First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
January 28, 2018
17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley).
18 And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.
19 He blessed him and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth;
20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.
17 As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
19 You know the commandments: '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.'"
20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."
21 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."
22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"
24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
25 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."
26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?"
27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
Robert Kiyosaki, author of the best-selling book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, describes the contrasting views his two “dads” had about money. His biological father, who worked all his life and died in debt, would say: “The love for money is the root of all evil.” His other “dad,” a childhood mentor who made millions and left great wealth to his children, charity, and church when he died, would say: “The LACK of money is the root of all evil.” Kiyosaki concluded that “The poor and middle-class work for money. The rich have money work for them.” Getting money to work for you, focusing on keeping money instead of struggling to make money - that, in Kiyosaki’s estimation, is true freedom.
Another path to freedom is that proposed by the more recent minimalist movement. Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus describe minimalism as “a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.”
So, which is it? To find freedom, should we be learning to accumulate wealth, getting our money to work for us? Or should we be getting rid of all our possessions and moving into tiny houses?
In the text we read today, Jesus encounters a young man who, as far as we can tell, earnestly desires to inherit eternal life. He kneels before Jesus and addresses him with the respectful title of “good teacher.” Mark has not told us yet that he is wealthy, but in the phrasing of his question, we get a hint of his privilege.
He asks Jesus what he must do to gain an inheritance. Now, an inheritance, by definition, is not something that can be earned. There is nothing one can do to gain it. It’s a birthright. An inheritance can only be given and received.
But this man, whom we later learn has many possessions, knows that everything has a price. Perhaps for something like eternal life, the price will be something more than money. Perhaps it is something he will have to do. But it is still something that he feels is within his power to obtain. If only Jesus would name the price, he is happy to pay it.
In answer to his question, Jesus begins by listing certain commandments. The ten commandments many of us are familiar with can be broken into two sections. The first set of commandments – have no other gods, make no graven images, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and remember the sabbath – these commandments focus on our relationship to God. Jesus leaves these out of his list to the young man, instead focusing on the commandments that order our life in community, our relationships with other people - 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.
This emphasis on justice and righteousness in our human relationships is reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, who railed against the Israelites for trying to please God with ritual and sacrifice but ignored God’s commands to care for the vulnerable people in their community. There is no way of keeping the first set commandments if you aren’t keeping the second set. If you covet and steal, lie and defraud, dishonor your parents and commit adultery, you are making and worshipping the gods of self-interest; you are taking the Lord’s name in vain each time you speak it because God is not your only god; you are breaking the sabbath by participating in structures of oppression and greed.
And so Jesus asks the man about his concern for others, not his love for God.
It would seem that the young man is in earnest when he tells Jesus he has kept all those commandments from his youth, from the age of accountability. In fact, the young man’s wealth would have been viewed in the ancient world as a byproduct of his spiritual virtue. He appears to be a righteous man, someone blessed by God, deserving of any good gift God could bestow, including eternal life.
But Jesus says he lacks just one thing. If you listen carefully, he doesn’t actually tell him what that one thing is. The man had asked Jesus what he could do to inherit eternal life, and so that is the question Jesus answers: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
Naturally, the man is sticker shocked, and he goes away, sorrowful. We don’t know if he’s grieved because he plans to do as Jesus said, sell his possessions, and he’s anticipating the emotional loss that will accompany that; or if he is grieved because he already knows he can’t bring himself to do what Jesus says is needed and has therefore lost hope of attaining eternal life.
We don’t know what the man ends up doing, but his grief makes the point either way. The point, as Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, is that those who are rich, like this young man, are held captive to the spiritual power of their possessions. Jesus invited the man to break free from this captivity. That freedom is the one thing the man needs to experience the reign of God and to have eternal life.
The Minimalists say, and I think Jesus would concur here, that there’s nothing “inherently wrong with owning material possessions. Today’s problem seems to be the meaning we assign to our stuff: we tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves.”
Robert Kiyasaki would argue, and again, I think Jesus would agree, that those who manage their wealth poorly, those who work paycheck to paycheck, those who live like his “poor dad,” will be consumed by their lack of wealth and captive to covetousness. They assign meaning and power to the things they don’t have. The poor are no freer from the power of money than the wealthy.
In other words, the problem is not wealth itself, but our attitude toward it.
The accumulation of riches, or our desire to do so, tempts us to trust in possessions and our powers of acquiring them, rather than in God, for our ultimate security and comfort. We begin to believe, like the young man in this story, that we can acquire eternal life rather than inherit it. Even honestly acquired and generously shared wealth can lead to this kind of pride. Just as involuntary poverty can lead us to distrust God’s provision and goodness. In either case, instead of possessing things, our things come to possess us until they assume a mastery over us that eclipses the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Notice that Jesus shares his insight with the young man, not out of judgement or anger, but out of love. Jesus loves the man, and earnestly desires for him to have what he wants, eternal life in the reign of God. At the same time, he knows it is far beyond the man’s individual capability to gain that one thing he lacks.
It’s like when a kid comes to his parents and announces that he wants to be a professional basketball player. And the kid is full-grown at 5 foot 2 and has terrible hand-eye coordination and not one single athletic gene in his body. You can tell him that if he practices 10,000 hours he can master a free-throw. You can tell him to stop doing everything else in life to just practice basketball. You can give advice that is extreme and costly. But in the end, you know that he is not going to become a professional basketball player. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a vertically challenged person to become a professional basketball player. Being short isn’t a sin or a vice. There’s no judgement. But there’s not much hope, either.
And that’s exactly the feeling the disciples express. They throw up their hands and say Then who can be saved? If it’s that difficult for a rich person, who is clearly blessed by God for their righteousness, to inherit eternal life, what about the rest of the poor saps who don’t even have that advantage?
For us. For humanity. There is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life, to obtain the kingdom of heaven.
Like the young man, our wealth, as meager as it may sometimes seem, is not necessarily a sign of sin or greed. But it can be a weakness. Our captivity to our possessions prevents us from living into the full life of the kingdom. Jesus, however, names that power which holds us captive and invites us to step into freedom. Not the freedom of Robert Kiyasaki or the freedom of the minimalists. Freedom in Christ. The freedom that ONLY God has the power to grant. For us, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible.
Perhaps it would be impractical, and even poor stewardship, to give away all our possessions at once. It may be possible with God, and it may set us free, but I am going to go ahead and admit that it is unlikely anyone in this room will be given that gift, that inheritance, today.
Now, I’ve been a Presbyterian all my life, and I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve heard anyone talk about how much someone should give to the church. There was this chart from a Math for Dummies textbook showing how, if you’re giving one percent of your income to the church, and you stepped it up to two percent, here’s how much money you’d give. And someday, you might even work all the way up to ten percent.
And all I thought was, “what on earth does that have to do with God?”
We talk about “tithes and offerings” in the church, knowing full well that almost no one gives a “tithe,” ten percent of their income. We also know full well that ten percent is a practically arbitrary number, drawn from that obscure passage in Genesis we heard this morning. How many of you have ever heard that scripture before in your life?
This idea of giving ten percent of what God delivered into your hands, whether through the spoils of war or the sweat of your brow, was incorporated into Jewish law, but here is where it comes from. If we want to talk about tithes, and working toward that goal, we may as well randomly choose any one of the other 612 Jewish laws and encourage one another to follow those.
Jesus doesn’t invite the rich young man to give a tithe. He doesn’t invite him to start with one percent of what he has and maybe work his way up. The assumption is that the man is following Jewish law, and therefore already giving ten percent to the temple. That’s a given. That’s baseline.
The invitation Jesus extends is much more radical than tithing. It asks something of us that we can’t work up to, one percent at a time. We don’t get to dip a toe in, slowly acclimate to the kingdom atmosphere. Like every invitation of Jesus, this is all-or-nothing.
And like every invitation of Jesus, it is not one we can accept through any means other than the grace of God. We can’t do what Jesus calls us to. But God can.
God can give us the gift, the inheritance, of developing a new relationship with our possessions. A relationship in which we truly experience everything we have – money, things, time, health, love – all of it, as a gift from God. A relationship in which we experience all those things belonging to God. A relationship in which we can use all those things for the kingdom of God – to serve the poor, to share the gospel, to seek justice and peace.
So let us not go home today grieving, sorrowful because of our many possessions. Instead, let us resolve to trust that, by the grace of God, we can change our relationship to our possessions. Let us resolve to, by the grace of God, break free from our captivity to wealth. We are not faced with an either/or proposition: run home and sell everything we have and give the money to the poor OR give up on eternal life and experiencing the kingdom of God. In Jesus Christ, we have been offered a third way. We have been taught and shown what the standard is, we have been invited into the glorious reign of God, an experience for which we are woefully unprepared. And we have been blessed with grace, that gift from God that makes the impossible, possible.
And that gift may allow us today to be unburdened from our belongings. It may allow us to be better stewards of what we have or to give away what we don’t need. It may allow us to be more generous, not just with our wealth, but with our time, our skills, our love. And one day, it may allow a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It may allow us to become truly free to experience the reign of God. May God bless our resolve and bring it to fruition. Amen.