The Trouble with Money
First Reading Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm Psalm 90:12-17
Second Reading Hebrews 4:12-16
Gospel Mark 10:17-31
“May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.“ Amen.
The winter had been especially difficult in the mountains of North Carolina. Heavy snowfall and cold temperatures had allowed snow to accumulate to several feet at the higher elevations. The people who lived in the small mountain village down in the valley became concerned about an older couple who lived in an isolated cabin up on the mountainside. No one had seen either the husband or the wife for several weeks. Realizing that they were snowed in, the villagers would watch for smoke coming from the cabin chimney. One day, when smoke was no longer apparent, the villagers decided to call in the Red Cross. Roads impassable, a helicopter flew over the cabin, but no signs of life were seen. Two Red Cross workers equipped with medical supplies and food parachuted into a clearing some distance from the cabin. The two young men made their way through the deep snow, clearing a path to the door of the cabin. One of them knocked. Momentarily, an old man appeared at the door. The young rescuer announced, “We are from the Red Cross.” The old man looked at him, blinked, and said, “Well, you know, it has been a right hard winter up here and I just don’t hardly see how we can give anything this year.”
Some people, no matter what their circumstance, always have the heart of a giver. Even when they have nothing left, their first thought is to give. As we begin our first Sunday of our Stewardship Campaign at St. Paul’s, we are all called, no matter our circumstances, to consider how we might respond to God’s blessings in our lives, and how we might be givers. Coincidentally, in our gospel today Jesus teaches about the proper attitude of wealth and property in the kingdom of God. It is almost as if someone planned it.
Jesus continues to be on the move, on a mission, giving all that he has, all that he is. A man approaches Jesus, kneels before him, calls him “Good Teacher”, and seems to ask sincerely, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Most people we hear about in the gospels approach Jesus to test or trick him. Perhaps assuming insincere flattery, Jesus pushes back a little. “Why do you call me ‘good’? Only God is good.” But Jesus does offer an answer, of sorts. “You know the commandments” and cites a few. The man proclaims he has kept all the commandments since his youth. He has set his sights higher, seeking God’s new creation, the kingdom of God to come. Surely there must be more. Jesus clearly warms to this man, looks at him, and loves him. Even with the requirements Jesus is about to impose, knowing the man will not, or cannot comply ... Jesus loved him.
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When most of us recall this gospel story, we sum up Jesus’ requirement as ‘give away all your money’. This is incomplete. Sell what you own, and realize all your provisions come from God, and your treasure lies in heaven. Give away all you have to the poor, turning your back on money, possessions, power, and influence. Last, but certainly not least, come, follow me. Give everything to God, and follow Jesus. This is not an ascetic poverty, where God is asking us to starve, or go naked, or be homeless, or withhold medical treatment. God is asking us to be all in, committed, mission oriented. One part of that mission is to identify with the least among us ... those who are hungry, naked, homeless, afflicted ... and love them, care for them, and offer relief to their suffering.
We assume the rich man goes away sad because he cannot part with his wealth and possessions. This may be true. But perhaps he is grieving precisely because he has decided to follow Jesus. While we expect the decision to follow Christ to be a cause for jubilation, we cannot ignore how hard it is to part with material stuff.
The disciples have heard all this and are perplexed. The expected reward for righteousness is that good things happen to good people. If wealth is the reward for being good, and wealth can be such a stumbling block, who can be saved? The disciples are particularly concerned, because they have left everything to follow Jesus. They are being forced, and resisting, the idea of salvation as a gift and the recognition of God’s initiative in the gift.
Jesus reveals how difficult the journey toward the kingdom of heaven can be for humanity. We should often question literal interpretations of scripture, as if God’s word could be one dimensional. Yet in this case, Jesus suggests it is easier for a literal camel to go through the literal eye of a literal needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. The common suggestion that there was an ‘eye of the needle’ or ‘camel’s’ gate in Jerusalem is a legend, with no historical support. The words are meant to be an exaggeration of how tempting wealth is and what a barrier it can be. That is the point.
Wealth is a tempting idol. The problem is not wealth itself, but the tendency to become so preoccupied with wealth and material possessions, that these become so important and central in our lives, that we forget that God’s kingdom is a divine gift that cannot be bought and hoarded. Salvation is a gift from God, and the path of salvation a journey. We are promised both blessings and persecutions, joys and sorrows. Life in Christ is not measured by these. Our journey of salvation is not defined by what we go through or what we gain, but what we give. Our journey is to be traveled with love and generosity, selflessness and service, fellowship and forgiveness. Our focus and devotion should not be amassing and maintaining wealth, but discerning how the blessings we are given might be returned to God so we might bless the world.
We do not journey alone. Today we will welcome a soul into life in Christ as we recommit our own lives. We will offer our heart and soul and mind and strength to God and the support of each other as we journey. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that a walk with God is not worried about material possessions. In solidarity with humanity, God has walked this journey with us in Jesus Christ. In calling his disciples, Jesus did not offer a healthcare plan, for life in Christ contains the power of healing. Jesus did not set up a retirement IRA, for our rewards are in heaven. Of course, there is a strict non-compete clause. Stewardship calls us to the life Jesus lived, faithfully offering all that we are, and all that we have, to God. We are called to recognize God as the source of all blessings, and return our lives and all our blessings to God. Amen.