Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost October 17, 2021
Practice What You Preach: The Affluenza Vaccine
We have a much-loved neighbor who has suffered through a tough battle with cancer. He is, thanks be to God, cancer free now, but the struggle has obviously taken its toll on his body. He has lost a great deal of weight, and looks rather gaunt now, and has had some trouble with getting around. So it was more than a little unusual to see him, just a couple of months or so ago, trudging uphill on the street on which we live. Henry asked if he wanted a ride, and the answer was no, our neighbor was just on his way to the convenience store a few blocks up. The Powerball Lottery was over 400 million, and he wanted to take a chance or two or whatever on winning a fortune.
Of course, our neighbor was not the first to pull out his or her wallet to buy a few chances at a daydream. Not by a lot. Given the odds, about 1 in 300 million, that’s what we’re doing when we buy those lottery tickets; we’re buying the right to daydream about winning the money that would allow us to purchase whatever fantasy enthralls us. And we all have those fantasies. Mine is simple, I want to hire a housekeeper and a butler. It probably means that I’ve read way too many regency-based historical mysteries, but when I fantasize about my housekeeper she has her hair piled high on her head and wears a voluminous apron over her black skirt and jangles when she walks because of the key ring on her belt. Oh, and she bakes magnificent scones and three course French dinners. The butler, done up in his formal suit, weeds the garden beds when there is no one at the door. And he is finally going to get the garage cleaned out for us.
Mine is not a reasonable fantasy, but, then, most fantasies aren’t. It’s innocent as far as fantasies go, as I’m sure my neighbor’s were. He’s a devout Christian, that man, of the Baptist variety, and likely wants to fund a cure for cancer or a Christian school with his unearned millions. I suspect this, because he is a mature Christian, one who has gone through the fire of suffering and learned to trust in the grace and healing of Jesus Christ. His lessons have come first hand, and he knows to his bones that while the medical sciences can help, they cannot for long forestall the death that awaits us all.
Jesus Christ is not about death but about life. And when we tear off all the layers of the Bible’s hectoring us over our fixation on money and wealth it is because those fixations take us away from that most important truth. Jesus Christ is life and life everlasting. Wealth, in whatever form it comes, for most people, is just a means of denying the twin truths of the reality of death and our dependence on God not just for our daily bread but also for life itself.
Please note that nowhere in Scripture does God tell us He hates rich people, or that wealth in and of itself is bad. Wealth is, in fact, like every- thing else we receive, a gift from God. But it is a gift that we sinners can receive badly, so badly that the gifts of wealth look more like a devilish trap, for we can come to depend on wealth rather than God for life.
This is the case made in the first of today’s readings from Scripture, all of which together function as a sort of extended treatise on the negative consequences of our futile dependence on wealth rather than God. The Teacher, the name usually given to the writer of Ecclesiastes, goes directly to the point. “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income.” This is simple human nature; he who has money must spend money, and then spend his nights fretting over the loss of his money. Remember that old warning, “uneasy lies the head of the king”? Just because you have something now doesn’t mean you’ll keep it. Most lottery winners run through their winnings in a matter of a few years, and find themselves worse off than before not only in the size of their bank balance but in the loss of loved ones who wanted some of that lottery bonanza for themselves or who hated what happened to the soul of the winner.
We all need to remember that no matter how much wealth or stuff we accrue, and we all accrue more than any of our ancestors whose last names weren’t Carnegie or Rockefeller or Gates, we come naked into the world and we leave naked. Or, as the Teacher puts it for he is the originator of that oft used reminder, “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may take away in his hand.” Here the Teacher is talking about earned wealth, not lottery winnings, but the point applies. To fixate on wealth and not take joy in the earning of it or what it can do to ease the lives of others is vanity, meaning, it makes us feel good about ourselves temporarily, but does nothing to put an end to death, including our own deaths.
The psalm appointed for the day continues in the same vein. Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Bible, but in these early verses instructs the young to take “greater delight in the way of Your decrees than in all manner of riches.” It’s an apt warning, especially for the young adults among us, who have begun to set their feet on the path they will follow through adulthood. It may not seem like much, but how does that path usually begin in our own time? With the desire for a car or a truck and the independence and the plumped vanity that comes with it. Anybody who has ever had to talk with an older relative about giving up the keys knows how deep-seated is our need to see ourselves as independent adults with a certain savoir faire. Whether we’re into Ford 250s or mustangs or even suburus, each type of car indicates who we think we are and undergirds our understanding of ourselves as free men or women who can go wherever they want to go. So that first car can be as much of a trap as a winning Powerball ticket if we don’t think of it as a gift from God to be used in godly ways.
The writer of Hebrews begins today’s second reading by noting that those who keep the Sabbath understand that they have been invited into God’s own rest, the rest He took on the seventh day of creation. To fail to observe the Sabbath is a hallmark of disobedience and a sure sign of hearts hardened by their own lack of faith in God. But what do we do, but turn the Sabbath into another work day, for even if we do not have to report to work on that day what do we do but turn it into another Saturday and run to the tool store, the grocery store, or mow the lawn. The Christian day of rest becomes another day to make money or spend money, to the detriment of our spirits.
It is the damage done to our spirits and our relationship with God that Jesus addresses directly after his brief confrontation with the rich young man. Note that Jesus did not hate the lad for any evil act or character. Rather, our Lord understood the young man to be held in thrall by his possessions, which “were manyc.” In fact, the young man may have understood his own captivity to his wealth when he asked Jesus how he might “inherit eternal life.” He wants an out, a way to heaven that does not involve sacrifice on his part. But Jesus only points out a truth he already partly understands, that he is dependent on his wealth in his own head, and unable to conceive of a life in which he depends rather on the steadfast faithfulness of God.
The disciples do not see the point that Jesus makes, not right away. So, when He says to them it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” they are truly dismayed. And so are more contemporary readers of Scripture, for many a commentary writer has sought to rewrite this speech for their own benefit, insisting, for instance, that Jesus was not really talking about a sewing needle but instead a gate into the wall surrounding Jerusalem. A camel just has to bend his head to get through that gate. But no, Jesus is obviously using an over the top analogy to make it clear that all His disciples over the ages get the point. Yes, wealth is a gift from God, and those of us who love God make sacrifices in the way we live for God and His Church. Nonetheless, we are all of us in danger of mistaking the dollar for the love and care of God, and giving up, therefore, any hope for eternal life and joy.
We’ve been much concerned with vaccines this last year. But if we’re going to live now and forever we need another kind of vaccine, one with no side effects and whose potency does not diminish over time, we need God’s saving Word. We need also to do that Word, to practice what we preach in the use of our wealth, so that it is clear to our very own selves and the world, that there is nothing on heaven or earth except the grace and mercy of God that stands between ourselves and death.