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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 29, 2013

How Much Is Enough?

Psalm 91; Luke 16:19-31

             Like it or not, money, wealth and possessions form a central theme in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, both authored by Luke.  In Mary’s great song, The Magnificat, she sings of the future as if it has already happened, “the hungry God has filled with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away.”  In Luke 2, Jesus’ parents offer a sacrifice in the Temple of two turtledoves instead of a lamb – it is a poor person’s offering.  In the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, Jesus offers stark teaching about rich and poor.  In Luke 12 Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool, or Mr. Bigger Barns, as we called him just a few weeks ago.  In Acts 2 we are told of how the early church shared their possessions “as any had need,” and in Acts 15 Luke tells the story of Ananias and Sapphira who held some of their money from the community, then lied about their gift and were immediately struck dead for doing so.  (I have always thought it was a story made for Stewardship Sunday!)  And in Luke 18 Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

             I do not preach about money and wealth nearly as much as Jesus did and the Bible does.  I think I probably owe you an apology for not preaching enough about money and wealth and possessions!  But today, with Jesus’ Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man before us, I think we have to address the issue.  This, by the way, is the only parable Jesus tells where one of the main characters is given a name.  We will return to the name Lazarus later, but note that it is the poor man in the parable who is given a name, while the rich man is nameless.  The Church has sometimes called him “Dīvés” which is a Latin adjective meaning “rich.”

             Jesus pictures the nameless rich man living on this earth a sumptuous, extravagant life.  He dresses in “purple” and “fine linen” and he “feasted sumptuously every day.”  Poor Lazarus, on the other hand, laid at the gate every day and had to beg.  His body was covered with sores instead of purple and fine linens.  In this life the nameless rich man had it all, and Lazarus had nothing except misery.

             But then they both die, as all of us surely will.  And in Jesus’ parable, Lazarus is carried up by the angels to sit in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man is sent to Hades where he is tormented by the flames of hell.  Jesus does not directly accuse the rich man of greed, but he does make it clear that his blindness in this life to the Lazarus’s of the world has caused “a great chasm” to be formed between the rich man and the kingdom of heaven.

             The rich man begins in the afterlife to bargain.  (He has probably bargained all his life for a better deal!)  “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” he pleads.  But Abraham says, “In your lifetime you had your good things.”  He then wants Abraham to warn his five brothers to notice the poor in the way he never did, in order to escape torment.  And Abraham says in Jesus’ parable, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”  “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

             It is a hard parable here that Jesus tells us, and I don’t think Jesus told it to comfort folks like us!  Of all the seven deadly sins, I think that greed has a way of sneaking up on us and taking hold of us before we know how powerfully destructive it is.  You will surely agree with me that greed is much easier to discuss when the greed belongs to someone else!  But when does our ever-expanding desire for “more” and “newer” and “better” become too much?  When does our desire for “the good life” become driven, taken over, by our own greed?  I sort of think we all know better when someone else has crossed that line than we do when we have.

             No one ever starts out wanting to be greedy, but it happens.  Look at how many people fill their own lives with more stuff than they have places to put it all, but then find it really hard, almost impossible, to give.  Giving is actually a pretty good index on greed.  The harder you find it to give, or to share what you have been given, the more likely it is that you are overtaken by greed, and are dying slowly from that deadly sin.

             Greed is really a forum of fear, I have always thought.  Martin Copenhaver says, “Our greed is largely fueled by fear – fear of scarcity, fear that there is not enough to go around, fear of missing out, fear of having something taken from us.  And greed may be an expression of other, larger fears as well.”  And while it is true that “perfect love casts out fear,” it is equally true that “perfect fear casts out love,” and greedy people have a hard time loving anyone other than themselves.

             I think that is why Dickens named his protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, hardly a happy, smiling name!  Indeed, the adjectival form of “miser” is the word “miserable.”  “Miserliness” and “misery” go together.  Psychologists call it “the rising threshold of expectations.”  “The more you have, the more you want.”  So the more you have, the less satisfied you become, and the more fearful you grow about losing any of it.

             The other insidious thing about greed is that it is always smudging the line between desire and necessity.  After all, we really do need clothing to cover us appropriately and protect us from the cold.  And God is the author of all beauty, and it is healthy and life-giving to enjoy beautiful things.  We do not worship God in an ugly shack, though we surely could.  But it helps to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”  The line between natural, reasonable, appropriate human need and greedy desires can be very, very thin.  I love the story of the Vermont General Store owner who had just gotten a new shipment of fresh pineapples.  It was the first time he had ever carried them, the first time anyone ever had seen them in that town.  So one of his customers, an old New Englander, came into the store.  “Try our fresh pineapple,” said the storeowner, “It’s delicious.”  The old New Englander said, “No thank you.  I don’t want to develop any new hankerings.”  Well, this is a real problem in a consumer culture like our own.  Advertisers are always at work developing, nurturing, enticing “new hankerings” in us.  Apple sold nine million of its newest iPhone version in the first week, and people stood in long lines for hours to get one.  I read recently where the average American shops eighteen hours a week, more and more of it online.  This is a lot of time and chance to develop “new hankerings!”  I love what the country parson says.  “When a fellow’s income goes up, he starts needing things he used to get along fine without.”  That is surely the story of my life, and likely of yours as well.

             The more we have, the more we want.  And we soon all reach the point of diminishing returns when it comes to things.  More and more satisfies us less and less.  We fail to enjoy all the things we have, but our things create in us more and more anxiety.  And our miserliness, our fear caused by our greed, makes us miserable.  Tony Robinson says, “The only sure way to silence the voices inside your head that say, ‘Never enough, never enough,’ is to give something away.”  I think he is right.  It is why Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  As surely as greed makes you miserable, being a giver, practicing generosity makes you joyful.  That is why Paul said that “God loves a cheerful giver.”  Frankly, I have never known any other kind of giver.  Generous people are almost always happier people, way more joyful.  I wonder what comes first: Are joyful people happy because they are givers, or do they give because they feel such a joy over God’s goodness to them?  I think the two are inextricably intertwined: joy and giving, gratitude and generosity.  So the opposite of greed, which makes you miserable, is generosity, which creates in you the joy of gratitude.

             In Jesus’ parable, the rich man, now that he knows the score, wants to warn his brothers of how terrible a fate awaits folks like him who ignored poor people like Lazarus while living an extravagant life.  Abraham tells him that if they did not listen to the law and the prophets, they won’t listen to anyone.  That sounds very final, and very hard for many of us to hear.

             But that Jesus tells us this parable, that He tells us the score in advance, might be grace.  Jesus is letting us in on what matters most to God.  The worst problem with greed is that it renders us blind.  The rich man never even saw Lazarus in this life.  Jesus is telling this parable to open up our eyes, and our hearts, and yes, maybe even our pocketbooks.  Lazarus, by the way, means “God helps.”  God does, you know.  God help us to discover the joyous freedom of living generous lives.

                                                                                     Amen.

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