TITLE: The Problem with Prosperity SCRIPTURE: Mark 10:17-31
The story is told of a middle-aged man who came to talk to his pastor. He was depressed. His life seemed meaningless. He had been quite successful, but his money didn't seem to be buying him happiness. Something seemed to be missing. His life felt flat. He thought that he should be getting more pleasure out of his success, and he was trying to figure out what to do.
The pastor remembered something that Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, had said. Menninger said that, when you are feeling blue, you should get out of the house, go across the tracks, find someone in need, and help them. The pastor told the man about that, and said, "Perhaps you should use your money to help people in need -- give some of it away."
The man thought for a moment, and with a wry smile on his face said, "Preacher, I'm not sure that I'm that desperate to be happy."
By the standards of our society, prosperity is where we should be. It's almost as though something is wrong with us if we are not prosperous. But in today's Gospel, Jesus takes a different approach. He shows us that prosperity can be a problem. Not always, but often enough. Some people's prosperity keeps them outside the kingdom of God.
Jesus has just started on a journey. He has not even hit his stride walking down the road, when a stranger runs up, kneels down at his feet, and bursts out with the question: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
He treated Jesus with great respect, kneeling at his feet and addressing him as "Good Teacher." He had a question that had been rolling around in the back of his mind for some time, and he saw Jesus' visit as an opportunity to get an answer. "Good Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
This was a rich man -- a man with many possessions -- most likely a man who had inherited a good deal of land from his father. Such a man would understand inheritances. He would know the Old Testament rules – how much the first son should get and how much the other sons should get. He would also know that it was possible for a father to disinherit his son. The fact that he asked about the requirements for inheriting eternal life tells us that he was a careful man -- the kind of man who would maintain a good relationship with his father so that he would get his full inheritance.
"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Good question! Today, we would say, "What must I do to be saved?" It is a life-or-death question!
"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" This man had gotten a good inheritance from his earthly father. Now he wanted to be sure to insure a good inheritance from his heavenly father. He was rich in this life. Now he wanted to make sure that he would be rich in the next life. "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered, "You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother." The man said, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."
It's an awkward opening. You're interested in eternal life, are you? You know the commandments you should keep! And Jesus rattles off a list of them. It seems like an exercise in the unnecessary.
The man then claims that he has kept those commandments ever since he was old enough to understand them. Clearly a straight arrow kind of guy!
But notice the list that Jesus recites. It's not the Big Ten in their totality, but only some selections. Don't kill, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't commit perjury, honor your parents. Five out of ten, plus a command not to defraud, which isn't among the Big Ten, but is certainly in line with them.
What are the remaining commandments? No other gods, no idols, no misuse of God's name, keep the sabbath day. That's four. What's the remaining one? It's the very last of the Big Ten, the one that forbids coveting anything that belongs to our neighbor. If "coveting" is too antique a word for you, then consider Number Ten to be simply the Commandment Against Greed.
The man who runs to Jesus passes with flying colors when it comes to many of the commandments. He's a really great guy in those ways. But as Jesus quickly discerns, the guy's got an addiction. Not alcohol. Not drugs. But money. Or to put it in theological language, his relationship with God is hollow, because what's first for him is not the Almighty Lord, but the Almighty Dollar. He bombs out on those relationship-with-God commandments, and obviously enough on Number Ten as well, the Commandment Against Greed.
Jesus moves rapidly from diagnosis to prescription. He proposes radical treatment. This one's got to go cold turkey. "Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me." Make the shift from ultimate greed to ultimate trust. You'll still have treasure, all the wealth of the kingdom of heaven. But it's wealth that won't kill your soul.
The message hits the man like a two-by-four swung hard at the side of the head. He's left reeling. Maybe it's the realization that Jesus is right, or maybe it's just plain shock, but the man does not argue. He walks away slowly, like someone who's just buried his best friend. As the story goes, "he had many possessions." How many, we don't know, but enough that attachment to them, his addiction, was a barricade on his road to the kingdom of heaven.
The man goes away shell-shocked. The disciples aren't doing much better. Then Jesus starts telling them things like: It will be hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom, about as easy as cramming a camel through a needle's eye. That only makes the matter worse for them. Like many people today, the disciples and their contemporaries held to the belief that prosperity was a problem only if you didn't have prosperity.
But Christ and Christianity make it clear that prosperity can be a problem. Why? It's not a problem with money itself, or with any good thing that money can buy. The problem is with our attitude, our idolatry. Simply put, the Almighty Lord and the Almighty Dollar compete for our allegiance.
For some, the answer is to give it all away. A few people do this, or at least come close. That's what’s behind the vow of poverty taken by members of religious communities.
For the rest of us, the solution is to realize our stewardship, and give away enough that it makes a difference. A standard based in Scripture is the tithe, giving away ten percent. This is not a maximum or a recommended amount; it is a minimum. That's what it takes to get us airborne in the adventure which is stewardship. That's what it takes to even start breaking free of the cold clammy grip of greed.
Does it make a difference? The proof's in the pudding. People who start tithing almost always stay tithing. Perhaps it takes years of gradual increases to achieve the tithe. Then the tither has no desire to reverse that direction.
For many of us, the power of money, its addictive influence, is so great that we cannot break free without the help of God. By ourselves, we have as much hope as the poor camel squeezing through the needle's eye. But God can deliver us, even in our prosperity. We can become trustees of our wealth, rather than victims of it.
Ah! You're perhaps thinking that's where all this goes wrong, in your case at least. The guy in the gospel story is wealthy, and here I am talking about the stewardship of wealth, but maybe you don't feel wealthy. Maybe you struggle to pay the bills, maybe you're in serious debt, maybe you haven't had a raise or a cost-of-living increase in who knows how long.
Maybe you don't feel wealthy. But by the standards of today's global community, just about anyone likely to turn up in this church on a Sunday morning is one of the privileged people on this planet.
Yes, we have a ways to go before we achieve social justice in America.
Yes, there is a growing disparity between the wealthiest Americans and everybody else.
But those of us with a car or a television or a phone are as world citizens among the very wealthy. Those of us with food and medicine, those of us with electricity, those of us who don't walk miles each day to get water, are counted wealthy by most people on this planet.
So money represents a spiritual challenge to us, we who are among the wealthy of the world. Our chances of entering the kingdom will be as good as a camel shouldering its way through a needle's eye unless we let God take charge of our wealth, and vaccinate us against greed in all its forms. For some the vaccination will be giving it all away. For others it means serious stewardship, stewardship that sets us free from addiction to money, and sets us free for the responsible use of our abundance.
Christians from different traditions don't agree about everything, but about certain matters I believe there is an emerging consensus. So let's let Billy Graham have the last word today about wealth. He says: "Tell me what you think about money, and I can tell you what you think about God, for these two are closely related."
Tell me what you think about money, and I can tell you what you think about God, for these two are closely related.