Sermon: "The Trouble with Money," February 22, 2014

February 22, 2015
The First Sunday in Lent
Mark 10:17-31

"The Trouble with Money"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Money. The first Sunday in Lent. And we land on a story about money. And what’s worse—a story where Jesus tells this young, successful, and faithful guy, that he’s got to give it all away. To inherit eternal life. To receive God’s kingdom. Just when you thought that Lent was just a big guilt trip leading up to Easter. Here comes Jesus. Confirming all of your suspicions.

Because that’s usually how we talk about money. It’s if we need it for something. Whether it’s about meeting the budget. Or whether it’s about renovating something. Or a mission project. Or… But when we only talk about money like this, we aren’t talking about the role in our own lives. Positive or negative. Or its incredible sway and influence over our world. We may talk about money all the time. But we’re never really talking about money itself.

Which is actually an odd thing, if you think about it. Because Jesus seems to talk about money, wealth, or treasure, more than anything else. Save the kingdom of God. And, for the most part, Jesus doesn’t think very highly of money. He sees it as an obstacle. If you remember a few weeks ago, we saw Jesus send out his disciples two by two in to the world with nothing but the shirts on their backs. Money might get in the way of healing and proclaiming the good news. And even before that in chapter four, Jesus says that some things get in the way of following him. Money is one of them. “The lure of wealth,” Jesus says, “will choke out the Word.” That wealth, that money actually gets in the way of hearing Jesus’ call to follow him. And get in the way of God’s voice.

And in this morning’s reading we see this play out. We see money get in the way. Jesus and the disciples set out on a journey. A young, successful, entrepreneurial guy runs up to Jesus, kneels, and asks him for some of his sagely advice. “Good teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” How do I get to experience this kingdom you’re always talking about? How do I get to be a part of it? First, Jesus suggests the Ten Commandments—Israel’s way of life. “I was raised on them,” the man says. “I’ve kept the commandments since I was a baby. I’ve got ‘em covered.”

And Jesus’ response is surprising. “Jesus, looking at him,” it says. “Loved him.” And then he says “You lack one thing. Sell everything you’ve got and give it away to the poor. Which doesn’t sound much like love at all. It seems kind of crazy. He follows all the commandments. This guy is a righteous guy, maybe as upright as you get. He’s like a spiritual athlete. But Jesus tells him that the only thing holding him back from experiencing God’s kingdom here and now. Is his money. Money is the only thing standing in his way. So he’s got to give it all away. So he is shocked, it says. And walks away grieving. For he had many possessions. When it comes to choosing money between following Jesus and life in God’s kingdom. “How hard it is,” Jesus says, “for a rich man… to enter the kingdom of God.” Money, it seems. Gets in the way. And it ultimately wins out.

This is a hard passage for us. Not just those of us who appear to be wealthy in comparison. Because we do live in the most wealthy society in human history. Even those of us who have relatively less are wealthy compared to the rest of the world. Let alone compared to those in Jesus’ lifetime. But it isn’t hard to see the truth here. That money is so often wins out. When we aren’t spending our time making it, we’re spending our time worrying about it. Pensions, wages, benefits, investments, welfare often determine what we can and cannot do. Or where we can live or can’t live. Money often sets our priorities. It will send us to oilfields half-way across the country to make a living. And it might even send us to battlefields half-way around the world. We often choose, or are even forced to choose between money and marriages. Money and family. Money and community. Money and happiness. Money and the ecological integrity of God’s good creation. And—according to Jesus—we are so often forced to choose between money and life in communion with the living God. On which all the rest of life depends. Money is spiritually powerful. And, according to this story, money often seems to win out. Even with the most fit of spiritual athletes.  It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” Jesus says, “than for the rich to enter God’s kingdom.”

Perhaps money itself is not evil. We can’t do much without it. And much good is done with it. But money is tremendously powerful. And its influence touches all of us. Which makes Jesus’ commands seem all the more impossible. But perhaps we need to think of this a different way. Remember how Jesus earlier in Mark, that his mission is to proclaim the good news, and cast out demons? And how Jesus comes to free us from the things that hold us back from life as God has always intended? Maybe this is what Jesus is up to here. Jesus, as we heard, loves this man. He does not see him as evil. In fact, as I said, he’s a deeply faithful, spiritual kind of guy. So Jesus does not simply point out this man’s sin. That he’s doing things wrong. Jesus works a different way. Jesus shows  the man his weakness. He confronts this man with his own captivity to this power in the world. And then he invites this man to take step in to freedom. [1] And that step is learning to give his money away. He doesn’t take the step. But the power to do so still remains. Jesus offers loving grace. But sometimes his grace can be costly.

And this is Jesus’ same word to us. This season of Lent. Jesus reveals to us the power of money in our lives. And he teaches us that freedom, when it comes to money, is not simply making more. Or being more fair and just with it. Or using it for better purposes.  No, it looks like true freedom—experiencing God’s kingdom--comes in learning to give our money away. Because in giving it away, we are freed from its power. Freed to live life as God always intended it to be. If even for a short time. And even in a limited way. Jesus said “where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” And in doing so we turn our hearts, our lives towards God. This is why we encourage generosity. This is why we offer our gifts to God as a community every week. This is why one of the historic practices of the Christian church is setting aside a percentage of our income as a tithe. Because we have seen in Christ what a full life of freedom looks like. And invited to step in to that same life—the life of God’s kingdom—where we gain far more than we lose. Where we are free to give of ourselves more fully. Where we are empowered to love more deeply. And where we able to give more generously than we ever thought possible. God knows such a freedom is difficult. But, as Jesus says, “with God all things are possible.” If God is with us, and for us. In a culture of scarcity, even generosity is possible.

[1] Charles L. Campbell, “Mark 10:17-31, Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 4.