We are given choices all the time. Making decisions is a critical component of everyday life, although some decisions are certainly more important, more reaching, and more pressing than others. In placing decisions in a balance, we sometimes become so engrossed on “What’s in it for me?” that we lose sight of the bigger picture. The eyes of society have blinked with dollar signs for so long that some simply cannot see anything else. Cost and profit constitute the bottom line. Our New Testament Lesson speaks of making a decision and also indirectly speaks of greed, which is contrary to the Christian lifestyle. This has nothing to do with working hard nor feeding your family. Yet this sermon has everything to do with being a disciple of Jesus. In church life, today is Stewardship Sunday, which also involves individual decision-making. Today I pose a question, “Which is more important, money or God?”
Our passage today is the familiar story of the rich, young ruler. Prior to our text, Luke recorded that Jesus was blessing the children. Jesus said, “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it at all.” One receives the Kingdom of God as a child: innocently and with total faith.
After Jesus said that, a ruler of a synagogue, one who was obviously well trained in the Law, addressed Jesus with a question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” For this man to call Jesus good teacher was quite a statement of flattery. Jews had clearly defined who a good man was, namely someone who kept the Law in the manner prescribed by their traditions. Of primary importance was what the person did not do. (Broadman Bible Commentary Luke-John. Clifton J. Allen, ed. Luke: Malcolm O. Tolbert. Nashville: Broadman Press. 1970. p. 143)
The ruler’s emphasis was on what he could do. The emphasis was on the seen. Judaism was a religion of works. This man probably believed that performing a single act could guarantee his salvation. He may have even thought he could buy eternal life. If he gave enough money to redecorate the synagogue, he may have wondered if that would insure eternal life for him.
People who are focused on their wealth think in terms of dollars and cents. He had the means to pay for most anything. He was wondering what he could do; what tangible act could he perform to receive eternal life.
Jesus knew this person’s intentions. Jesus had just told the people that the Kingdom of God was to be received like a little child. And then this flattering, rich, Jewish synagogue leader, said, “What shall I do to gain eternal life?” The young ruler’s question also disclosed his motives. So Jesus proceeded by saying, “You know the commandments,” and then offered a sampling of them.
Take a look at the commandments that Jesus listed. They involved outward appearances. Adultery, murder, stealing, lying, and disobeying parents can all be readily detected. Pious Jews, those who wanted to keep their reputations, would never commit adultery, murder, steal, lie, or even disobey their parents. Remember the emphasis from the rich young ruler was on what he could do. Jesus listed five commandments of things he should not be doing. The ruler easily could check them off his list. Jesus did not inquire about the other five commandments: having no other gods; not worshiping idols; taking God’s name in vain; remembering the Sabbath; and coveting. Jesus knew that the man was trying to serve two masters. He was seeking to serve God on the Sabbath while his wealth had priority on the other days. He had taken God’s name in vain; he was called a ruler of the synagogue, a respected religious official, yet inside, the man had divided loyalties. Because of his great wealth, there was a great chance that he even wanted more, which would be coveting. The man simply could not serve God and money.
The ruler told Jesus that he had kept those commandments since he was aware of them, since his youth. He had never committed adultery; that was ridiculous. He had never murdered or stolen; that was simply out of the question. Lying and disobeying his parents would be dishonorable; as a fine Jewish leader, he would never stoop so low. The checklist of absolutes was not a problem with him.
Jesus said, “Even though you have not done certain things, you still lack one thing. Obtaining eternal life cannot be bought. It is not a prize for restraining yourself from the world’s temptations. The greatest commandment has nothing to do with a legalistic checklist but everything to do with relationship. To gain eternal life, you have to come and follow me. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord, your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength. Love God with your entire being. And if you do, the second greatest commandment will result, namely to love your neighbor as your self. The thing you lack is a relationship. If you loved God, then you would love your neighbor. If you loved God, you would not have any other gods nor would you worship idols. If you loved God, you would be godly in lifestyle, not just in name. If you loved God, you would not worship money nor would you seek to hoard wealth. If you loved God, you would have no trouble with the question, “Which is more important God or money?”
“So, if you would like to inherit eternal life, sell everything you own and give it to the poor. If you really love God, you will help people around you. If you love God, you will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. If you love God, you will not allow your wealth to control you. If you love God, you will depend more on God than on your wealth. Just because you haven’t committed adultery, murdered, stolen, lied, or disobeyed your parents, just because you have not broken certain commandments, you are not assured a ticket to heaven.
Jesus continued, “You may think that selling everything is impractical; on what would you live? You may think that the poor just need to work. After all, you worked hard for your wealth; you sacrificed and went to school, and you perceive the poor and hungry as just lazy. But I am not talking about them; I am talking about you. The only person whom you can judge is yourself. Allow God to be the judge of everyone else. You may be eager not to do certain things, yet you seem unwilling to give everything to God. It is only when you give up everything that you gain treasure in heaven. Lay up for yourself treasures in heaven; do not fixate on treasures here on earth where moths and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal, or where you can lose it in a bad day on the stock market. So what’s it going to be: can you sell everything and distribute your wealth among the poor? Which is more important, God or your money?”
When the young Jewish synagogue leader heard Jesus’ reply, his countenance must have fallen. He had wondered what to do; he may have been willing to give a tithe, 10% of his income, or even more. But Jesus said that to gain eternal life, the man had to sell everything and distribute it to the poor. It was not enough to sell everything; he had to distribute it to the poor. Jesus also instructed him to come and follow him.
Was the focus on the poor? No, the focus was on the ruler and his love for money. He became very sad, because not only was he very wealthy, evidently his wealth meant more to him than anything else. His possessions were more important to him than the poor and hungry of his day. His possessions were more important to him than following Jesus. His possessions were more important to him than eternal life. He chose to have earthly treasures rather than eternal life.
The bottom line was that he could not follow Jesus. Did Christ have great riches? Depends on your definition, I guess. He once said, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man doesn’t have a place to lay his head.” He was homeless and lived totally by faith. This helps explain what it means to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child. The child’s destiny is in the hands of his/her parents. Whether the child starves or is well-nourished depends on the parent’s provisions, since children have no other resources. In like manner, a person must trust God for everything, depending solely on God.
Again Jesus addressed the rich, young ruler and said, “It is hard for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom of God. To give you an idea of the difficulty, think about this one: it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”
Pretty high standards, huh. In this discussion of wealth, have you thought of an individual or a family that you consider to be wealthy? Have you wondered how that person will make it to heaven? The fact is that we are all wealthy. Some of us do not consider ourselves under this heading, but we are all wealthy. We eat when we are hungry; we have heat when we are cold; we have more than two or three changes of clothes. By the world’s standards, we are wealthy. The words “wealth” and “rich” are relative terms. Ethiopians see us as wealthy; Haitians see us wealthy.
But when we as individuals place ourselves beside the glamorous and famous from Beverly Hills or Malibu, California, we say, “We aren’t wealthy; they are.” When we are on the ladder, there are always people above and below us. And given the world’s population, we are farther up the ladder than most. Most Americans are wealthy.
So is it difficult for Americans to enter the Kingdom of God? Some people in the third world would certainly say “Yes.” The poor of the third world countries may wonder how or why we can enter the Kingdom of God and ignore the needs of so many people. They may wonder how we can have all these luxuries when they lack necessities, how we can waste so much food when they are dying of hunger, how we can pillage natural resources when they are so impoverished. They may wonder how we can enter the Kingdom of God when we act so selfishly.
Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.”
Our response is similar to those who heard Jesus that day, “Then, just who can be saved?” Many Jews saw their wealth as a divine favor, not as a hindrance to salvation. I wouldn’t go that far. God has not blessed us financially because of our obedience; if that were the case, third world Christians would not die of hunger. If God actually gave us wealth because we were godly, then everyone would seek to live a religious life. It would be the best “get-rich quick” scheme ever: follow God and be blessed financially. It simply doesn’t work that way.
So does one have to poor to be saved? No, because we know that Jesus had some wealthy followers. Nicodemus was a follower of Jesus as was Joseph of Arimathea, the man who gave Jesus his tomb. So how do we mesh Jesus’ statement of the camel and needle’s eye with rich people following Jesus?
Jesus said, “What is impossible with humans is possible with God.” Still have trouble understanding? Remember the story of Abraham and Sarah? When God told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a child, she laughed. At the time, Abraham was ninety-nine-years-old and Sarah was eighty-nine. Genesis 18:14 reads, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” We don’t quite understand how an eighty-nine-year-old lady could become pregnant and how a ninety-year-old lady could give birth. And based on Jesus’ assessment of the camel and needle’s eye, we wonder how rich people could enter the Kingdom of God. But we can only be saved by God’s doing and not our own.
In our text, Peter spoke for the group; his words may still express our sentiments: “Look Jesus, we have followed you the best we could. We have done what we knew how to do. We have given you priority of our lives. Haven’t we already done enough?”
In actuality, there is nothing we can do here that can compare with what God has done, is doing, and will do for us. God’s perspective is that earthly wealth is temporary; eternal life lasts forever. But to gain that eternal life, we have to have a relationship with God. And if we have relationship with God, our priorities will be different from someone who does not share that relationship. We will see the world differently; we will love individuals. When we are aware of needs, we will seek to minister and give resources. When given the choice of which is more important God or money, we will choose God, not just with words but with our lifestyle. We will not allow our wealth to interfere with serving God. If we have a proper relationship with God, we will not be as concerned about our net worth as we are about the needs of others.
So we are all faced with a decision. Today, we approved a budget, which indicates where we feel God is leading us. Our church’s annual budget of $571,896 represents our goals and hopes for 2017-18. I do not know who contributes nor do I know how much anyone gives. I asked Church Administrator Jim NeSmith to give me the number of contributing households, which is 207. Doing the math, to meet our budget, the average gift per household will need to be $53/week, or $230/month, or $2,803/year. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor; given our personal resources, if households give a tithe, which is 10% of their income, our congregation should easily be able to meet this budget. I think every household here makes more $28,000/year, and a tithe of that would be our annual budget requirement of $2,800. We should be able to meet this budget.
Consider this: What did God give you? Our wealth is given by God indirectly; God has granted us strength to work, knowledge to make decisions and the blessing of being born in America. Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Because we are wealthy, we are to give much.
“Which is more important God or money?” We answer that question with what we do with what God gives us.