Monday, 10 March 2014

Money - blessing or curse?

Jesus said... I tell you, Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Luke 16:9

Jesus said many wonderful things, some of them challenging, some of them comforting. But I doubt if he ever said anything as downright puzzling as this. It’s almost as if he is telling us to use our money to buy our way into the kingdom of heaven. How very strange! How out of tune with his teaching elsewhere, indeed with the teaching of the New Testament as a whole.

Of course this isn’t an isolated saying; we need to look at it in the context in which it’s set (as always when we read the Bible). Hopefully that will help us. 

Well, if we look at Luke 16 as a whole we find that its main theme is money. At the end of the chapter we have the story of the rich man and Lazarus - how the rich man refused to use his great wealth to help the poor man lying at his gate, and how he suffered as a result. And here we have the story of the “shrewd manager”, the rich man’s property-steward who found himself in trouble with his boss and resorted to some pretty cunning tactics to save his skin.

I don’t imagine for a moment that Jesus intended to praise the man for any kind of dishonest dealings. But he does seem (taking verse 8 into account) to be suggesting that we who belong to him could sometimes learn lessons from the non-Christian world about using a bit of - what word shall I use? - know-how or ingenuity, especially when the spiritual temperature is hotting up a bit: “Hard times are coming for you, my people, so dump all the petty inessentials and use your wits to focus on the things that really matter.”

That may be a right way of looking at the story and at Jesus’ strange remark. But it rather smacks of “spiritualising” a more down-to-earth message: the chapter is, after all, as I said, essentially about money.

So I wonder if there is a clue in the other story, the one at the end of the chapter. Could it be that Jesus intended these two stories to be read as companion pieces, so to speak? Bear with me please as I imagine that that story took a rather different course. I’ll put the bits I’ve changed in italics...

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate lay a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Every day the rich man sent a servant to give Lazarus a meal. When the sores began to appear he paid for his doctor to treat them. In the end things got so bad that he found Lazarus a room in his house and had him looked after full time. And he used to visit him personally every day to see how he was getting on. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died, and as he too was brought to Abraham’s side... there was Lazarus greeting him with a smile. ‘Welcome home, my brother!’ he said...

Sadly, that isn’t the way Jesus’ story ended. But it could have been! The point is that the rich man in the second story failed to do with his money what the shrewd manager in the first story did with his.

No, we can’t buy our way into heaven. That can only be by faith in Christ. But what we can - and should - do is to use the wealth we have to demonstrate that faith in practical ways: to do others good and to make them happy. And, who knows, perhaps the smiling faces of those we have blessed will be there to greet us as we are finally ushered into the eternal kingdom of God.

Does that retelling of Jesus’ story make sense of verse 9? Or am I talking nonsense? Let me know what you think!

Father, thank you for the material prosperity I enjoy. Teach me to use it not for my own pleasure or gratification, but for the good of others, to make them my friends, and so, at the end, to share with them in glory. Amen.

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