A man named Harry put the following announcement in his local weekly newspaper: “LOST: a black leather wallet containing precious family photos, personal ID documents, and $875. Finder can keep the photos and documents but please return the money, to which I am attached for sentimental reasons.” One man replaced all the windows in his house with expensive double-pane energy efficient windows. A year later he got a call from the contractor complaining that his work had been completed a whole year and he had yet to pay for them. So, the man proceeded to tell the contractor just what his fast-talking sales guy had told him last year . . . that in one year the windows would pay for themselves. Why should he pay if the windows paid for themselves?
A third-grade teacher asked her class to solve a math problem: “Suppose you had $.99 and your friend had $99. What would be the difference?” And one little girl replied, “The dismal point.”
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good--except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
That’s a tough teaching, especially for a generation that has to rent out mini-warehouses in order to store all their stuff. But there it is. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Money is a big deal in our lives. Let’s confess it. We like nice things. We like things that are new, things that work. We like nice things, and in order to have nice things we’ve got to have money. But Jesus is warning us that money can ensnare us and separate us from God.
Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick once said something quite profound. “Our grandparents were reared to say ‘What shall I do to be saved?’” said Dr. Fosdick. “This generation has been reared to say, ‘What shall I do to succeed?’” And we know it’s true. But it’s our culture. And it is very difficult to cut ourselves loose from our cultural obsession with things.
There is a story about an old monk who has been mentoring a young disciple. Believing that he has the ability to be on his own, the monk allows the boy to live in a lean-to near the river bank. Each night, happy as a lark, the young disciple puts out his loincloth, his only possession, to dry. One morning he is dismayed to find that it has been torn to shreds by rats. So he begs for a second loincloth from the villagers.
When the rats come to destroy that one, he gets a cat to keep the rats away. But now he has to beg not only for food but also for milk for the cat. To get around that, he buys a cow. But then he has to seek food for the cow. He concludes, finally, that it would be easier to work the land around his hut, so he leaves off his prayers and meditations, and commits himself to growing crops to feed the cow. The operation expands. He hires workers. He marries a wife who keeps the household running smoothly. Pretty soon he is one of the wealthiest people in the village.
Several years later the monk comes back to find a mansion where the lean-to had been. “What is the meaning of this?” the monk asks. The disciple replies, “Holy Father, there was no other way for me to keep my loincloth.”
I wonder how many of us sometimes feel oppressed by all our stuff? Where can we store it when we don’t need it? How can we find it when we do need it? What do we do with all the clutter? And, most importantly, could it be that stuff is crowding out the spiritual dimension of our life?
In the Hebrew tradition, wealthy people were the ones who could spend time reading the scriptures and praying. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, “If I were a rich man, I’d have the time that I lack, to sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the eastern wall, and I’d discuss the learned books with the holy men, seven hours every day, and that would be the sweetest thing of all.” But that’s not what is happening with us. The more stuff we have, the less time we have for God.
Writer and Speaker Matthew Kelly notes that the suicide rate among teens and young adults has increased by 5,000 percent in the last fifty years. Even more troubling is that it is becoming more and more apparent that suicide is directly proportional to wealth. What does that mean? Studies reveal that the more money you have, the more likely you are to take your own life.
How do you escape the trap? Think about the really pleasurable times in your life. Was money really necessary to your enjoyment? For example, most of us need more exercise. How about, rather than sitting all evening in front of the TV, we resolve to take a walk each evening with love and care for? The time spent together can be most pleasurable, as well as being healthier than being a couch potato all evening. Are there people you enjoy being around? Some people get involved in projects here in the church--not because they are all that spiritually motivated--but because they enjoy the give and take of being with other like-minded people. It’ll be different for each of us, but we don’t have to move in lock-step with the materialistic society around us. If we set our minds to it, we can find alternatives to a lifestyle that requires constant accumulation.
Finally, and most important, remember that in our finances as well as everything else, God comes first. If anything in life comes before God, then we are not following Jesus Christ.
In one of his Lake Wobegon stories, Garrison Keillor tells about a Sunday morning in Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. The sermon has been droning on far too long, and Clarence Bunsen has mentally checked out early. He realizes it’s almost time for the offering, so he quietly reaches for his wallet. Upon opening his wallet, Clarence discovers he has no cash. He takes out his pen and hides the checkbook in the middle of his Bible. He begins to scratch out a check for thirty dollars, because he almost had a heart attack that week, and because he wants them to see he gave thirty dollars.
He tries not to be obvious, but a lady to his right sees him. Clarence can tell she thinks he’s writing in the pew Bible, so he doesn’t look at what he’s doing. She gives him a funny stare, and turns back to the sermon. Clarence tries to quietly rip the check out of the checkbook, with limited success, still not looking at what he’s doing so the lady in the pew won’t know he has written out a check in church. The offering plate comes by, and Clarence proudly puts in the check, only to realize a moment too late that he has just written a check for three hundred dollars, not thirty dollars as he intended. He accidentally wrote three-zero-zero on two different lines when he wasn’t looking.
What could he do? On the one hand, he couldn’t go downstairs after church and find the deacons counting the collection and say, “Hey folks , there’s been a mistake. I gave more than I really wanted to.” On the other hand, he gave all he had in the checking account and a little more. He thought, even though the money was going to a good place maybe he and his family will have to eat beans and oatmeal for the rest of the month. One thing was for sure, notes Garrison Keillor, “In that moment, Clarence felt fully alive for the first time all day!” And no wonder. Even though it was inadvertent, for the first time in a long time, he had put God first. Sometimes we forget where really abundant living lies. Not with things that take up space and will be long forgotten some day, but with those things that are eternal. Take charge of your finances. Take charge of your desires. Put God first in your life. Find out what it means to be fully alive.