“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple
if you do not give up all your possessions.”
In the Bible there is not a great deal of humor. There is some here and there. Sara laughs in her old age when God tells her she’s going to have a baby. She thought the idea was quite funny, but God did not appreciate her laughter. God said, “Did I hear you laugh!” She said,”No, it wasn’t me.” God said, “Oh yes it was!”
Most often the Bible is a rather serious book. But in the gospel lesson today Jesus says one of the funniest things that anyone could possibly say to people. It’s even funnier now in our time than it was in his time. He says, “If you want to follow me, you must give up all your possessions.” Ha ha ha!
First of all, from a Jewish perspective, this is pretty funny. Did he forget who his audience was? These were his people, the Jews. They were the people born from Abraham and Sarah, they were the sons and daughters of Jacob; they are the people saved by God from poverty and misery in Egypt and brought by Moses and by the mighty hand of God, through 40 years of hardship in the desert. They did not go to all that trouble just so they could be poor wandering beggars in the promised land.
They crossed the Jordan River, so they could live in a land flowing with milk and honey, a land rich in grain and wine and oil, a land in which they might tend their farms and prosper and build up cities to dwell in. These were not sentimental people. The blessings they were looking for were very tangible: food and drink and a secure place to have babies and raise them up. They wanted the good life, and they felt that the good life was what God had promised them. So from a Jewish perspective for Jesus to say, “You must give up all your possessions,” must have sounded strange indeed. “He must be kidding! He is kidding, isn’t he?”
From the perspective of today’s consumer society what Jesus said sounds as funny as it did to his original Jewish listeners. “You must give up all your possessions” – what kind of crazy advice is this? In our own day we have people running around saying, “The Bible says this… the Bible says that,” to prove their point. It is also very popular now to espouse the belief that the Bible is absolutely literally true in all respects. There are immense and growing churches based upon the proposition that the Bible is to be taken literally. Since so many millions of Christians claim to take the Bible literally, we should expect to be able to look out the window in this predominantly Christian country and see throngs of people wandering the streets,
having given up their cars, their homes, their IRAs and 403Bs, their CDs, their DVDs and their SUVs, their iPods and their Izods.
But I guarantee you, when you step outside after worship, you will see no wandering caravans of self- impoverished Christians. Even if you go to the Bible Belt – I’ve been there twice in the past year – you will not see such a thing. People may take the Bible literally in some respects; they may even claim to take it literally in all respects; but when it comes to Luke 14:33, “give up all your possessions,” everybody comes up with their own imaginative interpretation.
Eight hundred years ago St. Francis of Assisi gave up wealth and privilege. He accepted voluntary poverty and went out to preach to the birds and the creatures of the field. His wealthy and powerful family thought he was crazy; his friends thought he had lost his mind. But he gathered followers dedicated to poverty, simplicity, and service. He was never ordained a priest, preferring to remain in humbler station, but he did ask the Pope at the time, Pope Innocent III, to officially recognize him and his followers as an order of brothers. At first the Pope said, “No, I do not think so.” But then, at least according to legend, the Pope had a dream in which the church was falling apart, and it was being held together by a man in rags. He recognized the face of the poor man in the dream as the face of Francis, so the next day he called Francis back and agreed to the establishment of the Franciscan order.
It has always been the case that people who say you should take the Bible literally really mean that you should take literally the parts of the Bible that they want you to take literally. In fact one of the most popular forms of Christianity these days is one that combines taking the Bible literally with getting rich.
This movement is sweeping up many churches in this country, and it is having an especially powerful impact in Africa. The movement is known as Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, or Prosperity Theology. It focuses on receiving the blessings of God – the material blessings of God – in this life. The preachers’ message is simple:
God loves you
God wants you to be rich.
And the surest way to get rich is to give to God – which means giving to the preacher.
The first time I ever officiated at a funeral, thirty years ago, the deceased was a poor man and the funeral took place in a funeral home at the edge of a rundown neighborhood. At the end of the funeral the brother of the deceased pushed a $20 bill into the palm of my hand. I handed it back to him, and he practically fell over.
He said, “I never saw a preacher turn down money.”
Joyce Meyer is one of those very popular and successful TV preachers who espouses the prosperity gospel. Donate to God by giving money to her ministry, and God will reward you, she preaches. The Bible says, “Give and it shall be given unto you,” she preaches. She’s not shy about asking for money. “Make your checks payable to Joyce Meyer Ministries/Life in the Word. And million is spelled M-I-L-L-I-O-N,” she says partly in jest but not entirely. She and her husband and her children have gained great personal wealth through her version of the gospel. She has been threatened with the loss of tax exemption for her ministries, because of the degree to which she is personally enriched by it.
Joel Osteen is an immensely popular TV preacher who has inspired many people to improve their lives, but the message he preaches is a thin soup of positive thinking, pep-talk, and promises of material blessing. He preaches the gospel of prosperity;the gospel of a God who rewards the faithful materially in this life. He tells his readers and listeners to develop“a prosperous mind set” as a way of drawing God’s favor. He tells the story of a passenger on a cruise ship who fed himself on cheese and crackers before realizing that the buffet table was included in the ticket. “Friend, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of those cheese and crackers!” Osteen says, “It’s time to step up to God’s dining table.” Or, as he also puts it: “God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner.”
The favorite verse of the prosperity preachers is found in the gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” But the words of Jesus in a hundred other places make it very clear that the abundant life he was talking about had nothing to do with the accumulation of material wealth. Turning Jesus into a prosperity preacher is comical.
Whether you agree with it or not; whether you practice it or not; Jesus preached a message of renunciation, a message of spiritual liberation through the giving away of wealth. The founder of our Methodist movement, John Wesley, thought a great deal about this issue of poverty and wealth. His ministry was fundamentally a ministry among the poor, the laborers, the unemployed, the debtors, the impoverished working class of 18th-century England.
He knew that to achieve dignity they needed the grace of God; they needed to believe that they were loved and that their lives have value in the eyes of God. The Methodist movement gave them that hope and that blessing. Wesley believed also that the poor needed capital; they needed to be freed from the curse of debt and poverty, and he proved that people could be released from those burdens through hard work, through mutual support, and through social reform. He preached the gospel of love to the individual, a message of hope and self improvement to the poor, and a message of social change.
John Wesley realized that in the Bible money is an ambiguous commodity. He knew that the Bible both celebrates prosperity and condemns wealth. He knew that the average human being could not surrender all of her or his material belongings and wander the streets like some first century disciple. He also observed that as individuals acquire greater wealth, they tend to have less concern for the things of the Spirit. He distilled his complex thoughts about faith and money into the saying: “earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”
In this time when there are such disparities of wealth in the world,
with growing disparities of wealth in this country;
in this time when the poorest of the poor barely survive;
it is a travesty for preachers to preach the gospel of getting rich.
If you want to preach the virtues of getting rich, fine, but don’t claim that your philosophy comes from Jesus; that’s a fabrication. But if you want to live with integrity, with material sufficiency, with balance and generosity, and with concern for your neighbor, then I would point you in the direction of old Mr. Wesley. He approach was: put the love of God and the love of neighbor first in your life; attend to your own needs, and at the same time make your resources available to others who cannot provide what they need for themselves; address those evils and society that create vast disparities of wealth and that drive people into poverty; spend your money carefully; not wastefully and selfishly. And save what you can, but save so as to increase your capacity to give.
Not bad advice.
This is a tough week to be talking about investments, with the stock market plunging, but another way of stating Wesley’s wisdom in our age would be:
invest you labor and your capital not only in yourself,
in your pleasure,
invest your labor and your capital
in things that will build up love and justice in this world.
Grace and peace to you.