I Timothy 6:11-19
Ever since I was a young adult, the concept of self-esteem has been repeatedly talked about and written about by talk-show psychologists and school teachers and even preachers. A healthy sense of self-esteem, we’re told, is grounded in an innate sense of one’s own essential “okay-ness”, in spite of the mistakes, poor choices, and bad luck that are part of everyone’s past by the time we reach adulthood. But human beings do not always look for self-esteem in such a healthy way. Some of us—and I use the first-person plural very loosely here, because I’m not talking about myself!—some of us identify our sense of “okay-ness” with our appearance, a face and body combination that’s guaranteed to turn heads. Others look to their own health and fitness to define their sense of well-being. Others attach their self-image to their intellectual and educational achievements—just look at the agony high school students go through every year taking tests and writing essays in order to get into a “name-brand” college or university. And many, of course, find that their regard for themselves rises and falls with their bank balance and their net worth.
The only problem with locating our self-worth in any of these places is: What happens if we lose them? What happens when all we do to maintain our looks just can’t keep up with the effects of aging? What happens when all we’ve done to keep our bodies in shape is laid waste by the onslaught of disease? What happens when a changing world renders our education obsolete? And what happens when an economy over which we have no control wrecks all the careful plans we’d made for the accumulation and preservation of wealth? What happens when we lose it all? Where is our self-esteem then?
That’s a profoundly important question, because if we really do look for our sense of worth in such things, our attitude toward them is going to be dominated, more than anything else, by fear. Every moment of our lives is going to be ruled by the terrifying prospect of losing whatever it is—looks, money, health, intelligence, social status—whatever it is that has become the perceived source of our self-esteem.
We’re all familiar with the character Ebenezer Scrooge. The very name “Scrooge” has become a synonym for a sort of miserly nastiness that nobody finds attractive. Yet, in the story, Scrooge is not really a mean person. He’s nasty, but not mean. Once Scrooge is actually confronted with the suffering of Tiny Tim and the rest of the Cratchitts—suffering which was well within his power to alleviate—his heart is genuinely moved with compassion, and he does the right thing. The hard part was getting him to that point, getting him to the point where he could look for a moment away from himself and at everything and everyone around him. This was exceedingly difficult, because Ebenezer Scrooge was consumed with fear. He was afraid of losing his fortune, and because his self-image was tied up with his fortune, if he lost his fortune, he lost himself. Scrooge placed his trust in a false hope—the hope of being able to hang onto his fortune. When our lives are dominated by fear, we become like Scrooge. We accumulate, we horde. We become miserly, reluctant to share what we have. We need to constantly reassure ourselves of our security, so we can’t take the risk of expending any of whatever it is that is precious to us because it tells us who we are, defines our identity, our self-esteem.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is one that most of us heard in Sunday School before we were old enough to read. “There was a rich man,” Jesus says, “who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Now you and I may not be very impressed by the ability to wear purple clothing, but back then purple dye was obtained only from a very rare, and therefore expensive, shellfish. So this guy was rich. He lived not only comfortably, but ostentatiously. And just outside the front gate of his home was Lazarus—homeless, unemployed, and sick. Lazarus would have been grateful to make a meal out of the table scraps, the garbage from the rich man’s home, but the implication is that he didn’t even get that. Two men, one right under the other one’s nose, but unseen. Like Scrooge, the rich man in Jesus’ parable is consumed by fear, fear of losing that to which he had attached his self-esteem. He placed his trust in a false hope—the hope of finding eternal validation from his wealth. As long as he had purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously, he knew who he was. Without those things, he was nobody. So he clung to them, fearfully, tenaciously.
As the veteran Episcopalians among us realize, as we move into the fall, we’re entering stewardship season, that time of year when, as a parish church, we ask one another to think and pray, and then go on record, confidentially, with what we believe the Lord is calling us to give to this community in the coming calendar year. As a priest, as I confessed last week, stewardship season makes me uncomfortable. To a certain extent, my discomfort is grounded in the knowledge that the whole thing makes some of you uncomfortable. And as the pastor of this congregation, I know that a good part of the discomfort my parishioners feel about stewardship happens only because I bring it up in the first place!
But my discomfort with this time of year operates on a deeper level as well. It has nothing to do with my being a priest, and everything to do with my being a baptized Christian who is a member of this particular parish community. The same issues that I and the vestry bring up to the larger congregation, I also bring up to myself. I wrestle with my own fears and frustrations about money, my own insecurities, my own self-esteem. We’re embarking on an uncomfortable season, because it makes us own up to just where it is that we get nourishment for our self-image, just what it is that, if we lose it, robs us of our personhood.
Lazarus and the rich man both died, and, in that event, both learned that neither one controlled his own future, his own destiny. The fate of each was in the hands of God. Within the fabric and structure of the way he has created the universe, God has ordained that there are consequences, both temporal and eternal, for our actions. Both Lazarus and the rich man found this out, only in very different ways. Lazarus dies, and is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. For a pious Jew, this was as good as it gets. The rich man died, and found himself in rather unpleasant circumstances. Now, the point of this parable is not to supply us with details about life in the hereafter, and it’s a mistake to get distracted in that direction. Rather, this is an invitation to concentrate our attention on the fact that God is vitally interested in where it is we look for our self-esteem. He wants us to find our self-esteem in him, is his love for us.
This is not an easy move to make. We are deeply conditioned to ground ourselves, to root ourselves, elsewhere than in the love of the one who made us and redeemed us. It’s a move that we can only make with the help of God’s own grace. But if we make the move, if we find our self-esteem in him, we will find ourselves truly free, free of fear, and free of false hope. If my esteem for myself is grounded in nothing other than God’s esteem for me, rather than in my bank balance or my looks or my health or whatever, then I am truly free from fear of loss. This is the kind of freedom from fear that Jesus, by means of this parable, invites us to experience.
As I reflect on my own life, and the false hopes that have tempted me over the years—a new pair of shoes, a new friend, a new job, a new car, a new house, even a new career—I realize that none of these has brought me anything near true peace and happiness. None of these has been an appropriate source for my self-esteem. Time and again I have returned, if not to the bosom of Abraham, then to Abraham’s God. Freedom from fear and freedom from false hope allows us to take a “liberal” attitude toward the wealth that God has blessed us with, whether that wealth is an abundance of money, an abundance of time, or an abundance of knowledge and skill. And I don’t mean “liberal” in any political or religious sense, but in the sense of an open, free-flowing generosity. Such liberality enables us to let go of potential earned income in order to take the time to spend with children or grandchildren, or to help an illiterate adult learn to read, and to count doing so a joy. Such liberality allows us to let go of having an impeccably clean house or an award-winning yard in order to spend time in a small study/prayer/sharing group of other Christians, thereby building up and strengthening the body of Christ, and to count doing so a joy. Such liberality allows us to give sacrificially of our monetary wealth to the ministry of our local parish and to the mission of the church throughout the world, and to count doing so a joy. Jesus wants to be the only source of self-esteem we’ll ever need, to cast out all our fear, and replace it with joy. Amen.