October 11, 2015
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
When I was my daughter’s age, I would have told you that the problem with money is counting it. Reading a Dr. Seuss book to Mira recently, we read the question “would you rather have a dollar bill or 97 cents.” At that age, concrete, operational thinking says 97 is greater than one, so take the stack of pennies.
A few years later, I would have said there is no problem with money. Money is good. It buys candy and toys. (Mary sometimes wonders if I am not still in this stage…) Later still, I would have told you that the problem with money is that I did not have enough of it. That was even before the days of Lipton’s Noodle and Sauce with canned tuna added, because I was a broke seminary student.
So when we talk about the problem with money, there is a good chance that we are all over the place in how we understand what the problem might be. As one guy said, “I don’t have a cash-flow problem. It flows away just fine…”
So why is Jesus so harsh to the man who has so many possessions?
What we know about the man is that Jesus has just spoken about being like a child to enter the kingdom of God. And Jesus is starting to set out from this place, and this young man runs up to him, kneels down, the posture of worship, and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”
What might be surprising here is that Jesus does not say, “Stand up and follow me,” as he has done so many other times. Instead, he asks about the commandments. The man answers, I have kept them my whole life, an answer that Jesus does not challenge.
Instead, Jesus says the one thing that North American Protestants find questionable at best.
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.
How many of us would have a similar reaction to this teaching? Shock. Grief. Leaving Jesus disheartened because we own so very many possessions.
The problem with money is that it is a blank slate. It has no intrinsic value of its own, except that people will give you stuff for it. It is the great substitute. Sometimes we can trade five hours of work for that new shiny thing that we want. But usually, we work those hours, get paid a certain amount for it, and use that money to buy what we want.
And in our modern day, as in the Roman Empire, we have equated money to political speech. Giving to campaigns, to Super PACs, to candidates, allows corporations and rich folks to have a much greater voice in politics than those of us without those means.
The problem with money is that it is how we determine the value of things, but we keep using it to determine the value of people. We can look up how much a used car with this many miles on it is worth. What about us as people?
Those commandments Jesus quoted this young man. Did you notice he did not ask about the ones concerning our relationship with God?
No other gods;
No swearing falsely by God’s name;
Honor the Sabbath.
These are not in the list he asked about. He asked about all the commandments that have to do with how we live together and how we treat one another.
You shall not murder;
You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal;
You shall not bear false witness;
You shall not defraud;
Honor your father and mother.
The beauty of money is that it becomes a substitute for hours of work so that we can trade them for groceries and rent and whatever we need. The problem with money is that it becomes a substitute for the highest values of the Biblical faith, namely how we treat one another.
How much are your most important relationships worth? How much is your life worth? How much are your parents, or your children, worth?
In the world of money, a young man with plenty of possessions is worth so much more than a bunch of poor people. In the world of money, getting, guarding, keeping and growing our money, these make up our highest good. Just recently a CEO of a pharmacology company argued that his responsibility in manufacturing drugs is to his shareholders, not to sick people. That is the world of money. And we need to be wise in the ways of the world of money, not for the sake of money, but because it will try to buy and sell us like commodities.
In the world of the Gospel, the rich young man and each and every one of those people who are poor are worth the same. Each is a child of God. Each is created in the image and likeness of God.
This is hard to remember. What is one hour on Sunday compared to the number of ads we see, read, or hear each week?
One of the more misquoted lines of the Bible is about money. Some say that money is the root of all evil. Close, but not quite.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their
eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and
pierced themselves with many pains.
(1 Timothy 6.10)
Here is the key. Love. If the object of our love is objects, or money, or stuff, or whatever else, the result is wandering from faith, and much pain.
But did you catch what it said when Jesus answered the young man?
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.”
The challenge to love people and not money, the challenge to the priorities of money before people, the challenge of faith over the world, however difficult it is for us, comes from love.
Let us love one another.
Thanks be to God.