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What’s a rich person like me to do?

From a sermon given February 16, 2014 sermon (Matthew 6.19-24)

The Sermon on the Mount begins with blessings, the ones we call the beatitudes. These sayings seem to me to bless two kinds of people. There are those who are having a hard go of it – the poor, those who are in mourning, the meek who always get trampled on, those who are being persecuted for doing what’s right. These sayings also bless those who long for and work for a world that is more closely aligned to God’s intentions, those who are pure in heart, those who work for peace and reconciliation, the who long for justice and righteousness, and those who offer mercy. All of these are offered blessing. These teachings of Jesus in the sermon he gives on the Mount are grounded in good news.

It is only after this has been established that Jesus begins to expound on what it looks like when we begin to live fully into God’s desires for the world. So, I’d suggest before we get caught up in the hard sayings of Jesus about wealth or family enemy love, we need to ground all of these teachings in the realization that they are all an invitation to a rich and blessed life. It is in the everyday experiences we have of giving hope or needing hope that God is present and that the gospel is lived and received.

Given that reality, we can then face some of the challenges Jesus throws our way as opportunities to experience blessing rather than finding the things Jesus says as being too hard. Choose life, rather than death; choose the way of blessing rather than the way of mediocrity and scarcity. Here we are focused on the question of wealth. How do we deal with all the stuff that we have, and the stuff we have that gives us the power to buy the stuff we have? How might we re-imagine the relationship between our possessions and ourselves?

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

The invitation is to take stock and to put your energy into those things that increase true wealth rather than diminish it. Be intentional about choosing those things that have added value, long term value, those things that align with God’s intentions for you and for those around you. This is helpful counsel for us as we make choices. It doesn’t answer everything but at least points in a direction. Not a map, not with all the locations on it, but a compass – are the decisions we make about money, lifestyle, expenditures, and all the rest pointing towards that which will last and aligns itself with all that God longs for in our world or do they go against it?

Which way will the decisions we are making direct our affections and us? Do they point to the values of shalom, of loving our neighbour as ourselves, of giving preference to the poor and the marginalized; in encouraging those things that bring reconciliation and justice? The teachings of Jesus, those priorities and values that Jesus highlights for us, help us to choose our direction. It is as simple as keeping our bearings – what do we value most; does this offer us more life or less; is this better for others and for creation or will it be worse off?

Jesus speaks often about wealth and often when he speaks about it, he gives a complicated answer. What does this look like in specific situations? How much is enough? What needs to be left behind as we journey towards that endpoint that the compass is pointing us towards? How should we use what we have? One of the stories we are told in the gospels is Jesus encounter with a person of significant financial status. It is the story of the rich person who comes to Jesus looking for answers to the question of entering eternal life. He recounts the ways he has lived a righteous life, obeying all the commands set out for him and tells Jesus “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” It is then that we have this saying of Jesus: “Sell all you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions….Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

This story tends to push us a bit further than the saying about ‘where our treasure is there our heart will be as well’. This one gets a bit more intense and identifies actions that are tangible. What does it mean to give up all one’s possessions; what does it mean to want to be perfect in the sight of God; what does it mean to walk away from Jesus? How big does the needle need to be or how small the camel to get these results? I think this story can stop us in our tracks. For most of us, if we do a reasonable analysis of our wealth compared to a global standard, we are rich.When I was in Honduras, average wages for workers in the factories or regular jobs in the country were around US$1 /hour with cost of living being about what we pay here for groceries and gasoline. So compared to the average Honduran I am rich, wealthy. It is not a question of guilt or anything of that nature – simply a reality. And so the realities of being wealthy take on new meanings, a stark confrontation that forces me to encounter the story of the rich ruler in a more personal way.

The gospel encounter ends with the rich man walking away, head hanging down, grieving, choosing not to follow Jesus, the only encounter Jesus has with anyone in the gospels where a person rejects Jesus offer to follow him.One author reflecting on this encounter writes “… unlike Jesus, if I had looked on the young man, I would have been sensitive to his personal limitations, his need for some earthly security, his desire for something practical, workable. I’ve had courses in pastoral counseling. I know that even though this young man is well off financially, he is still a poor, struggling beggar– spiritually speaking, psychologically speaking. He, like all the rest of us, is doing the best he can.” (Bradley Call: 1) We’d feel some compassion and soften the blow, but Jesus doesn’t. I don’t think the question he is asking is just about money, but rather about discipleship – what does it mean to follow Jesus. But in the end it is the money.

If you are a fan of Dragon’s Den you know Kevin O’Leary. He’s got that persona that works well as an antagonist on the show and you probably know his line as he’s trying to get some information from a potential entrepreneur. “Where’s the money? It’s all about the money.” In this story it is about values and treasures and it is bundled up in the possessions that the would-be disciple has. It is about the money for the guy who walks away. It is about what he chooses to hold on to. He is not able to follow Jesus because he has his hands full. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The catch is, you have got to be free to receive the gift. You cannot be otherwise engaged…You cannot accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it with. You cannot make room for it if all your rooms are already full. You cannot follow if you are not free to go…That is why the rich, young ruler went away sorrowful,…He could not believe that the opposite of rich might not be poor but free…” She goes on to say that Jesus called and many others followed him “and stuff got left behind. Not because it was bad, but because it was in the way. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. (Jesus) called, and nothing else seemed all that important anymore.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, 124-125).

I think this gets back to the idea of blessing. Yes, discipleship can be costly – we know this from reading Jesus seriously and from people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and countless others who have paid the price. But the benefits are a life of wholeness and blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted” – even rich young rulers who give up all they have? Even rich young rulers who walk away? Even them. The story of the young rich man doesn’t end with him walking away. It ends with a conversation Jesus has with those who have not walked away and have made significant sacrifices to do stay. To them Jesus makes a pronouncement. The disciples, looking at this fine upstanding religious man, ask if he can’t be saved what is the likely hood of any of the rest making it. And Jesus tells them ‘With God, all things are possible.’ We’ve heard this before in conversations with Abraham and Sarah and with conversations with the young girl Mary on the brink of an adventure that changed her life. When they ask ‘how can this be’, the response is ‘with God all things are possible’. And in this story, the impossible is that camels sometimes make it through the needles eye. All things are possible.

As followers of Jesus it seems to me the one thing we know about following is that it happens every day. Every day is a new experience and another part of the journey. Every day is another chance, another opportunity to move towards maturity, towards being more fully in tune with God’s intentions in the world. Every day we get to choose life rather than death. Perhaps this may be the case for this person as well – perhaps he reconsiders and comes back. Kent Annan’s book Following Jesus through the eye of the needle has been helpful in my wealthy journey. In it he wrestles with what it means to be a wealthy person living in Haiti and working for development and justice. As he grapples with his own fortunate situation in contrast to his Haitian friends – being born in the USA, having an airline ticket home if he needs to get out in a hurry, taking his pregnant wife back to Miami for the delivery of their baby because of complications in the birth – he speaks to what it means to live with the tensions that all these things bring. I appreciate Annan because he doesn’t resolve things neatly. He does, however, give some handles, points in a direction we can walk toward and offers four pointers in the direction of faithfulness in relation to our wealth.

1. Confess and then turn away from what’s blocking you. Jesus saw that the rich young man’s wealth kept him from following: “Sell it all and give the money to the poor… the wealth kept him from being able to really follow with dedication. Jesus exposed his idol. Identify your idols. What’s keeping you from making a difference?… What are you holding on to that keeps you from fitting through the eye of the needle? Next question: How can you give it away, kill it, disarm it, confess it, starve it, walk away from it?

2. Start on a personal journey—along with some other people. Journeys aren’t always easy, with energy surging and waning. Knowing this, get involved with a small group. Together you can learn more, avoid certain pitfalls, celebrate joys and find a way through the sadness (which will surely come) when the suffering of other people is overwhelming.

3. Help people nearby. Suffering can immobilize us. Act! Move! Now! That the big picture is so overwhelming makes this really important. I focus on the people and communities I know. How are they making progress… Don’t wait for the perfect cause or the perfect personal fit. Do thoughtful looking, but not for too long. Choosing where to get involved isn’t a lifetime commitment.

4. Commit to a movement. Get involved with some kind of larger movement for justice. There are fundamental structural injustices bigger than any of us can change as individuals or small, local groups…Each of us, no matter where we are, can start—whether with a simple, practical decision or with a radical change in direction. Jesus invites us on a fascinating, demanding journey. (3)

Sometimes like the rich young ruler, we can’t follow Jesus directly, but rather than walking away, maybe we can take a path that intersects with Jesus a little further along the way, stumble our way towards Jesus. Rather than going in the opposite direction, what if we go at an angle that will allow us to intersect Jesus a little further along the way, to give us a second chance, or a third… Let me end with a prayer written by Henri Nouwen:

Dear God, I am so afraid to open my clenched fists! Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to? Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands? Please help me to gradually open my hands and to discover that I am not what I own, but what you want to give me. And what you want to give me is love, unconditional, everlasting love. Amen.