Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent Reflections: 06

Okay, here is a little Bible quiz for you.  Can you finish these Bible verses?

1) "The love of money is __________________."

2) "It is easier for _____________________ than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

3) "You cannot serve both _________ and __________."

Now, for the real Bible nerd... uh, I mean, scholar, do you know where those verses come from?

(Answers are at the bottom of the post.)

The real question, the one that is not trivial, is the one upon which real life-change hangs:
How do you define loving money, being a rich person, and serving money?

My basic hypothesis is this: We have way too small of a definition for what counts as greed and way too large of a definition for what counts as generosity.

I would imagine that 98% of the people who read this were able to at least get one of those verses correct.  I would imagine that 100% of people who read this who accept Jesus as Lord would say greed is sinful and that we cannot love and worship God while being people who serve money.

How many of us, though would say that those verses apply to us?

Are you a person of greed?  Do you love money?  Are you someone who is rich?  Do you in vain try to serve God while serving money?

Mostly, we define greed in a very narrow way so that it does not include us or people like us.  Greed is a word we reserve for Grinch-like characters who are sinister, deceitful, and heartlessly willing to step on others to get ahead in life.  Lovers of money spend every waking hour scheming how to get that next million.  The rich live in palaces and own private jets.  Those serving and worshiping money are atheistic people who laugh at religion and speak venomously against religious faith.  We apply these terms to the persons behind all the scandals on Wall Street and those whose corruption caused them to tank major corporations and the economy along with them.

We rarely see the middle class family who worships with their church every Sunday who work hard day in and day out at their jobs to earn their living honesty and gratefully.

I rarely see myself as the one addressed by the above passages.  I have 1,000 different ways to justify my lifestyle, my desires, and my pursuits.  I am like a certain wealthy person who came to Jesus very comfortable in his lifelong religious faithfulness and reputation for being an upstanding person in the community.  Yet he was told, get rid of your wealth.  Give it all to the poor.  And we walked away sad.

When we read the story of the rich young man, we do the same thing we do with the above three passages: we build a case for how he is different from us so that the passage does not apply to us, so that our reading of it does not cost us anything.  We say: "Well, he loved money more than God - that is why Jesus said that.  This is about priorities.  God has to be first.  For this man money was first."

This reading, though, denies the text.  This man was righteous, obedient, honest, and good.  He is more like me than I want to admit.  He is me.

Speaking of reading passages in their context:
1) Loving money, as defined by Paul in 1 Timothy is simply people who are "eager for money" and those "wanting to be rich."  Who reading this is not eager for money and wants to be wealthier?

2) Being someone who is rich is defined in this passage by Jesus' encounter with the rich young man.  This standard and expectation so shocked the disciples that they thought no one could be saved if this righteous man could not.  Beyond that, if you are reading this, you are likely part of the richest 5% of the world's population.  Today's middle class in the US lives better than royalty from ages past.

3) Serving God and money, as defined by Jesus in this passage, is about storing up treasures on earth and worrying about food and clothing.  In a world of savings accounts, the stock market, and retirement funds as well as grocery stores, shopping malls, over filled pantries and closets, and ubiquitous fast food restaurants, we need to be careful not to release ourselves from this text too quickly.

So, in short, I am saying that our conception of greed is way too small.  We have limited it to a way of being that frees us from responsibility.  You can be a good, obedient person who in their heart really desires to follow Jesus and still be blind to love for and service to money.  Wealth and luxury are a way of life in our society and we are following right along even as we worship God.  We have simply grown numb to the call to release wealth (or be released from the bondage of wealth).

Conversely, we need to rethink our views of generosity.

Just as I don't think I am greedy, I think I am generous.  I know we all have a tough time deciding how much is too much to keep, how much stuff given away is enough.  This moral dilemma is a unique problem for the wealthy.  Here is a great standard offered by C.S. Lewis:

"I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give.  I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.  

My contention is that we have a totally unbiblical view of wealth.  Regardless if you tithe or not, donate to good causes or not, I do not know if I have yet seen more than a handful of Christians striving to take seriously the biblical ethic of wealth.

Okay, this was supposed to be an Advent reflection.  And it is... decidedly so. I promise!

During Advent we are asked to once again look into the fragile face of God as an infant delivered in obscurity amidst farm animals.  When this child-Messiah grew up and entered the social sphere He chose to be poor and homeless and to identify with the marginalized, outcast, broken, and poor.  This way of life was not forced upon Him; it was chosen.  God in human flesh could have lived any number of ways among us to fulfill His mission.  He chose to reject wealth and call His followers to do the same.  Yet, we in the West have wiggled out of being indicted by greed or being forced to be truly, sacrificially generous.

Note the implications of the Advent according to Mary (from Luke 1):
"He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty." 

It is not just THAT God became human that we pay attention to in the Advent; it is THE WAY in which He became human that should transform us.  The Advent and these texts about wealth should strike us deeply - not for guilt but for repentance unto change for the sake of His Kingdom.

If you have a few minutes and $.99, you should download and listen to Rich Young Ruler by Derek Webb.

- - - - -

1) "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." 1 Timothy 6:10
2) "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." Matthew 19:24
3) "You cannot serve both God and money." Matthew 6:24 or Luke 6:13

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