How poor do I have to be?
Certain passages in the Bible are challenging – not just to Christians but anyone considering becoming one. This is one of those passages. What we are about to read seems to imply that you can’t get to Heaven if you’re rich. If that’s the case, then what constitutes being rich and how poor do we have to be? Do we have to live in squalor or is it okay to have a nice home? Because most of us have a home of some sort – whether it’s an apartment or a condo or a single-family home. This guy comes up to Jesus one day and asks him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life, and Jesus tells him to obey the commandments. The man replies that he has and asks, “What do I still lack?” We hear Jesus’ answer in our reading this morning.
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, 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.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:21-26
Sounds like the rich young man just get the short end of the stick.
It’s easy to read this and think maybe Jesus was kind of tough on the guy. I mean this young man Matthew describes as being rich seems to be an okay dude. He doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal. He honors his parents. As far as we know, he loves his neighbor and NOT in an adulterous sort of way. But still, he wonders what does he need to do to guarantee eternal life? There’s something in him that feels empty inside despite what he has. There’s still a hole in his gut he doesn’t know how to fill. So, he goes to Jesus and after telling Jesus he has kept the commandments he asks, “What do I still lack?” And Jesus responds, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Sounds like Jesus is telling him that to get into heaven he needs to get rid of all of his stuff doesn’t it? But is that what he said? If you really look at it, Jesus doesn’t ACTUALLY answer his question. Jesus’ response isn’t, “You lack the faith that only comes with poverty.” He says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” which begs the question, can any of us BE perfect? The answer of course is “no” so why does Jesus answer this way?
Jesus is forcing him to go deeper.
He wants the young man to consider that it’s more than just a set of rules that get you into Heaven. He wants the young man to consider that his wealth is getting in the way of a closer relationship with God. It’s why Jesus tells his disciples it’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are shocked at Jesus’ answer because they don’t catch on right away where Jesus is going with this. If this guy, who by all accounts is a good guy can’t get in, then who can? And Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” That gap between where we are and where we need to be is one made possible by relying on God. All of that stuff gets in the way of going deeper with God, of learning to rely on God for the peace we seek. It’s hard for us to realize how much we need God when have so much. And the more a person has, the harder it is to see how deeply we really need God. We start believing we can do it ourselves. That’s what was going on with the rich young man. Think about the question the rich young man asked, “What do I need to do to gain eternal life?” He didn’t ask, “What can I do to please God?” or “How can I serve God better?” He was asking what HE could do to earn salvation. And that’s why Jesus responds the way he does. “If you want to be perfect…” he starts out, because only the perfect person can earn their way into heaven and at our core we are imperfect people. No amount of money can change or overcome that basic flaw we carry with us. The key, the answer, is to put ourselves and our salvation in God’s hands.
John Wesley came up with a three-step approach to wealth management.
He summed it up this way: Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can. For John, there was nothing wrong with earning all the money you can if you did it in a way that honored God. Then he proposed we save all we can. That doesn’t mean stuffing our bank accounts. He meant we shouldn’t squander our earnings. We shouldn’t spend it frivolously. We should be good stewards of God’s blessing. And finally, we should give all we can. It was this third part that was the key to the other two. There was nothing wrong with being wealthy, but there was something wrong with being frivolous, or being stingy, or being greedy. We are supposed to use what we have in the service of others. No matter how much or how little, we do what we can. Warren Buffett might have been a fan of John Wesley’s because he and Bill and Melinda Gates began an exclusive club for billionaires called The Giving Pledge. As reported on 60 Minutes, there are only two requirements to join – you have to have a net worth over $1 billion when you join and you pledge to give away at least half of it through charitable donations over the course of your lifetime. Bill and Melinda have already pledged to donate 95% of their good fortune away and Warren Buffett has pledged 99% of his. Asked what he thought about leaving his fortune to his kids, he said, “I don’t really think that, as a society, we want to confer blessings on generation after generation who contribute nothing to society, simply because somebody in the far distant past happened to amass a great sum of wealth.” Giving away vast sums of money when you have vast sums of money seems to be a no-brainer. Who couldn’t live off that much wealth? But Buffett explains that not everyone he talks to is on board. In the interview he said, “I’ve gotten a lot of yeses when I’ve called people. But I’ve gotten a lot of no’s, too. And I am tempted, because I’ve been calling people with a billion dollars or more, I’ve been tempted to think that if they can’t sign up for 50 percent, maybe I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million. Because apparently there’s a lot of people that don’t really know how to do it.”
Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said wealth gets in the way of our relationship with God.
These are BILLIONAIRES who are worried they don’t have enough. Money causes us to do some irrational things. We want to hold on to it. We’re fearful of letting it go. We worry what might happen if we don’t have it. And so it dominates our lives. Jesus even warned us about the effects money could have in our relationship with God. He said in Matthew 6, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” And then in what are perhaps the most famous verses on money, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1Timothy 6:10).” So, it’s not that God wants us to be poor. It’s our love of money, our desire to be self-reliant to the point of not needing God, is what can separate us from God. And it doesn’t have to be money. It could be anything we have an abundance of – fame, power, Pokemon cards – it doesn’t matter. When we live in abundance, we can become arrogant, self-righteous, and proud – and that leads us to have less reliance on God.
To avoid this temptation, we need to follow Uncle Ben’s advice.
Not the guy who makes instant rice, but Uncle Ben from the Spider Man comics. Ben tells a young Peter Parker, Spider Man’s alter ego, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Ben’s advice is similar to the words of John Wesley who modeled his words after Jesus who said in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” The concept is simple. Those who have an abundance owe it to those who do not to be good stewards of it. To share it, to give it, to use it responsibly. That is how we keep from letting our abundance get in the way of God, by remembering that it all belongs to Him and that we are simply caretakers of it.
Poor and rich are relative terms.
We can be exceptionally wealthy and poor in spirit or vice versa. Having one doesn’t mean having the other. Only a fool believes he is poor in the face of an abundance of God’s blessings or rich in the absence of God’s presence in his life. What we need to remember is that only one lasts forever. The other is gone the moment we die. The truth is God wants everyone to be rich, but rich in what matters most – our relationship with Him.
 Uncle Ben wasn’t the first to coin the phrase but it is often credited to him