"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "…You know the commandments…'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
We are in the midst of the election season, also called the silly season, since so many silly and improbable things are said by folks on both sides of the political spectrum, but when I read the passage from the Gospel this week, I found myself thinking of a political campaign a number of years ago. It was 1984. The candidates were the Democrat Walter Mondale and the Republican Ronald Reagan. When Mondale accepted the nomination at the Democratic convention, he stunned the audience when he said these words in his speech: Mondale said: "By the end of my first term, I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two‑thirds. Let's tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."
He said this because he wanted to be honest with the American people, and he was challenging Reagan to be similarly honest. But it seemed the American people didn’t much like his honesty, and so he lost by a landslide.
Like the young man in the gospel story, the American people were shocked by Mondale’s words, and went away grieving, and expressed that grief at the ballot box. Why? We can argue that they did not want their taxes raised because they believed that government was inefficient and bloated and it was wrong to put more money into such a wasteful system. That may or may not be true – this sermon is not about politics. But what was the young man in the gospel so disturbed by, and what were the electorate so disturbed by, when they were told that they needed to part with some of their money? The young man walked away. The electorate walked away. Nobody wants to give up their money.
I can recall the first time that I told one of my kids that if they wanted that particular toy, he would have to pay for it with the money he had saved up from his chore money. “What? That’s MY money! I earned it.” And I said, “Yup, you earned it, which is good. I earn money, too, and it pays for your clothes and your food and this house and all the other things that you need to grow up big and strong. We work, and we earn money from working, and then we use it to take care of you.” A really grown-up argument, of course, and my child should have understood it, right? His response was a long wail “…but it’s MYYYYY money!” Tears welled up in his eyes. I remembered how I felt when I had done the tax return the prior year and tears had welled up in my eyes when I realized that we owed the IRS a goodly sum of money. I felt his pain, but I also wanted him to start understanding what having some money means.
I doubt that the rich young man wailed “but it’s MYYYY money,” but I’ll bet that he was thinking it.
Our friend Darel Gallagher tells his clients that the most power people can have is when and how they give away their money. It feels good, it does good, you can decide where and when the money goes. I think that’s a very valid argument about one’s relationship with money.
But I also think the point that Jesus was making in the gospel, one that we often forget, is that the money can get in the way of living as Christians. If our sole focus is on hoarding it, keeping it safe, protecting it from giving it away, from theft by the government or from terrorists or from your brother-in-law, what energy do we have left to do the work that Christ tells us we should do? And where does our money come from? Of course we have earned it – at least those of us who haven’t inherited it, and I don’t think there are too many millionaire heiresses in the room – and we have worked hard to do that.
But if you follow the trail of how you got to the place where you could earn that money, where does it lead you? You went to school to learn skills, where teachers spent hours preparing you to work in the world. Your parents encouraged you and taught you, may have even paid for private school or college for you. Your employer gave you additional training to help you do your job effectively. And at the beginning, at the heart of it, God was there, having given you your own unique gifts and abilities, before you were a squalling newborn in the doctor’s hands.
When Jesus challenged the rich young man, he was hearing that guy’s subconscious “…but it’s mine,” and saying “no, not really. I lent it to you, to see what you would do with it. And it doesn’t look like you’re doing such good things with it.”
Jesus was saying “everything you have, it all came from the God who loves you. It’s not really yours forever. It’s on loan when you’re here on earth. Get rid of it, and you’ll be free from worrying about hanging on to it. Use it to help others instead of yourself. You can get down to the real work of figuring out how to use your gifts in service to the world.”
We get this skewed view of how the money we have is really important, and it causes us to choose in ways that make Jesus weep. We worry more about keeping than giving, and all of our efforts go into hanging on to the money rather than hanging on to what Jesus teaches us about what is really important.
Now, I know you may be worrying that this is a stewardship sermon, that it is all about getting you to increase your annual pledge to support the work of the church. Actually, it isn’t. We have told you the many things we do, and how we hope to do even more next year. The ball is now in your court, and on October 21st you will turn in those pledges, and we will do what God calls us to do with the resources we have available. That’s not what I’m talking about today, at least not directly.
What I am really talking about is priorities. If your first priority is getting and staying rich, like the young man in the gospel, you’re not really listening to what Jesus is saying. If your first priority is having more than your neighbor, you missed the part about giving to your neighbor if she needs it. If your first priority is about gaining the respect of the world simply because you are rich, I have two names for you: Trump. Kardashian. Not high on the respect list for me, and not just because of the hair, or the drama. Their money has gotten in the way of their living good, ethical lives.
Jesus is saying that the most important thing to do is this: obey the commandments, and live them deeply by caring for those in need. If that means giving away all those riches, do it. Do whatever is necessary to have your priorities straight. If you do that, you will eventually be rewarded. The first – the ones who cared more about their bank account than their suffering neighbor – will be last. The last – the ones who said “that person needs this more than I do, even though it means I will be eating mac and cheese this week” – those last persons will be first. And not just on the current year’s list of the world’s richest persons. No, the big list. The eternal list.
Money. It can become an idol, or it can become a tool for the reign of God. How do you use it?
For the record, Mondale was right. Reagan did raise taxes, and we managed to get them paid. And a portion of those taxes did sometimes benefit those in need. I have a hard time getting exercised about giving money for that. It is, after all, what Jesus had prescribed two millennia earlier.