What is rich?
10I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. 15You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. 16For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.19And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
22He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
I'm going to read now the words of Jesus which precede that reading. They are, to quote a little girl I'll mention in the sermon, words which are "clear... and hard... and scary." Listen for how the parable makes you feel. What are the emotions in this reading? Where is the threat?
13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
The thing that is horrific about this story is not that the man dies. Everyone dies. And if we knew that death was simply oblivion, well ... I guess we would learn to live with that. What's horrific is that the man does not just die; his life is 'demanded of him.' The phrase reminds us that we do not own ourselves. Our life is not our own. What the story implies is that when the man dies— when his life is demanded of him — he has nothing to give. He only has money.
Understand me here. It is not that God will reject this man. God leaves no one behind. 'Nothing… can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord,' Paul said. And centuries before Jesus, God said to his prophet Ezekiel in chapter 18:32 "I have no pleasure in the death of anyone."
No one is left behind, but despite this, our best thinking and our deepest praying cannot not escape the sense that the way we live has consequence.
I remember a town where the church hall was basically a tin shed with a rough cement floor and the red dust always seeping in. During one hot summer a lad got stuck in town waiting for money; his wallet had been stolen; he needed help. I offered to turn a couple of the padded pews together in the church, for a bed. In those days, I think the church building had the best air conditioner in town.
But the lad chose to sleep in the dirt on the bare cement. Is that the future of the man with many barns? Does something about his riches mean that like that lad, he can only turn away from, and refuse, the love of God when it comes to him?
What do riches do to us?
There was a time in Australia, when if you wanted to hire a colour TV in your hospital room, it would cost you a few extra dollars over the price of a black and white TV. My theology teacher went to visit a rich man who had hired only a black and white TV. He asked why. The man gave him a lecture in financials—percentages, and compound interest. He had all the pricing worked out; I suspect he gave my colleague the annualised cost of having a colour TV instead of black and white, and how much money he was saving. He said his father had taught him all this; money makes the man, you see. But he knew, the staff knew, and my colleague knew, that he would be dead in two weeks. Yet even then he could not enjoy a colour TV. He was a slave to his wealth.
On the other hand, I look at my mum's comfortable, but not that salubrious aged care room, and I say to myself, "When I need a place like this, I wonder if they'll let me put up my hiking tent in the garden," because... it's obvious I'll never be able to afford to stay in a place like that. Maybe the black and white TV man made the right decisions about money.
How much money is enough? What does it mean to be rich towards God?
I visit church folk in hospital who regularly tell me how kind the staff are. Here are people who are really suffering, and yet have time to be grateful and generous towards the people helping them. But I've been in a ward where one patient had nothing but praise for the same staff in the same hospital hospital that another person a room or two down the corridor found to be terrible. It struck me that when these two folk were fighting for their lives, money and possessions seemed to have nothing to do with what they experienced in life.
Perhaps being rich towards God is not about money. Perhaps it means growing towards a way of being... that is able to see that life is good; a way of being that can see past life's hardships. I In Philippians 4, Paul says "I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
How do we get this perspective? How do we relax in this? How can we relax in the love and care of a hospital, instead of only being able to find fault?
Jesus said, "Do not worry about your life for life is more than food, and the body more than clothing."
How could we live in that freedom? How could we find a way to look at the world, how can we find a vantage point, where that makes sense? I think we often read this stuff as though it’s a kind of religious overstatement— you know, Jesus and Paul are being extra pious, or something, and what they are saying doesn't apply to ordinary folk like us. But I wonder if Jesus and Paul are 'dead-set serious' about something that is not rhetoric, but which is their actual experience, and which is meant to be our experience, too!? Or, at least, something we get a taste of.
There are two things I have found in all this.
The first concerns my wealth. In Luke 18:25, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than it is for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. UCA minister Reverend Dr Peter Lockhart once said about this text, something like, "Well, speaking as a camel…" We. are. rich. We are richer than 90% of the world. All of us, unless we slept in the park just outside this church last night, and every night last week.
The second is this: Our spiritual health, which is what being rich towards God means, is bound up in holding our wealth lightly, and in giving away what we can. And in learning to give away more and more of it. But of course, because we live in a very rich suburb in one of the richest nations on the planet, it's almost impossible to see that any of this is so, let alone do it and hold to our wealth lightly.
We are taught, from childhood, to compare ourselves with people who are richer than us. That's what the thing Jesus called mammon does to us. It blinds us. It makes us want more than we need. It teaches me to look at my old van, or my pushbike, and then feel like I don't measure up to someone who has a Porsche. In reality, of course, I am incredibly rich. I have two means of transport, and I live near the railway station.
Going back to the story of the camel not getting through the eye of a needle, Pastor Stacey Elizabeth Simpson writes
I remember the first time I read this story I was seven years old, reading Mark’s Gospel in bed. When I got to verse 25, I was so alarmed that I slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed, and went running down the hall. I shook my mother out of a sound sleep. "Mom," I whispered urgently, "Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!"
"We are not rich. Go back to bed," came my mother’s response.
I knew better. I knew I had all I needed plus plenty more. I would later learn of fascinating attempts to soften the text (the use of the word "camel" for "rope," of "eye of the needle" for "a small gate"), but the little girl inside me knew that these words of Jesus were clear and hard and scary.
And what happens is that all through childhood society and its advertising teaches those of us who understand what the text is saying that we should just go back to sleep and forget about it. Please understand that I am not preaching at you here, but sharing with you the place I am at as well.
I think what happens when we love our neighbours as ourselves, and when we treat the person who does sleep in the park as our neighbour, is that we build relationships in which we meet Jesus. And when we give our wealth away, even in small amounts, we learn we can live with far less than we thought. Indeed, when I have friends and neighbours, and when I learn that people love me, and when I do have people who care for me, material things don't matter so much. And I find that God is real. And I find that a very rich place to be.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!