Sermon for Sunday morning, 15 October 2006
Scripture Readings: Hebrews 4:12-16 and Mark 10:17-31
The Topic IS Money
Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope that you are seated comfortably. Please make sure your seatbelts are fastened. Keep your hands inside the carriage at all times. And please keep your seatbelts fastened for the duration of the sermon. It’s going to be a bumpy ride and we wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.
There is no way around it, the two passages we heard this morning make for some uncomfortable reading. The only hint of comfort or Good News that we get this week comes from the second half of the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. Up until that point, both readings are quite a challenge.
We could take our Gospel reading – often called the parable of the Rich Young Man – and spiritualise it. “Well, money doesn’t stand in the way of me being God-follower, so let’s say that the money in this story represents ‘all those earthly things that keep us from God’.”
And, actually, that would be a true statement. There are many things besides money that human beings turn into idols. For some people it might be drink or drugs, for others it might be reputation or one’s good name, for others it might be a spouse or a family member, for yet others, it might be being seen as a responsible or productive person.
But in this passage, I think that Mark’s Jesus is warning us from moving our attention away from money too quickly. Jesus goes on to elaborate on the consequences of having money. And he illustrates his point with hyperbole: The rich man has got absolutely no chance whatsoever of entering heaven, …but the people who will be blessed are those who give up everything to follow Jesus.
Now I do think that it’s fair to say that this illustration is hyperbole and that Jesus is not saying that his followers must go out and sell everything that they own in order to be Christians. But I think that it’s also fair to say that this passage is asking all of its listeners to consider “the idolatry of money”. I think that Mark’s Jesus is saying that the only people who are exempt from considering their relationship with money are those who have left absolutely everything they ever had behind to follow Him.
So probably no-one here is exempt from the message – including the preacher! And I doubt many of Mark’s listeners were exempt either. Money is a universal issue that transcends cultures and transcends generations. As I said, meditating on today’s Gospel message is going to be a bumpy ride.
What is Money?
What is money and how does it function in our lives?
First of all, money is a medium of exchange. In this role, money acts as a sort of go-between. Money allows me to take my 500 loaves of freshly-baked bread and ultimately exchange them for milk from the diary, vegetables from the farm and fabric from the mill.
Because of money, individuals are no longer limited to trading with their immediate neighbours. Even in the 18th century, money made it possible for British colonists in America to purchase and transport goods from Europe and Asia that they would not have otherwise found in their comparatively primitive surroundings.
So, first of all, money is a medium of exchange.
Secondly, money is an asset. It’s a store of value. The New Oxford Dictionary informs us that the origin of the word “asset” comes from the French word “asez” – “enough”.
Now there is an interesting word: “enough”. How much money is “enough”? If money is a store of value, how much of it do you need to store before you have “enough”? I suspect that we’re starting to get to the nub of our spiritual problem. “Enough for what?” Because money seems to have this insidious way of demanding more and more of our attention.
Everyone wants to have enough money to survive. That ambition is a good one. And indeed, the prophets tell those of us with money that God is most displeased when our economic practices force others to live in poverty and destitution. Undoubtedly, God wants everyone to have enough money to be able to eat, to drink, and to have enough to wear.
But I think that you can see how this concept of “enough” can easily go on and on and on until we never have enough. It is by no means a simple task to say at what quantitative point money stops being constructive and starts being a problem. It does often seem to be the case that what I think is “enough” for someone else isn’t actually enough for me And there are probably as many different ways to idolise money as there are individual human beings on earth.
Money Demands our Attention
If we are not careful, money seems to have an ability to generate its own set of moral and ethical values. Our primary purpose in life can become the acquisition of money – whether the purpose be to spend it all today or to save it for a rainy day.
We can begin to define ourselves in relation to it. In more ways than the monetary, money can become our personal “store of value”. I suspect that this is the reason the Evangelist is so insistent that we take a moment to hear the story of the Rich Young Man, to squirm a bit in our seats, and to consider the role of money in our lives.
Jesus affirms over and over that that the focus of human life is to love God and to love other people as oneself. This love – God first and others second – is to be the main focus of all that we do and all that our lives are about. Money is a universal entity that transcends cultures and transcends generations. In every culture and in every generation, money has proven its ability to capture the imagination of men and women and to become the central focus of their lives. Money has proven its ability to demand and to capture our attention.
Must all believers – rich and poor alike – fanatically and scrupulously dispose of everything they own or suffer God’s displeasure? As I said, I don’t believe that’s the purpose of this parable. I do, however, believe that the purpose of this parable is to warn us about the powerful seductiveness of money.
Some claim that we are a sex-obsessed culture, but most people would be shocked to hear of an individual who made sexual activity the primary focus of their life. The fact that we are not morally and ethically shocked in the same way when we learn that so-and-so devotes all their energy to making and saving money indicates that this is one of our society’s genuine obsessions. I suspect that money always was and always will be a human obsession and this is why Jesus is telling us such a shocking story about it.
Some Good News
So, where can we find some Good News for those who would be followers of Christ? I think that we can find our Good News in today’s reading from the letter of Hebrews.
This morning, we have seen that God’s desire for our lives – God’s word – is indeed penetrating and sharp and that it judges the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts.
But using images of the Jewish Temple, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that, in Christ, we have a great high Priest in heaven. Jesus, the human being who knows and understands our weakness, has ascended into heaven. We do not save ourselves by our good works; rather Jesus Christ is our redeemer. The second person of the Trinity who affected our salvation. God has ensured that salvation and resurrection are part of the very fabric of creation.
We are forgiven, and so we have the possibility of embracing that forgiveness. We can begin again, from where we are, to live lives that show love to our fellow human beings, to live lives that give glory to God and that put God’s values at the centre. We can use our money as a tool, to show God’s love for his world, rather than regarding the accumulation of money as an end in itself.
In a few minutes, we will come together to the Lord’s Table as the Body of Christ. I pray that there we may humbly and thankfully embrace the forgiveness that is offered to us. May we be strengthened as we share this meal with our crucified and risen Lord. And, knowing that we are forgiven, loved and free, may we go into the world to live and work to God’s praise and glory, putting him at the centre of our lives. Amen