by Dr. John Killinger
Theologian Karl Barth once said that preachers ought to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. He understood the strange relationship between the Word of God and the word of the day—that they are bound together in such a way that one always interprets the other. That's certainly true of what we've learned about the Bible lately from the headlines about our faltering economy.
Suddenly we realize a lot more about the Gospel of Luke in particular because it repeatedly casts human salvation in terms of how we deal with money and property. Again and again, Luke framed his portrait of Jesus in such a way as to illustrate Jesus' sympathy with the poor and his disgust with wealthy people who didn't display any concern for them. Look at these well known stories. Five in a row, beginning in the twelfth chapter of Luke. And five, you know, was a sacred number in the Bible.
First, the story of a rich man who had such a bumper crop one year that he decided to pull down his barns and build greater ones to store it in. No thought for the poor. Only for himself and what he had. And God said, "You fool! Tonight you'll have a coronary. Then who will enjoy your crops?"
Second, the story of the rich man who wore purple—a sign of wealth—and dined sumptuously. I like that phrase, don't you? He dined sumptuously. Meanwhile, there was a poor beggar who sat outside his gate, begging for alms. And every day the rich man rode by and didn't bother to throw the poor man a bone. Nothing. The rich man died—notice a pattern?—and went to Hades, the vague, shadowy underground. If it were shown in a theater, this is where the dry ice would be released and fog would rise over the stage. And who did the man call for when he found himself in this predicament? The beggar! He had seen him after all. "Send Lazarus," he said, "and let him bring me some water to slake my thirst." And what did God say? Sorry, mister, you flubbed your rub. You had your chance to be good to the poor man and you missed it. Too bad!
Third story, the wealthy ruler who came to Jesus and asked how to be saved. Jesus said he surely knew the answer to that. Everybody knew it. It had to do with keeping the law. "Oh," said the man, "I've always done that. But there's still this ache in my heart, something that isn't satisfied." "Oh, that?" said Jesus. "Yes, I know what you mean. Go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor and come follow me." But the man couldn't do it, could he? Luke says he went away sad because he had great possessions. He had too much to give it away. So he didn't become one of Jesus' disciples. He missed everything because he thought he had everything and the truth was that it had him.
Fourth story, Zacchaeus the tax collector. A little man who climbed a tree to see Jesus when Jesus entered Jericho. Despised by his fellow Jews because he worked for the Romans and handled coins with Caesar's inscription on them proclaiming Caesar a god. A social pariah, an outcast. But Jesus singled him out and went home to eat with him. What a big day it was for Zacchaeus! He was so changed by it that he said, "Lord, I'm going to give half of everything I have to the poor. Not a fourth. Not a third. Half. And if I have taken anything from anybody I shouldn't have, I'll repay that person four hundred percent." Wow! What did Jesus say? "This day has salvation come to this man and his house." Salvation had to do with his attitude toward money and property.
And five, the story of a poor widow who dropped two tiny coins into the temple treasury. They were called lepta. Coins so worthless that they didn't even have an inscription on them. Nobody bothered to counterfeit them because they weren't worth it. "I tell you," said Jesus, "this woman has given more than all the others—all the rich people who like to be seen as heavy donors —because she gave all she had." And then he said she went down to her house justified—saved—because of how much she loved God. Not the others, but this poor woman.
Do you feel the impact of these stories for the time we're living in? When the home foreclosure rate is the highest in history. When one in every ten adults can't find work. When many have to choose between eating and taking their medicine. When a million families a year are forced into bankruptcy because they can't pay their debts to doctors and hospitals and credit card companies.
What do these stories mean today? What do they say about our salvation as a nation and as individuals?
I'll tell you what they say. They say your salvation doesn't depend on which church you attend or how clean a record you have or how many Hail Marys you say in a day. Your salvation—your soul's well being—depends on what you are doing with what you have, with your income and your bank account and your home and anything else you have. It depends on how much you love others and are willing to help them when they are in the kind of need many are in today.
Oh, I know you have to keep something back for a rainy day and you don't want to touch your 401(k) and you have to be sure your family has all they need. But if the Bible is true, you might be forfeiting your right to spend eternity with God by sheltering everything you can for yourself and your family when there are others who desperately need your help. Is that too harsh a thing to say? I didn't say it. The Bible did.
Let me tell you two more stories. Modern stories this time. One was told by an English theologian, Herbert Farmer, on himself. He had been having a long busy day and came home exhausted. He put on the kettle and being English, he made a pot of tea, and had just sat down to enjoy his tea when the doorbell rang. He went to the door, where he found a poor, nearly blind woman with very thick glasses being led about by her son, a thin, pasty-faced boy of about twelve. They were going house to house selling something. Dr. Farmer cut short a tale of domestic woe by saying he wasn't interested. The boy said to his mother, "Come away, mum," and he led her out the sidewalk. As he paused at the end of the walk to close the gate, his eyes met Farmer's, and Farmer said he had never before seen a look of purer hatred than he saw in that boy's eyes. Turning back into his house, he no longer wanted his tea. Instead, he fell on his knees by the sofa and cried, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!"
The second of these two stories. A tall, late-middle-aged gay man, a friend of mine named John was on his way to work in the PR office where he was employed. It was Monday morning. Having been challenged in the Sunday sermon to remember the poor, John began his day that Monday by going into a McDonald's restaurant and buying five breakfasts, each in a colorful sack, and going back out onto the sidewalk. A homeless man came along. John greeted him with a sack of breakfast and said "God bless you." The man looked in the sack, smelled the aroma of hot sausage and eggs and coffee, and instantly threw his arms around John and hugged him. They stood there for a minute, on Fifth Avenue near 34th Street, locked in an embrace. Then the man let go and John wheeled around, feeling better than he had felt in months, and began looking for another homeless person to give a breakfast to.
My question for you is this: Which of those two persons would you rather be? The one who failed to answer somebody else's need and then collapsed in remorse, or John, who went out to find people he could help? I don't have to tell you which one Jesus would have blessed.
About the Author
Dr. John Killinger taught at Vanderbilt, Princeton, the University of Chicago; and he’s written more than seventy books, including his latest called If Christians Were Really Christian.
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