1 Timothy 6:6-19 & Luke 16:19-31 Take hold of life
Reflection by Mart the Rev
Let me start with a declaration, much as I did last July when the Rich Man & Lazarus parable came up in our year-long parable series: I am more the rich man in the story than I am the poor man. I fit a way more easily in that category than I fit in Lazarus’ place. While I can assure you that I am by no means anywhere near ‘rich’ as in those who have heaps of money, nevertheless, I am, on a global scale, much more like the rich man without a name than I am like the poor man with a name. And so, I suspect, are you. Thus I have a bias, and whatever I say this morning will reflect that bias, and wittingly or unwittingly I will soften things down to do whatever I can to protect and justify my place in the scheme of things. In that sense I am a poor preacher. Do as I say, not as I do. Here’s the truth: I have just been on a ‘Grand Tour’ and Anne and I are about to build our old church into a house with the hope that there’s a little bit of change after the building is completed. But by the time it is finished it will be modest but comfortable home, and it will seem like a mansion to a majority of people on the planet. Therefore, who am I to offer an interpretation this morning? Maybe I should sit down right now. Those in favour please say ‘Yes!’ (You had an opportunity right there!).
I’m interested in the nature of Paul’s advice to Timothy about riches. He offers some gentle truths. Maybe today we can negotiate our way into the stark truth of the parable by reflecting on some of these more gentle truths.
#1. ‘There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.’
I wonder to what degree wealth and anxiety are interconnected. I picture in my mind a form of bell-curve. I suspect those with the least have very high anxiety about where their daily meal will come from. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than wondering if my family would have sufficient food to survive the day. At the top of the bell-curve might be the sense of peace that comes with having the security of there being sufficient. Not necessarily abundance, but enough. Somewhere after that the slide begins. Sufficient becomes not enough. Or, those with sufficient worry about the possibility of scarcity and feel the need to generate plenty of surplus for security. It seems to me that our consumer-culture trades on these fears – in a consumerist culture there is no contentment with enough. Even too much is still not enough, and so we fill our lives with more and more, even though the desired sense of well-being can never be achieved. Because we know, through decades of gossip pages that the wealthy aren’t often any happier than other people, they just have different things to worry about.
An outstanding feature of our church life is the generosity of people. It warms my heart to see how our congregational giving has remained strong even in this long season where many people have had to manage the combination of a fairly static level of fixed income and there has been a prolonged period of extremely low interest rates yielding very little if you are reliant on your investments in order to get by. It suggests to me that there is a high level of contentment combined with godliness and it flies in the face of some of the anxiety-filled messages of gloom out there.
The godliest people I have met seem far more bothered about the lot of others than themselves and there is a sense of peace about them that is rather attractive and usually inspiring.
#2 ‘We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.’
Oh isn’t that the truth! I can’t make out what the resurrection life looks like in terms of something beyond our earthly lives. I believe and trust that God with us doesn’t stop being God with us when we breathe our last breaths, but how that actually works is an utter mystery to me. But I believe that the resurrection life is as this worldly as anything that follows and that in Christ we get to participate in it and live it today. Given that we can’t take stuff with us, why do we immerse ourselves in and invest in so much stuff? Does it distract us from the life that really matters? I wonder if this is the chasm that Jesus talks of that exists between the rich man and Lazarus. By immersing ourselves and creating a dependency on stuff, do we make a divide so wide that we no longer know how to even connect with what Jesus would call the eternal and soulful things? It seems that that is the risk if we aren’t practicing a healthy balanced existence, where gratitude for, and contentment with what is enough, is matched by generous living. ‘Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction,’ says Paul, rather emphatically.
#3 ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.’
Yep, greed makes for ugly behaviour. I’m interested in the ‘pierced themselves with many pains’ phrase. I’ve never thought of the desire for more and more as being like self-inflicted stabbings. I suppose if you have pierced yourself over and over again then you begin to be impervious to the subtleties of the senses… you slowly become unable to see, and hear, and feel the weight that most others have to bear in order for you to have your life of plenty. Does the love of money desensitise us? Maybe we live in such opulence that we can no longer trust ourselves to answer that truthfully. ‘Shun all this,’ says Paul, ‘pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness…take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called.’
#4 ‘In the presence of God, who gives life to all things … keep the commandment without spot or blame.’
Paul seems to be saying that giving is at the core of our existence – all life is a gift from God. Therefore it is not for us to then cling to what we are given. To cling is to claim an alternative version of life as if there is no giver. Generosity is at the heart of life. ‘As for those who in the present age are rich,’ says Paul, ‘command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.’ Command… Interesting!
(But wait there’s more…) #5 ‘They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future.’
I happen to look at life as a process of maturing. I seem to forever be in the business of growing up. It seems to be taking a while, but I am hopeful! I figure that a life of practicing things like kindness, generosity, truthfulness, compassion, and faithfulness, will, over time, make me kind, generous, truthful, compassionate, and faithful. I still have a fair way to go on all of these, but I know it will make a good foundation for the future. I figure that growing these kinds of practices in my life will help me let go and slip on more easily when my dying time comes, as none of these ways of being, none at all, have elements of clinging to them. They are giving postures, not clinging postures. They seem to have the qualities of a rare kind of freedom to them – an unfettered freedom – I will not be owned by stuff and enslaved to things. I will have lived big-heartedly. I will have lived without entitlement. I will be less held back by regrets over my poor choices, unlike the rich man in the parable.
Finally, #6 ‘so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.’
I wonder about what I invest in quite a bit. There is welcome scrutiny about whether our financial investments build life or destroy life – ethical investment and so on. There’s plenty of money to be made in investing in businesses that gain their profit through exploitation of people and earth’s precious resources. I think there is a growing scrutiny about the motivations and collateral damage of such businesses and I am all for that scrutiny. I love the counter-cultural generosity of what the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates are doing with their billions… they live modestly, their kids do the chores like putting out the rubbish bins, and they happen to be moving mountains like ridding the world of polio and smallpox, stopping people from dying from AIDS, and investing in key infrastructure in partnership with communities where the poorest of the poor live. But I don’t have much to invest in that sense… there’s another form of investing that I am mostly interested in – I think it is wrapped up in Paul’s use of the phrase ‘take hold of life.’ Be about living and bringing life to things. Give of yourself for life-bringing things. Jesus makes the call that he came to bring life in all its fullness – in its abundance. I think we know that the prosperity gospel preachers have got it wrong when they preach the abundance of riches that come to the faithful (mainly themselves). Fullness of life is an outcome of a posture isn’t it? A humble posture crafted by a commitment to live life with generosity and kindness, with an ethic shaped by a sense of ‘us’ rather than ‘me-first,’ and with a heart for those whose anxiety is caused by constantly being ‘without’ rather than having too much ‘with.’ I think we are to take hold of that life and live it!