The Vanity of Wealth

Mark 10:23-31 / Proper 24B / 21 October 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

If you want a cold dose of reality, read the book of Ecclesiastes. It is a harsh description of the futility of “life under the sun,” the life of riches, pleasure, leisure, everything that we think we want and that would ultimately make us happy. It’s traditionally associated with King Solomon, a man of power, riches, possessions, wealth, wine, women, you name it, Solomon had it. He’d been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. And he summarizes the life of wealth in a single word: Vanity. Emptiness. Nothing. Chasing after the wind.

An idol is anything that we fear, love, trust above all things. Wealth is the greatest of all idols. It caused a rich young ruler to turn his back on Jesus who had just invited him to “follow me” and to leave with a long, sad face.

In the Large Catechism under the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” Luther wrote the following:

This I must unfold somewhat more plainly, that it may be understood and perceived by ordinary examples of the contrary. Many a one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and, possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. Lo, such a man also has a god, Mammon by name, i.e., money and possessions, on which he sets all his heart, and which is also the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has none doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. For very few are to be found who are of good cheer, and who neither mourn nor complain if they have not Mammon. This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, even to the grave. (Large Catechism I)

There is no satisfaction in wealth. Have you ever wondered why the wealthy keep on working? How many millions do you need? “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this is also vanity, emptiness, nothing. The more you have, the more you want. As the goods increase, so does the craving, the waistline, the consumption.

Riches gained are riches lost. Naked we are born and we die the same way. And all the stuff we gained in-between? Well, it’s more chasing after the wind. And worse. We eat our bread in darkness and sickness and anxiety and anger, if we have the time to eat at all.

The laborer sleeps soundly, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep. The leading non-prescription over the counter drugs are pain killers and antacids. Anxiety eats us up from the inside out. It’s a rule with idols that they always consume the worshippers. It almost makes you want to say, “Lord, keep me from being rich. Keep those riches away from me.” Lottery winners aren’t necessarily happier after striking it big. One famous study suggested that lottery winners and people who had suffered paralyzing injuries were about equally happy after they had adjusted to the changes in their life.

Jesus warned those who love money that you can’t serve two masters. You will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and money at the same time. But we try. Or at least we try to negotiate a compromise. It begins with that part-time job that causes us to miss worship because well, we need the job and we can live without the Word and the Sacrament, at least temporally. In fact, if you skip church entirely and just work, you’ll probably do quite well, as that rich man did. The one who had Lazarus begging at this gate. You know, the one who went to hell. He didn’t have much use for the Moses and the Prophets until it was too late.

Then there’s that rich young ruler whom we heard about last week, the one who wanted to know what good thing he had to do to inherit eternal life, the one who thought he had kept all the commandments since his youth. The one whom Jesus told to go home, sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and “follow me.”And after that, Jesus commented out loud to His disciples, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” That’s a pretty tight squeeze.

The disciples were shocked. “Who can be saved?” They were men who thought that riches were a measure of God’s grace. If you saw a rich man, you would say that he was blessed by God. You would count that rich young ruler blessed, clearly in God’s favor. And the poor man, Lazarus with his oozing sores begging for crumbs, he would be considered cursed by God. He must have done something to deserve this.

We have prosperity preachers today, like Joel Osteen and a host of others, who say that if you have favor with God, then God will favor you with success. The traffic will part before you like the Red Sea parted before the Israelites. Your portfolio will be overflowing with deposits from the coffers of heaven. And then Jesus comes along to say, “Blessed are you poor, and woe to you who are rich.”

Who can be saved? If the rich who are blessed richly in this life are like a camel being squeezed through the eye of needle, who can be saved? With man, it’s impossible. We cannot save ourselves. Our money can’t save us. Our retirement can’t save us. Our portfolios can’t save us. With man, it’s impossible. Even divesting yourself of riches won’t save you. Peter tried that little transaction with Jesus. “Look, Lord, we left everything and followed you. That should count for something, right?” And Jesus says, “Sure. 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 hundred times all this now – houses, brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands – with persecutions. Did you catch that? It always comes with the cross in this life. And in the age to come, eternal life. But here’s the deal: Many who are first come in last, and the last come in first.

All things are possible with God. Before we can get riches right, we need to get God right. We need to become last. We need to die, to drop dead to our stuff, our riches, our wealth. We need to repent of the idolatries that cause us to hang on things with a death grip. Jesus, the One who is speaking these things, came from the riches of heaven to the poverty of our life. He became poor for our sakes. He became our Sin. He died our death. He gave up father and mother and sister and brother and lands and houses. He was tempted by Satan that all the kingdoms of the world and their glory and riches could be his for one little act of worship. He refused. Instead, He chose the way of the least, the way of poverty and weakness and loss.

With God, all things are possible. Your salvation, your forgiveness, your life are in the hands of Jesus. And while it may be impossible for a rich man to squeeze himself through the narrow door of heaven, Jesus in His poverty can fit. And He as all of humanity reduced to one man and bring us through the narrow door of His death to eternal life. You have been baptized into that narrow death. You have been squeezed through the Jesus’ sized eye of the needle. You have come from death to life in Christ. You are dead to Sin, dead to the idols, dead to all the false trusts and false gods that vie for our worship. You are alive to God in Christ

And being alive to God in Christ, and living in His freedom, you don’t need to cling to wealth and riches as though they could save you and bring you peace. You cling to Christ who cling to you. And the riches God gives you, whether much or little, in Christ you are given to enjoy. “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil – this is the gift of God.

Contentment. That’s God’s gift. Contentment. A heart at rest and at peace with what we have. “There is great gain in godliness with contentment.” Paul in prison writes, I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” He says, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” He says, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Contentment, the gift that coveting and greed rob us of, is the key to enjoyment of what we have. That’s how we can eat and drink and enjoy our work. It’s all God’s gift to us in Christ, and in Him we have everything we could ever desire and more than we dare ask. And holding what we have in the dead hand of faith rather than the death grip of anxiety, we can eat and drink and find joy in our vocations. Tomorrow we live.

In the name of Jesus,