Reflect with me, if you will, on the delicate issue of how we hold important things, beginning with money. Having considerable wealth is the topic of both Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and the lectionary passage from the first letter to Timothy. Note that neither passage suggests that money in itself is a bad thing, or that being wealthy is bad. We who have been brought up on the liberationist theme of the “preferential option for the poor” need to be reminded that Jesus hung out with people who were comfortably well off. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (the other Lazarus) gave big parties and had overnight accommodations for Jesus plus his disciples. Peter and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John, came from families that owned several fishing boats each and employed other workers. The really poor people in Jesus’ time were like the shepherds who slept in the field with the flocks and worked for someone else. This is not to say that Jesus did not encourage charity and table-fellowship with the poor, only that he also enjoyed friends and attracted followers who were wealthy.
What concerned Jesus about wealth was people’s attitude toward it. The Rich Young Ruler was winsome, but Jesus saw that he was in bondage to his wealth which placed a negative condition upon his spiritual growth. In our parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus condemned the rich man’s neglect of Lazarus, poor, suffering, and hungry on his doorstep. Jesus, you know, thought that the way people treat the least of their brothers and sisters is the way they treat him.
Paul, or the Pastoral Author writing 1Timothy in Paul’s name, had a similar view about money. He did not say that money is the root of all evil, only the love of money. In fact, he commands the wealthy to be humble and helpful, not to become poor. Wealth is not bad. You only have to be careful how you hold it.
Now I know that all this sounds very abstract to you. People in ministry and theological education are not going to get wealthy anyway. Face it. You might want more money, but to love money is about as vain as loving your future as quarterback for the Patriots. The early Christians understood this about the ministerial profession. The same author in 3 Timothy 47:63-64 said, “Beloved Timothy, encourage your students at Troas University School of Theology to cultivate the rich as well as the poor in all their congregations, for neither the ministers nor the poor will enjoy the benefits of wealth any other way. Do not despise rich Episcopalians but help them hold their wealth in charity.” Third Timothy bears close reading for us in theological education, if you can find it.
Great wealth is not a problem. What counts is how you hold it.
Our two texts are not only about money. They are also about Last Things. Jesus’ parable is a masterpiece of figurative imagination, even surpassing the prologue and epilogue of Job in its fanciful construction of an otherworldly dialogue about ultimate things. Jesus’ Hell is not the older Israelite conception of Sheol as a place of dim shades where souls slowly dissipate because of their distance from God. Rather it is the Hellenistic image of fiery torment in the midst of which the suffering rich man can see Lazarus rocking on the bosom of Abraham off in Heaven. Heaven is within shouting distance, and the rich man calls up to Abraham to beg that he send Lazarus down with a cooling drink. Abraham shouts back that you can’t get there from here. There is a great gulf fixed between Heaven and Hell, which is to say, what counts is what you do in life. Change your ways while you are alive, because there are no after-death chances. The rich man is not entirely without charity, which he directs to his brothers, presumably as rich and selfish as he had been, because he is worried that they will end up in Hell as he had. So he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them. (Funny that the rich man had no use for Lazarus in life, but wanted him for errands in death!) But Abraham shouts back that his brothers already have the Law and the Prophets and this is quite sufficient. It does not require rocket science or a theological degree to know, on the basis of commonly received tradition, that justice and mercy and care and love are obligations on every life, no matter how rich, or how poor.
How should you hold your life? As if every thing you do has ultimate importance! You might think your life is only feasting and fancy clothes, and unintended distracted neglect of the beggar at your door. You might think your life is only your work, your problems, your career, your entertainments, your associations, and your failures in respect to which you will do better next semester. But Jesus says Wake up! Everything you do is significant for your ultimate identity. Is this a call to obsessive compulsive do-goodism? Absolutely not! It is a call to lead your life in the ordinary things with a consciousness that the ordinary has ultimate significance. How should you hold your life? By attending to justice, and mercy, and care, and love in everything you do. It would have been enough for the rich man to give Lazarus his left-overs and second-hand clothing; perhaps he should have supported the local hospital and a health-care plan for the poor. Indeed, as the rich man took part in public life, he should have fostered policies with a preferential option for the poor. The reason for this is that the ordinary life of the rich man needed these supplementary virtues in order for its ultimate significance to be Heavenly. So with us.
Now perhaps you noticed the line in Jesus’ parable where Abraham says there is no point sending someone from the dead to convince the brothers to repent their selfish ways. Resurrection in Jesus’ saying does not count as evidence for authority. Of course you know that many subsequent Christians argued that Jesus was the true messiah, out of all those other candidates, because God raised him from the dead. Resurrection, for them, was a demonstration of supernatural power that somehow guaranteed the truth of Jesus’ teaching. That is a powerful strain of Christian theology devoted to winning over believers in magic. But apparently it was not Jesus’ view, if we take this parable to be more or less authentic. He said that ordinary moral perceptions, if attended to as contextualized in the ultimacy of eternal life, are sufficient to guide how we should hold ultimate spiritual identity.
First Timothy, 6:12 in our text, makes this explicit. “Take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Eternal life is not a different life that you get after death. It is a quality of life that surrounds us now but of which many are oblivious. Take hold of it now, says 1Timothy. Eternal life might also be a quality of life after death, which many people in the first century believed. But taking hold of it depends on what you do in this life when what you do has ultimate significance. The Pastoral Author tells Timothy to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life. . .” When Jesus invented the fanciful story of the rich man and Abraham debating across the gulf between Heaven and Hell, he was not intending to describe the geometry and rules of the afterlife. He was telling his disciples to take hold of eternal life in everything that you do now.
The flash and urgency of ordinary temporal life usually blinds us to a larger truth, namely, that temporal life is but an abstract part of the eternal life in which we exist as God’s creatures. Within God’s eternal creation today is not the only time. Every moment, past and future, has its present immediacy like today in God’s creative life. Every moment, including today, exists in the eternal God as a past fact. Every moment, including the past which today is fixed, is also a future possibility in God. In God’s eternity we are children with our parents, mature people with family and friends, and also old people looking back on earlier years. God’s eternity is easy to miss. Nearly everything we know is in time. But God is not in time. Time is in God. And so with limited tolerance for metaphysics, we are tempted to think of God’s eternity as simply more time in a bizarre place beyond death. Every religion schematizes God’s temporal eternity and spatial immensity with visions of a geographical afterlife. That’s fine, so long as we do not miss the practical point: to do what we need to do now to take hold of the divine eternity in which we exist, “the life that really is life,” as the Pastoral Author wrote. What we do now defines who we are in eternity.
What I’ve been saying is only half of the story, as you know. The Christian gospel does command us to take hold of life with justice, mercy, care, and love, for these are the things of ultimate significance for determining who we are in God. But the Christian gospel also proclaims that God holds us no matter what we do. Though we flee to the depths of Hell, God is there in the very act of creating us. In this life, no matter how far gone we are, no matter how selfish, or neglectful, or petty, or vicious, or abusive, or wicked, or despairing, or self-hating, God’s creating love flows through us like a river. All we have to do is to wake up and see the bounties of eternity from which come our lives as well as our fortunes. Only because we are held by God can we hold the important things in our lives in ways that give us our eternal identity for better and worse within the divine life.
So now I invite you to the Eucharistic table where you can hold a symbol of God’s love and be held in communion with all the saints who know themselves to be held by God. I invite you to come enlightened in this life to the fact that how you hold life’s gifts—your money, your talents, your burdens, opportunities, and the obligations of your watch—determines your eternal identity. I invite you to come confessing how you have held the large and small things of your lives inattentively, selfishly, incompetently. I invite you to come holding yourselves ready for absolution. I invite you to come hold in your hand the sign passed down since Jesus for at once the ultimate seriousness and overflowing gratuity of life. I invite you to come enraptured by the God who holds you like a lover, and sends you out beaming with the beauty of consummated love that readies you to hold all things with justice, mercy, care, and love. Come.