CAN A RICH MAN GO TO HEAVEN?
October 11, 2015
A man named Murray put the following announcement in his local synagogue’s newsletter: “LOST a black leather wallet containing precious family photos, personal ID documents, and $875. Finder can keep the photos and documents but please return the money, to which I am attached for sentimental reasons.”
One man replaced all the windows in his house with expensive double-pane energy efficient windows. A year later he got a call from the contractor complaining that his work had been completed a whole year and he had yet to pay for them. So, the man proceeded to tell the contractor just what his fast-talking sales guy had told him last year … that in one year the windows would pay for themselves?
A third-grade teacher asked her class to solve the math problem: “Suppose you had $.99 and your friend had $99. What would be the difference?
And one little girl replied, “The dismal point.”
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
That’s a tough teaching, especially for a generation that has to rent out mini-warehouses in order to store all their stuff. But there it is. “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.”
Money is a big deal in our lives. Let’s confess it. We like nice things. We like things that are new, things that work. How many men have been lusting after a new flat-screen plasma television? How many women wouldn’t like to replace slightly-worn living room furniture with something much more attractive? We like nice things, and in order to have nice things we’ve got to have money. But Jesus is warning us that money can ensnare us and separate us from God.
Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick once said something quite profound. “Our grandparents were reared to say ‘What shall I do to be saved?’” said Dr. Fosdick. “This generation has been reared to say, ‘What shall I do to succeed?’”
And we know it’s true. But it’s our culture. And it is very difficult to cut ourselves loose from our cultural obsession with things.
There is a story about an old monk who has been mentoring a young disciple. Believing that he has the ability to be on his own, the monk allows the boy to live in a lean-to near the river bank. Each night, happy as a lark, the young disciple puts out his loincloth, his only possession, to dry. One morning he is dismayed to find that it has been torn to shreds by rats. So he begs for a second loincloth from the villagers.
When the rats come to destroy that one, he gets a cat to keep the rats away. But now he has to beg not only for food but also milk for the cat. To get around that, he buys a cow. But then he has to seek food for the cow. He concludes, finally, that it would be easier to work the land around his hut, so he leaves off his prayers and meditations, and commits himself to growing crops to feed the cow. The operation expands. He hires workers. He marries a wife who keeps the household running smoothly. Pretty soon he’s one of the wealthiest people in the village.
Several years later, the monk comes back to find a mansion where the lean-to had been. “What is the meaning of this?” the monk asks. The disciple replies, “Holy Father, there was no other way for me to keep my loincloth.”
That’s how it happens. As the late comedian George Carlin has said, “Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. Everybody’s got to have a place for their stuff. That’s what life is all about: trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”
I wonder how many of us sometimes feel oppressed by all our stuff? Where can we store it when we don’t need it? How can we find it when we do need it? What do we do with all the clutter? And most importantly, could it be that stuff is crowding out the spiritual dimension of our lives?
In the Hebrew tradition, wealthy people were the ones who could spend time reading the Scriptures and praying. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, “If I were a rich man, I’d have the time that I lack, to sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the eastern wall, and I discussed the learned books with the holy man, seven hours every day, and that would be the sweetest thing of all.” But that’s not what is happening with us. The more stuff we have, the less time we have for God.
Writer and speaker Matthew Kelly notes that the suicide rate among teens and young adults has increased by 5000% in the last 50 years. Even more troubling is that it is becoming more and more apparent that suicide is directly proportional to wealth. What does that mean? Studies reveal that the more money you have, the more likely you are to take your own life.
Peter Kreeft captured the alarming reality in a recent article of his own: “The richer you are, the richer your family is, and the richer your country is, the more likely it is that you will find life so good that you will choose to do harm to yourself.” “Economics,” says Matthew Kelly, “is clearly not a good measure of happiness.”
We know that. But how can we disentangle ourselves from the social pressures as well as the inner greed that causes us to fill our lives with material things? What is the Christian’s responsibility when it comes to money?
First of all, we need to take control of our finances. Many families are putting themselves under unnecessary pressure because of finances that are out of control.
A father gave his daughter a generous weekly allowance, on the condition that she kept good records of how she spent the money. At the end of the month, the dad was going to check on how she spent the money. When he checked on how she did, he was delighted that she kept good records. But he came across several items that were listed as T.L.O.K. In fact about 1/5 of her money was listed this way he asked her what T.L.O.K. meant.
She said, “Well, it’s this way. Sometimes I did not jot down the amounts I spent. When I sat down to try to jot down all that I spent, I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I had spent all that money. I couldn’t make my accounts balance, so I placed several dollars under T.L.O.K.”
The father said, “But what does it mean?” She said it means, “THE LORD ONLY KNOWS.”
I suspect that a lot of families live by the T.L.O.K. method of bookkeeping. We really don’t know where the money goes. Some of us need to cut up our credit cards. Some of us need to cut back on eating out. Some of us need to sit down with a credit counselor and get ourselves out of debt. Letting our finances get out of control can quickly become a spiritual problem. It can place an unnecessary burden on our marriage, on our family life, even on our heart and emotions. Take control of your finances.
Two. Take control of your desires. This one is a little more challenging. Ask yourself, what would really improve your quality of life? Often the things that will improve our lives are available without a great outlay of money.
A few years back, a book came out titled Trading Up. This book traced the roots of some of our misconceptions about wealth. The 1950s were a time of increasing prosperity in the United States. But even as personal wealth grew, spending habits changed little. The primary reason why Americans didn’t become instant shopaholics, according to this author, is guilt. This was a generation raised on hard work, thrift, and personal sacrifice. When marketers realized the potential wealth that was accumulating in American’s pockets, they changed their advertising campaigns to encourage more spending. “In the 1960s there began a barrage of messages from popular influencers that said it was important for Americans to reach for their dreams, fulfill their emotional needs, be all they can be, grab for the gusto, self-actualize, and, not only do all that, but also take care of themselves, look after number one, reward themselves, and build their self-esteem.” In other words, advertisers sold us a picture of the good life–that it consisted of the possessions that we accumulate. And most of us bought into it.
How do you escape the trap? How do you “stick it to the man,” as it were— the man in this case being Madison Avenue? Think about the really pleasurable time in your life. Was money really necessary to your enjoyment? For example, most of us need more exercise. How about, rather than sitting all evening in front of the TV, we resolved to take a walk each evening with our spouse? The time spent together can be most pleasurable, as well as being healthier than being a couch potato all evening. Are there people you enjoy being around? Some people get involved in projects here in the church–not because they are all that spiritually motivated– but because they enjoy the give-and-take of being with other like-minded people. The method will differ for each of us, but we don’t have to move in lock-step with the materialistic society around us. If we set our minds to it, we can find alternatives to a lifestyle that requires constant accumulation.
Finally, and most important, remember that in our finances as well as everything else, God comes first. If anything in life comes before God, then we are not following Jesus Christ. If we can buy season football tickets, but cannot tithe, we have a spiritual problem. If we can make a payment on a nicer home, but cannot meet our responsibilities to the church and to the poor, we are worshiping Mammon and not God. That’s tough talk, I know, but as your pastor I owe it to you to say it as it is.
In one of his Lake Wobegon stories, Garrison Keillor tells about a Sunday morning in Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. The sermon has been droning on far too long, and Clarence Bunsen has checked out early. He realizes it’s almost time for the offering, so he quietly reaches for his wallet. Upon opening his wallet, Clarence discovers he has no cash. He takes out his pen and hides the checkbook in the middle of his Bible, next to one of the Psalms. He begins to scratch out a check for $30, because he almost had a heart attack that week, and because somebody in the church will count the offering and he wants them to see he gave $30.
He tries not to be obvious, but a lady to his right sees him. Clarence can tell she’s thinking he’s writing in the pew Bible, so he doesn’t look at what he’s doing. She gives him a funny stare, and turns back to the sermon.
Clarence tries to quietly rip the check out of the checkbook, with limited success, still not looking at what he’s doing so the lady in the pew won’t know he has written out a check in church. The offering plate comes by, and Clarence proudly puts in the check, only to realize a moment too late that he has just written a check for $300, not $30 as he intended. He accidentally wrote three-zero-zero on two different lines when he wasn’t looking.
What could he do? On the one hand, he could go downstairs after church and find the deacon counting the collection and say, “Fellows, there’s been a mistake. I gave more than I really wanted to.” On the other hand, he gave all he had in the checking account and a little more. Perhaps he and his family will have to eat beans and oatmeal for the rest of the month, Clarence thought, even though the contribution was going to a good place.
One thing was for sure, notes Garrison Keillor. In that moment, Clarence felt fully alive for the first time all day!
And no wonder. Even though it was inadvertent, for the first time in a long time, he had put God first.
Sometimes we forget where really abundant living lies. Not with things that take up space and will be long forgotten someday, but with those things that are eternal. Take charge of your finances. Take charge of your desires. Put God first in your life. Find out what it means to be fully alive.