The Wealth in Being Simple

Sermon by Rev. Rachel Luck
October 1, 2007

Luke 16:19-31

For several years the FOX Network aired a reality TV series starring two Hollywood socialites named Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. The show was called The Simple Life. Paris is the equivalent to an American Princess, an heiress to the Hilton family fortune. Nicole is the socialite daughter of former pop star Lionel Richie; each of them coming from a fair amount of privilege and luxury. And together, these two young twenty something’s provided entertainment for households across the nation as they watched images of Paris and Nicole’s attempt at living the simple life. Something as simple as cleaning a typical bedroom became a 30 minute adventure in coping skills. These young socialites donned the latest fashions while milking cows, raking leaves, and hanging out in the blue collar hot spot of any town, USA. It was a show of apparent social clashing, and the mix was comedic at best.

Social class is not news to us here. Shows like MTV Cribs wield the incredible lifestyles of pop cultures rich and famous. This is America, land of plenty. We live in a country that is viewed by most outsiders as being wealthy, as royalty in a world of paupers. And while most of us here today are middle class, it is safe to assume that we live fairly comfortably. We have food on our tables, roofs over our heads. We are surrounded by education, and have our very basic needs met.

Surely our lives are far more simple than either Paris or Nicole could have dreamed! What is so exciting about our middle class, 2.5 kid, 401 K’ed lives? Surely simplicity exists here.

But how many of us are still ruled by anxiety regarding our own wealth? How many of us worry about things that have nothing to do with our survival or our contentment?

We have enough. We are ok. How many of us worry about having MORE than enough?

Luke gives us a glimpse of such a conversation that Jesus has with his disciples. These guys are his buddies, his comrades, and together they hash out all manner of truth regarding how to handle the anxieties and stresses of wealth. And in this particular portion of the story, Jesus explains the importance of being simple.

Jesus begins his story with the introduction of a poor man and a rich man. There is no introduction of either one’s family, no attempt to explain anything about their personalities. The only information given about their introduction is simply one is rich and one is poor.

The rich man wears the latest expensive fashions. If anyone knows what’s in season, it would be this guy. His closet is filled with the Versace, the Gucci, maybe even the Hollister of ancient Palestine, certainly very easy on the eyes. His dining table is covered with the spread to beat all spreads. I’m talking chocolate covered cherries, caviar, and beef tips, the finest of wines; Point being, for Jesus this rich man is very well-to-do.

The poor man, on the other hand, is anything BUT well off. There is no Gucci for him. He couldn’t afford Wal-Mart, Kmart or even the Salvation Army. He owns no closet nor does he have any particular place to call home. He is the economic bottom of the barrel, the poster child for social rejects, the smelly kid that sits in the back of gym class, the scary old guy that walks around with his shopping cart. He is embodiment of all things socially unacceptable.

Voila… the social disparity of Jesus’ day. You have rich. You have poor. And for the disciples, this is precisely the world they live and work in. The Sadducees and Temple priests are very comfy and well-to-do. I won’t even bother to mention the wealth in which many of the Romans lived during their stay in Palestine. Likewise, it is common and even expected to see beggars making an attempt at survival. They often sit at the gates of the city. Why? This is where the greatest traffic flow occurs. A city gate is the entrance way for merchants, travelers, priests, folks with possible food or money to spare; and consequentially, a beggar’s greatest chance of survival.

So it is here, in this story, that Jesus states the obvious. For the disciples, there is no middle class… no social “in between.” And because of it, this is an easy story for Jesus to tell. They get it. This is a reality they see all the time.

So what? What is the point of telling a story about the obvious? Yeah, there are rich people. There are poor people. What is the point?

The point is in how each man’s life is lived out in the midst of his wealth. Jesus points out that the rich man lives his life in wastefulness. He consumes. He acquires. He revels in the midst of his own earnings. His wealth creates for him a blinder towards anyone or anything other than his own comfort. I mean this guy is so blind that he doesn’t even notice the poor man, covered in sores, probably less-than hygienic, sitting in want of a table scrap. You’d think the dogs by his side would have given it away. The rich man’s wealth has made him dumb; blind; unable to hear or see the needs of this man before him.

Likewise, the poor man’s social status is literally with the dogs. He donnes no expensive apparel. His crown jewel is the infection that covers his body.

Jesus’ beef is not so much about the fact that the rich man is RICH, or that the poor man is POOR. His concern is for the person behind it affected by said status. The rich man’s preoccupation with his own comfort redirects his hearts’ focus; from the calling of God to the calling of mammon.

This sort of luxurious preoccupation as described in Jesus’ story goes beyond the borders of wealth. It’s present in anything that consumes our time and attention; in anything that prevents us from seeking God FIRST in all things. That is the very real meaning of simplicity: seeking God FIRST. When doing so, all else settles into its proper order. To put anything or anyone else in that place where God most belongs is to live a life colored by anxiety. Job, status, friends, family, security, these and many more can all too quickly become the center of attention (Foster, 95). Simplicity’s cause is to let go and let God.

Is it bad to want things? Is it bad to desire a comfortable life? No. And it’s not bad to be proud of your hard work. But the moment such things become a guiding and controlling principle in your life then it has the very dangerous potential to create the same sort of blinder.

Jesus is intentional about this story. He is clear about each man’s status, explaining the nature of how they live, and how their lives expressed their inward states. But interestingly enough, the ramifications of his life are explained in his death.  

Both the rich and poor man dies. Take away the moral implication of the story and it can end here. The rich man dies, leaving behind a fortune for his family, friends, colleagues. The poor man dies and just sort of fades away from existence. It’s just another sad story of injustice.

It is precisely at this point of the story of their deaths that Jesus explains the “why” of beingsimple. Simplicity is the art of seeking God first; to have a whole and rightly ordered relationship with God; to serve only one master.

But even in death the rich man doesn’t see the problem. Even in the midst of his torment his concern remains selfish. “I’m thirsty. Give me something to drink. Can’t you see that my mouth is dry? That I am incredibly parched? Give me some water!” The rich man is missing the point entirely. He does not understand the purpose behind this turmoil. He isn’t getting it!

There is a huge chasm, a break that prevents help from coming to the rich man. It’s as if this chasm is the result of the rich man’s life: he did not see, he did not hear, his relationship with God was broken in life. Hence there remains this chasm in death, and help cannot be attained. It is the ultimate of anxieties.

And while Jesus explains this as something that happens after death, doesn’t it make sense to say he is explaining how this can affect us in life too? The chasm in this story is like saying “If you are not seeking God first, this is what your life looks like. It is broken. You are broken.”

So what is simplicity? What does it mean to BE simple; to live the simple life? Richard Foster, the author of the Christian Classic “A Celebration of Discipline” defines simplicity as that which “sets possessions in proper perspective”; it is the art of seeking God FIRST so that all other things necessary will fall into its proper order (Foster, 86). It is an outward expression of an inward reality.

From the standpoint of material wealth, Americans have difficulty realizing how rich we are. Imagine doing the following, and you will see how daily life is for as many as a billion people in the world.

Take out all the furniture in your home except for one table and a couple of chairs. Use blanket and pads for beds. Take away all of your clothing except for your oldest dress or suit, shirt or blouse. Leave only one pair of shoes. Empty the pantry and the refrigerator except for a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt, a few potatoes, some onions, and a dish of dried beans. Dismantle the bathroom, shut off the running water, and remove all the electrical wiring in your house. Take away the house itself and move the family into the tool shed. Cancel all subscriptions to newspapers, magazines, and book clubs. This is no great loss because now none of you can read anyway. Move the nearest hospital or clinic ten miles away and put a midwife in charge instead of a doctor. Throw away your bankbooks, stock certificates, pension plans, and insurance policies. Leave the family a cash hoard of ten dollars. Lop off twenty-five or more years in life expectancy. Does this help with perspective?

Many of us are anxious and worry about making ends meet. But reflect on how the ends ARE meeting. What is it in your life that creates anxiety? Worry? Now ask yourself if this is necessary? Or if this anxiety is based on the want to have MORE than enough?

The wealth in being simple is to be rich in a restored relationship with the God who provides all things. He is the very same God who cared for Israel wandering in the wilderness. He is the very same God who carried you through your illness and grief. He is the very same God who restores and forgives times unimaginable. He is the very same God who cloaks the flowers, sends the rain, gives you a peace that surpasses understanding along with a second, third, fourth chance.

Jesus’ concern is with our state of being. He calls all of his followers to do so in a carefree manner, one that is unconcerned with possessions, or for that matter, free of any thing that might create a glitch in our openness to God’s movement in the world. As if life isn’t hard enough in this fallen cosmos, Jesus doesn’t want us to make it harder.

What in your life bears the potential of blinding you? What in your life creates an anxiety that is unnecessary and unwarranted? What do you carry around that is more than enough? There is nothing simple about that. Listen to your life. Observe where your worries reside. Pay attention. Jesus calls us to open our eyes, re-evaluate. Just as he tells this story 2000 years ago to the disciples of ancient Palestine, he tells this story 2000 years later to the disciples of 2007. There is great peace in seeking God first. There is great wealth in being simple.