Sermon drawn from the essay "The Deceitfulness of Riches" by Fr. Anthony Coniaris.
Anthony DeMello tells the story of "The Contented Fisherman": A rich industrialist was horrified to find a fisherman lying lazily beside his boat smoking a pipe. "Why aren't you fishing?" said the industrialist. "Because I have caught enough fish for the day," said the fisherman. "Why don't you catch more than you need?" said the industrialist. "What would I do with them?" asked the fisherman. "You could earn more money," was the reply. "With that you could have a motor fixed to your boat. Then you could go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats, maybe even a fleet of boats. The you would be a rich man like me." "What would I do then?" asked the fisherman. "Then you could sit down and enjoy life," said the industrialist. "What do you think I am doing right now?" said the contented fisherman (This is My Beloved Son- Listen to Him, vol.2; 1988 by A. Coniaris, p.67.)
This story demonstrates the deceitfulness of riches. The rich industrialist assumes that because the fisherman is not working, that he is poor and unhappy. He also believes that accumulating more wealth will lead to happiness. However, one child of a rich industrialist tells a different story. Christina Onassis once said, "Happiness does not depend on money. Our family is the best proof of that" (Coniaris, p.68). The industrialist, blinded by his own greed, thinks the fisherman is lazy, not working hard enough. This same love for wealth and money is what blinds the rich man in today's gospel reading from the 5th Sunday of Luke 16:19-31. It's as if he cannot see Lazaros who is laying down right at his own front door. How often do we, when seeing a poor person, immediately think or say, "he/she just needs to get a job and work hard"? It's a lot easier to think or say such a thing than to reach out and help someone. The depth of the rich man's blindness is further demonstrated by the fact that Lazaros, whose name ironically means "one who is helped", is not just poor but he is also sick with sores and hungry.
Perhaps the most devastating deceit of all is that riches blind us to the presence of God and our utter dependence on Him for eternal life. Wealth in our society provides increasing physical comforts like a big home, a fancy car, a soft bed, good medical care, exotic vacations to far-away places, just to name a few examples. As we gain more money, we often step right up to the next level of comfort and prestige in whatever we possess. With these increasing comforts, who needs God? I have everything I want and if not, I just work harder and buy it. A Hasidic story demonstrates this dynamic effectively: "How easy it is for a poor man to depend on God! What else has he to depend on? And how hard it is for a rich man to depend on God! All his possessions call out to him, 'Depend on us!'" (Coniaris, p.68).
The vanity of riches should be obvious. Its omnipotence is limited. Money can buy medicine but not health, a house but not a home, companionship but not friends, entertainment but not happiness, food but not an appetite, a bed but not sleep, a crucifix or an icon but not a Savior, the good life but not eternal life (Coniaris, p.70). Jesus repeatedly warns us about the danger of relying too much on our own wealth such as in the coming parables of the rich man who builds bigger barns (Luke 12:16-21) and the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-27). St. Paul repeats this warning to Timothy, "But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and are caught in the trap of many foolish and harmful desires, which pull them down to ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a source of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:9-10) (Coniaris, p.71).
However, our relationship with our wealth can radically change if we understand that God is the rightful owner. He entrusts it to us so we can use it specifically to help spread the Good News of Jesus Christ and build His Kingdom on earth. If the rich man viewed his wealth in this way, he would have seen Lazaros at the gate as a God-given opportunity to share Divine love. To help us understand how we relate to wealth, we need a "Money Check-Up." J.H.Jowett said, "The real measure of our worth is how much we would be worth if we lost all our money" (Coniaris, p.71).
The stewardship campaigns that are going on in most churches at this time of year are like 'health clinics on wealth' or 'money wellness seminars.' They provide us with another God-given opportunity to improve our vision to see the needs of others. They prompt us to think about our relationship with our possessions. As we walk through the Royal Gates into the Narthex and approach the Holy Gate of Sanctuary, will we notice the poor, sick and hungry people? Will we see the needs of our community and what is required to beautify our temple and maintain our facilities? Most importantly, will we see the absolute necessity for our parish to continue being a beacon of light and hope for those who are in darkness and despair?
God places the poor and suffering in our midst today. They surround us. They need not only food but faith; they need not only cash but caring; they need not only medicine but love. For the sake of the Kingdom, for our salvation as well as theirs, may we always see and never neglect the many Lazaroses at our gate. Let us conclude with the words of St. Paul to Timothy, "As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed" (1 Timothy 6:17-19) (Coniaris, p.72). Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.