My friend George sent me his list of “Top 10 Biblical Also-Rans” – characters in the bible who seem to get short shrift. I’ve got to agree with him about Ananias and Sapphira, the couple in the book of Acts that gets a major comeuppance for not being transparent with their finances with the church leadership.
“Okay, they cheated on their pledge to the church and then lied about it. Not good. Definitely not good. But that mealy-mouthed Peter of all people, Mr. Cock-Crowed-Thrice, to act so high and mighty about it, and then our good friend the HS to strike them down dead? Not a good story at all. A little private correction, a gentle brotherly rebuke… but a death sentence?” By the way, pledge cards for our next year’s budget will be out soon.
Since we’re talking about money, here is George’s take on the Rich Young Rule, our character in today’s gospel. “Things are going well for the Rich Young Ruler, because not only does he have lots of dough, but the one thing he fears he may lack, eternal life, is being dispensed (so he heard) by the good-looking rabbi from Galilee, just now coming down his street. He makes his way hence, and gains an immediate audience. He pops the question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We are informed that Jesus loved him.
Things are going really well: the things he has to do for eternal life are just the very things he has been doing! Then Jesus drops the bomb. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” That really wasn’t on the Rich Young Ruler’s agenda. He remembered that he has a pedicure appointment, followed by a visit to that new chariot shop he heard about. Aw, snap!”
This famous passage is about more than money, but we can’t escape the fact that it also about money. And why wouldn’t Jesus talk about money when it impacts our lives maybe more than anything else. Money has all kinds of power over people. This is why Jesus calls money an idol, a false god – Mammon. He says talk of money is talk of religion! Money represents status or security or who’s in and who’s out. More deeply and more insidiously, people actually equate wealth with worth. The more you have, the more worthy you are.
Money is a source of comparison, stress, and resentment. Very few people are immune to Mammon’s disruptive power. Money is real world stuff so I’m going to tell you a real world story about its corrosive influence. Several years ago I agreed to do the wedding of an out of town non-parishioner. As a rule I don’t do non-parishioner weddings due to an already busy schedule. I agreed to this one in a moment of weakness and soon came to regret the decision. It was a fancy wedding with 400 people in attendance and a full-blown country club reception. We’re talking a $50,000 or $60,000 price tag, at least, probably more.
The week before the wedding the out of town family called the church to try to get us to lower our $1000 non-parishioner fee for use of the church, and the minister’s fee for marrying the couple, which at that time was $500, or in this case, less than 1% of the cost of the total wedding. I’m pretty sure the there is no wedding without a minister, but oh, well.
They were so acrimonious that I ended up giving in on my fee. But you can imagine the resentments boiling inside me during the ceremony. In fact, when the time came in the ceremony for me to marry them, I said, “now that so and so have exchanged vows and given and received rings, I will pronounce that they are husband and wife… if you cough up another $200!” I’m kidding, of course, but money related resentments make people do all kinds of bad things. You’ve got your own stories.
You know people who are tight and you know people who spend money they don’t have. You know marriages that have busted up over finances and you know couples who will only get hitched with a pre-nuptial agreement in place. You know people who judge people with money and people who judge people without money.
You’ve been in churches where you’re made to feel like you’ve got to empty your pockets for God. Some churches pass the plate around a second time if the first go round is a little light. My favorite church money line is the minister who says to his congregation, “I’ve got good news and bad news about our stewardship campaign. The good news is that we have more than enough money for our annual budget for next year. The bad news is that it is all in your pockets.”
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus talks about money to the rich young man who runs up and kneels before Him and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with the Law – the 10 commandments. Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, etc. The man says he’s kept all the commandments from his youth. Jesus, knowing this is a brash and cocky answer, still looks at the man and loves him. That is a priceless scripture.
Then Jesus gets down to the inner heart, the inner life of the man. What is it that the man really holds dear? What is it that gives the man his worth and security? Like for so many of us, it’s money – the idol Mammon. The 1st commandment is you shall have no gods before Me. And the 2cd is you shall not make for yourself any idols. Although, the man may have technically and outwardly kept the other commandments, he is clearly guilty of breaking the first two. Jesus, knowing the man’s idolatrous heart, asks him to sell all he has and to give it to the poor. The man can’t do it; his wealth is his worth and his life. So he goes away sorrowing.
The old truism says that money can’t buy happiness. Why? Because, money, like any other idol, can’t satisfy the deepest desires of the heart. Only God can do that. That’s why the Psalmist say, “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.” So do the resentments, insecurities, comparisons and stresses, which are the religious rites of the worship of Mammon.
It may be that one way to not go away sorrowing is to give your money away. The man was asked to give it all away; the usual biblical norm is %10. It’s called the tithe. It’s a simple equation: if you have $80,000 in income, you give away $8,000. It is just descriptively true that giving money away not only helps those who are in need, it helps you. It helps remind you that you worship God and not Mammon. It’s a shot across the bow at the materialistic culture which dupes you into believing that living in a certain house in a certain neighborhood will satisfy you and shield you from “sorrows.”
Ultimately, though, even giving all your money away doesn’t guarantee happiness. I said that this sermon was about something more important than money. And it is. It’s clear from the rich young man’s question that this passage is about eternal life. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The question is phrased the wrong way. There is nothing that you can do to inherit eternal life. Even if we think we’ve obeyed every commandment, each of us in some way is chasing after a false god. We cannot fix this problem on our own.
Our human nature chases after false gods, even though those gods increase our sorrow. Maybe your false god is money – Mammon, maybe it’s something else. Even if you give away 10% or your money, or all of your money, you can’t earn your way into heaven.
So what must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer is nothing, because it’s all been done for you. Even the word “inherit” tells it all – you receive an inheritance, you don’t earn one. Eternal life has already been given to you by the One who once was rich, but became poor for your sake. He died on a cross to give you the riches of heaven. That’s what grace is: G R A C E – “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”.
The gospel is not good news and bad news. The gospel is that you need nothing in your pocket, because all you need is in God’s pocket, the very pocket he has emptied for you. The bottom line, to use a financial term, is this: no matter who you are, how much money you have or don’t have, even if you hoard your wealth or give it away self-righteously, Jesus looks at you and loves you.