The difficult subject of money – St Michael’s, 11th October 2009
A couple of weeks ago I preached about marriage at St Michael’s, and if you weren’t there, I’d encourage you to ask me for a copy of my sermon or find it on the church website. I was very aware at the time that it was a difficult subject to preach on, and that it can take quite a bit of time and effort to properly understand what Jesus is saying. Well, today we are moving on to the next difficult subject which is money, and if there’s one topic that causes more friction, more disagreement or more arguments than anything else in churches it is this.
But why do we find the subject of money so difficult? After all, Jesus’ teaching in this area is as about as clear as it comes:
- You cannot serve both God and Money. (Luke 16:13 NIV)
- Sell your possessions and give to the poor. (Luke 12:33 NIV)
- When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. (Luke 14:13-14 NIV)
It all sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it? Yet when it comes to actually putting Jesus’ words into practice, then somehow we seem to lose the connection between our faith and our wallet. We find all kinds of reasons why Jesus’ words about money cannot possibly apply to us, or we dismiss the teaching we receive as the church “always being out to get our money”, or we simply forget to plan and pray about the pay packet or social security cheque we receive. There seems to be a huge stumbling block that prevents us from taking Jesus’ teaching on board and living it out.
So why should this be? As I hope to show from today’s reading, it is because Jesus’ teaching about money challenges us at the deepest possible level what it means to be a Christian.
Taking Faith out of the Box
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now we don’t know why this rich young man burst onto the scene in quite such a dramatic way. Maybe he fell on his knees so that Jesus could pat him on the head and tell him he was already a good boy. Maybe he genuinely had a sense he needed something more in his life and thought Jesus could provide it. We simply don’t know.
But as usual Jesus teases out the desires of the man’s heart by asking a question: “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No-one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.’” And as the rich young man heard this list, he thought, “Yes, that’s exactly what I do. I am able to stand up every Sabbath in the synagogue with a clear conscience and say I have kept every single one of them”. No wonder he told Jesus he had kept them ever since he was a boy.
Because, in a sense, the commandments Jesus mentions here are the easy ones to keep. At least, I’m pretty sure there’s no-one here who has committed murder, or slept with their neighbour’s wife, or held up the Post Office this week (if you have, please could you have a word with me afterwards). But what the rich young man hadn’t thought about were the commandments Jesus didn’t mention at this point – such as the ones to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength or to Love your neighbour as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31). His religion was something kept in a box for high days and holidays, not a living faith that applied to every area of his life.
But rather than challenging him directly, telling him he had got it all wrong, Jesus does something rather wonderful and remarkable. Verse 21: Jesus looked at him and loved him. Nowhere else in Mark’s gospel do we find any other reference to Jesus loving anybody else. Not His disciples, not His family, not even His own mother. Only this rich young man who as far as we know had never met Him before. Because Jesus could see that here was a person who was genuinely sincere and who wanted to lead a good life, who would do almost anything to make sure he was right with God.
Except for one crucial and important thing – to respond to Jesus’ love with total, unquestioning obedience. You see, the rich young man had in effect divided his life into two parts. There was the religious part, which was given over to God, and there was the practical part which was all about making enough money to cover the bills, to pay for a roof over his head, and put a little bit away each month for the proverbial rainy day. So when Jesus looked at him and loved him, He was in effect saying, “I don’t want just a part of your life. I want all of it. All that you have, all that you own. Give it to me”.
And here we begin to see just why Jesus’ teaching about money is such a challenge – it asks us to take our faith out of the box and apply it to every part of our lives. Because if we believe Jesus is Lord, if we consider Him as one who has authority over us, then it is not up to us to pick and choose what exactly He is Lord of. He has to be Lord of everything – our credit card, our Post Office account, our bank statement, our pension plan. Now I believe in theory most of us know this, but how many times when we have a major financial decision to make do we stop and ask, “What difference does it make that Jesus is Lord of my life?” I guess if you’re anything like me, you tend to make the decision first, and then later on ask God to bless it, as some kind of divine insurance policy. When push comes to shove, we just haven’t grasped what it means to confess Jesus as Lord.
Living by Faith
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Of course the big question always arises at this point. Are Jesus’ words also words for us? Well, there have always been Christians who have taken a vow of poverty and embraced a simple, communal lifestyle, and as a church we would do well to look at the example they set. There have also been others who perhaps from a more ideological perspective have seen Jesus as a kind of first-century Communist who spoke out against owning private property. But I’m not sure Jesus was either making a political statement or encouraging everyone to give up their possessions. Rather the challenge He makes to the rich young man and to us is to consider just what it means to believe and trust in Him.
You see, it is the great, revolutionary and life-giving truth of the New Testament that “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:3 all quoting Habakkuk 2:4). But what does this statement actually mean? At the most basic level, it is accepting that Jesus died and rose again for my sins, and that if – like the rich young man – I want to inherit eternal life, I need to repent of my wrongdoing and invite Jesus to be Lord of my life. But living by faith doesn’t stop there. Living by faith means living day by day, hour by hour, in an attitude of dependence and thanksgiving towards our Heavenly Father. It means looking to Him to provide for our needs and asking Him what we do with the good things He sends our way.
And this is the way of life that our old sinful nature finds so hard to adopt. Because the basic fault in our humanity is that we try to live our own way, without reference to our Creator, that we decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. And even when we realise we have sinned and need to turn to Jesus as Saviour, there are still parts of our life that remain unconverted, where the Holy Spirit still has to do His work. After all, all of us live in a society which has by and large turned its back on God, does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and sends out the message that the more you have, the happier you will be. It is hardly, surprising, therefore that when it comes to money we find it so hard to live by faith.
Giving up Everything
Now how much of Jesus’ teaching the rich man understood we don’t rightly know. All we know that Jesus’ challenge to live by faith was too much for him, that sadly he got up from his knees and wandered out of the pages of Scripture, without ever coming to the point of owning Jesus as His Lord and Saviour. And what of the disciples who had gathered round, open-mouthed at this exchange? Well, they lived in a society which hadn’t rejected God, in fact, quite the opposite. But the message they had been taught was that the more you had, the more you were blessed by God. Wealth was a sign of divine approval, that God was pleased with what you did, and looked favourably on your work. So imagine their shock when Jesus said How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! His words were a complete reversal of all they believed, a fundamental challenge to the way they looked at their relationship with God.
So it’s little wonder that after those famous words about a camel and the eye of a needle that the disciples ask Who then can be saved? Which leads to Jesus now looking at them – almost certainly also with the same attitude of love – and uttering these hugely significant words: With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God. Because – despite what so many people still think today – the way to get right with God, to get saved is not by how rich you are, or how clever you are, or what other people think of you. It is, as Peter begins to realise here, simply by responding to God’s call, to leave everything behind to follow Him.
And this I guess is the greatest challenge of all why we find it so hard to follow Jesus’ teaching on money. For if we’re totally honest, we want a nice, comfortable, safe faith. We want a God who is there for us when we need Him, who hears our prayers, and blesses us when we ask Him. Which is in fact the completely opposite attitude to the one we ought to have. Because when we turn to God, He expects us to be there for Him, to listen to His voice, and to learn the blessing of radical, Christ-centred obedience. That might mean, for example, giving up a well-paid job to serve and care for others, or taking that well-paid job but giving the extra pay you now receive to the Lord, or even giving up your home and going to some other part of the world. His exact call will differ from person to person, but whatever it involves for you, you need to be aware it will involve taking up your cross and following Him.
So to sum up: Jesus’ teaching on money challenges us to take our faith out of the box. It challenges us to live by faith. And it challenges us to consider the cost of believing and trusting in Him. It’s little wonder, then, that we find it so hard to put it into practice.
Jesus’ Promise to Us
But maybe it would all be a little easier if we understood the reward Jesus promises to those who prepared to follow Him. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them, persecutions) ” What does Jesus mean by this? Does anyone have any ideas?
The point is, when we take Jesus at His word, we discover that we have brothers and sisters aplenty who have also responded to His call upon their lives. You see, He doesn’t give us this teaching and leave us to struggle on His own. He gives us a community where we can support and encourage each other to live out our faith, a community where we find people who become as close to us as brothers, sisters, mothers, children, a community called – yes, you’ve guessed it – the church.
But my sense is, we haven’t always understood this teaching very well at St Michael’s. I base this comment on the distance I see people sitting from each other, from the fact we sometimes only seem to bump into each other on the occasional Sunday, from the way folk sometimes disappear without anyone really knowing what has happened to them. Now the thing about brothers and sisters is not that they always live in each others’ pockets, or indeed that they always agree with each other. But they are there for each other, will make time and effort to see each other, will help one another when the going gets tough and rejoice with each other when there are celebrations to be shared. And when there is a new brother or sister they spend particular time caring for that person, making sure their needs are met and helping them discover their gifts and abilities in Christ.
You see, Jesus’ teaching about money is far more than about a challenge to us as individuals. It is a challenge to us as brothers and sisters in Christ as to what kind of church we want to be, a sort of institution where we practise the safe religion that the rich young man practised, or a living community where we dare to put everything on the line to follow Jesus. And the reason why I say this is because this is exactly how our passage in Mark’s gospel develops. It starts off with one person asking what must I do to inherit eternal life? It ends with Jesus offering eternal life to those people who together respond to His call to leave everything behind and follow Him.
So how do we earth Jesus’ teaching in our life here at St Michael’s?
First of all, I sent out an e-mail on St Michael’s Day asking folk how they saw the church growing and developing over the next 12 months. I meant to had out paper copies of the questions last week to everyone else, but, sorry, I forgot. However if over your coffee at the end of the service you could spend 5 minutes or so putting down your answers, then it would be really useful, as hopefully we can together sense something of how the Lord is calling us to use the opportunities we have, especially with our nice new building. For if this building is God’s blessing to us, then surely He is wanting us to make it a blessing to others, so that they too can discover how to inherit eternal life.
Secondly, we have a special service next Saturday to celebrate the opening of St Michael’s with friends past and present. And I make no apologies for the fact this celebration includes a collection for the life of the church – indeed it seems to me the most appropriate response we can make to the amazing goodness and grace God has shown us over the past few months. So will you permit me to ask what you would like to give next Saturday? As Paul reminds us in our first reading, a collection is not about people putting their hands in their pockets and pulling out whatever loose change they have on the day. A collection is something planned and prepared for, and therefore I hope this will also be an occasion for regular members to review their ongoing giving to the church. And on a similar theme our café style service the following day will be all about service, and the contribution each one of us can make to St Michael’s and the communities we serve.
Now if all that sounds a little daunting, a little too challenging, then finally, remember how Jesus dealt so wonderfully with that rich young man who so unexpectedly burst onto the scene and fell at His feet. Verse 21 again: Jesus looked at him and loved him. For, just as I said in my sermon on marriage, Jesus doesn’t give us this teaching to condemn us or leave us feeling worthless. Rather, He wants us to realise despite all our faults and failings just much He loves all of us, that even though this is an area where we find it so hard to obey, He does not give up on us, and that we are still His special people whom He has chosen to serve and obey Him.