Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

Sermon Series: The Economics of Jesus

“Jesus and Wealth”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

 

 

Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

This coming summer Mick Jagger turns 67… and he looks better than when he was 40… not fair. The Rolling Stones’ biggest hit is a song he wrote entitled “Satisfaction.”

 

“I can’t get no satisfaction.”

 

Mick Jagger says the song is about alienation from commercialized culture, an inability to find anything authentic, anything that satisfies the deepest longings of the human soul. He wrote it after the Rolling Stones’ first concert tour of America.

 

What do you do if all your dreams come true and there is still something missing?

 

The story of the rich person who came to Jesus because he had everything but something was still missing in his life is one of the handful of stories about Jesus that appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all three of the synoptic gospels. Each of the gospels tells it a little differently, but the basic storyline is the same.

 

Jesus comes to the same conclusion all three times the story is told. Jesus says: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

 

In Eugene Peterson’s translation, Jesus says: “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who have it all to enter God's kingdom?”

 

Notice that in the story Jesus is just making an observation. He is not making a political statement. He is not being a Marxist. He is not being a Democrat. He is not being judgmental about people who are wealthy and affluent. He doesn’t say what he says with any kind of disdain.

 

By all accounts, Jesus hung out with affluent people often… people who could afford to hold large weddings and big parties and generous meals. Once he saw a rich tax collector named Zacchaeus in the crowd and invited himself to be his house guest, presumably his disciples, too. Jesus seems quite comfortable around wealthy people.

 

So he isn’t judging them. It is almost as though he feels sympathy for them … a little sorry for them. How hard it is for people who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

 

What is the kingdom of God that it is hard for rich people to enter?

 

This is very interesting. This story uses four terms, so far as I can see, interchangeably.

 

The story begins with the rich person asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. That’s one term “to inherit eternal life.”

 

 Jesus tells him to sell all he owns and give the money to the poor so that he will have treasure in heaven. “To have treasure in heaven” is a second term.

 

When the rich person is unwilling to do this, Jesus says: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven.” “To enter the kingdom of heaven” is a third term.

 

Then the people who heard this say: “Who then can be saved?” “Saved” is the fourth term.

 

So far as I can see, Jesus is using these four terms interchangeably—eternal life, treasure in heaven, the kingdom of God, and saved. They are four different terms that describe the same reality. They may have different nuances but they are almost interchangeable; they are synonyms. 

 

Eternal life means that you have entered and are living in the kingdom of God. Being saved means that you have treasure in heaven.

 

They are all metaphors for a quality of relationship. They are all expressions for community, belonging, brother-and-sisterhood.

 

Peter after hearing all this says: “Lord we have left our homes and followed you.” Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house, or partner, or brothers, or sisters, or parents, or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30).

 

Whatever you give up for the kingdom, you gain much more—this community of people who are your family in a way even your families are not your family.

 

So Jesus is not scolding wealthy people or criticizing them, he is simply saying that it is particularly difficult, not impossible, but difficult for those of us who are wealthy to have the best possible life—a life full of community and sharing and belonging.

 

Imagine what it would be like for any of us to move to Cité Soleil right now. Most of us here have money and possessions beyond the imagining of many of the people of Cité Soleil even before the earthquake. How long, if ever, would it take for us to experience a sense of brother-and-sisterhood with the people of Cité Soleil if we were to move there without giving our riches away? It might be conceivable, maybe it would be possible, but how hard it would be. Our wealth would create an almost impossible barrier for us to overcome.

 

A friend told me about a friend of hers who got invited to fill in a hand at a bridge game and it turned out to be at Bill Gates’ home. It was a very uncomfortable experience for her. How many people do you think manage to feel relaxed around Bill Gates? Bill Gates said he had to leave Facebook because he could not keep up with the friend requests. Whatever happens on Facebook, which I think is fun, it was no fun for Bill Gates.

 

I am sure Bill Gates is a great guy and has lots of good friends, but wealth does create divides between people.

 

Jesus was not condemning anybody; he was not judging anybody; he was making an observation.

 

I have not talked to Gordon Cosby since Bill Branner’s funeral. My loss. Gordon Cosby retired this past December as pastor of Church of the Saviour. He was 91 at the time of his retirement.

 

The Church of the Saviour in Adams Morgan has an absolutely amazing history. More mission has emerged from that community than maybe anywhere else. Some people used to call Foundry “Church-of-the- Saviour -Lite.”

 

At the Church of the Saviour you had to take a class at least one night a week for a year before you could become a member. We’re lite in comparison to that.

 

The last several times I had talked to Gordon Cosby he was working on one final big project. The Church of the Saviour tended to be primarily white and middle-class. He was creating groups made up of a calculated mix of people of different races, economic backgrounds, and those coming out of incarceration. He told me it was perhaps the hardest thing he had ever tried to do. At some point, he said, it is going to have to involve wealth-sharing, but he said the figuring out how to share wealth and maintain healthy relationships within the groups would have to be done very, very carefully.

 

In the story in the Washington Post about his retirement, Gordon Cosby said that what he learned from the groups was this: "We thought change should come from the top, but it turns out the bottom might be the top. The groups,” he said, are "closer to what I think God loves than any I've ever been to."[i]  

 

Wealth gets in the way of relationship; it gets in the way of community. It gets in the way of belonging. It gets in the way of love. It gets in the way of love.

 

I am an affluent American, as most of us are, compared to the rest of the world. So it is hard for me to think and talk about this. It is hard for me to think that there might be a better life than the one I have. The only way to find out would be to give up my possessions and try to find out. But what if this is the good life? What if I have the good life everybody around the world longs for and I give it up and can’t get it back? I understand how the rich person whom Jesus told to give everything he owned to the poor and follow him felt. It would be a pretty big gamble.

 

You all know about the book The Year of Living Biblically? It was written by a Jewish man who decided to follow all the biblical teachings and laws for a year. This inspired a Christian named Ed Dobson to spend a year trying to live like Jesus. He wrote a book called A Year of Living Like Jesus.

 

Ed Dobson says that when he first started the experiment there was a youth minister in a large church in town who decided he wanted to do the experiment with him. The youth minister started the beard and began reading the Gospels every week. After a few weeks, he told Dobson, "I can't live like Jesus. I work full time in a church!"[ii]

 

“Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” Jesus says (Luke 6:20). Blessed are the poor because you have available to you a quality of community that is the kingdom of God.

 

When John Paul II visited Mexico in 1979 and quoted that Scripture and told a crowd of poor people that they were blessed, they booed him, as I recall.

 

We will never know, most of us, because we are just like the rich person in this story. I don’t mean this sermon to be a downer. It is just that most of us will never know if there is something better than this or not, because we are not going to sell all we own and give it to the poor. We are going to hold onto our homes and condos and apartments and cars and pensions. Of course, we will.

 

So we will never know if there is a better life that we are missing. Jesus thought there was.

 

Only a few verses after this story of the rich person in Luke is the story of Zacchaeus, the rich man into whose home Jesus invited himself to be a house guest. While Jesus is visiting there, Zacchaeus makes an announcement: "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."

 

Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8-9).

 

It is sort of an uncomfortable story. Was Jesus suggesting Zacchaeus could buy salvation by giving his money away? No, I think Jesus was just making an observation. I don’t think he was praising Zacchaeus or being a Marxist or a Democrat. I think he was just making an observation.

 

I think he was simply saying that Zacchaeus was removing from his life a whole bunch of stuff that had kept him from knowing the quality of community and relationship and love called salvation, or the kingdom of God or treasure in heaven or eternal life. I think he was simply saying that once Zacchaeus got all that wealth out of his life, his life would become richer in love. 

 

I usually try to have a sort of upbeat ending to my sermons. I don’t have one this morning. I think Jesus would tell us to get rid of some of our wealth and privilege. I don’t think he’d necessarily tell us to increase our giving to the church or charity for the sake of doing good. I don’t think that is his emphasis. It may be a byproduct.  I think Jesus would tell us to divest of our wealth so we could experience another kind of richness.

 

I’m not going to tell you to do that. I am not sure whether it would work out. It seems a gamble to me. So you are going to have to decide for yourself whether or not to trust Jesus.

 

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[i] Michelle Boorstein, “Activist D.C. Church Embraces Transition in Name of Its Mission,” Washington Post, Jan. 6, 2009 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/05/AR2009010503341.html?hpid=topnews.

[ii] “... As I Follow Christ: Pastoral insights after a year of living like Jesus,” an interview with Ed Dobson, Leadershipjournal.net at http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/thepastor/soulspirit/asifollowchrist.html.