of God and money

We began celebrating a season of harvest this past Sunday at Bethany. Our first story was the tale of a wealthy man who wanted to find the way to life. But when Jesus told him to sell what he owned and give it to the poor, the man went away grieving, because, the story tells us, he had many possessions. The full text we looked at is here. Thoughts after the jump.

This is a tough story.

It’s tough because it can be hard to know where we fit.

We all know people who have more money than we do. We’re not rich like they are. And we all know people who have less money than we do. Globally, most people have a lot less money than we do. Even just in this room, we have a tremendous amount of economic diversity.

So it’s hard to know where we fit in a story like this. We wonder, does Jesus mean me? Is Jesus saying that my possessions, my wealth—no matter how big or small it appears in my own eyes, that it’s going to make it hard for me to experience full, new life with God? Is that what this passage is saying?

Why would we start a harvest celebration with this passage? For the next four weeks we’ll be giving thanks. But why start here?

Two reasons.

One – this story prompts thoughtfulness. Because it is not easy, it asks us to dig deep and reflect honestly.

And two – this story reminds us that there is some sort of connection between our possessions and our souls.

First, the thoughtfulness. This story asks us, if we have the courage, to look at some of those questions we may avoid, like: how much is enough? And is more than enough sometimes too much? Does my stuff connect me with others? Does my wealth, however much there is or isn’t, does it connect me in some way with those who have less? Or does it keep me separated from them?

These are hard questions.

I want to be clear. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer about money in the gospels. Jesus asked different people to do different things with their money. He did not have a detailed tax code. If you have this much, you should give this much.

But he did remind us of at least two principles to keep in mind as we consider what we have. Neither of these principles was new with Jesus. He drew them both from the law and the prophets, what we today call the Old Testament.

First, Jesus wanted us to know that poor people matter a lot, and a good measure of an individual’s righteousness, or a society’s health, is how much is given to the poor. The Bible is consistent about this, and Jesus came back to it over and over again. He didn’t ask everyone to sell everything, but he was very clear that we are to share what we have, no matter how much or how little, with people who have less than we do. That was Jesus’ most essential teaching about money.

His other core point is that our wealth and our souls are not disconnected. What we do with what we have matters.

That is the second reason we’re starting our season of harvest with this story. As we pause to give thanks for all we have, we are also asked to step back and consider how our stuff is shaping our lives, how it leads us into life or keeps us from real life. I think that is the thrust of this story. Let’s look at it together.

There’s this man who runs to Jesus. We find out later that he is wealthy, although it must have been immediately obvious to the people there. The fine weave of his clothing would have given him away, and his clean hands, un-dirtied by manual labor, and his good teeth, indicative of a healthy, regular diet.

This man must have seemed to have it all, to have it all together. But he comes running to a peasant teacher and kneels in the dirt at his feet.

Why? Why would a person like this need Jesus?

He gets right to the point. What must I do to inherit eternal life? The words here do not only point to a never-ending life after death, but to something deeper—a quality of life here and now that is eternal.

He has plenty, but it is not enough.

Jesus doesn’t give him a new teaching. He points him back to the time-tested practices of their faith: do right by your neighbor; don’t destroy life; honor your marriage; tell the truth; don’t take what’s not yours.

I’ve done all that says the man. Something’s still missing.

Jesus looks at him and loves him. Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes. Jesus doesn’t call him a hypocrite or a fool. Jesus looks at this man and sees the longing inside, the longing too deep to name. He sees emptiness and brokenness. He sees the beauty of this man. And he loves him. Just as Jesus reached out his hand to restore a blind man’s sight, to raise a little girl from certain death, so Jesus reaches out to this man with the desire to give him this life he seeks.

You lack one thing, he says. Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor. You will find what you are looking for.

The man’s heart sank. Did Jesus’ heart sink, too? Is that a note of grief we hear in his voice as he sighs and says, how hard it is for the rich to know the kingdom?

Why does Jesus believe it is hard for those of us who have enough, who have more than enough, to experience real life?

He doesn’t say. But perhaps there’s value in the wondering.

Is it because having a lot insulates us? When we have more than enough, when we have warm coats and heat in our homes, are we more prone to forget our neighbors who don’t? I wonder if this is why people who do not have very much money tend to give away a higher percentage of their income. I wonder if it’s because when we don’t have very much, we are very aware of how tenuous life can be, and how much difference a little can make.

Or is it because having more than enough makes it easier to be self-righteous? Do we lose sight of how hard it is for our neighbors with less? Are we more likely to look at them neighbors and think, I did it, why can’t you?

Could it be because when we have more than enough, we begin to believe in our own power, our own ability to secure our future and give ourselves life?

I wonder if this man, deep inside, had come to believe that he could earn his way to life.

Jesus looked at him and loved him and told him the truth: you will never have enough, unless you give away this other stuff you are clinging to.

Jesus looks at us with love too. And longs for us to be whole, to have enough, to find life.

And I wonder if he calls us, too, to give some up, to let go of some of what we think will give us security, but in fact just stands in our way.

As we begin this season of harvest, we step back and look at what we have. We try to look as Jesus would, not with harsh judgment, but with love, considering what gives us life, and what holds us back.

We step back and consider what we have and whose we are. Maybe the first thing we do is to say thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for my daily bread. Thank you for the roof over my head. And then we begin to decide what to do, what to save, what to spend, what to give.

The man in our story reminds us that these decisions can be hard, but they matter. What we do with what we have shapes us. Even Jesus didn’t think this was easy stuff.

It may not ultimately be possible for us 21st century Americans to sort out all this stuff about money and morality. We are likely to struggle with this our whole lives.

But friends, what is impossible for us is possible for God. By God’s grace we take steps in the right direction, but we do not have to get ourselves all the way home. Where our power, our ability, our resources run out, God meets us.

God steps into that gap between who we are and who we are meant to be and bridges that gap for us.

In the end we can’t buy our way to life, and we can’t earn our way to life. Life is a gift. Always.

Life, true, deep life, life with that eternal quality, is a gift only God can give. In Jesus we see that we are loved, and God longs to give us life. We follow, step by step, in the steps of one who has shown us what life and love are really like. Sometimes we get off track. Sometimes our strength runs out. But God never stops loving us, covering us with grace, leading us, day by day, into life. This, this love that stops at nothing is where we put our trust. For that, thanks be to God.

by Sarah W. Wiles
November 4, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA 
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