Bible: Blinded by wealth

June 17 — Matthew 15:1-9; June 24 — Luke 16:19-31

Jun 4, 2018 by

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Jesus engaged in numerous conflicts and controversies, leading ultimately to his crucifixion. The Pharisees were his most prominent adversaries. We should note that Jesus often took the fight to the Pharisees. The conflict was definitely two-sided.

Ted Grimsrud

Grimsrud

Why was the struggle so intense? What did the Pharisees have against Jesus? And what did he have against them?

We might be helped in applying these stories to our world to think of the Pharisees as standing in for religious leaders in various times and places, including Christian leaders.

Our stories in Matt. 15:1-9 and Luke 16:19-31 tell of two kinds of conflicts, each of which may have parallels in our day.

In Matthew 15, the Pharisees charge Jesus with “breaking the tradition of the elders” when his disciples failed to wash their hands before they eat (15:2). Jesus retorts that the Pharisees break “the commandment of God” (a much more serious violation) when they take money for themselves from their parents under the guise of the money being for God (15:5-6).

So, Jesus charges the Pharisees with focusing on external trivialities while violating the command that comes directly from God to honor one’s parents. What might be some parallels in our faith communities? Note the language here: “The tradition of the elders” is not always the same thing as “the commandment of God.”

We are challenged to avoid hypocrisy, to discern the difference between traditions that are life-giving and those that are legalistic and to discern which elements of the Bible’s moral teaching matter the most.

The second story is familiar — and challenging: the rich man and Lazarus. It’s important to see that the story actually starts at Luke 16:14, a conflict with the Pharisees. The key issue seems to be the love of money. Pharisees ridicule Jesus for his call to serve God and not wealth (16:14). When understood as Jesus’ response to that ridicule and as his challenge to the Pharisees’ love of money, the story of the rich man and Lazarus becomes quite polemical.

The Pharisees here do not so much represent one particular historical group as a disposition that is all too widespread — and certainly all too present among Christians — of being “lovers of money” in such a way that biblical justice’s call to care for others gets forgotten.

The blinded rich man of 16:19-31 — blind to the presence of the vulnerable Lazarus, near death while the rich man “feasts sumptuously every day” only a few feet away, and blind to the teaching of Moses and the prophets — may represent the Pharisees who ridiculed Jesus. But he is also a stand-in for many other wealthy people in other times and places.

The issue at the center of this story relates to the purpose of religious life. Jesus makes the point that faith in God gets its core guidance from the teaching of Moses and the prophets — such as caring for the vulnerable in your midst and recognizing that you cannot practice injustice and be in a living relationship with God.

The religious leaders who defraud their parents and the rich people who ignore the needy “at their gates” (16:20) suffer the consequences of their selfishness and their blindness every day. Their souls are diseased.

We may ask as we read these stories: How literally do we take this picture of “Hades” (16:23); is this the actual fate of wealthy people? Should we read Jesus’ words here as a prediction of future punishments or more as a plot device to make a point about the blindness of wealth? And do we agree that being “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14) is our central human sin?

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harris­onburg, Va.


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