I remember hearing a story about a wealthy businessman who knew that he was about to die so he got one of his minions to convert all of his money and his possessions into gold ingots. By the time he had finished here was enough gold to completely fill four large suitcases and a small holdall. Sadly, just a few days later, the man died and he struggled up to heaven with his four suitcases and his holdall balanced on a luggage trolley — the type of trolley you would find at any airport. But when he arrived at the Pearly Gates, St Peter said to him, “You can’t bring those in here!”
The man was completely taken aback and began to plead with St Peter. “Please, please let me bring them in with me. These cases contain my life’s work.”
To which St Peter’s reply was again, “No!”
Well this to-ing and fro-ing went on for a while and a queue had started to build up, so St Peter, who was also beginning to get just a bit fed-up, caved in a little and said to the man, “Okay, okay, you’ll have to leave the suitcases here but I will let you bring the holdall with you. However, I will have to take a look inside it before you bring it in.”
Reluctantly, but knowing that this was the best offer he was going to get, the man pushed the four suitcases aside and heaved the holdall onto St Peter’s table.
St Peter undid the zip, lifted the flap of the holdall, peered inside and after a short interval, during which Peter’s eyebrows had noticeably been raised, he looked up at the man and said, “Why did you go to all of this time and trouble just to bring a bag-full of paving stones with you?”
Okay, I apologise for that terrible ‘Dad Joke’ but hopefully, you can recognise that, as bad as it is, that story illustrates two truths.
And Paul summarises that story by saying: “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”
But, before you have the chance to object too loudly, let me turn this morning’s reading from the Gospel of St Mark which highlights an interesting meeting between Jesus and an unknown man. The text contains an incredibly difficult challenge but, before we turn to the challenge, let’s have a look at what leads up to it.
Jesus is approached by a man and two things become immediately apparent about him. Firstly, this man is a God fearing Jew who has heard of Jesus’ teaching ability and secondly, he has come along to get some answers, especially to the question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
How do we know he is a God fearing Jew? Well, Jesus quotes 6 of the 10 Commandments and the man more or less says, ‘Yes I know all of that, I’ve been doing that since I was a kid! What else must I do?’
There was a certain amount of arrogance in that reply and you get the impression that he was really trying to test the boundaries and exploring a question which he didn’t have the courage to ask — something that we also perhaps wonder about from time to time, ‘How little can I get away with and still attain salvation.’
However, what Jesus said next completely pulls the rug from under him by highlighting the man’s wealth and issuing that challenge. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, [Jesus says] and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
Even though the man was seeking ‘eternal life’ it would appear that the challenge was too great because his face fell and he went away sad. But is that command intended to be taken literally? Does it apply to each of us? Do we all have to sell what we have and be willing to spend the rest of our days living out of a tent? The man clearly thought it was literal because of the way he had gone away with his tail between his legs knowing how much his wealth, and the creature comforts the wealth provided, meant to him. But Jesus turned to his disciples and commented: ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’
This sentence is a basis for Paul’s teaching. In his letter to Timothy, a letter in which Paul was trying to teach, guide and develop Timothy’s abilities as a church leader, Paul writes:
‘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.’
Paul was trying to reprioritise and refocus Timothy’s outlook and, through Timothy, reach out to other people of faith in order to place service to God at the top of the list. People whose primary focus is money think that it will bring contentment, but it rarely does! Greed tend to cause discontent and often creates rifts between friends and even between members of the same family. However, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with money, you can do an awful lot of positive and good things with it, but there is something wrong with accumulating money for money’s sake — particularly if others are exploited in order to create your wealth.
Just one example of the positive effects of money: Bill Gates, who accumulated his vast wealth through the sale of Microsoft products, has spent the last 20 years supporting developing countries in building the infrastructure, skills, and systems they need to develop safe and affordable vaccines for diseases that mostly affect poorer nations — the ones that we in the West don’t particularly suffer from or want to know about — out of his own pocket — but on the negative side, we don’t know how many people were kept on or below the breadline, if any, in order to support his empire.
That is not an issue we need to concern ourselves with now, but Paul told Timothy to:
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
Humility is the watchword. If you have food and clothing and a roof over your head, be content and turn your gaze towards God. Paul also told Timothy to:
“Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”
In other words, serve God and discover real pleasure as you serve others. Be generous and willing to share with them and with each other!
Talking of sharing, and thinking outside the box for a moment, it always amazes me that those of us with lawns at home probably only use our lawn mowers for no more than a couple of hours each week, tops — okay, there may be one or two exceptions to that rule, but generally I think that is a reasonable estimate. And yet, in a street of 50 houses I dare say you will find 50 lawnmowers. Just think, if between us we could have avoided buying half of them by sharing, we could have freed up about £21⁄2k for charitable causes!
Being generous with our time and our money, and being willing to share and to serve doesn’t mean that we need to wear sackcloth and cover ourselves in ashes, nor does it mean that we cannot live in comfort. But it does mean that, as we focus on God, we should be willing to ‘put ourselves out’ as we become aware of the plight of others, ready to step in and help in whatever way we are able. For in this way,
“We will lay up treasure for ourselves as a firm foundation for the coming age [when we are called to join the saints in heaven], so that we may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
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