God’s Invitation – Your decision:
2 – God or Mammon?
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God or mammon? God or money? Are the two compatible? How difficult is it to combine a true Christian faith with owning more than a modest amount of money and possessions? Should we really be renouncing our possessions, and becoming like monks and nuns, or is that way of life only one among many possible Christian paths, which are each of equal merit?
The famous saying of Jesus, ‘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’, is jarring to modern ears, and disturbing to those of us who live in the rich countries of the world. Jesus had just met a young man who had asked him how he could gain eternal life. He said that he kept all the commandments of the Jewish Law, and asked if this was this sufficient. Jesus replied by saying that he should go and give all he had to the poor. What could Jesus have meant? and how can we apply this teaching today?
Notice that Jesus’ reply to the young man’s question was not just that he should give more to the poor. It went far further. Jesus said that the man should give everything to the poor and follow him . Why did he urge such a radical course of action? and was this something which he meant should apply just to the man in question, or to everyone?
We know virtually nothing about the circumstances of that young man. We don’t know whether he was perhaps free from family responsibilities, and so able devote himself freely to joining Jesus’ group of wandering disciples. Indeed it could be that Jesus saw in this man a potential disciple, and that the test of his commitment was that he should give away his wealth and join Jesus. So what Jesus said about giving everything away might have been a specific command which was particularly applicable to that young man.
We do know, however, that Jesus often warned in general terms about the perils of riches. Remember the parable about the man who built more barns in which to store his harvest, and then died before he could enjoy his riches. Remember also that enigmatic statement which Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount – ‘Blessed are the poor’ – the first of the so-called beatitudes.
Why should the poverty which Jesus urged upon that young man be blessed, though? Some of the Jews of Jesus’ time believed that the poor had more opportunities for service. This, it was argued, compensated in God’s eyes for their lack of wealth and privilege. It was traditionally believed that having lots of money and possessions showed that you were blessed by God – the path of holy poverty, by contrast, offered other means of being blessed, namely the path of service and self-giving.
What does all of this mean for us? It is relevant to mention, at this point, that many surveys have been carried out which show that money and possessions do not always bring happiness. (See my latest magazine article) Apart from the very poorest nations, people who live in rich countries such as our own are not automatically happier than those who live in poorer countries.
Jesus’ call to voluntary poverty, however, was not primarily designed to increase our quality of life. This might be a side-effect: but it was not the main aim. The purpose of his teaching on wealth and poverty becomes clearer as we look at the verses which follow those about the encounter with the young man. For underlying the command of Jesus to give to the poor was the notion that it is self-giving and self-denial that lie at the heart of holiness. After the meeting with the young man, we see the disciples James and John asking to sit at Jesus’ right hand when he comes in glory. Jesus firmly rebukes them when they want to be seen as superior to the other disciples. He explained that he didn’t want personal advantage and status for himself – and nor should they. He went on to say that ‘anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be the servant of all’.
That, then, is why Jesus was so keen to stress that money can all too easily dominate people’s lives. That is why he used the image of the camel struggling to get through the eye of a needle when trying to show how riches can prevent someone from serving God. He was not saying that rich people were necessarily excluded from the Kingdom of God. Remember that when the disciples asked him, “who, then, can be saved?” he said that ‘all things are possible for God’. His point was rather that riches tend to make us less generous; they tend to rule our life in such a way as to make us less inclined to serve others; and that they tend to make us focus too much on this world rather than on eternal things. That’s why he commended the search for treasure in heaven rather than treasure on earth – “purses that will not wear out, treasure that will not fail you”. (Luke 12.33).
As someone once put it: If your treasure is on earth, you are headed away from it. If your treasure is in heaven, you are always headed toward it. Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.
We have to sort out for ourselves what our attitude will be towards the money and possessions with which we have been blessed. We won’t be able to take them with us into eternity. While we are here on earth, we can decide to use them well, for the benefit of all, remembering that however successful we have been in material terms, nothing would have been possible without God’s blessing. Or we can allow money and possessions to rule our lives, to corrode our souls, to make us – quite probably without our realising it - mean-spirited and hard of heart. These, I believe, from reading the gospels, were the fruits of selfishness and sin which Jesus saw were so contrary to the kingdom of God.
God invites us to make a choice. What will our decision be?
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