Lectionary passages for Sept. 29. Amos6:1a, 4-7, Ps 146, 1 Tim. 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Talking about money is always touchy. A few years ago, after I preached on passages like these, I had a number of people make comments. For some people, they hadn't heard pastors preach on this topic, they said it was usually the treasurer or some representative from an outside church organization. Others said they thought it was courageous to take it on. Still others thought it should be done more often. Of course there were many quiet people, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them would rather that pastors just keep quiet about matters of wealth. What happens for you? Where do you have discussions about money and it's use?
The lectionary passages this week won't allow us to keep quiet about the use of wealth. They urge us to think deeply about wealth, generosity, contentment, and what sort of importance we place on riches. If we are really honest about what we read in the Bible, we should probably be studying and preaching a whole lot more about these themes! We should be talking about money in our families, with trusted friends, and especially among people of faith. (Just for fun sometime, I'd like to see a 'red letter' edition of the Bible that highlights all the passages talking about poverty and riches!)
We don't like to talk about money because we've convinced ourselves it is a private matter. We hesitate to ask each other what we earn, or spend, or give, or waste, or hoard. There are some good reasons for that, but the extent of our silence also means we are not able to hold each other accountable, it's hard to encourage or support positive changes, and it's hard to know how to help or who needs help, or how to ask for help. Our economy drives all of us and it's hard to handle money whether we think we have too much or too little of it.
One thing that makes me hesitant to preach about the use of wealth is the risk of sending out "guilt trip" kind of signals into our community. Guilt isn't the best motivator for right living and sharing. Love and true caring are far superior, longer lasting, and more joy inducing for the community of believers. I'd rather be in a poorer community that is giving happily and out of love than in a wealthy one that gives out of obligation. (Of course, usually there is a mix of these feelings going on. I hope we strive for and encourage the more joyful direction.)
It's interesting to think about how these scriptures characterize the wealthy. None of them condemn the rich for having money. Amos says; "alas for those who are at ease...and are not grieved". It's okay to have your needs met-but not if you don't care about others. The Psalm says that happiness comes from trusting God. Timothy says that if you have food and clothes, you should be content. That in "eagerness to be rich some have wandered and pierced themselves with many pains." Not all the rich are lost, but some are. In Luke, the rich man is never condemned for being rich. His problem is that he has walked past the poor man every day not even sharing the crumbs that fell from his table. In all the readings, the problem is the focus on self-riches and lack of concern for others.
I am quite intrigued by Luke's encouragement to be content. What does this take? How can we be truly content? Is it easier to be content when you are rich, or poor, or somewhere in between? Once the basic needs are met, like Luke says, I think contentment has a lot more to do with trusting God than anything else. Riches or lack of, health or lack of, life and death, these happen to everyone. Contentment does not happen to everyone, we have to work at it.