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Money, Wealth and the Kingdom of God (sermon for cafe church)

October 13, 2015

Mark 10:17-31        Hebrews 4:12-16

Bankroll of money, foreign currency Wellington, New Zealand, Thursday, November 09, 2006. Credit:NZPA/Ross Setford.

Bankroll of money, foreign currency Wellington, New Zealand, Thursday, November 09, 2006. Credit:NZPA/Ross Setford.

 

“The Word of God is living and active… sharper than a two-edge sword”. How seriously do we take the speech of God, this Word that’s alive, that judges our innermost being? How seriously do we take the fact that when we go to church, the main thing at the very centre of what we do is listen to the bible? (it’s not the same question… the Bible and the Word… but its related) It’s actually a particularly Presbyterian thing… to take scripture seriously… its our tradition.

 

For some, the Bible is like a kind of supermarket where we go down the aisle and find the things we want, that suit our purposes (oh, I like that verse, I don’t like that one, I’ll ignore that one). Maybe all of us do that some of the time. But its not really good enough is it? What if the Word of God is living and active, not some passive supermarket shelf?

 

What if, rather than reading the bible in church we find ourselves ‘read by the bible’. Our hope when we gather for worship (can you feel the fragility, the openness, the vulnerability of that word “worship”?)… our hope is that the speech of God, God’s word will read us. We are not here to judge God, we are here to be judged by God.

 

Does that sound like fundamentalism to you? The thing is, in the letter to the Hebrews the Word of God is not a book but a person, Jesus, who knows our weaknesses and brings God’s mercy to us. This is how Hebrews begins

‘Long ago God spoke through our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets [the Hebrew Bible] but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being and sustains all things by his powerful word.’

 

Jesus the living and active Word which cuts our world down to the bone and shows us the tough truth about ourselves and our world. Jesus is the judge who knows our weakness, who sympathizes with us, who acts in mercy and so gives us the courage to boldly approach the throne of grace.

 Learning to ‘be read’ by the bible means learning to see Jesus in it.

 

Today’s gospel reading is a great test of this whole business… because it is basically ‘Jesus on money’... Jesus who knows our weaknesses addresses the question of money. Money’s not a simple matter (it’s not just the physical stuff in our pockets, we hardly carry any of that around any more anyway). But its also difficult to talk about. It’s a sensitive topic best avoided in polite company.

 

Knowing our weaknesses – (turning back to our gospel reading) It tells us that a rich man came to Jesus seeking the life of the kingdom (eternal life). “What can I do to inherit eternal life”. Some background might be helpful here (H/T Ched Myers). In Jesus time wealth was not so much about ‘money in the bank’ as it was about land. And how did people usually get land? (answer = inherit it). So here is a wealthy landowner with all the sense of entitlement that comes with his class asking: “How can I INHERIT the life of the age to come?’ So land is passed on by inheritance but land is also accumulated as the poor subsistence farmers come upon hard times, get into debt, take out loans from the landowners to survive and when they fail in repayments, lose their lands. So the more things are different, the more they remain the same. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is the economic system of wealth which Jesus is addressing.

 

“Jesus looked at him (it says) and loved him”…. the kindest thing Jesus could say to this man, it turns out though, was the last thing he wanted to hear. “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor”.

 

We know its the last thing he wanted to hear, partly because of his reaction… but probably more likely because of our own reaction. Like Jesus we know his weakness, because it is our weakness also. This is the last thing we would want to hear from Jesus. None of us thinks Jesus would say this to us. Every interpreter I have ever heard has emphasised that this saying is specifically for this man. This is what Jesus would say to Donald Trump, not to us… We desperately hope…

 

And yet context is everything. Jesus has some general things to say about money – that go beyond his word to this particular man. Jesus has a theology of money, a view of how money relates to the kingdom of God. Money fights against the kingdom of God. Money makes the kingdom of God harder to participate him. These are Jesus words. ‘How hard it is for the rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ This is perplexing for the disciples. And if it is perplexing for them, how much more for us, whose world is so much more deeply shaped by money than their world? It makes the kingdom of God seem so otherworldly. How can God’s kingdom be about a struggle with money?

 

At this point we are tempted to say that money is just a thing… a coin, a number… it does nothing. The issues here is our attitude to it and we can choose to do what we want with it.

 

That would be the encouraging. We could go away feeling optimistic about our ability to do good in the world. But I don’t think the two-edged sword lets us get away with such an easy response.

 

For Jesus there is a difference between the rich person and the poor person. Money exerts a pressure, it is a culture, a system, a power. It takes our time and attention… ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. To be rich, according to Jesus puts you at a disadvantage in relation to the kingdom of God.

 

And also the last thing Jesus is saying is that it is straightforwardly within our capacity to turn our attitude around and do the right thing with money. In fact Jesus is pushing in the opposite direction… For us it is impossible. Thanks goodness it is possible for God.

 

God alone can set us free from our wealth to share in God’s kingdom.

 

So today I am hoping we can talk together about this topic… but of course its a very difficult topic to talk about. It’s hard to talk about it without feeling at some level the challenge of Jesus words and without getting defensive. If you look at the text, Peter does that straight after Jesus’ teaching. He says: “We have left everything and followed you…” (as if to say why are you telling us this? … we’ve donated to the church and to charities for years…). And Jesus says, sure… there will be kingdom benefits for all of that stuff, but, be aware the kingdom might not be as you think ‘many who are first will be last and last will be first’.

 

It would be very easy to start to talk about our own situation in a way which reflects our envy of those who have more… or which tries to claim a moral high ground by emphasising our poverty and so on.

 

I am a wealthy person. In relation to the average New Zealand income, Jan and I are rich. The stipend contributes to making it hard for me to enter the kingdom of God.

 

But in relation to global income levels all of us are wealthy people, although in terms of NZ lifestyles some of us may clearly be poor.

 

Whatever our situation… and without making comparisons… my prayer is that we can think together about this, because, at some level we are in this together….

 

· What does money do to us? What is the way it shapes our lives?

 

· What is it about the kingdom of God that is different from a world dominated by money?

 

· What are the resources that our faith gives us to deal with money and its impact?

 

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