Matthew 6: 19-34
On January 23, 1982 World Airways Flight #30 on route from California landed at Boston's Logan Airport. But immediately upon touching the icy runway, the pilots realized the plane was not going to stop, and in a matter of seconds, the crew prepared the passengers for a crash into the sea wall. Two passengers, sitting in the first class seats, ignoring the instructions of the crew, undid their safety belts too soon, and were apparently swept away in the frosty currents. The rest of the passengers were rescued, including the 19 year old nephew of one of my friends.
As is the case with 19 year olds, his bravado was exhilarated by the experience. He was impressed by everything---the calmness of the crew, the concern and care the passengers showed each other when evacuating the plane, but what impressed him the most was the offer of $10,000 from the airline two weeks after the accident. He wasn't hurt at all; he lost a suitcase filled with old t-shirts and jeans, and he would have been happy with a couple of hundred dollars. So when the airline representative showed up in his Tufts dormitory and offered him $10,000, he was ecstatic. Immediately, he called his parents, and then his aunt to tell them of his good fortune and to describe the new car he was planning to buy.
Now, remember this was 35 years ago, when you could buy a new car for $10,000, and the craze of lawsuits was not yet full blown. Neither he nor his parents had expected any compensation from the airlines, and so when his father answered the phone, he told his son, "I do not approve of an arrangement that leaves you better off from an accident that cost two people their lives. It is enough for me that you are safe.” And then he handed the phone to his wife, who told her son in no uncertain terms that a Tufts education was a very expensive enterprise, and since they were hardly wealthy, he would need to redirect his thinking. This money, she insisted, will go for tuition, not for a car.
“But Mom”, he protested, “yesterday I didn't have the money, and you and Dad were planning to pay my tuition. Now because I get some compensation for my near death experience, you turn greedy on me, and want to take it all.” Now you don't have to be a parent to take a guess how the conversation went after this. My friend told me about it later, because as the favorite aunt and sister to his mother, she found herself right in the middle of the fight. “It was so ugly,” she said, “the ugliest fight I have ever witnessed between parents and children.” Hardly surprising, is it? Money does have a way of turning things ugly.
Now in 1982 I was a first year student in divinity school, and I had no idea how central a role money and possessions assume in Jesus’ preaching. Jesus addressed financial concerns more than he did any other single topic: one in every ten lines in the Gospels is about money and possessions. There are a total of 43 parables in the New Testament and 27 of them concern money and what it can or cannot buy. The entire Bible, by the way, includes 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 on faith, and more than 2000 on money. Why? Because how we relate to money and things says a great deal about our spiritual lives. A famous Buddhist monk once said, “Show me how you deal with money, sex and death, and I will read your soul.”
Now one of the major reasons Jesus spoke so much about money was because indebtedness was a big problem for the people who came to hear him preach and teach. The middle class was almost non-existent, though the Pharisees might be called middle class. The rich elite was a tiny group with most people falling into the category of the poor. Borrowing was the only way many could survive, and sometimes people would actually pledge their clothes as collateral. The crowds who heard Jesus preach were commonly in desperate shape financially. Not only did he recognize their desperation, Jesus also supported a social and economic revolution called the Jubilee---an event every 50 years, which although legislated by Jewish law was rarely followed. In the year of the Jubilee all debts were to be forgiven and land returned to the original owner or family--a very radical redistribution of income and resources! Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, Jesus did have a political agenda—though that agenda was certainly not his end goal. In speaking so much about money and possessions he wanted people to recognize what money really is and what it is for. And that is not a very easy thing to teach. Then and now, people are easily fooled.
In the Tate Gallery in London there is an oil painting by a man named George Frederic Watts, a 19th century painter, whom some call England’s Michelangelo. Like many social commentators of the day, Watts had begun to question the benefits and purposes of modern industry, and he noted the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and the wealth it created for a small elite. “Material prosperity, he said in 1880, “has become our real god, but we are surprised to find that the worship of this deity does not make us happy.” And so he painted this picture of Mammon, seated on a throne decorated with skulls and wearing a crown of gold coins and an ass’s ear, symbolizing Mammon’s ignorance and stupidity. Watts visualized Mammon as an ugly, brutish despot, nursing his money bags on his lap while brushing aside a beautiful girl with one hand and crushing a young man under foot. But the problem with his painting is that in real life money never looks that way. Money is not the great beast. Rather it is the great masquerader. It presents itself as good without really being good.”
And that is why Jesus spent so much time talking about it. That is why he also counseled giving money away. Not because it is always morally corrupting to have wealth; Jesus never said that, and we know in fact that both he and his followers accepted financial support from the wealthy. Of course, later in history, particularly during the Middle Ages, when Religious Orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans were founded, poverty became viewed as a positive good, and even today there are Orders in the Roman Catholic Church which demand a vow of poverty. But with the coming of the Protestant Reformation and the vast expansion of trade and the growth of a successful mercantile class, the reformers were not so averse to wealth. It is not only how money is used, they said, but also what is desired. If wealth becomes the primary desire, driving one’s life, that is sin, a turning away from the good and gracious God. But if wealth serves life on this earth in a manner that honors God, that is good. And it is also good to give money away. Both Luther and Calvin rightly pointed out that Jesus did not demand that people give all their wealth away---except in the case of the rich young man for whom money was a major stumbling block.
Jesus realized that money plays an important and necessary part in human life, because we are indeed anxious about many things. And just as Jesus constantly reminded people to let go of anxiety, he also told them to do the same with their money. Money and financial security are important, but they are not ultimately important; they are not the final good. We are all a bit like that 19 year old, who thought his money was his to do with as he pleased. It's our money; it's our life, but in the end nothing is really ours. We cannot hang on to anyone or anything, and giving money away is one way we Christians loosen our tight grip on the world and its things, and acknowledge that we are not at the center of it all. As much as we try to hold on, in the end, we cannot.
There is this wonderful scene in Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables in which the convict Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison, is befriended by a bishop, who feeds him. In return Jean steals candlesticks from the church, and when he is arrested and about to be returned to prison, the bishop tells the police,” But I gave him those candlesticks.” Later, Jean asked the bishop, "Why did you do that?” You know I am guilty of the theft." “ Because,” the bishop answered, “life is for giving.” And so it is. Give. Give people your love. Give God your devotion. Give your service to a hurting world. Give money to the needy and the causes that help them. And give to the church, because the church is the only institution whose existence is for the worship of God. The church is the only institution, whose job it is to raise troubling questions about how we should live our lives. What other place challenges us to struggle to practice forgiveness? In a world, consumed with power and success and the financial rewards of success, we need a place that asks us to consider what success and reward truly mean, a place that points us toward the God who transcends our meager ideas of success and failure. God is our treasure, and where our treasure is, our heart is also.
Life is for giving. That is what God does, and in the life, death and destiny of the Christ we Christians believe we see what giving looks like. So give, not everything you have, but give something so that you may truly understand that life is for giving.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!