Riches and Religion (Part 2)

 

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Jesus could see the shocked look on His disciples’ faces. “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” They had just watched an earnest, seeking, religious young man turn away with a long face on hearing Jesus say, “Sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow me.” This was Jesus’ answer to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The disciples, I’m sure, were shocked at Jesus’ answer, and His letting this eager young man go away to ponder his riches. Why didn’t you go and chase Him down, Jesus? Why did you scare him off like that? This is no way to grow the kingdom!

The disciples were amazed at His words. Outraged even. They were in danger of losing their religion. They lived in a culture where wealth was admired. It was considered a sign of God’s blessing. When you “counted your blessings,” the more you could count, the more blessed by God you were. Wealth is a gift from God, right? The book of Ecclesiastes says as much. Wealth comes from the generous hand of God, and therefore there is nothing inherently “evil” or “bad” about wealth. The OT is chock full of the notion that if you play by God’s rules, you will indeed prosper.

But when wealth falls from the good hand of a generously giving God into the hands of sinful men, the trouble begins. Ambrose Bierce called money, “The god of the world’s leading religion.” Voltaire commented, “When it comes to the question of money, everyone has the same religion.” The problem with wealth, with money, is that we get religious about it, and we are dealing in the realm of idolatry and why it is difficult, if not impossible, for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

Think about wealth for a moment. What is it exactly? You can try to quantify it, much the way you quantify calories in food, but what you find is that the numbers keep changing on you. Your house, if you have one, was probably worth more five years ago than it is today. Your retirement fund or investments, if you have them, are most likely worth a lot less today than they were a couple of years ago. A slice of bread still has the same number of calories it did ten years ago, assuming the same recipe. But a dollar is worth a dollar simply because the government says so and we believe it. And that, is about as close to the idea of a “sacrament” as you’re going get.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes calls it a chasing after nothing, vanity, emptiness, meaningless. “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” He ought to know. The preacher of Ecclesiastes is Solomon, the richest man in the world at his time. He was the envy of all the rulers around him. The Queen of Sheba paid a personal visit to see all of Solomon’s stuff. That’s how legendary he was He could buy anything, do anything, go anywhere. He had gardens, houses, Egyptian horses, a harem of over 900 wives and concubines. And writes this kind of report from the field in the book of Ecclesiastes with this message: there is nothing out there. The world of wealth is empty, meaningless, consumptive.
They say that idols always wind up consuming their communicants, and Mammon, the money-god, is no exception. All that hard-earned wealth, all the accumulated wealth stacking up for the future, winds up bringing you misery and ruin. Hard earned riches are lost in one bad investment, one bum business deal, one drop in the economy. We have heard our share of riches to rags stories over the last year or so, of corruption driven by greed, of savings and investments lost. The great irony of wealth is that it promises peace, stability, and security, and in the end it delivers none of the above. Ecclesiastes says at least the laborer sleeps well at night, exhausted from his labors. Not so the rich man. Though his belly is full, his stomach is churning with anxiety as he watches his wealth erode.

We bring nothing into this world from our mother’s womb; we take nothing out of this world. The wealth that promised us happiness and security instead causes us anxiety, sickness, and anger. Truly false gods consume their communicants. And the greatest danger of all is that in attempting to cling to everything we have and accumulate more, we do not fit through the narrow door of the kingdom. It’s easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than it is to squeeze a rich man into the kingdom. That leaves the disciples utterly astonished. And it should leave us just as astonished if not somewhat shaken when we realize that most of us here today would qualify under Jesus’ definition of “rich.” It may not seem that way to us, but we are rich compared to most people living in the world today and certainly at the time of Jesus.

Now does this mean that we need to divest ourselves of every asset, give all our possessions away, live in monastic poverty in order to be saved? Some in the past have thought that. Peter seemed to think that. He started to say to Jesus, “Hey, look. We’ve got it right. We’ve left everything and followed you.” Jesus’ reply is as about as off the point as it is anything else. “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

What He says is, “Peter, you think you’ve left everything and now have nothing, and you couldn’t be more wrong. Already now, in fellowship with Me, you have a hundred-fold more than what you left behind, even now in this life. You are a member of a vast body, my Body, and joined to me you are joined to all who have ever believed in Me, and you have more brothers and sisters and mothers and aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces than you can possibly number.

But hear this, and don’t miss it: In this life it all comes with persecutions. The cross hangs over everything. It’s the narrow door through which you enter into eternal life. Your riches won’t save you, nor will your poverty, because the problem is not with wealth but with sin which corrupts everything including your enjoyment of the good things God gives you. He wants to bless you and give you a little joy, and you turn around and make it into some all-consuming idol that robs you of every last ounce of joy in your life.

And, oh by the way, when it comes to book keeping and the kingdom of God, “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” So everything you learned from the world of money you can forget when it comes to dealing with God. There are no transactions in the kingdom, only pure grace, gift. The losers wind up the winners, the winners come in last and the currency of the kingdom is not earned by our hard work, merits, and achievements but by Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection. He was rich, the eternal Son of the Father, yet for our sakes, He became poor, a beggar on a cross with no place even to lay His head. It isn’t our poverty that saves us but Christ’s poverty, for in His poverty we become rich. He takes on the poverty of our sin, our covetousness, our idolatry; and we receive the richness of His righteousness, His holiness, His peace. He did the impossible thing, the thing only God can do – He saved us.

That’s where Jesus wants our attention. Not on our wallets, our bank accounts, our assets, our stuff but on Him, on His kingdom and His righteousness. “Seek first the kingdom and its righteousness, and all these things you worry about – clothing, shoes, food, drink, house, home, whatever – all these things will be added to you.

What about our wealth? What do we do with it? Well, the preacher of Ecclesiastes would say, “Enjoy it while you have it. Enjoy your work, enjoy your wealth. This is a gift from God.” The apostle Paul put it this way: “I’ve learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I what it is to be abased and to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things throughHim who strengthens me.” With Christ in the center, wealth takes it’s proper place and perspective. Do you have plenty? Then rejoice, enjoy, share the joy with others. Are you in need? Then rejoice that your life is free from the clutter of wealth.

Faith holds things with an open, dead hand. Not grasping tightly with a death grip, but loosely. Some things you must let go of at some point, other things you will never be able to hold on to. To be content is to have your heart at rest in Jesus, and through Him to receive all things as gift from the hand of God. That’s the “secret” of contentment that Paul learned. Hold everything with the dead hand of faith, enjoy it while you have it, for you certainly can’t take it with you. Live and work and play as free men and women in Christ.. Enjoy the food on your table, the wine in your glass, the work God has given you to do each day. These are His gifts to you. Hold them loosely and they won’t hold you. And each day sing a hymn of praise to the God who gives gifts to His children and who secured our salvation that we may have joy unending.

Remember: the joy comes not from the gifts but from giver-God who gave them.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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