17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Do you know how often I hear someone offer personal remarks at a funeral about someone’s wealth? Never, it doesn’t happen. Even while the family is gathered beforehand, making preparations for the service, money is NOT what’s forefront on their minds. Even amongst friends who knew the deceased well, it doesn’t come up. How rich someone was doesn’t really matter much in the end- most often I have NO clue what anyone’s income is or was, because friends, it doesn’t matter. Not to me, not to God. But what I do hear of is someone’s generous spirit. Is this what Jesus is telling the rich young man in the story?
Rev. Molly Baskette, in her theologically-accessible work entitled Bless this Mess, says “When we make the radical decision to give away what we have--even when we’re not certain our own needs will be met--it shifts our thinking (and feeling!) from a scarcity mindset and the instinct to hoard, toward an abundance mindset that changes our whole worldview. Wherever we put our treasure, our hearts catch up. And social science research backs this up: the “paradox of generosity” proves that people who are generous are healthier, happier, and more grateful.”
That’s the kind of attitude that people DO remember of folks at their funerals. Maya Angelou says it this way: 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.' Deep down every single one of us knows it: relationships matter WAY more than riches or prestige. So why is it really hard to practice? I suspect it's because we have more voices telling us to grab that instant gratification (or dopamine hit) of buying something, than voices that affirm the truth: investing in people over possessions is more satisfying in the end.
My grandmother passed away just over a year ago. She had no wealth to speak of; in fact, my dad told me at the end of her life she had less than $2,000 in a checking account, which more or less covered the final expenses. Her last financial transaction was giving $20,000 to a Chinese missionary she held a long-time connection with. I chuckled to learn this, and for a second I felt a little conflicted- like maybe her grandkids ought to have received that money. But then it dawned on me, she actually gave each of us grandkids that same amount: $20,000 when it mattered most- all of us were pursuing higher education at the time. She did not neglect her family, she simply allowed her generosity to extend even further- and that’s what we talked about at her funeral. Every bit of my being knows this: I want to be like that someday. Friends, she was one of the richest people I’ve ever known, because she invested in what matters most: relationships.
That’s the message Jesus is conveying. The kingdom of God is NOT about earthly wealth, and to enter God’s embrace, we must be willing to give up whatever earthly thing stands between us and God- even if that’s our wealth. This lawyer in the story isn’t quite ready to do that. And even the disciples who have given up everything question him. “We all have some possessions, Jesus, how are we to enter God’s kingdom?”
Do you find yourself asking that question when you hear this story? I do. My home? Am I supposed to downsize, Jesus? My vehicle? My smartphone? What?” And Jesus' response is profound. He says, “It’s hard, I know. In fact it’s SO hard, it’s impossible.”
I’m sorry. So you just gave that guy an impossible way to get into heaven? Sell everything and it still won’t be enough? Jesus can be tricky, right? If we keep listening, keep curiosity in our hearts, we hear Jesus come to the point of it all: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, so prepare yourselves.”
Molly Baskette asks, “What if the reason Jesus was so severe with the rich young entrepreneur was not that there were so many poor people who needed a handout, but that Jesus knew that too much of the man’s security and fulfillment was linked to his stuff? What if Jesus knew that, counterintuitively, the way to “come into eternal life” or what we might call the juiciest kind of life, was to have less, not more?”
What is it that you strive for? What is it that your time and energy and yes, even your finances are investing in? If it’s possessions, power, or prestige, know this: those will be your only (and short-lived) reward. In fact, I can guarantee how much stuff you’ve accumulated in life won’t even come up at your funeral. But if we strive for the kind of relationships Jesus is all about “love God, love your neighbor, too” then we may be set free from the endless cycle of accumulating things to receive the true reward of relationships. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Jesus says to his disciples, who’ve literally left everything behind, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age [...] and in the age to come eternal life.”
It’s a promise that playing the long game, living sacrificially in the moment, will inevitably be more fulfilling. This radical hospitality characterizes the Jesus movement from its early beginnings- to such a degree that we 21st Century Christians cringe a bit to hear about how all possessions were shared in common, distributed according to need. And while we each have a different level of need, to be sure, a common thread emerges for us all: when we care more about possessions than people, we’ve lost our way.
Jesus says, “It’s hard, I know. In fact it’s SO hard, it’s impossible for you to do. So you and I are going to do it together.” Friends, together in the name of Jesus, we can learn how to give until it hurts, and keep on giving until it feels good again. That is true generosity at work.
The Wosepka family decided early this year to invest in what matters: a church infrastructure project that will revitalize our space for making connections, for creating relationships that last. And they do so in memory of Jim’s parents Verly & Louise, who I’m told invested their hearts into this faith family for decades. It’s a true joy to hear these stories emerge of Lousie’s steady hand in organizing the Christmas Tea, of their commitment to raising their children in faith. Stories like this remind us of the possibility that our legacies live long after we’ve left this earth. And what’s remembered most is not a dollar amount, but a commitment of the heart.
This Tuesday Jim stopped by to see the finished project, expressed gratitude for every single person who had a hand in making it possible. I was also setting up for Messy Church when he stopped by, so I explained the premise, an all-age creative worship space centered in Christ’s love, and he smiled and said, “It really has to be about the youth, doesn’t it?” I looked at the easily cleaned floors and chuckled as I envisioned using all that paint in Messy Church. And we left that space on Jim’ remark, “well, I better let you get on with that messy party.”
That’s the stuff of a Christ-centered community. One big messy party where we share and care for each other, reaping spiritual benefit a hundredfold. Rich in relationships created. May each of us experience the true joy of generosity this week- and may we share that transforming love of Christ with another. Thanks be to God for this good news today!