Jesus and Moses have a perspective of love, love which knows that when you’re stuck in the eye of the needle, you can either go backward, go forward, or stay stuck. But in order to move forward, something has to change.
Moses and Jesus both address this condition of ‘stuck-ness’: the concern that the very wealth of the rich, that which makes our lives so much easier, is or will become a stumbling block.
Wealth competes with God in the hearts of humanity, and all too often, wealth wins. In Biblical terms, the concern is of idolatry, the worship of anyone or anything other than God.
This turning away from God can be likened to a disease and in our time, it actually has a name, “affluenza”. That there can be loss in wealth, we all understand; after all, sorrow comes to us all. But that wealth itself is a form of loss, is more difficult to accept.
The first thing we need to accept is that we are rich. With food on our tables and roofs over our heads, and clothes on our backs, we are rich.
Secondly, Jesus’ words are motivated not by punishment, but by love. From that love, Jesus tells the wealthy man what he must do to enter God’s kingdom. In essence, Jesus is saying, ‘for what you need, do not look to your hands, look to mine.’
Thirdly, neither Jesus nor Moses are idealizing poverty. The Wisdom of Proverbs chapter 30 is instructive: “. . . give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
How quickly we recognize the dangers of poverty. Yet how rare it is that we pray, “Oh God, please don’t make me rich!”, or when rich, “Oh God, relieve me of this burden!”
But God makes it very clear that this is exactly how we should view our wealth: as burden and temptation, as duty, never as a state to be desired for its own sake, and only to be taken on with humility and care, for the temptation to become stewards for ourselves, rather than for God or for each other, is virtually insurmountable. We succumb to that temptation to our great peril. But succumb we do.
To be distracted by the things of this world, thus forgetting God, is to be stuck in the eye of the needle. The irony is that the prosperity God provides can result in a turning away from the very God who provides it.
Champion swimmers shave their body hair in order to eliminate any drag on their bodies as they press forward to their goal. Wealth can be a drag, a distraction – from God.
There is much in our world to distract us from God. But it has a price. In his book The High Price of Materialism, author Tim Kasser concludes that, providing basic needs are met, people who are rich are not happier than those who are not. In fact, those who pursue wealth are generally less happy than those who do not. Most surprising to me, Kasser found that the health and happiness of the people who have dealings with those pursuing wealth are harmed as well! Finally, he concludes that materialism does not cause unhappiness; rather, unhappiness feeds our desire for things and our desire for things feeds our unhappiness.
Jesus’ call is to move away from feeding our own unhappiness.
Let us join with the Wisdom petitioner of Proverbs and pray, “Oh God, do not make me too rich, lest I forget you.” Amen.
*In October of 2006, I ended up one Sunday with two sermons instead of one. I didn’t like the first one and when it was done again, I didn’t like the second one much either. So I gave the folks at Headwaters Chapel, where I preach first each Sunday, the choice - ‘A’ or ‘B’. They chose B, so I preached from the second manuscript. Then on to McDowell Church where I repeated the offer and the same choice was made (who says God has no sense of humor?). At McDowell they asked when they would hear the other one. “Never,” I said. Turns out I lied. I dusted off sermon ‘A’ for this Sunday and threw in a bit of ad-libbed political commentary on how our fear is the flip side of the same coin of our plenty when it comes to wealth, using the things I was thinking about in Friday’s blog BethRant6 - Let's End the Generational Wars as my example. This post is the Cliff Notes version of sermon A. The scripture passages are from Deuteronomy 8 (Moses’ sermon to the people about to enter the promised land on the temptation of forgetting the origin of the land of plenty in the grace of God) and Mark 10 (on the rich young ruler who lacks only a path cleared of wealth to enter God’s kingdom).