A Sermon for The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
October 11, 2015
By Emily Rowell Brown
As a properly raised southern girl, I know that there are certain things you just don’t talk about in public, and that just don’t make for pleasant dinner table conversation: finances, religion, politics. So it is not without a bit of guilt and reticence that I admit that my first two Sundays here, I preach about age and money.
Today’s gospel is hard. It is discomforting, provocative. I think it says something that so many people find the need to respond to Jesus’ instruction to the rich man to give his wealth away. Some people point to the exchange as an argument against capitalism, some as an argument for charities, and some as argument for a detached attitude towards possessions. But regardless of where the arguments land on the spectrum of interpretations, they tend to smack of defensiveness, prickliness, ruffled feathers. It’s easy to rush to Jesus’ defense when he speaks about caring for little children and loving our neighbor, but it’s an entirely different matter to embrace the teachings that are far more radical.
Is the money even necessarily the important part? Maybe the heart of today’s gospel is actually about discipleship, about being willing to leave behind everyone and everything to follow Jesus. Jesus’ way does not include prestige in this world but promises eternity instead. Maybe the gospel means to teach us to that Jesus will reverse everything we know, turn everything on its head: the first will be last, the last will be first, the powerless will have favor, the powerful will lose all.
But abstracting more general, spiritual messages from the story does not seem to do the startlingly vivid and specific encounter justice. It’s difficult–and probably inauthentic–not to make today’s gospel about money. When we look at the episode in the context of Jesus’ ministry to the poor and outcast, and in the context of our Old Testament reading, where the prophet Amos delivers news again and again of God’s outrage over the disparities between the haves and have-nots, we get a taste of a recurrent theme in our scriptures. If we look at our scriptures as a whole, there is no getting around the fact that the Bible includes more than 2,000 verses about money. (To put that figure in perspective, there are fewer than 500 verses on each prayer and faith.) Estimates vary, but most people who have bothered to count contend that 15 percent of everything Jesus taught was on the topic of money and possessions. Wealth clearly has something to do with our relationship to God.
If we were to ask many of the poor in places like Latin America, stories like this one encapsulate the entire gospel, the good news God brings. God wants to disrupt and transform the wide, wide gap between their society’s rich and the masses. Whereas the wealthy and powerful hold prestige in the here-and-now, they, the poor and marginalized, absolutely matter to God–they are in fact God’s chief concern. A strain of Christian thought known as liberation theology articulates these convictions: that Jesus is political, that the kingdom of God is about the present day, that heaven involves setting things right on this earth, not in a far-away heaven of clouds and pearly gates.
If we were to ask historical critics, they would tell us that they think Jesus’ strong words about wealth make sense of the ancient Roman context, where the gulf between the elite and the common was far wider than we experience or can imagine today. Since we believe that Jesus’ first followers were, for the most part, the outcasts, they of course wanted a revolution. Jesus offered a new world, where the rulers did not take, take, take from those who worked so hard, where they would not be taxed to death or shut off from the graces of God because they could not contribute towards the building of synagogues and making of sacrifices. Plus, most early Christians believed that Jesus would return any day and set all things right, so it did not seem necessary or logical to saddle oneself down with a bunch of possessions. Soon there would be no need, and they wanted to be ready.
If we were to ask Saint Francis or Mother Teresa, the passage means exactly what it says. We should take up an itinerant lifestyle like Jesus, wandering from place to place preaching about the kingdom of God. Wealth is unnecessary; God will provide.
If we were to ask many of the churches beginning their stewardship campaigns (as are we), one way to part with wealth as Jesus commands is by giving it to the church. The church helps redistribute goods, resources, and blessings in the community so that all might experience the delight and beauty of God’s earth and live comfortably, by reaching out to those in need and by helping humans infuse our lives with meaning and purpose and wonder.
If we were to ask many–I bet most–of the text’s readers today, we would learn that Jesus’ challenge is somewhat specific to the rich man. Because of the rich man’s attachment to his wealth, Jesus called him to give up what mattered most. What stands between Jesus and any given person may vary–for some, its work, others, fame, or influence, or reputation–but what Jesus requires each of us to do is to let go of what we clutch so desperately. We must hold our blessings, like our nice houses and fancy cars and fascinating jobs and even dear family and friends, more loosely, remembering that God always comes first. Being too attached to the things of this world inhibits our ability to respond to Jesus. Therefore, the text is about one’s spiritual state as much as it is about one’s material state.
I go through all of these different ways of responding to the text partly because they demonstrate how much the reading gets under our skin. No matter how you come down–liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, right, left–you probably have walked away from this story, if you’ve heard it before, not quite satisfied. Most of us are caught between two scenarios: we either are faithful enough in reading the story to feel that our lives do not line up with our interpretation; or we feel great about the coherence between our interpretation and our lifestyles but wonder if we exercised a little too much creative license with how we make sense of Jesus’ instructions.
But what’s the solution? I can remember back to a discussion of this text I had with a divinity school colleague. His question, sincere, earnest, was, “What does this mean for investments?” and he proceeded to tell me how he and his wife and were struggling with whether they should be saving for retirement and college when there were hungry people they passed on the street everyday. “Doesn’t that seem antithetical to the gospel? To store up a bunch of money, beyond what we need to live, for a far away day?”
His question was not the one we all ask about the cardboard box–you know, are we supposed to give so much that we put ourselves in situations where we end up in cardboard boxes and others must take care of us–but it held a similar sentiment: How much wealth is too much wealth? To what extent does it belong to God and to what extent are we stewards of what we have been given?
Remember the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film–the original, not the Johnny Depp fiasco? Five children won golden tickets to visit the top secret Willy Wonka candy factory, and all of the children–with the exception of the story’s hero Charlie–fell prey to their own greed. Instead of delighting in the copious amounts of sugar and fantastical confectionary inventions, they became caught up in their own agendas, focused on securing their fame and fortune by stealing factory secrets for a supposed competitor. Only Charlie gave himself over to the experience, appreciating Willy Wonka’s generosity and taking each moment as it came.
Our world is material, and God made it that way. This physicality is not accidental–Jesus came to us not as just a spirit, but as a real, enfleshed person. We use cars and feet to move between places, money to provide for our needs, bread–and sometimes chocolate–to fuel our bodies.They are ways for us to experience God and God’s love, but they are never the ends in themselves. They help us to take care of one another, to build a little bit of heaven here on earth, as long as we do not grasp hold too tightly.
 Estimates vary, but most place the number of references to money, possessions, and wealth around 2, 000. See, for instance, Sheryl Nance Nash, “Is the Bible the Ultimate Financial Guide?”, Forbes Magazine, May 24, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/sherylnancenash/2012/05/24/is-the-bible-the-ultimate-financial-guide/ and http://www.providentplan.com/personal-finance-bible-verses/.