by Rev. Scott Summerville
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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.'” 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. 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!”
One Christmas Day long ago we were gathered with my wife’s family; her parents were there, but they had lost the energy for buying Christmas presents, so they had prepared envelopes with checks for each of the grandchildren ages 5 to 10. The time came for the children to receive their presents from Grandma and Papa.
The checks were handed out and puzzled looks came over the faces of the children several of them tore open the envelopes; when they saw that they were getting a check they burst into tears. “I got a check! I got a check! I did not get a present!” Fast forward to the present, and you can be sure those same grandchildren now grown up would have quite the opposite reaction:
“Oh no! A sweater! A shirt! I want to check!” Once we are beyond a certain age, there is nothing that so gladdens the heart as a large check made out to us!
Money is a funny thing. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money.”
Last week the former president of the United Nations General Assembly was arrested on charges of official corruption and bribery involving his office and the accumulation of large sums of money by fraudulent means. And we say, “Ho-hum,” because we expect this kind of news.
More of the international football Association – FIFA – officials where suspended last week as the gargantuan monster of corruption that has enveloped this, the largest of all sporting organizations in the world, appears larger and larger.
We citizens of the sophisticated enlightened State of New York are all too well aware of money and how it has corrupted and distorted our politics at the highest levels. Two of the three highest officials in our state have been arrested and will be tried on charges of financial corruption for personal gain through the abuse of the offices to which they were elected to serve the people.
The New York Times reported yesterday that half of the money spent so far in the presidential campaign for 2016 has come from less than 200 families. In a nation of 300 some million people, 1/10,000 of 1% of the population is pulling the strings. It is scandalous. It is a huge moral issue for our society. It is a mockery of our presumed democratic system. The fact that it is legal does not mean that it is moral or that it is not corrupt. Our political system is fundamentally corrupted when the wealth of a tiny minority hold such sway over our public debates and elections.
As all you “Cabaret” fans know: “♬ Money makes the world go around, the world go round, the world go around. Money makes the world go around; that clinking clanking sound, it makes the world go round!”
There is all manner of discussion going on in our time about sexuality and what Jesus had to say about sex and marriage, but the fact is that Jesus said very little about sexuality, however he had a great deal to say about money. Today in the Gospel of Mark we come to a poignant story that has to do with love, and money, and Life – Life with a capital “L” – what does it mean truly to live?
Jesus is on the move; he has decamped with his disciples; they have set off on a journey. Just as they are departing a young man runs up to Jesus – he has been seeking out to Jesus and managed to locate him, for he has a burning question to ask:
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This young man was feeling pretty good about himself. He was young. He was healthy, and he was rich. He had his bases pretty well covered. He had his ducks in a row. He was probably also good-looking and charming. He was a virtuous person, faithful to the commandments of Torah, living a good and decent life. But he had some kind of an itch. He had some kind of spiritual discomfort or sense of incompleteness. He wanted something more from life. He wanted the assurance of what he calls “eternal life.”
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The answer he gets from Jesus sounds a little edgy – Jesus does not reply directly but instead challenges the man:
[paraphrase] “You are a Jew, are you not? So first of all you should know that only God is good, so why are you calling me good? And furthermore have you not read your Bible? Do you not know Torah? Do you not know your commandments?”
The young man said to Jesus, “Teacher, yes I know what is commanded ,and I have observed and followed the commandments of our people since my youth.”
What Jesus says next catches the man off guard and leaves him stunned; in the words of the gospel it leaves him “shocked” and in “grief.” Shocked and in grief: strong language. Before we are told what Jesus said to this young man that was so disturbing to him, the narrator provides us with a very important piece of information. Before Jesus speaks the gospel gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ own heart: “Jesus, looking upon him, loved him and said …”
How difficult it is when we love someone, but we need to say to them something that may be painful or shocking for them to hear. 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.
He extended an invitation to this young man he had instantly loved, to do a very difficult thing – to join him in and amazing journey of love. But he could not give up the money.
The money. The money.
Money has such power.
In the gospel today the power of money triumphed over the love of God in Christ Jesus. Think about it. This young man was eyeball to eyeball with Jesus; and in Jesus’ eyes there was love for this person – he loved this person. He offered to him a place at his side, the opportunity to continue his life in the aura of Jesus’ love. But this was not enough. Having a purpose – having a great challenge – being embraced by great love: none of these was enough to overcome the power of money.
the young man did not go away angry. He did not go away indignant. He did not go away thinking, “Why did I bother to come out and talk to this one – he is off his rocker – give away all my possessions!!” No, he goes away sorrowful and grieving, because he has seen the truth, but he cannot embrace the truth he has seen. He goes back to his wealth and property, but they have been devalued, so that him what he is grieving is the draining away of the meaning of the life he has chosen. His life would have been much simpler, if he had not gone looking after Jesus.
Notice also that in the Gospels there are not Hollywood endings. We do not catch up with the man later and find him coming to his senses and returning liberated from his possessions to join Jesus. In the Gospels people make decisions, and those decisions have consequences.
It is an interesting thing to talk about money from a Methodist perspective. I touched on this subject a couple weeks ago when I was talking about the founding of the Methodist Church and the work of John Wesley and his brother, Charles.
Methodists are practical people. Practical people do not talk about money in romantic platitudes – “Money is evil; the less you have the better” – or other platitudes completely divorced from real life. Our Methodist movement began as a movement among the poor, and Wesley understood that hard work, saving, building up and pooling of resources for one’s own advancement and the progress of one’s community was essential. Wesley taught: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”
And here is an interesting twist: Wesley predicted that if people followed his methods of hard work, communal support, saving, sensible spending, and generous living, eventually they would prosper, and when they prospered, the fire would go out of their faith. He saw this contradiction. He observed that those who live on the edge typically have greater intensity of spiritual hunger than those who are comfortable and prosperous.
Money can be like a drug – something that we crave, a thing that makes false promises to us of security and pleasure – but we keep wanting more of it, believing we need more of it, finding less pleasure in it, but when the question is asked, “So, how much money is enough?,” the answer is “More.”
Or we can take a practical and spiritual approach to money that emphasizes the usefulness of money as a tool we need for our survival and as a resource for accomplishing good and useful things in this world. We can take the practical and spiritual approach to money that puts giving on par with earning and saving.
How many of us put as much thought – as much heart – as much passion – into what we give him as we do into what we are earning or what we have accumulated?
Because that is the Wesleyan challenge: Put your heart into giving with the same intensity that you focus on what you have. This is not a challenge given in a sour spirit – ours is a joyful tradition – and the key to that happiness is to allow love to release our clutching hands so that we embrace life, freely give of ourselves and our treasure, and are not left to go sorrowful away.
Grace and peace to you.