Title: The Crumbs Are Enough
Texts: 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Author: Meghan Florian
Date: Sept 26, 2010
“There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” Paul begins with the need to be content – we brought nothing into this world, he writes, and we take nothing out of it. This passage ends with “the life that is really life.” I’m struck by this particular translation, because we’re not talking about “a better life” or “the good life” but about the real life. The really real life.
But before we get to the really real life, this passage requires us to grapple with our understanding of needs and wants, contentment and desire. If we are going to learn to be content, in a world that thrives on discontent, we have to learn to pay attention to our desires, and to what shapes them.
In my internship at the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South this past year, I thought a lot about desire. One of the things RCWMS tries to do is to help women remember what they want, and to learn to pursue it. In a culture where women are often socialized more so than men to put the desires of others first, to such extremes that their ability to care for and love themselves in a God honoring way is jeopardized, this is challenging work.
And, whether we’re men or women, our desires are often shaped by something other than the church. We have to wade through a lot of junk to figure out what we need, what we want, and whether or not what we want can be understood as “godliness.”
There are a lot of things competing for our attention – the barrage of images on television and the internet woo us towards material possessions, portrayals of success, and hyper-sexualized images that distort the reality of human bodies. Contentment seems impossible amidst so many messages aimed at making us think we need something it never occurred to us to even want before. Our desires are very easily manipulated.
Commenting on 1 Timothy, Augustine says that the person “is happy who has everything he [or she] wants but does not want what is not proper.” And so, contentment is not merely a question of what we do or do not have, but what we want – and why.
Paul writes that if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting the basic necessities of life, but the desire to be rich, on the other hand, draws us into the realm of “senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction,” and trap us there.
In wandering away, he says that people have “pierced themselves with many pains.” In other words, it’s your own fault, if you achieve great wealth and yet find yourself in agony in the end. That kind of sounds like today’s gospel reading. But more on that later.
Paul writes that the “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” One of the things this text seems to be saying is that it’s not the money itself, but the love of it, the desire for it, the preoccupation with it, that is the problem. What is my relationship to money, and what kinds of evil come of it?
It’s an important question, even as a recent seminary graduate who doesn’t have much money to spare. I spend a lot of time with graduate students who like to complain about how “poor” they are, and I often want to ask how many actually poor people any of us know who have macbooks, disposable income to go out on Friday night, and nice cars – or for that matter, in my case, a nice bike?
For that matter, what about having the ability to borrow thousands of dollars in student loans to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the country? What about social capital, upward mobility? Lazarus didn’t have much of that, did he?
No, I am quite sure that we are not poor. We’re just kind of broke sometimes. So, we have to ask ourselves if, even with sometimes dismal bank accounts, we are guilty in the same way the rich man is in Luke 16.
John Chrysostom discusses our text from 1 Timothy, saying, “Take away the love of money, and you put an end to war, to battle, to enmity, to strife and contention.” He also advises to be “not caught by the longings of ambition or glory.” In other words, it’s not a question of mere economics – though it is certainly that – but also the ways our distorted desires and misplaced hope lead to all kinds of evil.
The first challenge is to grapple with what these texts say about our wealth. What is harder is to consider that on top of the economic aspect, there are even more subtle ways in which we are in the position of the “rich man.”
What about our ambitions – the desire for success? For a big promotion? To be admitted to a top tier graduate school? These things can be good, potentially – or, to use the graduate school example which hits closest to home for me, such success can take a person to the top of an academic ivory tower that is often as indifferent to poverty as the rich man in Luke 16.
Approaching our gospel text, I admit I’ve always been troubled by this story, more so than, say, the rich young ruler a few chapters later whom Jesus tells to sell all he has and come follow him. At least that guy is given an ultimatum of sorts before it’s too late. For the man in chapter 16, that point is long gone – he’s in agony in Hades. Not something I want to discuss, quite frankly.
The most difficult part for me is that it seems like he’s there because of his indifference. He didn’t do anything particularly bad. He just never bothered to pay attention to Lazarus, begging at his gate. Lazarus, who would have been content to satisfy his hunger with the crumbs from this man’s table. Now the tables turn, and the rich man becomes the beggar.
He begs for a mere drop of water from Lazarus’ finger.
The response? He had his good things already, he had more than enough in life; Lazarus had less than enough.
Note that we’re not told that Lazarus is now feasting sumptuously, dressed in purple and fine linen – this doesn’t seem to be a total role reversal. But Lazarus is comforted.
The rich man does not get his drop of water. Even if Abraham wanted to send Lazarus to him, it’s impossible because, he is told, “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’” The chasm can no longer be crossed. Day in and day out when the rich man had the opportunity to cross the gap and greet Lazarus at the gate, he did not. Now, it is too late.
The rich man’s second request is to have Lazarus sent to his brothers, to warn them. This seems fair – he’s looking outward, concerned for the well-being of someone else, his family, whom he loves.
But Abraham is blunt in his response. The brothers have had opportunities to hear and respond. I’m sure that they too saw Lazarus begging at the gate, a regular reminder if they chose to see it, of human frailty and need – a reminder of where their hope should lie.
No, if they haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, if they haven’t noticed the beggar outside their front gate, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead – which, of course, happens later on. Having read to the end of Luke’s gospel, we know that Abraham is right: even if a dead man walks, we still are not convinced when he says that we need to loosen our grip on money, power, and ambition.
It is as Augustine says: “The world retains its hold on us. On all sides its charms decoy us. We like lots of money, we like splendid honors, we like power to overcome others. We like all these things, but lets listen to the apostle, ‘We brought nothing into this world, neither can we take anything out.’ Honor should be looking for you, not you for it.”
Money, honor, and power distract us from godliness – make us proud. The charms of honor distract us from the needs of the people around us, and indeed from our own needs, sometimes. Paul says, “shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” Who ever heard of righteousness or gentleness helping someone get ahead in their career?
I keep trying to figure out why it’s so hard to shun wealth and power, and pursue godliness, even when we’re aware of how worthless they are, of what a distraction they are, and what I keep coming back to is fear. We are quite simply afraid of poverty – of broken bodies covered with sores, like that of Lazarus. So we keep fighting to get ahead of the game in terms of either money or social status, to distance ourselves from lowest layers of society.
So many people around us cannot move freely in the same social spheres that we do, do not get to make choices, to even pause to ask what they might want, because they will not even get what they need. We might be afraid that even if we give up some or all of what we have, there still might not be enough for everyone. Are the crumbs from the table sufficient? Does any of this make sense?
It is scary to cross that chasm, because we don’t really know who to be or how to act when we cease to play by the rules of the capitalist game. We are, perhaps, too afraid to realize we don’t need what we thought we needed, that “the good life” that’s being sold to us is not “the life that is really life.”
I don’t know where this leaves us. I’m not sure, tangibly, what this means I should do tonight, tomorrow, and the next day. Or, if I am, maybe I’d rather not think about it. What I keep coming back to, overly romanticized or sentimental as it may seem, is a line from a Wendell Berry poem. It goes like this:
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.