Dancing Around Money
Based on a message by William G. Carter.
Jackson Snyder, 1994
PREVIEW What the Bible Says about Stewardship A.Q. Van Benschoten
Mark 10:17-31 (24. "Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of G-d!”)
Exodus 20:2"I am Yahweh your god, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3"You shall have no other gods before Me.”
“Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” (Wesley)
We Dance Around the Issue of Money
Stanley Hauerwas, a professor at Stanford, has an idea about how churches should receive new members. Whenever people join the church, they should publicly answer four questions: (1) Who is your Lord and Savior? (2) Do you seek to be his disciple? (3) Will you be a faithful member of this congregation? (4) How much money do you have? You heard me right. When people join the church, Dr. Hauerwas thinks they ought to tell what they’re worth. Obviously, the professor doesn't serve as a pastor. His idea wouldn't work, since income figures are more sacred than prayers. What's more, parish experience tempers the kind of questions a minister asks of members. Most ministers learn how to dance around money without ever mentioning it.
A young minister was serving his first congregation. He asked the Lay Leader to put out a sign with the words, "Stewardship Sunday." He wrote a sermon about money and preached it that Sunday. Afterwards, a lady came up to him and said, "Pastor, thank you for that sermon. When I saw the sign outside, I was a little anxious about you speaking on the subject of our money. But your sermon calmed my fears." The minister replied, "Did I say something helpful?" The lady said, "Oh, it was better than that! Today you said absolutely nothing at all."
It’s tempting to say “nothing at all” about money in church. We talk about bills, the cost of Sunday School curricula, apportionments and mission projects. But the conversation usually remains on the good works of the church. Any mention of money seems out-of-place. That is, until a great deal of money is approved and spent on some project. After the fact, folks will talk money, money, money.
Dear Abby received a letter about church contributions that illustrates the point:
Dear Abby: We are not overly religious people, but we do like to go to church once in a while. It seems to me that every time we turn around, we are hit for money. I thought religion was free. I realize that churches have to have some money, but I think it is getting to be a racket. Just what do churches do with all their money? Curious in North Jersey.
Abby wrote back, Dear Curious: Even ministers must eat! Since they work full-time at their tasks, their churches must support them. Buildings must be maintained, heated, lighted and beautified. Custodial staff must eat and feed their families. Most churches engage in philanthropic work (aid to the needy, missions, and education); hence, they have their financial obligations. Even orchids, contrary to folklore, do not live on air. Churches can't live on air either. Religions, like water, may be free, but when they pipe it to you, you've got to help pay for the piping and the piper.
It's good to hear Abby spell out and approve the typical church budget. Yet she’s shortsighted in two ways. First, when we give to the church, we are doing more than supporting an institution; we are participating in the Savior’s work within and without these walls. The utility bills, salaries, premiums and supplies are all means to a far greater end. If the Holy Spirit has descended upon this church and people, then I, for one, want to support what he’s doing through people like you and me.
The second problem is the assumption that religion should be "free of charge." There are plenty of cheap religions! Our faith is costly. It demands a radical commitment. Those who would follow Yahshua must pick up their crosses and give their lives just as he gave his for us. True religion costs plenty.
The Heart of the Text
That brings us to the Gospel text. It begins as a success story. Yahshua is preaching about the Kingdom, traveling here and there. Somebody runs up, kneels down, and says, "Yahshua, what must I do to gain the eternal life you’ve been preaching about?" That's the kind of question Yahshua wants to hear. For seven chapters he’s been surrounded by disciples who chase away children, quiver in disbelief and argue over which of them is the greatest. Finally, here's an honest seeker who wants to know what it takes. Yahshua discusses the ethics of the law: don't murder, don't witness falsely, don't steal, take care of your old folks, keep the Sabbath. Do these things and live. The man says, "I do all those things." Isn’t he good?
The Gospel writer says that Yahshua "loved" this man. In Mark, this is the only place where it mentions that Yahshua loved anyone. Usually he’s too busy, going immediately here and immediately there. He heals one sick person after another. He shouts at storms and casts out demons. He never slows down to love anybody, even his disciples. In Mark, the twelve are knuckleheads who stand around scratching whenever Yahshua says or does anything significant. Mark never says Yahshua loved Peter, James, John, or the others. But he insists Yahshua loved this man. Maybe that's because (a) the man actively sought out the Kingdom and (b) he did what the Law of Yahweh commanded -- at least by all outward appearances.
But something’s amiss. This is also the only time in Mark's Gospel when Yahshua invites someone to follow and that someone can’t. The reason for the refusal is given: "He went away grieving, for he had many possessions" (Mark 10:22).
"There Must Be More Money"
Maybe professor Hauerwas is right after all. Maybe we can't follow Yahshua until we can come clean about the role of possessions in our lives: For mammon can become our center and things our hand-made gods competing with Yahweh for our time and affection. Let me ask you a question: Which do you know best, the Almighty or the almighty dollar? Be honest. As someone notes, "Money has no material force except as people attribute force to it. Money would be absolutely nothing, materially speaking, without human consent." Despite this fact, there are occasions when the desire for money and goods -- for having them, holding them, keeping them -- becomes more important than anything else.
D.H. Lawrence tells a story about a family with a boy and two little girls. They lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, yet there was the constant anxiety of never having enough money. Both mother and father had small incomes, but not enough to reach their goals. The father pursued business leads that never materialized and investments that rose then fell. The mother tried to make extra money through working long hours, which etched deep lines into her face. Their home was haunted with the phrase, "We need more money." No one ever said it aloud, least of all the children. But the words filled the house, whispered by the minds of the parents until the children could hear it all the time. “We need more money.” “We need more money.” They would often stop playing or studying to listen. “We need more money.” The whisper was everywhere; that’s why no one needed to speak the words aloud. It’s just like no one ever says, "We’re breathing," despite the air of breath moving around us all the time. That whispering breath can be felt in a lot of homes. “We need more money,” even though, like breath, money is coming and going all the time.
Fortunately, only two kinds of people want more money -- those who don't have it and those who do. Yahshua loves the rich man enough to tell him the truth: "You lack something, brother." What “something” could he be talking about? The man had everything. To have everything, including eternal life, was his life-long goal. That made him a conscientious commandment-breaker. Which commandment? The first. The soft, comfortable chains of a false god had him bound and tied. He was not free to follow Yahshua and gain what he wanted next – eternal life. He had everything but that, and that couldn’t be bought.
To Become Free
Yahshua didn’t command his friend to take a vow of poverty. Neither did he take an offering to empty his pockets. But he summoned his friend to cut all ties to the gods that enslaved and entangled him. He invited the man to become free: free from the demonic need to possess and control things and people; free from gauging his importance by his possessions; free from the invisible entanglements of wealth's tentacles; free from the quiet, deadly grip of materialism. The gospel lesson proclaims good news and bad news this morning. The good news is nobody who clings to his material possessions can ever enter the Kingdom. Or is that bad news? The good news is anything is possible with Yahweh; His Holy Spirit has the power to purge us of all our possessiveness. Or is that bad news? Decide for yourself.
One thing’s for sure. If we want to follow Yahshua and possess life, this most valuable commodity of all, we’d better brace ourselves. He calls us to serve a god who loves us but a god who will keep disturbing us until we finally relinquish our grip on the false security of our false gods. Once we say yes to him and begin to follow, we can expect holy disruptions in our lives until that day when Yahweh alone will purge and possess our hearts for the eternity we seek.