Trip or Trap?
a homily bassed on Luke 16:19-31
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall
Its all God - thats why Im a millionaire," a wealthy man
said at the campmeeting revival. "I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in
my life. Why, I remember the turning point in my life: I had just earned my first dollar
and I went to a church service that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his
work. I knew I only had a dollar bill in my pocket and had to either give it all to
Gods work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole
dollar-everything I had-to God. God blessed that decision and allowed me to become a
millionaire-because I learned to give my all to him."
There was an awed silence as he moved toward his seat. As he sat down, a little
old lady sitting in the same pew poked him in the side and said, "I dare you to do it
The millionaire didnt want to push his luck with God. But I do commend him
for one thing: he wasnt afraid to talk about money at church.
Have you ever noticed how little money-speak comes up in conversation around
congregations? You sure dont hear much about treasures or money from me. One
sociologist who has also noticed how little we talk about money says that our attitudes
toward money have become a personal choice-just like our faith. Just as many of us seldom
talk about our faith in public, we seldom discuss the way we spend our money. We consider
our treasures as a private matter, our personal choice.
In a recent survey, when asked "how often in the past year you discussed your
personal finances with anyone outside your immediate family, 82% said they had never or
hardly ever discussed their income and 92% said that they had never discussed their
practice of giving to the church.
But when we hear a piece of the gospel like we did this morning, we know that
Jesus is not an American nor is he Pennsylvania Dutch. He is so blunt about money and
treasures. We almost want to say, "Shhhh Jesus, youre embarrassing us. We
dont talk about that around here. Our pastor doesnt even talk about that.
Could you please talk about the Good Samaritan instead? Or the seven deadly sins, or the
Second Coming? Anything but our wallets - thats kind of a . . . well, ah . . . a
Jesus doesnt sit behind his keyboard using the thesaurus to soften his
words. He breaks the moneyspeak taboo that weve set up about money. Even more
damaging is that no one could hush him up about the subject. Did you know that money or
treasures is what Jesus talked about most? One writer says, "sixteen of Jesus
thirty-eight parables were about how to handle money and possessions. The Bible offers 500
verses on prayer, less than that on faith, but over 2,000 verses on money and
Several weeks ago I was in Warsaw returning from a grocery store and walking down
one of the main streets. On either side of this expansive boulevard towered beautifully
renovated buildings mixed among striking glass-sided corporate offices and stores.
But as I rounded a corner, I came almost nose-to-nose with a man. He lifted his
arm to shield his face and then I noticed it: he had no fingers on one of his hands. Just
a pink rounded paw. Maybe he had some fingers on the other hand, but I didnt notice.
I was immediately immobilized by the stench of rotting flesh and the gruesome sight of
this man. I had no time to react, to turn my head, to ignore the man. He was literally in
my face. His feet were wrapped in dirty bandages, but I could tell that he was also
missing toes. I wondered if this man were a true leper or perhaps he had been mutilated by
the Russian Mafia, or maimed by some other disease.
I could speak no Polish and he no English, but I knew instinctively what I should
do, what I was obliged to do, what I must do: he needed a handout, some pocket change,
some groceries from my bag. Though I was later ashamed with my response, I argued inside.
I was on vacation, for crying out loud-trying to get away from people that demanded so
much pastoral care and assistance from me. I felt accosted and held hostage by such
grotesque need. In the end, I reached into my grocery bag and gave the man some token of
my concern. Of that too, I am now ashamed. I could have done more.
My wife and I walked the final block to the hotel in silence; we had been
unsettled and interrupted from a morning of sightseeing and shopping, a morning of
enjoying magnificent architecture. Lazarus had intruded into our lives with glaring need
and wounds. I wouldnt want this person at the door of my house every day. He
reminded me too much of that other part of the world that I was on vacation from. I had
run head on into Lazarus Jesus parable.
Standing outside beautiful 12th century cathedrals in Warsaw you will see Death.
True to our imagination, Death stands shrouded in burlap, tall, and with a rough staff in
hand. At the base of this living statue is a little tin pan for donations. When a curious
passerby tosses a zloty into the pan, Death suddenly stirs and lifts its head and raises
its staff. Thunk! Down comes the rough, thick staff on to the cobbled stones sending
echoes down the corridors of the narrow street. Unsuspecting passersby are startled and
embarrassed by the shrieks theyve emitted.
What an imaginative way to fund church renovation!
Reminds me of this Sundays gospel lesson: Death stands as the unseen but
ever present guard within the story about two people who live within seeing distance of
each other, but on other sides of the tracks. Jesus replays the basic plot: each day is
the same. One is dumped on the doorstep of the other in hopes that a friend would take
pity and give a handout. Turns out, Jesus says, that his best friend does show up-the
local mongrel-to lick his sores. "We are made loveless by our possessions,"
Elizabeth of Thuringa once said. I wonder if she was thinking of the other guy, the one
distinguished by wealth but not generosity.
But as suddenly as the Riga Death statue stirs and flails its stick, so comes the
real scythe-bearer just as unexpectedly to ferry off these two guys into eternity. They
probably didnt exit simultaneously. One could afford healthcare-personal choice, in
fact. Had a better diet, too. But Death comes for both. The perspective on their departure
is intriguing and telling: one is borne away by angels while the other one finally awakens
in hell. Jesus clearly suggests reversals-the first shall come last and the last first.
The one that fared well in one life, now languishes in the next world. But the one who
languished in life, now enjoys comfort in the next world. Reversals-all created by actions
in life that somehow get turned topsy-turvy in the transference from one world to the
Two people. Living life as far apart from one another as the haves and the
have-nots. Yet as close as two next door neighbors. One walks the streets buying souvenirs
and admiring architecture; the other panhandles to survive just one more day. Possessions
are a sacred trust given to us to share with others. "If our goods are not available
to the community," Martin Luther once said, "they are stolen goods."
Thats what Luke is telling us. Theres just not a lot of sharing of goods
flowing between these two guys.
In the second lesson from 1 Timothy 6, Paul teaches us that there is a sense in
which you and I are owned by whatever we cannot, or will not give away. We are defined by
exactly what we can or cannot give away.
Why does God condemn the love of money? First of all, our treasures are transient;
some perishes (moth and rust), some passes out of our hands (thieves, stock market), and
in the end we leave it all behind. I think it was Flip Wilson who said, "If I
cant take it with me, Im not going." Sorry Flip, we really cant
take it with us.
Second, God condemns the love of money because of what it does to us. It steals
our faith and our heart. In the thinking of Jesus day, the heart was the seat of the
emotions, the intellect, and the will. Jesus meant that our treasure has the potential to
capture our hearts-to grab our affections, to preoccupy our thoughts, and to control our
actions. Money can make us lose sight of God-even in the midst of ministry. We get all
worked up about bottom lines, about lack, about investments, about even talking about it.
Our source for moving ahead in this church, in purchasing property to build for greater
ministry is not based on how much we have, how little we have, how big we are, how small
we are. Our Source for church growth is God and how much confidence we have in God to help
us move ahead.
Third, treasures, or the love of money can blind our vision. Jesus says that the
eyes are the windows into our body. When we open our eyes wide with wonder and belief,
its like opening windows in a dark room and letting the sunlight stream in. We can
see clearly. But if we hoard, if we go through life squinty-eyed over our treasures,
its like were walking around with the shades pulled down over eyes. That
blocks our vision.
Five years ago people in this country gave 2 billion dollars to carry on
Gods work. Sounds like a lot until we consider that we spent
· Over 2 billion just on chewing gum
· More than 4 billion on movies
· 12 billion on vacations
· 20 billion on cosmetics
· 49 billion on Coke and other soft drinks
We could add to this list computers, upgrades, camcorders, sports utility
vehicles, and electric toothpaste squeezers.
In American Beauty, Lester Burnam is a man who has lived a meaningless, almost
trite life. Throughout the film, he strives to recover whatever it is he has lost in his
marriage and family over the years. In one poignant scene he comes close to experiencing
the dynamic, joyful quality that he and his wife shared in their early years. The scene
takes place in their living room.
Lester(referring to his wife when they first met): "Youve lost your joy
. . . Whatever happened to that girl I once knew? . . . have you forgotten about her,
because I havent."
They sit together in silence and then he sidles up next to her and begins to kiss
her neck tenderly, caressingly. She receives his tenderness and shuts her eyes to take it
in. Noticing, however, that Lester has a bottle of beer in his hand, she suddenly reverts
back to the present.
"Lester, youre going to spill beer on the couch."
(Backing away from her and the couch): "So what? Its just a
"This is a four-thousand dollar sofa. Upholstered in Italian silk. This is
not just a couch."
"Its just a couch. [Long pause] This isnt life. This is just
stuff. And its become more to you than living."
Our lessons for this day are not against acquiring wealth, theyre about
living. About living fully, generously, deeply. The lessons are also about what our
Italian silk possessions can do to us when we lose our focus. When were too busy
being on vacation and forget the privilege and call we have to be generous with our
possessions and wealth. The parable challenges us to ask who possesses us-our possessions
Someone has said that mammon is the largest slaveholder in the world. That may be
true. But the Good News of the Gospel is that God is the greatest Liberator in the world.
Only God can free us from our possessions possessing us; only God can free us to live
generously and abundantly. Only God can make us truly human-even when were on