March 8, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
To prepare for today’s sermon, I dug deep into the Bible. Starting with Jesus’ command to the rich man here in the gospel of Mark to “… sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor,” I did a word search and read all of the verses in the Bible in which the word “money” appears, 204 verses to be exact. (1) I also read about the laws governing monetary practices for the Jewish people from the time of the Exodus through to the days of the Temple in Palestine. I researched the business practices of the first century and the way that the early Christian communities governed their resources. I even spent some time examining Jesus’ words in the original Greek especially the exact meaning of the words “sell” and “all that you have,” and “give” and “to the poor.”
Frankly, I was looking for loopholes.
Nor am I alone. People have tried to soften Jesus’ words to the rich man from the time he first uttered them, to make his command more palatable for those of us who like our houses, our phones, our cars, and our retirement accounts.
And so some have argued, “The rich man was really an arrogant hypocrite who was trying to impress Jesus and Jesus was calling his bluff. Jesus doesn’t really expect us to give up our possessions; he just wanted to make a point about humility.”
Or, “Jesus didn’t intend this command to apply to everyone, just to people who measure their self-worth by their income, which, by the way, I don’t do so I’m exempt from this verse.”
Or maybe you’ve heard this popular explanation: “Jesus wasn’t really worried about the rich man’s money per se, but about his ‘love of money’ and as long as I don’t love my money more than I love Christ, it’s ok for me to have as much money as I want. I just have to be indifferent towards it.”
The letter to Timothy which was written about seventy years after Jesus’ ministry, (2) may have been the first to employ this favorite rationalization because it is in I Timothy 6:10 where we read those famous words, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” To say that it is the love of money and not the money itself that is the danger implies that a person can have tankfuls of cash and still be a faithful Christian as long as they don’t dive into their piles of money and splash around in them like Scrooge McDuck. An interesting side note: in the 1600’s, the King James Version of the Bible emphasized this view by actually putting words into Jesus’ mouth. While the Greek has Jesus telling the disciples in Mark10:24, that it is “hard for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of God,” the King James Version has Jesus say, “how hard it is for them that trust in riches to get into the Kingdom of God.” The translators of the King James Version were all too aware that their work was being funded by the King of England who might not be happy to read Jesus telling him that he needed to hand over his crown jewels to the poor if he wanted to be a faithful Christian so the translators overdubbed Jesus’ words to soften the blow. It is those who trust in riches, not those who have riches, they said, who are doomed.
Nevertheless, in the end, there really are no loopholes for us in this passage. In spite of all of the ways in which we have tried to soften Jesus’ words, we cannot change the fact that Jesus told the rich man and the disciples listening to the conversation that having a lot of money makes it really hard to be a faithful disciple and the best thing we could do is to sell all we have and give it to the poor. There is no way around it: these are hard words to hear.
A Sunday School Teacher was teaching a class about generosity and she asked her eager 10-year-olds, “If you had a million dollars, would you give it to buy food to feed all of the poor families in our town?”
“YES!” they all screamed!!
“Would you give $1,000?” she asked and again they shouted “YES!”
“How about $100?”
“Yes, yes,” they shouted with enthusiasm.
“Would you give a dollar to the poor?” she asked. The children all exclaimed “YES!” again except for one girl who this time remained absolutely silent.
The teacher said, “Sarah, why didn’t you say ‘yes?’”
“Well,” Sarah hesitated, “I HAVE a dollar.”
It is all well and good to talk about the sacrifices required by faith when those commands remain theoretical but when they begin to affect our real bottom line, we hem and haw and try to find loopholes. And our struggle is not a new one. The relationship between money and faith has always been a challenging one for religious people and so it was not a surprise to me to find 204 references to the word ‘money’ in the Bible. When over 3000 years ago, Moses gave the people of Israel the laws that would change them from a motley crew of former slaves to a chosen people of God, many of those laws governed the role that money would play in their relationships with one another. There were laws about marriage dowries and the sale of animals. There were laws governing debt and prohibitions against charging interest. Most importantly, the people were required to dedicate one tenth of their harvest each year for their worship of God. Some of this tithe was used to support the Levite priests who had no land of their own to farm, and some went to replenish the widows and orphans fund, but interestingly, the rest of that tithe went to the yearly religious celebration in which everyone participated. Every Israelite family was to bring their tithe of goods or its equivalent value in money to the gathering and there, the law said, they could use that tithe to buy whatever they wished for the celebration—oxen, sheep, wine, or strong drink.
“You shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God,” the Book of Deuteronomy orders, “you and your household rejoicing together.”
Now this is a practice that I think we should re-institute. Can you imagine if every person here set aside 10% of our income and we pooled all of that money at the end of the year to throw a feast at the church? That would be some spread!
The tithe that funded the yearly religious celebration prescribed by the book of Deuteronomy brought families together from all of the corners of the land, re-kindled their identity as the people of Israel, and ensured that even the least among them were cared for. Under the laws of Moses, then, money was to be thought of as a means to provide for one’s family and as a means to strengthen the community, not as an end unto itself.
In spite of the law’s good intentions, however, you only need to read the biblical prophets to see that the wealthy still managed to find ways around it. The prophet Amos storms in accusation, “Listen to this, you who rob the poor and trample down the needy! You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over and the religious festivals to end so you can get back to cheating the helpless.” (3) In the early Christian church, we see that same tension between the ideal and the reality of persistent human greed. The book of Acts says that the first Christians shared all of their resources with one another, and yet the apostle Paul has to scold the wealthy members of the Corinthian church for feasting in front of the poorer members, saying to them, “Each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”
From the days of Moses, through the early Christian church, and right up to today, people of faith have agreed that money should be used to care for our families and to strengthen our communities, and yet from the days of Moses, through the early Christian church, and right up to today, we struggle not to succumb to the temptation to use our money to strengthen ourselves.
The Christian author and speaker, Tony Campolo tells of being invited to speak at a Christian Woman’s convention where 300 women from churches around the region had gathered. Before he spoke, the president of the organization read a letter from a missionary in which the missionary expressed a need for $4,000 to address an emergency that had arisen in their community. The president of the organization turned to Campolo and said, “Brother Campolo, before you begin your talk, would you please lead us in a prayer asking God to provide the resources to meet the need of this missionary?”
Tony Campolo shook his head and said, “No, I won’t.”
Startled, she stammered, “I beg your pardon?”
Campolo said, “No, I won’t pray for that. I believe that God has already provided the resources and that all we need to do is give. In fact, I believe that if we all gave just what we have with us today, it would prove the truth of my claim.”
The president of the organization chuckled a little bit and turned to the audience with a smile, “Well, I guess we get the point. Mr. Campolo is trying to teach us that we all need to give sacrificially.”
Campolo said, “No, that is not what I am trying to teach you. I’m trying to teach you that God has already provided for this missionary. Here, I’m going to put down all of my money I have with me on this table.”
He pulled out his wallet and placed $15 on the table. He then stared meaningfully at the president of the organization and reluctantly, she opened her purse and took out all of her money, about $40, and placed it on top of his small pile of cash. Campolo then turned to the rest of the audience and gestured for them to come forward and follow suit, and one by one, they did, emptying their wallets and purses and placing all of their cash onto the table. When the money was counted, they had collected more than $4,000.
Tony Campolo said, “Now, here’s the lesson. God supplied for this missionary but the problem was that we were keeping it for ourselves. Now we can pray, and our prayer will not be a request for help but will be a prayer of thanksgiving to God for God’s provision to us.”
Money is to be used to care for our families and strengthen our community and not to strengthen ourselves. This is and has always been the biblical command. If Jesus’s words seem to go much further than that I think it is to because he wanted to move that biblical command from the theoretical to the real; he deliberately wanted to make us think and squirm. His words are supposed to be the stone in our 100% genuine leather shoes that keeps us from getting too comfortable with our economic choices. His words are supposed to make us question what we have versus what we give, and who we are versus who we are called to be. His words to the rich man are supposed to make us ask, “Am I using my money to care for the needs of my family and to strengthen my community, or am I using it to strengthen myself?” James W. Frick, of Notre Dame University, once said, “Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.”
In other words, in the end, do I think that Jesus was telling you that you should divest yourself of everything and impoverish yourself in order to follow him?
The only honest answer to that question has to be, “Maybe.” And if we are disturbed by that possibility, maybe that is the whole point.
- In the New Revised Standard Version
- Although the letter purports to be from Paul, contemporary scholars believe that it was written at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second.
- Amos 8:4-5, New Living Translation