Mark 10:17-27, 1 Timothy 6:3-10
There is a show that used to be on television called ‘Mission: Organization’. Someone usually calls in the experts because he/she is completely disorganized and can’t see a way to bring order to their world. Usually the lead woman comes in to assess the ‘situation’ (and often it is not a room or apartment but a ‘situation’), and then she determines which expert to call in to save the day. Here is a segment from one of their shows.
Did you wonder how things could got so bad for this woman? I can’t imagine how she was able to work at all in that cluttered space. When you are preparing to sell your home, they often will tell you to de-clutter because everyone prefers a neat, orderly home pared-down to basic essentials to show off its roominess. Yet as a nation we tend to accumulate stuff. During recessions such as the one we are living through, yard sales and garage sales become popular as we take a serious look at what we have and what we can live without. For most of us, we have ‘stuff.’ That is not a problem at all.
The young man who approached Jesus in our gospel lesson also had ‘stuff.’ He was described as a rich young ruler having many possessions. Yet the man was in need of something from Jesus. The scripture tells us he came running to Jesus. If this was truly a wealthy, young ruler, I would think he would not often run to anyone as he was typically in charge and many would come to him. But we find this young man desperate to speak with Jesus. Why? What was he looking for? He had plenty of wealth, riches, and comfort in this life, yet he was seeking the way to inherit eternal life.
John Wesley’s sermon on the danger of riches emphasizes that while we are on our Christian journey, we may encounter potential roadblocks or detours that prevent us from deepening our faith and developing a stronger relationship with our Creator. One such roadblock is the desire for wealth. Now here I want to be careful – many will misquote the scripture from I Timothy 6:10 and say that ‘money is the root of all evil.’ But the scripture specifically says “…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” This love of money, as Wesley points out, is literally speaking of those who seek their happiness from wealth. There are some who are never satisfied with whatever amount of money they have – the desire and yearning, and (dare I say it) worship, is in fact wealth and not in God our source of strength and wisdom.
As Wesley talks about wealth, he emphasizes the Apostle Paul’s words that once we have food and clothing, or covering which includes shelter, then we should be content. Any desire beyond this is just the accumulation of ‘stuff.’ We’ve heard it said that the one who dies with the most ‘stuff’ wins, yet Paul points out that we brought nothing into this world and we will take nothing with us. If we were to look at a modern equivalent, we can turn to Abraham Maslow who developed what is known as the Hierarchy of Needs. At the base of this pyramid are those needs that Wesley refers to as the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing, etc. For Maslow, this tool was used to describe ways to increase productivity of employees by making them feel secure in their basic needs and thereby tapping into their creativity. The common factor for Maslow’s pyramid and Wesley’s sermon is the base – those basic needs that must be met first and foremost.
For Wesley, he used a 3-part tool to help explain these scriptures that are often used in varied ways. First, Wesley says that we should earn all we can. By that he means being good workers with a good work ethic, taking one’s job seriously so as to earn a fair wage for a valuable day’s work. It means to work hard and not be afraid to put one’s full effort into every job.
Second, we are to save all we can. If the recent economic climate has taught us anything, it has shown us the need and value of saving for hard times. Business owners need a cushion of funds for times when sales are down, projects are limited, and work is scarce. Wage earners are learning just how quickly their lifestyle can change when faced with layoffs and work slow-downs, wage cuts and depleted benefits. We need to be cautious with spending, particularly if our spending is on things that will simply create more ‘stuff.’
These first two principles are easy for us to grasp – earn all you can, and save all you can. We often get tripped up with the third principle – give all you can. This is where Jesus’ teachings concerning laying up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth come into conflict with many of our own understandings. Aren’t we promised that as citizens of this country we have the right to the pursuit of happiness? Doesn’t that involve accumulating wealth? If we tie our happiness with wealth, then we are placing wealth ahead of God.
The young, wealthy man depicted in the gospels wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. After some discussion, Jesus reminded him of several of the commandments that the young man could emphatically answer – “Yes, I have kept those commandments since my youth.” This was a good man. He understood the law and kept the basic commandments. Did you notice the ones Jesus did not mention? The first commandments say to love and serve God and only God – ‘you are to have no other gods before me.’ Jesus was said to have shown love to this man. It seems Jesus certainly wanted him to become a true follower. Yet many will say Jesus put an impossible task in front of this young man. Jesus said, “Sell all that you own and give the money to the poor, then take up your cross and follow me.” What is Jesus telling this man? Jesus is saying to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Put God first in your life. Seek first the kingdom of God. If we are only driven by money and are never satisfied with how much we have, we are literally serving wealth – wealth becomes our master. The pursuit of wealth is the force behind all we do. Our work becomes a quest to satisfy ourselves.
Our third principle is to give all we can. Once we have seen to the needs of ourselves and our families, earned as much as possible, saved as much as necessary, then we are challenged to help others in need. Our desire for ‘stuff’ has to be countered with our desire to serve others, helping them to obtain their basic needs. What is most important to us? Is it serving God? Is it caring for our neighbors? Is it living in the faith that God will provide for God’s people?
One feature of the Financial Peace University class that I have truly appreciated is the emphasis on giving. When you review any of the budget forms you will find giving as a priority. Now I want to be clear here. All these principles are highlighting the same thing – we need to care for the basic needs first for ourselves and our families. We are NOT to neglect our own households. We are to do all we can to provide for our families current and future needs. But once that piece of the pie is secure, we are challenged to give what we can to help others. Dave Ramsey, the author and facilitator of the FPU program, notes that when we only focus on holding onto wealth with a clenched fist, not only do we not lose our money, but no more can get in. He also notes that a tight fist is the universal symbol for anger. Do we want to be known as angry, tight-fisted beings, or do we want to share what we have with others by extending an open hand of friendship and love? Which would Jesus have us to do?
Perhaps we need a time to clear out the clutter of worry or fear or heartache. Perhaps – just perhaps – we need to consider that who we are as children of God doesn’t depend on ‘stuff.’ We are about halfway through the season of Lent. This may be a great time for us to evaluate our priorities as individuals and as a church. When you review the expenditures of our church, you can see the need we have to lend greater support to our local and foreign missions. Others are having trouble making ends meet and providing for their basic needs. Many are just one paycheck away from poverty. Our local community includes our homeless neighbors. Each of us can make a difference while placing God as our central focus and caring for our neighbor as we continue on our Christian journey of faith. Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can. Amen.