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Wealth and Discipleship

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Why it is hard for the wealthy to follow Christ

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Luke 18:18–30 ESV
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ ” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Luke 18:18-30

Introduction

This morning we are going to continue our series on discipleship by looking at the connection between wealth and the cost of following Christ. Before I begin, I want to throw out a caveat for the non-Christians and visitors to our church. We have been going through a series of messages aimed mainly at believers to understand the true demands that Jesus places on his followers. It may seem a little bit tense, like going to a friends house when there are getting yelled at by their parents. But I want you to understand that this is the reality of doing life together as a family in Christ.
There are a couple of reasons that churches should go through some hard hitting sermons on occasion.
1) It reminds us that we are witnesses to the world. Gandhi once stated, “I like your Christ but I don’t like you Christians.” I think if we took Jesus’ demands more seriously, Christians would look more like Christ and become a more credible example to the world. When Pastor Andy and I were designing this series together, he turned to me and said, “It sounds like you want to make real followers of Jesus.” That is exactly what I want to do!
2) This presents a realistic expectation of what it means to be a Christian. If you set a standard, it’s true that some will fall short. If you don’t set any standard, you’ll ensure that everyone falls short.
Jesus clearly set a standard and if you remember from last week, I ended with His challenge for all believers to renounce our rights and then come follow Him. This has implications to every area of life but none more practical than they way we handle our wealth. Now some us might mistakenly think that the most sacrificial thing you can do is give up your careers and your pursuit of riches and become a missionary or a pastor but actually that is the last thing I want you to think (because who is going to pay my salary if you all quit your jobs). All kidding aside, renouncing your rights to wealth is far more of a posture of your heart than selling everything and becoming a missionary. I know enough pastors and missionaries who are as greedy and driven by selfish ambition as any crooked businessman and just because you are serving God in some official capacity is no guarantee that you have renounced your rights to wealth. But why should we renounce our rights to the money that we have worked so hard to gain?
It’s because nothing has greater power to enslave us and change us for the worse than wealth. For this very reason Jesus says, “You cannot serve two master, you’ll love one and despise the other. Therefore, you cannot serve both God and money.”
I recently read an article in the New York Times about Steve Job’s relationships with his daughter and it paints such an ugly picture of the person behind all of the success. At a family therapy session, his daughter confessed that she was lonely and wanted her parents to come and say good night and the response she received from her stepmother was “Your dad and I are just cold people.”
2,000 years Jesus told us the same thing without wasting 7 years of his life on needless research. We sometimes forget the mind-blowing brilliance of Jesus because not only was he the most loving man to walk the earth, he is also the smartest man who has ever lived. Every day, with every new bit of research on human behavior, I’m coming to terms with that fact. There is no one who has uncovered the human heart like Christ because only he understands completely what is found deep within us and he understood that one of the major obstacles in our relationship with God, if not the greatest barrier, would be our love of money.
On the whole the rich are more likely to want nothing to do with religion but the interaction between wealth and God is much more subtle than that. Money makes you act like you despise everything else in proportion to the way you chase after wealth and success. For example, a person who works 80-90 hours a week will have little or no energy for their marriage and their children. In time, when their marriage is falling apart and their children rebel against them, they will wonder what happened. And hopefully it will dawn on that person that the messaging of their life for years and years has been “I didn’t care about anything to the same degree that I cared about the pursuit of money and because of that I treated everything and everyone else as if they were not as important as the pursuit of money.”
For those of us who are wealthy and have found religion, it is easy to make God a distant second in our priorities. We tell our selves that we love God and that we want to live for Him, but the way we prioritize our lives tell a completely different story. And in this encounter with the rich young ruler, we see three reasons why the rich fall into this trap:
And in this encounter with the rich young ruler, we can see:
We overestimate our moral goodness.
We underestimate our need for God.
We overlook the impossible grace needed for our salvation.

Moral Goodness

Now hopefully you’ve noticed that I’m including myself in the category of the wealthy. A couple months ago, an uber driver picked me up at my condominium, which happens to be a below market rate unit in the Avalon apartments and he started the conversation by saying, “Wow, you must be rich to live here.” At first, I was tempted to say, “Yeah, that’s right, you better recognize.” (They say perception precedes reality.)
Then, I started to feel embarrassed because that isn’t the way that I want to see myself but for an uber driver barely making ends meet, I could see why he would make that type of assessment. The fact of the matter is, the average salary of our church places almost all of us well with in the top 1% of wages in the world. And so this account of the rich young ruler is highly relevant for those of us in this room. The traps that he falls into are the same traps that we fall into.
The first trap is that we overestimate our moral goodness. At the beginning of the interaction, the wealthy, young man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, as he often does, replies with his own trap and says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. So you are acknowledging my divinity. Now back to your question, have you kept these commandments given to Moses.” And without blinking an eye, the young man says, “I have kept them since my youth.” I could only imagine what must have been going through Jesus mind, “Really, you’ve kept them all perfectly. You’ve never disrespected your parents, or lied, or stolen.” This highlights the fact that wealth causes us to moralize away our sin and justify our behavior.
I found this fascinating Ted talk on this very subject and and the research of social psychologists prove the warnings that Jesus gives to the rich. Before I show you a short clip, this research is based on the game of Monopoly, which has probably caused many, many fights between friends and family. But this particular game for research purposes was rigged so that whoever won the flip of the coin would be given the advantage of starting with twice the amount of money, they would also be paid double when they passed go, and allowed to roll two dice while their opponent could only roll one. It is a completely unfair set of rules and here’s the results.
I found this fascinating Ted talk on this very subject and and the research of social psychologists prove the warnings that Jesus gives to the rich. Before I show you a short clip, this research is based on the game of Monopoly, which has probably caused many, many fights between friends and family. But this particular game for research purposes was rigged so that whoever won the flip of the coin would be given the advantage of starting with twice the amount of money, they would also be paid double when they passed go, and allowed to roll two dice while their opponent could only roll one. It is a completely unfair set of rules and here’s the results.
(Show video)
2,000 years Jesus told us the same thing without wasting 7 years of his life on needless research. We sometimes forget the mind-blowing brilliance of Jesus because not only was he the most loving man to walk the earth, he is also the smartest man who has ever lived. Every day, with every new bit of research on human behavior, I’m coming to a greater appreciation of that fact. There is no one who has uncovered the human heart like Christ because only he understands completely what is found deep within us and he warns that one of the major obstacles in our relationship with God and other would be our love of money.
In a limited sense money does help us become a bit more moral that than those in poverty. We don’t have to steal, we covet things less because we can go out and buy what we want and on the whole money reinforces this false idea that we are good people, otherwise why we be so rich? Surely God has blessed me! This leads to us moralizing away sins like greed, our lack of compassion, our self-centeredness, our arrogance, and our coldness towards others. Out of the 10 commandments, Jesus picks the 5 that relate to our relationship to other people.
The interaction between wealth and our relationship to others is complex. Money makes you act like you despise everything else in comparison to the way you chase after wealth and success. For example, a person who works 80-90 hours a week will have little or no energy for their marriage and their children. In time, when their marriage is falling apart and their children rebel against them, they will wonder what happened. And hopefully it will dawn on that person that the messaging of their life for years and years has been “I didn’t care about anything to the same degree that I cared about the pursuit of money and because of that I treated everyone else as if they were not as important as my personal success.”
The real hidden danger of overestimating our moral goodness is that we begin to underestimate our need for God.
I recently read an article in the New York Times about Steve Job’s relationships with his daughter and it paints such an ugly picture of the person behind all of the success. At a family therapy session, his daughter confessed that she was lonely and wanted her parents to come and say good night and the response she received from her stepmother was “Your dad and I are just cold people.”

Need for God

The real hidden danger of overestimating our moral goodness is that we begin to underestimate our need for God. Good people especially good people with money sense no real need for God. If you remember, Jesus sets up this entire conversation by asking the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? Only God alone is good.” If you read between the lines, it is a thinly veiled declaration of his own deity. Jesus is telling this man, “You are asking me about eternal life and you recognize my goodness because I am God!” Then, Jesus juxtaposes His own moral perfection and attempts to cast light onto the reality of the man’s spiritual state. And Jesus goes down the list of God’s commandments and again let’s remember what Jesus just said, “Only God alone is good. Are you this good?” There is a certain obtuseness to this man, and he says, “I’ve kept all those commandments since my youth.”
Do you see what is happening? The wealthy place themselves on the throne of God without even realizing it. And if you think you’re a god, then you have no need for the one true God. Christ who was born to live the life you could not live and to die the death that you should have died, becomes nothing more than a figurehead in your life. He is king only in theory because you refuse to get off the throne. In practical terms, this makes the wealthy virtually unteachable. They cannot be moved by the word of God and any words of correction and instruction fall on deaf ears. If in my heart, I don’t sense a need for him than I will not be compelled to obey him.
Sensing this man’s spiritual blindness, Jesus doesn’t try to argue his position like I would. He doesn’t say, “You know, do remember that time you looked at that pretty woman a little too long? Or how about that time, you wanted to kill that person who cut you off with his chariot?” Jesus doesn’t do any of that but instead he cuts right to the heart. He basically drops the hammer and tells the man, “Sell everything you have to the poor, come follow me, and then we can talk about eternal life.” Not surprisingly the man gets very sad because as we read, he was extremely rich.
On the surface this seems rather unfair because if Jesus walked in to this room and said “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and come follow me”, I wonder how many of us would count the cost and give away all our wealth. Now to be fair, this is the only time in the Scriptures where Jesus makes such a demand from an individual. Clearly, this is an exception to the norm, and so you can breathe a sigh of relief. But we do have to ask ourselves, why did Jesus go to this extreme? The answer is that for the extremely wealthy, for those who are crazy rich, giving away half your wealth makes no discernable difference in your lifestyle and how you perceive yourself. If you have a billion dollars and you give 500 million away, it doesn’t change you. For those who are enslaved by their love of money, the best cure is to give it all away because then you’ll understand what it means to be in desperate need of God. You’ll finally begin to see every area of weakness and sin in your life that you have covered over with money .
But before you completely exhale in relief, Luke describes a more appropriate response from those who may not be crazy rich but who are still doing pretty well. Over and against the example of the rich ruler, Luke purposely places the account of Zacchaeus right afterwards. If you were here with us at Easter, I began this entire series from Luke with the story of another rich young man who began his relationship with Jesus by committing to give away half of his money. Now if Jesus came in this room and said, “Give away half your wealth to the poor and then come follow me?”, I think many of us would stumble at that request. But it is a fair test because it would cost us something to follow Jesus, it would make us uncomfortable, and it would dramatically change our lives.
Here is a practical way to apply this, for every dollar you spend on vacations, fine dining, and luxury purchases, give an equal amount away to charity. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say give your money to the church. This is not a ploy for more offering to Radiance. The church doesn’t need more of your money, but what we do need are people whose hearts are set on obeying Christ above their own comfort, above their own desires, above their vacations, above their own lives.
Notice, Jesus doesn’t say give your money to the church. This is not a ploy for more offering to Radiance. The church doesn’t need more of your money, we need people whose hearts are set on obedience to Christ above their own comfort, above their own desires, above their vacations, above their own lives.
If you are a self-professed Christian and you find yourself at odds with Jesus’ views on wealth, the words that he speaks to the church are direct and pointed.
Notice, Jesus doesn’t say give your money to the church. This is not a ploy for more offering to Radiance. The church doesn’t need more of your money, we need people whose hearts are set on obedience to Christ above their own comfort, above their own desires, above their vacations,
Revelation 3:17–18 ESV
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
Revelation 3:

Impossible Grace

I realize these are not words that educated, wealthy people like to hear but these are the words we need to hear. On the whole the wealthy are likely either to want nothing to do with religion or prone to practice a superficial, inauthentic version of Christianity that costs them nothing. This is why, we need even more grace, in fact we need an impossible measure of grace for our salvation. When Jesus sees that the man would rather keep his money and forgo the cost of following Him, Jesus doesn’t mince any words and tells the man, “How hard it is for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”
It is an incredibly mean thing to say but it reveals the undeniable link between money and salvation. Giving away your money doesn’t prove you love God but not giving it away is undeniable proof that you love money more than you do God. In reaction to this very difficult conversation between Jesus and the rich man, those who just overheard the conversation ask a very important question, “Who then can be saved?” After all, no rich person is going to give away all their money! And Jesus gives the famous reply, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
It is harder for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, it requires more grace, in fact it it requires an impossible measure of grace that only God can supply but it is a grace that God has already supplied. The apostle Paul describes this impossible grace in this way:
2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

Money Changes Us

I recently read an article in the New York Times about Steve Job’s relationships with his daughter and it paints such an ugly picture of the person behind all of the success. At a family therapy session, his daughter confessed that she was lonely and wanted her parents to come and say good night and the response she received from her stepmother was “Your dad and I are just cold people.”
You may not notice the subtle ways that money changes you but it does. The Gospel of Luke uses a very interesting literary device in which rich people are never mentioned by their names. It is a warning that money will become your primary identity and in the process you will lose your humanity and risk your place before God. Sadly, I’ve seen so many people changed by this city. If the first and the best thing a person can say about you is “Wow, he or she has a lot of money”, that is a sad statement about your life. I pray that members of our church would be described as being generous with their money, sacrificial in their giving, and faithful stewards of the blessings of God.
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