What Is the First Thing..., Proper 23 (B) - 2006

October 15, 2006

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear this Gospel? Do you wonder if you are one of the rich people whose wealth will make it next to impossible to get into heaven? Have you ever heard this Gospel used in stewardship campaigns in which the prescribed fix or remedy for wealth is to give it to the church, ensuring that God would look favorably on you? Does this sound familiar?

As far back as the early Church, there have been suggestions that good graces and favor with God are obtained by sharing our wealth with the church. The burden of wealth is lifted, paving the way to heaven by the simple transfer of money or possessions. In fact, there was a time when it wasn’t even a suggestion – you could purchase the indulgences you needed. If you were wealthy, you were blessed in many ways. If you were poor, you were out of luck. It is no wonder that people living on the margins may hear hope in the words “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” It suggests a certain promise of justice.

It should come as no surprise to you that the number of possessions or the amount of money we accumulate defines success in our society. Along with this success comes power. The power to choose how we live, where we live, and what we eat are among the many choices. Are we to accumulate wealth and give it all to the church or good causes in order to gain God’s favor? Is the answer in well-publicized gifts to good causes or in supporting our local congregations or churches?

This Gospel makes us squirm and feel discomfort, especially about wealth. Can there really be a trade off: do this, and that will be the reward? Do you think that Jesus meant what he said to the man in the Gospel? Is he asking us to sell all our possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him? This is one of those moments when Jesus is being really clear, but our ears want to hear a more subdued version.

“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.” Are we to believe that wealth is incongruent with Christianity?

We begin to feel the conflict between being a person of faith who follows Jesus and the commandments while at the same time living by secular standards of success. This is one of the ethical challenges of living as Christians. The answer may be in stewardship, but not in stewardship limited to giving money and possessions away. Rather, it may be in understanding stewardship as caring for all of creation. If we understand stewardship as a social justice issue that provides security for all, we might come closer to knowing what Jesus is calling us to do in this Gospel.

Jesus tells us that living a good life requires more than obeying the commandments. The commandments are specific, listing do’s and don’ts, but they are not all inclusive. There is more to living a Christian’s way of life – loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And when we love God and our neighbors as ourselves, we naturally follow the commandments. With this in mind, the lessons today point us to loving God and our neighbors: the two great commandments.

We can probably name individuals whose lives modeled simplicity and obedience to the commandments. They seem to be given hero status, people such as St. Francis or Mother Theresa, for example. We can’t imagine ourselves living as they lived. They are saints; we are not. It is unimaginable, impossible, or unrealistic to think of ourselves in this way. Yet we are closer to understanding the principles they lived by than we are willing to admit. What might be missing are the bold and radical actions that came out of loving God and their neighbors. Jesus gave us the best example of total surrender to God. Through bold and radical actions and words, Jesus trusted that God would provide. He humbled himself in faith and obedience.

When we are most genuine, our humility shines through all the veneers that the world paints over us. The veneers of wealth and riches do not define us. Our possessions do not carry identity. However, these things may indeed separate us from being in relationship with each other and with God. They may be a barrier to the experience of surrender to God. If we allow it, they may lead us into a false sense of security and self-reliance.

The reading from Amos further clarifies this Gospel and its ethical challenge. In Amos, wealth is to be shared. Our covenant with God extends to the just distribution of wealth as a way of loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. Sharing resources with everyone around us is a concept confined to co-ops and the like, not pervasive outside those intentional communities. The wealthy do worse than ignore this idea; they sit in judgment of it.

We have to ask ourselves how justice is obtained concerning wealth. This is not an easy task, particularly because it is one of the most power-producing or power-diminishing elements of our society. Money issues break many relationships, so why would we be surprised that it might strain or break our relationship with God?

We have to ask the hard questions. Are we engaged in the just distribution of wealth because we participate in Outreach projects such as feeding and clothing the poor? If so, then how do we justify supporting wealthy companies and corporations whose practices are unjust, particularly in relationship to the poor?

Think about companies who cleverly build in depressed communities, in close proximity to Reservations, and places where people are desperate for jobs, but they offer only enough hours to keep them from paying for benefits.

Or consider companies who encourage our elderly to supplement their retirement by offering them part-time jobs while the company continues to destroy the environment with chemicals because it is cheaper to pay fines than to upgrade their photo processing?

Do we consider ourselves just and concerned about the environment, but continue to drink coffee out of styrofoam cups at our coffee hours and drive SUVs – those four-wheel drive vehicles that usually never leave the road?

We will know that there is a just distribution of wealth when someone loses a job and we all feel it, or when the cry of the earth causes us to make conscientious choices, or when no life is lost for lack of food or medicine.

Our covenant with God to love one another requires that we consider our choices and our actions. The awareness of our neighbors is the first step toward understanding what the Gospel is calling us to do. True humility is concerned with the just distribution of wealth as the only real stewardship. Jesus teaches us that surrendering the false security of wealth makes us good stewards of all creation. The simplicity of good stewardship is the uncluttered state, which may allow us to pass through the eye of that needle.


Christopher Sikkema