Dean Lloyd: “Money and the Meaning of Life”
“Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor … and come and follow me,” Jesus says. “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” For two thousand years those words from our gospel lesson have been striking terror in the hearts of Christians around the world.
I remember several years ago leading a Bible study on this passage at the beginning of a vestry meeting in a church I was serving, and it was this story of a young man who comes to Jesus seeking eternal life that we discussed.
After we read it, one member said he was reminded of the time a friend of the old crotchety comedian W.C. Fields came up on him with his head buried in the Bible—not a normal thing for Fields to be doing. “Bill,” his friend said, “what on earth are you doing?” And Fields said, “Looking for loopholes.” Today is a good one to look for loopholes.
Someone in the group said he was convinced there must be some errors in translation in this story. Another said he just didn’t like it. It’s too harsh and doesn’t seem very loving. Then one woman with furrows in her forehead said, “What if Jesus really meant it that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God?”
As threatening as this passage can sound, though, it has also changed people’s lives. In the year 269, a young man named Anthony went into church and heard this story read, and he immediately went out, gave away everything he owned, and eventually became the founder of the monastic movement in Western Christendom. St. Augustine a century or two later read what happened to Anthony and that led to his own conversion. And just last week we were here talking about how St. Francis literally did what Jesus called for and one day stripped himself naked in the public square and gave away everything he owned to follow Jesus.
But there has always been something disturbing about this lesson, too. After all, in the Jewish tradition, wealth and prosperity were signs of God’s blessing. And aren’t we human beings called to work, invest, create, and enjoy the fruits of our labor? Why be so extreme?
We humans are a mysterious mix of both matter and spirit. We spend our days worrying about paying our bills, sending our children through college, putting together a down-payment on a house, earning a living, saving for retirement. All that takes financial resources. And at the same time there is built into our spirits a longing for peace and wholeness, for eternity, for God. Are these two dimensions necessarily in conflict?
In a book called Money and the Meaning of Life, philosopher Jacob Needleman says that the one professional who these days knows our souls most intimately is no longer the minister or the physician, or even the therapist, but our accountant or tax preparer. And he tells about a CPA friend who describes her work as a real ministry, seeing herself as a “priest-accountant.” “When I see someone’s financial records,” she says, “I’m seeing their lives, their contradictions, their hypocrisies, their hatreds and pettiness, their phenomenal cruelties, and their incredible wishful thinking.” Our money becomes the expression of our souls.
Here’s a puzzle for you. Up until this recession washed over us 18 months ago, America had experienced several decades of mostly prosperous times. According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people’s inflation-adjusted income tripled from the 1960s to the first decade of the twenty-first century, but the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “very happy” went down significantly. He says, “If material well-being leads to happiness, … why is it that the crew on the flagship of capitalist affluence is becoming increasingly addicted to drugs for falling asleep, for waking up, for staying slim, for escaping boredom and depression?”
Somehow the prosperity and spending of American consumer society hasn’t delivered on its promise. Writer Anne Lamott spent years working toward the day when she would have enough money. “I imagined,” she says, “that if I just got to a certain level of solvency I’d be okay. I’d stop thinking about it. Then I got to that level and discovered that the drug of choice is called ‘more.’ I always think, ‘Oh, if I just had a certain amount of stocks. If I just had some real equity in this house. If I just had a trust fund. If I just had this or that, then I’d be okay.’
“But you know,” she says, “it’s got to be an inside job. You can’t own it or amass it or capitalize on it and think that it’s going to fill up the God-shaped hole inside you.”
What role should money and possessions play in our lives? Are they our enemy or our friend?
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the young man asks. The issue for him isn’t simply life after death. Eternal life in Jesus’ time meant real life here and now, in the present, a life that didn’t need to fear death or loss or anything else. It meant being fully and deeply engaged and alive.
“Give me the list of steps to take and I’ll tick them off,” the man says. You have to love this young man. He could easily be a worshiper at this Cathedral. He’s eager, earnest, traditional, successful, living a good life. He probably came in today dressed in a suit, his iPhone in his pocket. He knows his life is fine, but there’s got to be more.
So Jesus recites the commandments any grade school child would have known. “I’ve done all that,” the man says.
So then Jesus says, “Go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me.” It’s a staggering invitation—to strip down, to simplify things, to decide to live without the adjectives he’s used to—established, responsible, educated, prudent. And it’s an invitation to bet his life on a different set of priorities, to follow Jesus, and to see what a God-filled life for him might mean.
But this young man can’t do it. Mark says he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. He’s the only person in all the gospels who walks away from Jesus’ invitation to follow. If our hands are already full, if we are otherwise occupied with all of our ownings and doings, there’s not really room for God. It’s too much to ask for the rich man.
And when Jesus makes his point by saying that for a rich person to get into the kingdom is as hard as squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle, you could walk away with a blunt lesson: Wealth is the problem. You have to unload it all.
But the story isn’t over. “Who then can be saved?” Peter asks. “What about us, the disciples?” Peter says. “We’ve left everything behind for you.” And Jesus gives his mysterious answer: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God: for God all things are possible.”
In other words, asking what does it take to get into eternal life is the wrong question. Because the answer to that is simple. Nothing. You can’t do anything to get in the kingdom and inherit eternal life. It has always been there waiting for you. The problem is that your wealth is preventing you from beginning to live that way. You’re bogged down, encumbered, absorbed with all your options and all your things. There’s full, abundant life out there for you, but your wealth is preventing you from living that way.
That fiery Anglican who launched the Methodists, John Wesley, saw the danger and gave this practical advice:
Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can… Money never stays with me. It would burn me if it did. I throw it out of my hands as soon as possible, lest it find ways into my heart.
How can our money become part of our aliveness? How can we align our financial resources with our faith? How do we arrive at a standard of giving that matches our standard of living?
Down through the centuries Christians have believed that they need specific practices to keep them on the path of growing in Christ. Christian faith takes discipline, regular practice, building a life with new priorities. Prayer, Scripture study, worship, serving others—those are some of the building blocks. And one of the essential ones was building a life of generosity in the use of our time, talents, and treasure.
If God is the source of everything and has given us everything that we have and are, the reality is that all that we own belongs to God. What is key is not to tip God with a little leftover money we find in our wallet or that’s left over in the bank account. But to give generously, intentionally, a clearly decided percentage for God’s work in the world, what we Christians call proportionate giving—so that the depth of our giving matches the depth of our resources.
The standard that emerged in the life of the church was that the basic gift was a tithe, 10% of a year’s income given off the top to God’s work in thanksgiving for all of what life has brought us. Christians are called to give a significant portion of that to the churches to which we belong. Churches, you know, are the one vehicle in our society for keeping alive the story of God’s immense love for the human race and of Christ’s call to be part of his healing movement of hope and reconciliation.
This Cathedral is committed to drawing people into God’s aliveness. This place is itself a movement of God’s love in action, of connecting faith to the larger life of our world, of welcoming seekers to this spiritual home for the nation, of serving the poor in our city, of being a place of prayer at the center of this bustling capital of our country. And this movement of faith and reconciliation in our nation’s capital depends on visitors and friends from across the country, from believers and supporters here in this city, from congregation members and volunteers. This is one place where our giving to God’s cause can bear great fruit for the Kingdom.
And then beyond the church we are called to give generously to organizations and ministries that carry on the work of caring for and serving a world of immense needs. We whose lives are, by the standards of the rest of the world, rich beyond words must be open-hearted, open-handed givers.
Now I have to acknowledge that a lot of Episcopalians I know have not been excited about the notion of the tithe. I remember one crusty gentleman in my last church blurt out in a small group, “I’m too rich to tithe!”
But today you ought to be thanking your lucky stars that I’m your dean and Jesus is not. Jesus would be asking for everything. I might want to talk to you about raising your pledge a few percentage points, or even doubling or tripling your pledge. But Jesus is after something bigger than that. You’ll find the eternal life you’re looking for, he says—the peace of mind and joy and passion—as you see everything as the sheer wild gift it is, and become a big-hearted giver.
You know, the real truth is that eternal life—a life that is full of peace and risk, commitment and love, is available to us right now—just as it was for that rich young man. If we don’t walk away.
Gain all you can, John Wesley says. Save all you can. But then, above all, give all you can. When you do that you are already tasting eternal life.