A reader writes in, "After reading the parable of the talents and the saying of a rich man and the eye of a needle. I am bit confused. Can a christian be rich? How does one marry his views to commercialism?"
Here is a sermon I wrote to my college students as I was mulling over the answer to this question. Hope it helps.
This is one question that points to a subject that most people don’t want to deal with – especially in church. Money. Jesus talks lots about money. My personal favorite is the story of him turning the tables over in the temple. Money – most preachers would rather talk about sex, or good works, or anything else than the subject of money, but it is pretty clear from all the attention that Jesus gave money that it is an important subject. Why is that? Can a rich person get into heaven? What difference does it make if you are rich or poor as long as you are a good person? What does money have to do with your soul?
In today’s Gospel lesson, a man comes up to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He tells Jesus that he has kept 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 looks at him and loves him for that. Jesus acknowledges that this man has led a good life. But, this man has only kept the commandments that have to do with his relationships with other people. Jesus knows that there is a piece missing – what about his relationship with God? This man puts his trust in his own good doings and wealth and achievements. He puts a lot of weigth on what he has and what he does. Jesus knew that this man was letting his wealth get in the way of his relationship with God. So, he told him sell everything, give the money to the poor and follow him. The man was shocked. How could he do this? He couldn’t get rid of everything! Jesus hadn’t told Zaccheaus to do this, he hadn’t told some of his other rich followers to do this! So why is Jesus telling him to get rid of everything? The man left, shocked and sad. We never know if he did as Jesus commanded or not.
The Gospel moves on to the teaching of the disciples about how difficult it is for those who have wealth to get into the kingdom of God. “It is easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Now, we know that this could never happen, that is why the disciples are astonished and say – so no one can be saved? They can’t imagine what he is talking about? We can’t do anything to be saved? What? All of this that we have done means nothing? What are we to do? Jesus reminds them, that mortals cannot do this, but it is for God to do. It is through God’s grace and love that we enter into heaven. So, why must the rich man sell everything, give all the money to the poor and follow Jesus? Because he did not have a relationship with God – he did not feel God’s grace in his life – he did not let God guide his life, rather he guided his own life with his money and his possessions.
Now, in many cultures, even our own culture today, having money can be seen as a sign of God’s favor. If you take preachers like Joel Osteen, he'll tell you that there are seven steps to making yourself a better person and in doing that, you will get all that is coming to you. There are preachers out there that are called Prosperity preachers, those who preach prosperity and happiness without dealing with some of the difficult teachings of Jesus. In our Gospel today, Jesus clearly tells this man that he is thinking too much of himself and what he has or hasn’t done. Jesus is saying, get over yourself, give up the things that are getting in your way and begin your relationship with Jesus.
If we were to go to Jesus and ask the same question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Our answer from Jesus may be different. What gets in your way in your relationship with God? What would Jesus say? Give up your worries? Stop your addictive behaviors? Quit your job? Get rid of those meaningless things in your life and give your time, talent and treasure to those who need it and follow the way of Jesus? What is getting in your way?
I have two friends that I met in seminary. They have become like family to me. When they first came to seminary, they were just getting by – he couldn’t hold down a job, she was in school full time as was their oldest son and their daughter was in high school. They had enough money, but were not rich as you and I would think of someone being rich. Then, he found a niche. Together with a few other people we knew started a company and from that company, they made literally millions. For a long time, they struggled with their wealth. They didn’t want it to change them. They didn’t know what to do with it. They were happy that they knew that their kids would be set for life AND they were scared that their family would become lazy, depend on the money and forget all the things they had stood for and against before becoming rich. They were also scared that their relationships with people would change – would people use them for money? Would their friends change? I have to say, they worked hard to figure out what to do with that money and what it meant for their lives. They set up a foundation. They are working with Jeffrey Sachs on poverty and disease. They are working on education in the church and in other areas of the world. They are giving money to things that need money and they are helping to fund things that need to be funded. They are not storing up their wealth, but they are using it to do God’s work here in the world.
William Loader says, “Following Jesus means engaging the tradition and engaging life in a way that makes a difference.” So how does my life make a difference? How does your life make a difference? What difference does money play in your life?
Jesus preaches so much about money because it is easy to let money take over our lives. Now, I know that most of you are college students and don’t have much money, so you may be thinking, this has nothing to do with me. But it does. Regardless of how much money we do or don’t have, money can lead us though our lives rather than letting God lead us through our lives. Jesus realized that money seems to be the one big thing that gets in the way of people’s relationship with God. So, why is it hard for people with riches to enter the kingdom of God? Edward F. Markquart, a preacher from Seattle came up with these three reasons:
1. “It is easy to fall in love with money. Money and wealth is seductive and very easy to fall in love with. We become addicted to money and material possessions and like most addictions, we initially don’t realize that we are addicted."
2. “Wealth creates a false sense of security. We think that wealth will protect us from the disasters of life and we find out that it doesn’t."
3. “Money often makes people more selfish, so that the purpose of time, talents and energy is to serve ourselves rather than others, to preserve our wealth rather than share the wealth that God has entrusted to us."
He goes on to say that, “A common mistake of American Christians is to forget that we live in one of the wealthiest nation in the world and that our standard of living is higher than 95% of people in the globe. Here in America, it is easy to think of “the rich” as being the top 1% of American society rather than the middle class which is wealthier than 95% of Christians living on this planet Earth. We think that “the rich” are people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Paul Allen whose assets are listed in the billions. We think of “the rich” as being the 538 billionaires listed in the Forbes magazine in 2004. When we have such thoughts, this text is no longer about us and our own lives but about “them, THE RICH people in America, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Warren Buffet, or the professional athletes or movie stars. This text is about THEM, not me.”
Well, this text is about us, for we are wealthier that we can imagine. You are going to school, you eat and sleep in safe places, you are able to do many things that you want to – travel, go out with friends, buy books, etc. We have a lot. I have a lot, and it’s easy to forget that because we often can focus on what we don’t have. So again, I ask, what is getting in the way with your relationship with Jesus? What is getting in the way so that God is not able to reach you? Is it money? Is it the lack of money? Is it what we are spending out time on?
So to answer the question, can a rich person get into heaven? Can a rich person be saved? Yes. Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who put Jesus’ body in the tomb, Nicodemus, Joseph’s friend, was a member of the wealthy establishment – all of these people were rich and all were saved. God can save any of us, but we have to be in relationship, we have to be in conversation, we have to be ready to give up those things that get in our way in order to follow Jesus. Christians can be rich and follow Jesus, we can be poor and follow Jesus – the point is that we have to follow Jesus and not our money or our lack of money. We cannot be faithful followers of our money, our possessions and our wants, but rather we have to be faithful followers of God and God’s desire for our lives and our souls. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Look deeply, pray about it and follow God’s lead in your life. The answer will come.