“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced – even if someone rises from the dead!” As I’ve been reading this gospel lesson this week, with all of this talk of greedy rich men and people rising from the dead to warn others, I have found myself thinking a lot of the story of “A Christmas Carol.” Judging by this gospel reading, I think it’s safe to say that if Jesus Christ had been the one to write A Christmas Carol instead of Charles Dickens, the story would have ended very differently.
There are actually some striking similarities between our gospel reading for today and the story of A Christmas Carol. This reading is almost like an alternate universe version of that story. In A Christmas Carol, there is a rich man who dies, and in this case, it is a man named Jacob Marley. Like the rich man in the gospel story, Jacob Marley lived a life of selfishness and greed, totally oblivious to the suffering of his neighbors. And like the rich man suffering in hades, we also get a glimpse of Marley being tormented after he dies – he is doomed to wander the earth weighted down with heavy chains.
Of course, there is one major difference between this gospel passage and A Christmas Carol: unlike the rich man in Luke, Jacob Marley is allowed to go and try to warn his former partner of what awaits him in the afterlife. And that’s where the story really begins. Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley’s former partner, is visited by Marley’s ghost. And in the same night, he is also visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. This is a serious wake-up call for Scrooge. He is shown a bleak vision of what the future holds for him on his current self-serving path. And he’s also shown the love and joy and relationship that he is missing out on by only ever looking out for number one. To use the language of our second reading, he catches a glimpse of what Paul calls “the life that really is life.” And Scrooge realizes that the life he’s been living looks nothing like that.
Now Scrooge and Marley and the unnamed rich man from our gospel reading are all really broad caricatures. They’re not like most real people. Jesus does this pretty often in his parables – he likes to use really exaggerated characters to make his point, like the dishonest manager that we read about last Sunday. And the point of this gospel story is similar to the point of that also exaggerated story: you can’t serve both God and wealth.
Most people – present company included – are not Scrooge- or Marley-like figures. And the people to whom Luke was writing this story probably would not have been either. Like most of us, they probably fell somewhere in the middle, economically speaking. They weren’t the poorest of the poor, but they weren’t the richest of the rich either. They were regular people like you and me, just trying to get by and to do right by their families.
But there is a certain appeal, a certain temptation, to thinking like Ebenezer Scrooge – even for regular people like us. There is a worldly logic to the way that Scrooge saves up his resources. The future is so uncertain – you never know what might happen – a house fire or a car wreck or a tornado can suddenly change everything. And even without those sudden catastrophes, there is good sense in trying to squirrel away some of our wealth for a rainy day. I’m currently trying to save as much as I can for when my car lease is up next year, because I know I am going to be way over on miles after living between three different states for three years. And every month, I pay hundreds of dollars in student loan debt, credit card debt, car insurance, lease payments, and on and on and on.
Life in this world is expensive, and trying to stretch our money and our resources as far as they can go is extremely stressful. I’m sure you’re all thinking right now about the financial stresses in your own life – especially if your livelihood is tied to the harvest – and you’re feeling that familiar feeling of anxiety. (Sit with that for a minute.)
For all his flaws, I can imagine that Ebenezer Scrooge probably felt some of that anxiety, too. He is shown as a miserable, miserly sort of man, so we know he wasn’t out living the high life with his riches. He was closed in behind his walls, hoarding every last penny as a safeguard against an uncertain future. He found comfort in making sure that he was financially secure.
But then something really unexpected happens. Scrooge’s straightforward, logical plans for living his life are suddenly interrupted by a long, strange night of ghostly visits. And that interruption turns his safe, ordered, practical little world completely upside down.
Now, I seriously doubt that anyone here has ever spent a night being visited by people coming back from the dead. But I’d be willing to bet that many of us here have had moments in which our safe, orderly lives were dramatically interrupted in some way. Perhaps it was by the death or the near death of someone really dear to us — like my mom dying of cancer when I was nine. Or perhaps it was by an encounter with serious illness, like cancer or a heart attack or a stroke. You know what the moment was for you. Whatever it may be, it feels like our ordinary life screeches to a halt in one gut-wrenching, horrible moment. And it becomes painfully, inescapably clear to us that no amount of money or material wealth or preparation can save us from our own mortality.
Eternity breaks into our orderly lives and shows us our true spiritual poverty. And like Scrooge, or like the rich man in our gospel story, those moments leave us feeling poorer than we have ever felt in our lives.
But it’s also in those moments that we are finally able to hear the good news in these wise words from 1 Timothy. We brought nothing with us into this world – and we can take nothing with us out of it. All the material riches of this world are fleeting, temporary. But there are much greater riches than these – riches that last forever. There is life that really is life. There is so much more than this constant rat race of worry and heartbreak and fear. There is so much more. There is eternal life – life to which every single one of us is called! There is a loving God who gives life to all things, a God who richly provides for us in this life and the next. And through Christ, we are able to begin living that life that really is life right here and right now.
Even the most painful interruptions in our lives can serve to show us that we live constantly at the intersection of daily life and eternal life. Both our gospel reading and A Christmas Carol are stories in which people are struck with the sudden realization that they are living at exactly this intersection: where the ordinary and the eternal meet.
In Scrooge’s case, he gets a second chance to do things better after his life gets interrupted. He has this encounter with the life that really is life and it completely transforms him. And that transformation shows through in the way he starts to live his daily life – especially in how he changes his relationship to his wealth and his relationship to his neighbors.
Scrooge’s neighbors and Scrooge’s money have not changed – they are exactly the same as they were before. But Scrooge himself has come back from his encounters a changed man. And the way he suddenly starts using his wealth and his time is proof of the ways that he has changed. He gives away an enormous amount of money to charity; he sends extravagant gifts of food to poor Bob Cratchit and his family; he raises his employees’ salaries; he even pays for Tiny Tim’s medical expenses.
Through all of these things, Scrooge is expressing himself as the man he has become. He is participating in the life that really is life – life in right relationship with God and neighbor – in this life now. And he is laying up “the treasure of a good foundation for the future.”
Ultimately, I think that this is one of the most important truths for us to take away from these texts. Every day, we face choices about how to use the money and the resources that have been entrusted to us. And when we choose to give those things away – whether it be to charity, or to the church, or to our neighbor – we are reminding ourselves that there is more to this life than just the endless stressful rat race. We are reminding ourselves of who we really are. We are more than numbers on a balance sheet. We are beloved children of God, redeemed and called to eternal life. And may God bless us, every one.