Contentment and Generosity (16th Pentecost, Proper 21C)
“Contentment and Generosity”
16th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 21C)
1 Timothy 6:6-19
There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But 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. 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. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time-- he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. As for those who in the present age are rich, 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. 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, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
Jesus said, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.' 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. 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.' He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 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.'"
This morning’s Gospel is one of the many parables that Jesus told. It’s a story with a strong moral. We have a few characters: a rich man, a poor man named Lazarus, and Abraham who appears in the afterlife.
The rich man enjoys his life with many finer things -- great big feasts, and nice clothes. But Lazarus suffers mightily, struggling with hunger, disease, and homelessness. And Lazarus experienced all of this right outside the rich man’s house, yet it seems like the rich man never paid him any attention.
After they both die, the two men’s experiences are reversed. The rich man suffers in Hades (the Greek mythological “land of the dead”), while Lazarus is comforted by the angels and Abraham, the great ancestor of Israel who we learn about in the Old Testament book of Genesis. And somehow, they can see each other and talk with each other, though Jesus says they are very far away.
This parable is fantastical and dream-like. It gives us some insight about how our lives here affect our eternal futures, and how God views human society. It’s not intended to be a direct picture of the afterlife. (The images of the afterlife in the Bible are not consistent and don’t line up with medieval art and pop culture depictions of “heaven” and “hell”.)
After an exchange, the rich man asks for help and Abraham says he can’t help him. The rich man wants to help his living relatives, but Abraham denies that too, and the story ends abruptly with Abraham’s rebuttal.
So what’s the lesson to learn here? This is not a very hopeful story for anyone who could be considered rich. Is Jesus saying that rich people are all bad? How are the rich and the poor supposed to interact?
Perhaps St. Paul can help us: “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But 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. 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.”
Paul helps us see that the problem is the LOVE of money. If we love having money and accumulating stuff, our love for God and for our neighbor gets distorted. We no longer know how to prioritize things properly because we are distracted by our own selfish desires. This can lead to dehumanizing other people, ignoring their needs, and believing that poor and needy people deserve their suffering.
This was the rich man’s problem in Jesus’ parable. He was so consumed with his own wealth, pleasure, and satisfaction, that he never viewed Lazarus as a fellow human being, an equal, a brother. He viewed Lazarus as a dispensable servant. He felt entitled to what he had, even asking Abraham to “send Lazarus” to comfort him and then “send him” to his living brothers.
This rich man had a slave master’s mindset. Throughout this story, the rich man never addresses Lazarus directly. It would be beneath him to do so. Instead he speaks to Father Abraham, a wealthy landowner like himself. He acted like he and Abraham were men, worthy of dignity and respect, and Lazarus was a slave to be ordered around to do the bidding of the aristocrats like Abraham and himself.
The love of money causes people to use and abuse others for their own gain. This is the sin at the heart of America’s deepest, darkest sins: the conquest and massacre of Native Americans, the Atlantic slave trade (with its kidnapping, forcible migration, and torture of West African people), the longstanding institution of chattel slavery in this country, or its bastard children: Jim Crow, mass incarceration, white supremacy, and environmental destruction. These horrible institutions were all birthed by greed. They were all driven by a love for money that superseded love for other human beings. We can treat people worse than animals if it will make us a dollar.So what is to be done in the face of such human cruelty and violence? What can we the inheritors of this systematic dehumanization and oppression do in response? What can we the beneficiaries of such institutions do to repent?
Well, we must get to the spiritual heart of the matter. What is at the root of this evil behavior? What drives a human being to treat another with such disdain and cruelty? What can make someone so callous to the experience of another? At the heart is the Love of Money.
So how can we avoid such a mindset? What can we do to avoid repeating the traumas our ancestors endured and/or inflicted on others? St. Paul says to find contentment. Seek joy in what we have. Offer thanksgiving to God and be grateful with one another. Respect the things we have instead of constantly craving more.
Throughout the Bible, God teaches us that our desires are often twisted. We want things we don’t need and are willing to hurt others or betray our commitments in order to get what we want. We might receive all that we need, but human beings have trouble saying, “I’m content.”
Psalm 78:29-30 recalls the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after they escaped slavery in Egypt. You might remember that in the desert, they complained to Moses that they were hungry and God send down manna, strange bread from heaven that they could eat every day. Then they were full but complained that they wanted meat too. So God sent down quails to add to their diet. But then, even though they had all they needed, the complaining didn’t stop.
The Psalm says, “So they ate and were well filled, for [God] gave them what they craved. But they did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths.”
Likewise, St. Paul says that if we have food and drink, it will be enough. Because if we seek inordinate wealth and deprive others of their necessities, we are repeating that slave master mindset. We are thinking of ourselves as better than others. We are valuing our own comfort over another’s well being.
One of the great problems our society faces is that while there are many who have food and drink, far too many people are deprived of these basic necessities. We live in the wealthiest country on earth and there are still millions of men, women, and children go to sleep hungry every night, or who don’t have a home to rest in. According to 2017 statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture, 15 million American households are food insecure (https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-hunger-us). That’s 15 million households, not people. So there are likely over 40 million "Lazaruses" in the USA today.
The untamed pursuit of wealth has tainted this country’s moral compass. We have lost the ability to see one another as God sees us. We have lost the ability to see people outside the lenses of race or class. We struggle to see the face of Jesus Christ in the men who sleep on our church steps; we struggle to see the women who ask us for food or rent money as beloved children of God.
One of the ironies of this story is that the rich man turns to Abraham and asks him to “Have mercy on me.” This is the same thing that we pray to God in our own worship. At certain times of the year, at the beginning of our service, we don’t say/sing “Glory to God,” but instead the simple, ancient prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” This is the same Greek word used when people beg for alms. The word for “alms” just means “mercy.” So after a lifetime of ignoring beggars, the rich man has become a beggar too. And because he has not overcome his slave master’s mindset, his superiority complex, Abraham tells him the same thing he told others, “No, I can’t. I won’t.”
The internal solution for greed is contentment and the external solution is generosity. We need to learn to open our tightly closed hands. We need to continue to give generously to our churches, to any organization that cares for the poor and needy in our midst, and even directly to those people we meet in dire straits.
Even as this church encourages its members to be more generous, St. Matthew’s is also striving to be a more generous community. Our budget is tight every year. We don’t have a lot of leftover money (sometimes none at all), but we continue to commit ourselves to supporting just and charitable causes. We continue to provide relief to those in need through the Rector’s Discretionary Fund. We support the ministry of Emmaus House with in-kind donations, and monetary gifts. We raise support for Food for the Poor, Episcopal Relief and Development, and others.
And we have recently committed to supporting the new Savannah Area Interfaith Justice Ministry. This ministry will use the power of organized people from churches around our city to put pressure on the wealthy and powerful. We’ll use our organized voices to speak up for the "Lazaruses" of this world who don’t usually get an audience with the rich men who feast sumptuously at their tables. We are always working to put our money where our mouth is, because we are content with what we have and in the words of Jesus, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Amen.