Money and politics – two topics that every pastor is encouraged to avoid from the pulpit. To be clear, this isn’t some seminary teaching. It wasn’t my homiletics professor, or my professor of worship who encouraged me to avoid the two. The suggestion to shy away from such topics comes from colleagues who have dealt with the repercussions from lay leaders after preaching on such topics. The motivation to choose other topics also stems from personal experiences. I can still remember the voicemail I received nearly four years ago, having just got back to my office after worship had ended. Within thirty minutes of worship ending, someone had called the church and left me a voicemail indicating they did not like that I had preached politics in the pulpit. Whether I had indeed preached politics is a matter of perception, but the phone call made it clear how the individual had heard the message.
Friends, if you don’t like to hear about money and politics on Sunday mornings, I have two words for you: start praying. First, the presidential election is a mere 7 weeks away. If you don’t think the Bible teaches us a thing or two about the importance of being aware of, and helping to influence for God’s way, the political world around us, you need to be in church on Sundays in the coming weeks. And secondly, if you don’t think the Bible says a thing or two about money, then you again need to be in church on Sunday’s.
For the next few weeks we’re going to focus on the role money and wealth play in the life of discipleship. You may ask yourself, or perhaps you’re preparing the question for me, why do we have to talk about money so much in the church? Why is this a necessary topic for us to discuss?
The quick retort is that we talk about money because the Bible does. The word “give” appears in the biblical text over 900 times. That’s three times as many as the word “faith,” and almost twice as many as the word “love.” So, on the positive side, we don’t talk about giving in biblical proportion to faith and love. It’s estimated that 15% of the Biblical text is about giving. That would mean we should extend our worship series for an additional 4 weeks.
But perhaps more importantly than the sheer volume of biblical language around financial giving and wealth is the impact money and wealth have on the world and our lives today. Money, wealth, and possessions are perhaps the greatest impedance to our committing ourselves fully to the will and mission of God in the world. Too often we look at our financial situations and wonder if we’ll have enough, and in the process of worrying and fearing for what might become of us, we miss the bigger picture about God’s love. So, over the coming few weeks, our focus is going to be on giving up and letting go – learning to live Simply Free. Free of societal pressures for wealth; free of the worldly drive for accumulation; free of fear for what the future might hold.
Our scripture this morning comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins his teaching on wealth and treasures with this well known quote, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” While our quoting of this text often ends here, Jesus is wise in his teaching – he doesn’t just tell us not to store up, he explains why this is a bad idea. He continues, “such treasures on earth are susceptible to be consumed by moth and rust, or are likely to be taken by thieves.” Jesus then continues to offer the contrasting, move faithful way, “[instead,] store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Part of our goal in translating this into faithful teaching for faithful living to is to acknowledge what Jesus means when speaking of such treasures. How do we know what an earthly treasure is? To be succinct, “Treasure is defined by being a focus of attention, energy, imagination, and resourcefulness.”[i] Where is our focus? Is it on earthy things? In reality, apart from a few nomadic groups in the world, humanity has a bent toward the acquisition of earthly things.
We spend an inordinate amount of time in our lives seeking to accumulate things. What’s often fun is to find the category of things different people like to collect. Have you ever paid attention to the affinities of other people? I had a boss one time when working in sales that collected oversized watches. You know the kind, the ones that are so big that you can do arm curls without even having to pick up weights? He had over 12 watches that were valued at no less than $800 a piece.
I have an uncle who’s a big Jack Daniels collector. He has over 18 bottles of Jack displayed on shelves in his home. I didn’t even know Jack had 18 different varieties, and I’m sure there are more he hasn’t found yet. He doesn’t drink them, at least he hasn’t yet. The bottles are just there as visual art.
Growing up I had a passion for collecting baseball cards. Still to this day I have over 3500 baseball cards in the basement, which may be a low number compared to others in the room. I used to go out of my way to find card packs in stores; I’d go to card shows and buy individual cards that had value. I always made sure I had the latest Beckett magazine that told me the value of each of my cards. The cards were, at least when I was in grade school, supposed to be my future investment that was going to pay for me to go to college. I bet you can guess how well that worked out.
Not everyone has such niche passions for collecting items. For some, storing up treasures on earth is less about physical items and more about personal accolades or earthly securities. The teaching of Christ against storing up treasures on earth is not just about material possessions, but also includes “such values as success, security, happiness, or even life itself.”[ii] Christ defines earthly treasures as anything that is subject to decay or theft. Money, stock, cars, clothes, titles, deeds, prefixes and suffixes … “[The] contrast is not necessarily between material and spiritual entities, but between what lasts and what does not, between what satisfies the deep human longing for whole relationships and genuine security and what fails.”[iii]
Now I know what you may be thinking: how can I provide for my future – for my family – unless I have some kind of nest egg to ensure a restful and enjoyable retirement? Is this passage really saying that God doesn’t care if I have some kind of cushion to ensure I can live comfortably (or even live on the bare necessities) until my time comes to join God in heaven?
These questions are perhaps expected after hearing such a teaching by Christ, but they also direct us toward the first step in living simply free. Our money problems, our financial situation, it all boils down to a trust issue. It’s a matter of where we focus our trust. Let’s keep reading in our scripture: in verse 22 Jesus continues, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; if it is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
To understand Jesus’ teaching here, we have to glean from first-century anatomy and physiology. Jesus says “the eye is the lamp of the body,” which summarizes the worldview regarding the role the eye played. We know today that the eye acts as a receptor, which translates the light in the world into signals to be transferred to the brain. In the first-century middle east, the eye was seen as the source of illumination that shed light on the world around it. It is from this worldview we have such sayings as, “she had a fire in her eyes,” and how we say, “you could see the light leaving his eyes at death.” “When Jesus says that ‘the eye is the lamp of the body,’ he identifies the eye as the conduit of relationship, the portal between the world within us and the world around us, between ourselves and others, and between us and God.”[iv]
The original Greek wording also offers us some helpful guidance to best understand this text. The Greek word used to identify the eye as being healthy is the word haplous (ἁπλοῦς). As with many ancient Greek words, our English translation often looses some of the unique emphasis of the original text. While our English language usually translates the word to define the eye as healthy, which isn’t necessarily incorrect, the original word may be better translated to read single. For the eye to be healthy, for the eye to be whole, the eye was to maintain a single focus.
With this emphasis, we can reread Jesus’ teaching to say, “If your eye maintains a single focus, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye wanders, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
Limiting our focus is all about trusting that the single direction God is leading is the right direction. This is a trust issue today as much as it has always been for people seeking to be faithful to God. If we go back to the people wandering in the wilderness, we see that God has always asked the faith community to be singularly focused on the promise and love of God. In the wilderness, for forty years, God told the people he would provide for them. Each and every morning they would wake up and find manna – bread from heaven – on the ground. They were to collect how much, and only as much, as they needed for the day. When they took more than was needed, if they doubted in God’s daily provisions, they would wake up the next day to find the bread filled with maggots and spoiled. For their entire time of wandering, God provided enough day after day. They had to learn to trust in God’s promise and eternal covenant to provide.
Such a singular focus on God, such a singular focus on God’s daily provisions, is not an easy transition or shift in our way of life in a world and culture that encourages and equates status and worth with wealth. But we’re in good company in struggling though such a change, it has been a consistent struggle for faithful communities throughout the history of our faith. In our biblical and historical record, “we never enter God’s place of abundance and promise without meeting great resistance.”[v]
The Israelites challenged Moses’ call to lead them out of Egypt. The prophets struggled to get the kings to listen throughout the ancient years of living in and out of exile. Even the 12 disciples struggled to maintain focus as Jesus led them. They doubted Jesus’ direction toward Jerusalem; they doubted in their abilities to provide food for the crowds when instructed to feed them; one disciple doubted his future to such an extent that he turned Jesus in to the authorities for a few extra silver coins.
It is in the midst of our struggle to align ourselves toward God, maintaining a single focus on God, that God calls for the giving of our firsts; we’ll call it the rule of firsts. Throughout the scriptural witness, God calls on the faithful to give to God first as a sign of our trust in, and our singular focus on God. We see a call for the ancient agricultural community to give their first fruits to God – a sign of appreciation for the harvest. There is a call to give the first born of the flock – a sign of appreciation for new life. There is a call to dedicate the first born child – in the ancient days this meant to give the first born as a priest or a servant of the church. There is a call to give the first of our income – a sign of trust that God will provide enough. There is a command to give our time – a mandated dedication of time given on the Sabbath for worship and rest.
“When we fail to offer first things first to the Lord, it impacts the people around us. … God wants to do extra ordinary things in you and through you, but the things God wants to do can’t stand in your life apart from the priority of your firsts. The first of your time; the first of your devotion; the first of your talent; the first of your resources.”[vi]
Our trust issue, summarized by the struggle to maintain a singular focus and eye upon God, is then summed up by Christ in the closing of this passage, “no one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t offering a personal critique of the choices of any one person who is hearing his message. Jesus is speaking at a macro level, to the congregation at large, about the most micro of decisions, an inner being decision. What Jesus is talking about is “the inevitable alignment of our inner being with what we seek and bring about in our relationships with others and with God.”[vii] The question about trust is a question about future hopefulness. Is your hope secured because of your Roth-IRA? Is your future in good hands because of your Chase Financial Manager? Is your focus on that which is inevitably temporary in nature?
When it comes to our future, the hope for our world, we don’t think big enough what God wants to do. God has divined plans for each of us, and for us together as a community. And the future for God isn’t dependent on the ways of the world. “God’s economy isn’t dependent on the Dow Jones.”[viii] There is never a time God has failed to be faithful, because God is God – God is the creator of all things; God is the redeemer of all things; God is the sustainer or all things.
It’s time we focus in on God’s call and trust God’s guidance, both for us as individuals and for our collective witness to share God’s love in the community. It’s time to not just give lip service to wanting to be more charitable, or to say we need to be better at feeding the poor, or to acknowledge that there is a need to secure homes for the homeless … we can not wait for our stockpiles to be “large enough” to carry out the work of God in the world. To wait is to abuse and show our privilege. It’s time we put the blinders on to the desires of the world and to focus in on God’s call. For God has not left us; God has not abandoned us; God is yearning for us to seek first the kingdom – for whomever seeks first the kingdom, to them God will be faithful. So put your trust first and singularly in the faithfulness of God, for God hasn’t failed you yet.