St Mark’s, West Frankfort—Mark 10:17-31, Genesis 22:1-14, Romans 8:31-39
A mother and father and three children were driving home from church one Sunday. The father complained that the preacher used too many big words in his sermon. The mother complained that the choir sang off key. The oldest child didn’t care about any off-key singing; she just didn’t like any of the songs. All the middle child could say was, “It was borrrrring!” But the youngest child, apparently, was a natural optimist, and also quite observant, at least during the time when the offering plate was passed. He said, “Hey, I don ‘t understand what you all are complaining about. All five of us got in for only three bucks!”
Now, the purpose of my telling this story is not to increase the amount that is collected in offerings at St Mark’s today. But I bet you’ll think twice when the plate comes by, right? And maybe feel a little uncomfortable? Hearing talk about money in church makes us feel uncomfortable. And if you think it’s uncomfortable to hear about it, I guarantee you it’s uncomfortable to talk about it. Our discomfort stems from the impression that we’re getting into territory that is very private, very personal. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a subject that is more private and personal. Many among us will sooner share intimate details about our physical health and bodily functions with a relative stranger before we’ll discuss our finances with even a close friend. We are very guarded where money is concerned.
There are, no doubt, a number of complex reasons why we are so secretive in this area, and it’s not my intention to do anything like a thorough analysis of these reasons. I will suggest one, however, and that is the assumption—put simply—that “what’s mine is mine.” If I work an hour, that’s my time that I’m giving up. If I apply some particular skill or talent to that work, it’s my skill and my talent. If I’m paid a dollar for the work I do, it then becomes my dollar. If I spend fifty cents of that dollar on a pack of chewing gum, it’s my chewing gum. And if I give the other fifty cents away —ah, even then, I still think of it as mine, and expect a thorough accounting of how it’s used by whomever I gave it to. Particularly in our individualistic, capitalistic, North American culture, with the value it places on free enterprise and private property, the notion that “what’s mine is mine” seems part of the very air we breathe.
So when we begin to pay close attention to the life and teachings of Jesus, we get a little uncomfortable. We may not even consciously realize where the irritation is coming from, and try to place the blame all sorts of different places. But the fact is, Jesus challenges most of our fundamental assumptions about money and material wealth and financial responsibility. As St Mark tells the story in the tenth chapter of his gospel narrative, a man—a very wealthy man—approaches Jesus one day with a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man, apparently, had everything he could desire in this life, so now he felt like he could afford the luxury of turning his attention to the next life. It’s a direct and simple question, but Jesus gives a somewhat indirect and richer response. St Mark tells us that Jesus was moved with love for this man, so what he says should not be interpreted in any sort of cynical or sarcastic way.
First, he reminds the rich man of the Ten Commandments, as if to inquire (without actually doing so), “Well, have you kept them?” The man hears that implied question, and answers enthusiastically, “These? You talkin’ about these commandments? Heck, I’ve been keeping these commandments since I was a kid!” Perhaps he was beginning to think that he already had it made, that the price of admission to Eternal Life was something he was already carrying around in his hip pocket. If so, Jesus deflates him very quickly with Part Two of his answer to the original question: “OK, great. You’re almost there. Now there’s only one more thing you’ve got to do. Go, and sell everything you own, and give the money to the poor. You will then have inherited eternal life, and you can come and be one of my disciples.”
You can imagine the dead silence that fell over that conversation. We’re not told that the rich man said even one more word. Mark says that “his countenance fell.” He got a very sad look on his face and went away in deep sorrow. What Jesus asked him to do was too high a price to pay. Whether he earned his wealth, or inherited it, his attitude was doubtless one with which you and I are familiar, “What’s mine is mine.” But in his sorrow over his inability to bring himself to meet the stringent demand that Jesus had placed on him, the rich man missed the heart of what Jesus was saying to him: “Go, sell all you have … then come and follow me. Be my disciple. Be close to me. Learn from me. Live with me. Selling your property is not an end in itself, it’s only a means to the end of becoming my disciple.”
Jesus’ point to the rich man, and his point to us, is that discipleship is vitally linked to stewardship. Being a friend of Jesus, being a follower of Jesus—in other words, being a Christian—means adopting a certain attitude toward all of our resources: money, time, skills, relationships, our bodies, whatever. Being a follower of Jesus means that I sit lightly toward that which I might be tempted to think of as “mine.” For some people, the demands of stewardship mean renouncing most, if not all, material wealth. There are those who are called to a life of holy poverty—whether formally in a religious community, or informally in the world. There are those for whom anything more than a minimal amount of money is spiritually dangerous. To be materially prosperous would imperil their immortal souls because it would draw them away from the love of God.
For most of us, however, renunciation is not a condition of good stewardship. We have the ability to handle a certain amount of wealth—the threshold is probably different for different people—without it having an adverse effect on us spiritually. It’s similar to our differing abilities to deal responsibly with alcoholic beverages: Most adults can drink in moderation, some need to place strict controls on when and where they imbibe, and some need to totally stay away from it, because if they don’t, it will completely wreck their lives.
This is a hard connection to make—this connection between stewardship and discipleship. It’s counterintuitive. We do not easily discern it. So, there are people who seem—to themselves and to others—very prayerful and devout, indeed, shining examples of Christian character. But their financial giving to the kingdom of God through His holy church is quite meager—perhaps not in actual dollar amount, but in proportion to their ability, in proportion to the resources with which they have been blessed.
We also see people who are very large givers, and who are relatively naive and unformed spiritually. Their prayer life is very rudimentary, and they understand very little of the things of the Lord. But for whatever reason, they have an impulse toward great generosity. In most cases, however, there are strings attached to this sort of giving. It tends to be designated giving, and can very easily become a subtle method of control. It is generosity, but it is not stewardship. And, by extension, it is not Christian discipleship either.
But when we make the connection, when the light bulb clicks on, when we “get it,” we have tapped into a startling source of spiritual energy and refreshment. The desire to “inherit eternal life” causes us to want to be disciples and friends of Jesus. And our desire to be a disciple then both invites us to adopt both the attitudes and practices of Christian stewardship, and gives us the power to actually do it. The bedrock practice of Christian stewardship is tithing—10% of after-tax income given to the local parish at whose altar we are regularly fed. I won’t deny that getting to the point of tithing is a stretch, often a painful stretch. But I’m not here to tell you to “give until it hurts.” For some of us, the very first penny hurts! What I’m saying is, Give until it stops hurting! Who wants to hurt all the time? Give beyond the pain. Increase your giving until it becomes a joy.
Yes, getting to the point of tithing is a painful stretch, but staying there is fun! It’s like climbing a mountain: The climb itself can be brutal, but the view from the summit is breathtaking, and you don’t want to go down. Only in this case, you don’t have to! I’ll tell you this for sure: To my knowledge, I’ve never met an ex-tither. Think about that.
If tithing is the principal practice of Christian stewardship, the principal attitude of Christian stewardship is the basic notion that we don’t own anything. Nothing. Everything we think is ours is in fact on loan from God, and must be at His complete disposal at all times. It’s a matter of trust, only you and I are not the beneficiaries of the trust, we are the trustees. We are the ones responsible for investing the corpus of the trust so that it will grow and multiply. The corpus of this trust is made up of our money, our time, and our abilities. We will eventually have to give an accounting for our trusteeship, for our stewardship. Our motto must be that of the community of Israel in the Old Testament book of I Chronicles, words which are quite familiar to most Anglicans: “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.