The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21C)
25 September 2016
O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running to obtain thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Timothy 6:11-19
Last week we heard Jesus speak those famous hard words, “you can not serve God and mammon.” I suggested that Jesus is not asking us to make that dualistic decision to turn away from our physical realities—a reality I believe we seek to escape at our peril—and look only to the heavens. He is asking us to value love, relationship, the divine intervention into time and space in the Incarnation over the matter itself. I suggested that what we do here matters, and it matters a great deal. How we handle our daily lives, how we handle mammon, makes a difference. We are called to handle mammon, not serve it.
Today’s lessons continue to explore the ways in which we are to deal with that mammon, which, by the way, is the Aramaic word for riches that made its way as is into Greek and Latin. By the fourteenth century it appears in English as a proper noun and the name for the personification of Evil Riches itself. We encounter Mammon-the-person in all three of today’s lessons and we are shown how riches, wealth, material possessions are to be treated and regarded, and ultimately to be fit into the work of God.
In Amos we hear the admonition:
Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
The slaughtered animals do no honour to God. The oil of anointing does not heal them. Music does not draw them closer to God, rather they sing "idle songs." Used correctly each of these earthy activities puts us into right relationship with God and each other. Again it is not the things themselves that are evil. Rather, it is that they place these objects and possessions at the centre of their lives rather than God, Love itself.
This is certainly what Timothy is getting at when he says,
As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed
It has become almost a cliche to talk about focusing on the riches that truly matter, and it is an easy way to tell those who do not have possessions that they are perhaps better off without them. We have used this kind of language to romanticise poverty and keep poor people in their place. We humans all need the things that make life livable and more than that we all need the things that point the way to God. The food offered in sacrifices, the healing power of medicines like the oil of anointing, the beautiful music that gives us a glimpse of the transcendent. All these are things that all people, rich and poor, need. Placing our hope in the true riches is looking to the Love that created us, sustains us, and connects us all with each other and with God, it is using the gifts of creation and not turning them into false gods.
This brings us to the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Dives, as he was called in Medieval England). Here, too, we can fall into the trap of romaticising Lazarus’ poverty. He wasn’t burdened with Dives’ riches and so reaped the heavenly reward. If only we were poor then life would be so much easier and we would receive divine favour. But it isn’t so easy. Luke’s readers were not the Lazaruses of the Roman Empire, but rather those who had stuff, who could read, who travelled, who had some measure of class privilege. Luke’s readers are like Dives' brothers, like many of us. Abraham is clear that all the evidence we need, all the instruction we need for how to conduct our lives, how we can live so that there are fewer and fewer Lazaruses, is already there for us to see, if only we have our eyes open. Abraham said to the rich man, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.”
It may be unfashionable today to speak of Saint Luke’s idea that to those to whom much is given much is expected, but this idea still has enduring value. When we translate it into the current conversation about privilege what we can say is that it is incumbent upon those to whom society cedes power by virtue of their gender, race, or class to recognise how they are favoured and put that privilege to work breaking down the systems that oppress people and cooperating with God in the work of reconciliation and Love. As Timothy puts it “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”
We have seen and experienced the Paschal Mystery, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and seen that Love is stronger than death, that we are called to lives oriented towards love and to use the gifts we have been given in the world that God created and said was good to place that Love at the centre. If we do this, we change everything, help God change everything.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Ember Saturday, 24 September 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume