Living as Disciples Worship Series: WEEK 4
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost – August 4, 2019
“Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Depending on where you sit on the great divide between wealth and poverty, this statement from our Lord and Savior may strike you as good news, or as condemnation. As a member of a middle class, two-income, American family, I find I must take Jesus’ words as a harsh criticism of my lifestyle. I must confess that like many people in my situation, my life is characterized by my abundance of possessions.
So this parable hits me squarely between the eyes. And if I’d rather not deal with it and try to pretend Jesus didn’t really mean it, I have only to read further in the Gospels to realize that this parable does not represent an isolated and exceptional example of Jesus's attitude towards having an overabundance of possessions. Many of Jesus's sharpest, most vivid, and unforgettable sayings are associated with this exact same thing. Consider, for example, Matthew’s report of Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) where Jesus says, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal" (Matthew 6:19 NRSV) and "do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NRSV).
Or think of Mark and the rich young ruler to whom Jesus replied, "go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Mark 10:21 NRSV). But that young man turned away sorrowfully because, like me, he had an abundance of possessions. Then Jesus remarked on how difficult it was for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, and when the disciples were perplexed by his words, Jesus said, "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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:24-25 NRSV). Oh boy, do I know how the disciples felt when they rose up as one voice in protest! Remember how they put it? "Oh no, Lord! But that is impossible! Who then can be saved?" (Mark 10:26, my own paraphrase).
There can really be no doubt about it. Jesus did not see wealth as a reward for righteousness, or a sign of success. Quite the contrary. He saw it as a hindrance to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and a stumbling block for those seeking eternal life.
So what is the point of this teaching for those of us who seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but whose lives are also characterized by abundance? Why is Jesus so negative about what might be called the American way and the American dream? Does he really expect us to give everything away and have nothing? I don't think so. After all, when the woman lavished that alabaster jar of perfumed oil on his feet and one of his disciples complained and said that the oil should have been sold and the money given to the poor, it was Jesus who said, "the poor you have always with you" (Matthew 26:11). Jesus obviously doesn't think that being poor is, in and of itself, a virtuous state or a free ticket to heaven.
I think Jesus makes his primary point at the end of the parable about the rich man. After God replies to the man, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, where will they be?" Jesus concludes the parable by saying, "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
It seems to me that Jesus is not saying an overabundance of possessions is bad in itself. He’s saying that if we aren't careful, we can end up using our entire lives taking care of them and thereby waste time we might have spent pursuing a relationship with God, who is the source of our lives and the one who holds the key to abundant living.
- How does the abundance of possessions held by the people in your congregation get in the way of their being in right relationship with God in Christ?
- How does caring for the church’s “abundance of possessions” (building and furnishings, yard, parsonage, upkeep, salaried employees, etc.) get in the way of seeking transformation for the “least of these” in your wider community?
- In what ways do some people’s abundance, especially in terms of the inequity of distribution of wealth around the globe, hinder the coming of God’s reign? Give specific examples.
As we wind down this four-week series on “Living on Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World,” I don’t know about you, but I have personally found myself challenged to think about the choices I am making, the way I am living, and the way I do or do not practice Christian discipleship in my daily life. I wonder if I am helping to transform the world, or if I am just helping to maintain the status quo and my own place in it.
The first week I was challenged to consider whether I am prone to “doing for” instead of “being with” those that I meet who are in need. How is my discipleship leading me to be in relationship with the many “others” in my community?
The second week, the story of Mary and Martha challenged me to consider the long history of gender discrimination in Christian faith and within my own denomination. What have I done, by my witness and by my actions, to further the cause not just for American women, but to educate others about the plight of women around the globe? How is my discipleship seeking to transform the world by preaching good news to the poor and downtrodden, proclaiming release to women held in systems of submission and captivity, and setting at liberty my sisters who are oppressed?
The third week I was challenged to consider how I am praying for the transformation of the world. How do my personal prayers reflect my commitment to pray not just for myself and those I know and love, but for my neighbors around the world, especially those whom I consider enemies? I was also challenge to think about the power of prayer in the work of transformation.
And finally, this week, I was challenged to think about the stewardship of my own resources. How does my status as a privileged person with an abundance of possessions influence my interpretation of Jesus’ many words about the dangers of wealth? How can I read this scripture lesson from the point of view of those without abundance of possessions? And perhaps most importantly, how do my views about wealth and abundance of not just possessions, but food, shelter, and clothing, impede my relationship with God, my Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer?