Appearance and Reality (Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-10; Luke 16:19-26)
Last week’s sermon tried to make some sense out of the parable of the Dishonest Manager that begins Luke chapter 16. That difficult story is only found in Luke. Perhaps he was the only one brave enough to tackle it, or, perhaps, it was particularly relevant in the community of faith he was addressing. The core-teaching of it was that, while there is a danger to using money and possessions to do God’s work, it is necessary to use them. It is, therefore, necessary that disciples of Jesus have as many street smarts as secular people do about the use of money, although Christian street smarts look different in that they use money as one tool for ministry, and not as the goal of ministry. The acquisition and keeping of money and possessions is never in the driver’s seat. It is crucial to use money in ways that enhance relationships, especially with those who can’t pay us back. Our aim is not what’s in it for us.
Today’s Epistle Lesson chimes in about the use of money, and contains one of the most misquoted lines in the Bible about it. I often hear, “Well, you know, Reverend, ‘Money is the root of all evil.’” The passage actually reads that it is the love of money that is a root (not the only one) of all kinds of evil – and, in the Bible “evil” almost always means “behaviour harmful to other things and people,” rather than moral degeneracy. So, in reality, this verse makes the same point as last week’s Gospel Lesson that concluded: “No one has two masters, you cannot serve God and money.” The point of both is that loving God by loving others rests at the core of our priorities, convictions, and values as Christians. Again, money, property, and things are only one tool toward that goal of loving God by loving others.
Each one of our texts this morning deals with the difference between appearance and reality as regards what leads to a healthy community of faith. Into what will we want to put the resources of our time and effort, not to mention our money? These texts tell us to think carefully, it is often the case, within God’s vision of the world, that appearances can be deceiving. What may seem to be a good way to go, may not turn out to be, and what seems, on the surface, to be dangerous and risky, might be the very thing that will hold God’s future for our particular community. As I said a few minutes ago, street smarts for Christians are often different than in the world at large.
We start today with a story from that difficult and convoluted Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. The story begins with two ominous facts: Jerusalem (God’s city) is under siege and Jeremiah (God’s prophet) is under arrest. The number one super power on earth (Babylon) is knocking at Jerusalem’s door. This passage is dated to 587, the year the Holy City fell. Because Jeremiah’s people were God’s special people and their land was God’s special land, common wisdom was that no one would ever be able to defeat them, for God was on their side. This language still is popular with religious and political leaders of a certain type.
Jeremiah’s perspective on all this had always been that God expected the People of God to live in ways that modeled love, justice, and righteousness. He told anybody who would listen (and many who wouldn’t) again and again that centring their values and energies on becoming powerful and wealthy would lead to disaster because God had not intended this people to make that use of power. As I say, Jeremiah had preached this message to the point of being tiresome about it – thus he found himself in jail and as unpatriotic. In fact, his message was that
Babylon was going to win. Can you imagine how we’d deal with someone who said that was the will of God? It was becoming more and more difficult to shut him up, however, because Jeremiah’s words were coming true. Babylon was winning. Their armies were “right there” and the future looked grim for the People of God. Living according to what seemed to many the best way forward was really only an appearance, a phantom. And then it happened…
In the midst of all this gloom, Jeremiah’s cousin offered to sell him a piece of property out in the suburbs of Jerusalem, in Jeremiah’s little home town of Anathoth. “Jeremiah,” he said, “the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” This refers to the Old Testament practice of keeping a piece of land in a family so that the family’s inheritance might be kept intact. It wouldn’t take a very wise financial advisor to see that such a thing made absolutely no fiscal sense whatsoever. It was a stupid risk and a terrible way to use the limited resources Jeremiah had. The whole land, especially Jerusalem and environs, was about to be overrun by a foreign army that was going to sweep away all property and, pretty much, everything else. Jeremiah, himself, was in jail. Who would want to take a risk on such a rotten deal?! Well, as this story has it, Jeremiah was convinced that buying this foolish piece of property was actually what God wanted him to do. And he did. We are carefully told how much money it cost, how the legal deed was written, witnessed, and put aside for safekeeping. Why is this story told? Verse 15 tells us why and I quote: “houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” This is a way of saying, that by putting his resources to this use, Jeremiah was planting seeds of hope for the future. God’s people were in for a rough ride, and his preaching had been consistent in that, but by putting his money down, he recognized that God was not finished with the People of God. Life would continue, granted in different ways, for these people. Jeremiah planted seeds of hope. Hope for the future is always planted in a grim present. And it truly takes vision, resourcefulness and, “the eye of faith” to plant such seeds in such supposedly stony ground.
The Gospel Lesson tells almost the exact opposite story, of a person who chose not to plant seeds of hope for the future, but was content to put all effort and resources into maintaining the power and prestige of the present moment. Assuming that it would always be as it had always been. And it was disastrous.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a famous story, which we looked at in depth a number of years ago in TEE. We read just enough of the story this morning to get the point. The Rich Man put all his resources into what seemed a safe enough institution: the cultural system of his day that allowed him to luxuriate in excess not just while others starved but because they did. It would have risked a good deal of scorn and opposition from neighbours and even the religious establishment to take care of the poor beggar Lazarus instead. One of the most common religious thoughts of Jesus’ opponents long ago (that continues today) is that the poor deserve to be poor. God meant some to be rich and some to be poor. After all, we know that the poor are lazy, and if they’d only work they wouldn’t have to be poor. I was told that by a visitor to this church not over six months ago.
In the story, the rich man didn’t find out that he put his belief and effort into the wrong things, and that he should have spent more time risking himself by caring about and for these poor people who were his neighbours, thus modeling the God of love and grace rather than assuming that he’d just catch a disease from them. “What’s this, the beggar Lazarus, my neighbour? I think not!” Well, I’m afraid so, for in the afterlife his position was reversed with the poor beggar Lazarus. Lazarus was in paradise and the rich man was in torment, and he was puzzled deeply by what was happening because, even his religion had encouraged him to spend his time with what in what was culturally and religiously safe and comforting to his prejudice.
Of course, it’s just a story. But remember when biblical people wanted to say something important they told a story. So, when you hear a story in the Bible, listen up. Don’t be deceived by cultural, and even cultural-religious appearances. It is wise to risk spending ourselves in hopeful things; taking care of people, ministry, caring and sharing, thus planting seeds of hope for the future. No matter who tells you otherwise, these are the values of the kingdom. If you want to live life by God’s values, spend yourselves in hope.
The New Testament Epistles are teaching documents. They strip away all the indirection of story-telling from such places as Jeremiah 32 and Luke 16. Epistles say what they intend to teach without all that. So, we find that our lesson from 1 Timothy 6 presents us with a stark contrast in ways of living within a community of faith. Once again, we are presented with the appearance and the reality. Once again, the appearance seems to be the safer, better, more secure way to go, and God’s way the risk, but it’s just the opposite. Some (we won’t mention names) live a Christian life because they want to gain something – even if that’s eternal life. We want to make sure we “get” or “find” or “win” eternal life, whatever the right verb is. We want to remove the risks from it and be safe, so we want to follow as many rules as we can to make sure we get it or find it or win it. What we may fail to realize is that this approach treats the life of faith as another thing, like wealth, power, or prestige, and putting “things” at the core of our convictions is really the culture’s way of living in the world, which can tempt us to use the common ways of getting and maintaining things in our culture to navigate our lives in the community of faith. And the two things are not designed to go together. Again, we cannot serve God and mammon (stuff, even faith). It used to be that belonging to the “right” church was truly a way to get and maintain wealth and power in the United States. Those days are pretty much over everywhere but in isolated places, but it is still true that it is possible to try to control the power and the money in a church, so as to have institutional control. Attempting to live by controlling others and institutions almost always leads to conceited thinking – thinking that we are more important than anyone else in the body. It leads us to think that we’re the only ones working, we’re the only ones who are right. This, in turn, of course, leads to controversy about words (“Now what do you mean by that”?!), and thence, to envy, dissension, slander, suspicion, and wrangling. Having this kind of centre to our Christian lives means we can actually begin to see even godliness, that is, imitating God in the world, as a means to the goals of prestige, power, whatever it might be, within the church or the world.
This Epistle, then, contrasts all that with taking the risk to spending ourselves on the hopeful spiritual values of service in love to others at the core of our Christian lives. Although this way is riskier on the surface, the writer of the Epistle describes it as “great gain.” Centring one’s life in things apparently brings gain, but real gain comes another way altogether. We gain by focusing on “godliness combined with contentment.” We actually gain by combining our godliness (our imitation of God) not with ambition, but with “contentment.” In other words, the great gain of Christian faith is that it leads to contentment with what one has. This text makes it clear that the life of the Christian community is not one of “getting more for itself,” but of being content, and, in fact of living by giving ourselves to others and planting seeds of hope for the future, in imitation of God who gave us all things. And again, this choice makes all the difference in the kind of place we are as a community and the kind of place we can be.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.