus?

This sermon also borrows and quotes unashamedly from Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, Eerdmans, Cambridge: 2008; and Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, SPCK, London: 2001.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Stewards of dishonest wealth

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 

22 September 2013 

Luke 16:1-15  Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  2 So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'  3 Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'  5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'  6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'  7 Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'  8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  10 "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."  14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  15 So he said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

Amos 8:4-7   Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,  5 saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances,  6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat."  7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

A Story – Based on Luke 16:1-15

I was born into a family that loved God.
            In an unbroken line from Abraham to me,
                        my forbears had sought to serve faithfully the Lord who has saved us.

The weight of my Jewish heritage sat on my shoulders like a golden cloak
            – surrounding all that I ever sought to do or be,
            with a glory and a brilliance that guided my very thoughts.

Since early childhood I had learned to love the Law,
            with all its wisdom and grace.
Its commands lit up the path of my own life,
            as I sought to love the Lord my God
                        with all my heart, with all my mind,
                        with all my soul, and with all my strength.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up entering the priesthood.
            Ever since I could remember, I had wanted nothing more
                        than to serve the Lord with everything I was;
            and no other occupation seemed to offer the same possibilities as being a priest.

The opportunity to spend my days in full-time service of the Lord,
            being recognised as one of those whose lives
                        were dedicated wholeheartedly to his will,
            was something that I could not afford to turn down.
So it was that when I reached adult-hood, at the age of 12,
            I went on, for further education, to the big synagogue
            in the town near where I grew up.

It was at synagogue school that I learned of the different orders of priesthood,
            and I resolved early on that I was going to be the best.
If I was going to dedicate my life to the Lord,
            then it was going to be done properly.

Not for me some half-hearted service,
            diluted with the day-to-day drudgery of employment.
Not for me some mediocre religion
            which consisted of a life of compromise and hypocrisy.

I was going to serve in my master’s house,
            and I was going to do it the very best that I knew how.
I am sure that you can understand this desire, can’t you?
            After all, what is the point in knowing the one true and living God
            if we then go on to live half our lives as if he didn’t exist?

I was never able to understand how people could profess to follow the Lord,
            yet at the same time live their lives as if they had never heard of him
                        – going about their daily business,
                        while confining God to Saturday worship and holy-days.
            If God exists, as I fervently believe he does,
                        surely he deserves more than this?

I resolved to give him everything!
            He was going to reign supreme in every area of my life
                        - in my behaviour, in my relationships, in everything…
            If I was going to be a priest, I was going to be the best.
                        So I began my training as a Pharisee.

The life of a priest has much to commend it.
            I can think of no other way of living
                        that combines all the elements contained within the priesthood.
            The education is second to none.
                        I was trained to think in ways that I had never imagined possible.
                        I understood the Law of the Lord,
                                    and spent many years learning to apply it to every area of life.
                        I learned how it could be interpreted
                                    to cover just about everything that it is possible for humans to do,
                                    and this became my delight.

To show people how God’s claim on their lives
            could affect every waking hour of their existence.
And to be paid for doing it!
            What more could a man ask for?
I would have done it for free,
            but having no independent resources,
                        I accepted the wages that were due to me,
            in order that I might be free to pursue my calling.

Sometimes I thought I must be the richest man on earth!
            I loved my life, I was free from the burden of financial want,
                        and I was able to devote myself to serving the Lord whom I loved.
            But over and above this, I was entrusted with the great privilege
                        of helping others to serve him also.

Can you not share in my delight?
            God had truly been gracious to me,
                        giving me the means and the opportunity to serve him
                                    and share him with others.
            Would you not also desire to live your life as I have lived mine,
                        un-compromised, devoted, set aside?
            Every area of my existence permeated with the Law of God.

From the moment I awoke to the moment I shut my eyes at night,
            it was my delight to obey and live the law,
                        modelling for others how it can be done.
By my public prayers, by my attire,
            by my clear and eloquent exposition of the scriptures,
            I enabled others to see how pure a life devoted to the Lord can be.

Of course, the demands of public piety can take their toll after a while.
            The exterior does not always match up to the interior.
Sometimes I wondered if I was just a hollow shell,
            projecting the Lord for others,
                        while inside I struggled as they struggled.
But the nature of my calling was to be a focus for the community.
            I was set aside to be strong and faithful
                        where others were weak and faithless.
            My service to God was to be found in my service to others.
So I persisted in my prayers, in my careful dress, in my teaching.
            And still they supported me in it.
            I was truly blessed by the Lord.

I wasn’t the only teacher to be found in Palestine, not by a long way!
            And part of my responsibility was listening to, and debating with,
                        other exponents of scripture.
            Weighing what they said, and applying it for the community that I served.

This was how I first came across Jesus of Nazareth.
            A strange man: compelling, yet disconcerting.
Not trained as a priest at all,
            I believe he spent most of his life as a carpenter,
yet he had a command of scripture that I would have given my right arm for!

As was the case with some teachers,
                        he rarely preached sermons.
            He taught by telling stories.
Many professional teachers found this repellent,
            that someone would reduce the exposition of the law
                        to common story-telling.
Yet I found them interesting.
            A creative way of communicating his message.
So I often used to make the effort to stop by
            and listen to him when he addressed the crowds.
I often found myself wondering if I could make use of his technique
            to enhance my own teaching style.

It was on just such an occasion
            that he told his story about the dishonest steward.
This man had been entrusted with handling his master’s affairs,
            and had eventually been called to account
            for his handling of the wealth he had been trusted with.

Just when it looked as if he about to have the rug pulled out from under him,
            since he had been squandering his master’s property,
            he pulled a solution out of the bag which saved his neck.

Caught in his squandering of his master’s goods,
            the steward retrieved the situation by yet further squandering.
He was truly a shrewd man, this steward,
            because if he had attempted to move wealth in his own direction,
            the master could surely have done something about getting it back.
But the steward did the exact opposite
            – he acted for the benefit of others,
                        thereby ensuring that they owed him a debt of gratitude,
                        which he could then call in when he was out of his job.

A very fine story, I thought.
            The steward had been so shrewd in his handling of his affairs,
                        that even his master had to grudgingly commend him in his cleverness.
Even after the steward had been found out in his crime,
                        with his number clearly up,
            he still found a way to swindle his master yet again right under his nose,
                        and in such away that the master, even though on the spot
                                    and alerted to the steward’s ways,
                        could do nothing to restore the situation.

A clever, realistic story,
            and the application, I thought, was clear:
We are to be worldly-wise in the way we deal with the world’s riches,
            and heavenly-wise in the way we deal with heaven’s riches.
Let us use the wealth of this world
            to further our own higher purposes,
            so that we can be free to follow the Lord’s calling on our lives.

You can see how this story would appeal to me.
            After all, was I not doing just what this Jesus was suggesting?
I was living my life holding heaven in one hand
            and the world in the other.

I was dedicated to the Lord, and committed to serving him,
            and I also had the financial support
                        and consequent freedom which enabled me to do this.
I gratefully received the money that came to me,
            treating it as if it was from the Lord himself,
and I used it so that I could fulfil my calling as priest,
            dedicated to the service of the Lord from whom all riches come.

Not for me the disgrace of digging or begging for my living.
            I used what my master gave me,
            to buy myself the freedom to fulfil my calling.

I liked Jesus’ story,
            with its realistic recognition of the nature of the world
                        in which we find ourselves.
After all, which of us is totally free from dishonest wealth?
            All the money we touch
                        must have at some point passed through dishonest hands.
            Who can ever claim that their bankers have behaved with ethical integrity?
                        We don’t ask them to – they would earn us no interest if they did!
            This Jesus seemed to me to have a very firm grasp on the nature of reality.
                        Use worldly wealth for higher purposes.
                        Purify it by our use of it!

These thoughts were going through my mind
            as I stood mulling over the story he had just told,
and it was then that I noticed him looking at me.

He seemed to be concentrating on me particularly.
            I have to say that I found his slightly knowing smile most disconcerting,
                        and his dark brown eyes bore straight through me.
            It was almost as if he and I were the only people there.

He started to quote proverbs:
            “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much,
                        whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much”,
            “if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth,
                        who will trust you with true riches?”,
            “No servant can serve two masters”,
                        “you cannot serve both God and money”.

What had this to do with me!?
            Was he implying that my loyalties were divided?
                        Was he saying that I could not be trusted?
Me! who all my life had sought to be the one who got it right,
            in the midst of a world that was getting it wrong.
Me! who fought against compromise
            and championed integrity.
Me! who prided myself on combining a firm grasp on reality
            with an unswerving love for the Lord.
Me! with my realistic approach
            towards the benefits and rewards of this world.
How dare he?!

I looked back at him, and as I did so I could feel my heart growing angry
            and my gaze growing defiant.
A slow boiling started in the pit of my stomach and rose through me like a fire.

Who did this man think he was?!
            This uneducated carpenter who told stories,
                        this simplistic naïve fool with no grasp on reality!
            What was his point?
                        Why had he told the story of the dishonest steward?
            And why did he keep looking at me?

Why didn’t he turn his gaze to others in the crowd
             – there were many there who were far more compromised than I.
            There were many there who never even attempted to serve God.
And yet here was I, dedicated to the service of the Lord,
            and he was condemning me!

But his words gnawed away at me,
            sapping my self-confidence.
As is often the way with those who appear so sure of themselves,
            uncertainty always lurks not far beneath the surface,
and the expression of his face wasn’t so much one of condemnation
            as it was a look of pity and compassion.

Could it be that I had misunderstood his story?
            Could it be that I had misunderstood something about my own life?
            Could it be that I was wrong about what God was asking of me?

But then the anger returned,
            as I realised that this Jesus seemed to be implying
            that I was hopelessly compromised.

This simpleton without two shekels to rub together
            seemed to be implying that I had sold out.
That I was serving money not God.
            That I was not fit to be trusted with heavenly riches.

But what does it mean to be trustworthy with worldly wealth anyway?
            What was he getting at?
Had I not done as the steward in his story had done?
            And had not the steward been commended?

And then I stopped.
            And a cold sweat started to break out on my forehead
            and ran down my spine like a chill.

I realised that that was not the point of Jesus’ story.

The point this carpenter was making
            was to do, not with human wealth at all,
                        but with eternal riches.

I was using my wealth here and now.
            Living in relative luxury, buying myself my freedom to live now.
Everything about me was focussed on the present.
            And I justified my existence on the basis of my life today.
Believing that all the good things in my life
            were mine by right,
            given to me by God as his response to my faithful service.

But what if, just what if, none of this meant anything to God.
            What if my life today, with its freedom and ease of living,
                        was worthless in God’s sight?

What if God had trusted me with such wealth and privilege for a higher purpose,
            and I had been dedicating my life to simply squandering it on myself,
and then publicly justifying my actions in the sight of others
            by claiming that I was doing God’s will.

That surely would be the worst kind of waste!
            And it would make me the worst kind of hypocrite!

Then, truly I would be like the steward in the story,
            but the steward before master caught up with him.
Using his position to live a life of ease and luxury,
            squandering his master’s wealth on himself.

What if this was where I fitted into Jesus’ story:
            a privileged and wealthy man
                        making the most of my life and my opportunities,
            believing that the master had entrusted all this to me,
                        for me to use as I saw fit.

But what would it do to my life, to the way I lived,
            if the master still wanted me to squander his wealth,
                        but not on myself.
What if the master wanted me to waste his wealth on others?
            What would it look like if I became like the steward
                        after the master had caught up with him?
            What if the Lord wants me to take his wealth,
                        not just my material prosperity, but all the riches of life and eternity,
                        and start giving it away freely to others?

What if the purpose of having
                        is not to have and enjoy,
            but to give away
                        to the benefit of others.

What if the master is more pleased with servants
            who win him friends by generosity and grace,
than he is by those who win him profits
            by protectionist practices.

Is it possible that God could be that rich?
            Is it possible that God could be that generous?

This would certainly be a different kind of God.
            This would be a God who loves and gives, and gives and loves.
A God whose eternal treasure-house is inexhaustible.

Maybe the steward in Jesus’ story was commended
            because he finally realised
                        that by squandering his master’s wealth on others,
                                    he was exchanging it for eternal riches.
            Substituting his here-and-now treasures
                        for assets that endure
            Trading his present luxurious living
                        for a welcome and a home that has everlasting value.

What if that was why Jesus kept looking at me?
            What if the Lord is displeased with the way I have used
                        that which has been entrusted to me?

What if he wants me to squander his wealth on others?

            Is God really that rich?
            Is God really that generous?

Questions for consideration

Is wealth always dishonest?
Who is wealthy?
How would God have us use the money and resources we have?