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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Mark 10:21-22
My Mama used to say that 5 dollars could keep you out of heaven as easily as 5 million if you loved those 5 dollars more than God. Her point, and I think Jesus’ point in our gospel was that wealth itself is neither evil nor good but it is our attitude toward it that matters. The underlying question is what do we value and how do we prioritize what is important in our lives. One’s wealth or even lack of it can become a barrier to a deep and intimate relationship with the God who loves us with an infinite, sacrificial devotion.
Jesus knew the rich young man’s heart and while he was sincere in his question about eternal life and in his desire to align himself with the will of God his love of wealth and perhaps the power and influence that came with it made him grieve at the thought of giving it up…even to gain the hope of life in eternity. He had become a prisoner of his own affluence and had created an idol of his stuff. At least at the moment, he encounters Jesus’ the temporal god of wealth was more beloved to him than the eternal God who created the universe and all of that stuff he worshipped.
Something important to notice in the Holy Text was that our Lord, looking at the young man loved him….he did not condemn him. The young man condemned himself in his response to Jesus’ invitation to free himself from his earthly burden and to embark on a new life walking with Jesus’ in the path of peace and holiness. Here was an opportunity to change his life and renew his soul but the price was too high. The young man could not do it, and he went away grieving.
When Jesus’ cautions the disciples about how difficult it is for wealthy folks to enter the Kingdom of Heaven the disciples are shocked. In their religious worldview material prosperity was a visible sign of God’s favor. But Jesus was saying something completely different. In fact, the Good News that he was preaching was that God’s heart was with the poor and the vulnerable….the outcast and the lost ones of society. Giving up one’s possessions….even giving up one’s very life for the sake of another was the greatest example of obedience to God and revealed the depth of God’s love in action. It was better to give than to receive….to serve rather than to be served.
While Jesus’ is clear about the dangers of personal wealth, he does say that which is impossible for humans is very doable for God. I believe that he was making the point that wealth is dangerous and many would not be able to keep it in proper perspective and handle it in a godly fashion but God could and would make way for those who truly seek righteousness, even the wealthy. As mentioned before wealth is neither good nor bad in itself but what we do with it can be one or the other….the impact it has on our lives and relationships…especially our relationship with God can be good or bad. Whether we have so much that we have lost compassion for those who suffer because of a lack of resources to have a decent life…or whether our lack of wealth has caused us to become bitter and resentful….angry at God because life is such a struggle.. either of these states is detrimental to one’s efforts to lead a godly life.
We see throughout the New Testament that Jesus’ was very concerned with how we handle our personal finances. Even his comments about divorce and marriage arose out of a concern for the women who were being left destitute by husbands who were divorcing them for little or no cause. Jesus was always concerned with the poor and encouraging those who were more fortunate to share their means with others. Wealth is only as valuable as the good we can do with it. If we hold our temporal belongings lightly and allow our generosity free reign everyone benefits…the receiver because a burden is eased and the giver who gets the deep satisfaction that comes from providing care to another person. The gift itself in the giving and receiving help both individuals in the relationship move further along the path to a holy life and providing an opportunity to glorify God.
As most of you know last night we celebrated the Festival of the Lord of the Miracles. Our own Grace community and a number of visitors gathered to worship and to fellowship in honor of Senor de Los Milagros. Depicted in a painting of the crucified Christ done 500 or so years ago by an Afro-Peruvian slave on the wall of a Church in Lima, Peru, the Lord of the Miracles represents the Christ who is with us in times of chaos and calamity. He is the Christ who poured out his lifeblood for us on the Cross….the Christ who stands with us when we have lost everyone and find ourselves broken and at the mercy of situations we cannot control. The Lord of the Miracles reminds us of what we have when we have lost everything.
Last night during the service I found my mind going back to our Gospel for today and I realized that this is the underlying question when we examine our approach to personal wealth and our relationship to worldly goods. What of value is left if we were to lose everything we have? Some of the folks who survived the recent hurricanes are facing that question themselves. Many of us have had moments when we too were in that position…a lost job, a catastrophic illness with towering medical bills,…a divorce….a house fire. Life is full of uncertainty, and there are countless potential crises that can upend our lives and leave us starting over with little or nothing. It is then we realize what is of true value to us….a friend who comes to lets us stay with him or her….a stranger who gives without expecting return…neighbors who rally together to share what they have and to divide up the work of rebuilding… These are the moments when the love of Christ is most visible in the generous acts of God’s people.
While it is true that we should not require a devastating calamity to make us aware of how God has blessed us or to remind us that our relationship with God is our most valuable possession, we humans tend to get complacent and forgetful in our everyday lives. We must not let ourselves become so comfortable that we neglect to see the pain and suffering of those around us. Those who have both wealth and a desire to be holy must not let their affluence smother their compassion. Yes, the poor will always be with us, but it is the economic structures that we have created and supported that keep many in poverty both here and around the world. We must not be blind to the fact that the more we have, the less someone else has.
There was a time when those basic things needed to sustain life: food, shelter, an energy source, and clean water were available for anyone who could plant seeds or cut a tree or dip a bucket in running water. But those days are long gone, and greedy profiteers have privatized the very necessities of life. If one does not have the means to buy food or clean water…a roof over one’s head or energy for light in the dark or the means to travel for work then life becomes very hard. While the members and friends of Grace Church have a long history of outreach ministry to address the immediate needs of our most vulnerable neighbors we need to be aware of the flaws in our economic system that keep people in poverty and feed the insatiable greed of the very wealthy. Wherever we can we need to work for justice so that all of us have access to the means of health, education and gainful employment.
In our first reading today the Prophet Amos says:
Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;
This is the heart of our desire for a holy life. If our attitudes and behavior are governed by a sincere desire to seek good then this will determine how we deal with our relationships and our personal resources. The ancient prophets often paired commands for holy living with an admonition to seek justice. In this way holiness extends beyond our personal lives and compels us to seek to make the lives of those around us better through social and economic structures that are fair to everyone and do not benefit one at the expense of another.
Jesus’ Gospel message of love is rooted in generosity…the generosity of God towards his beloved and our generosity toward one another. If we seek to share God’s love, then the Holy Spirit will lead us to a right relationship not only with other people but with our stuff as well. God gives to us many blessings both visible and invisible to sustain our lives and give us joy. But the most important of these gifts is his own heart….his own love poured out without condition and without limit. In his sacrifice on the Cross God incarnate in Jesus revealed to us the depths of his love and offered us hope of eternal life. If we allow this hope to be our guide in life, then the temporal things of this world will remain just that….temporary blessings that are always coming and going into and out of our lives. If we appreciate them and release them, allowing them to do good in the lives of others how much greater has that blessing become.
Brothers and sisters, let us be grateful for the gifts we have been given…for family and friends for neighbors and especially for the love of God in Christ Jesus, the One from whom all good gifts come. Let us be generous with our stuff, with our affection, with our time and with our prayers. For all of us, no matter our condition in life, have something to offer to make the world better for us having been here.