Blessed are the rich… for they shall be spared sermons! 

Rene August [preaching at St Johns Anglican church yesterday] didn’t quite say those words, but she might as well have. And they feel largely true.

One thing Rene did say was this:

‘The church has so many programs to help alleviate poverty. The church has no programs to help people alleviate greed.’ [which i think was a quote of Bishop Zac Niringiye]

Two other statements she made were these:

‘The wealth of the rich is based upon the labour of the poor.’

‘The systems that create the wealth of the rich simultaneously create the lack and poverty of the poor.’

Now, this is a message given into the context of South Africa, but it feels like one which is true for most places around the world. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And no-one is held accountable. People like to talk about trickle-down economics but that is very seldom experienced and statistics tend to show that poor people are more generous than rich people when it comes to giving.

Generosity is witnessed in the poor

Which we see in a story that Jesus gives attention to in the Bible:

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” [Mark 12]

In case the philosophical or spiritual arguments are not convincing enough, Rene made it a little more concrete:

When it comes to informal settlements, you have one toilet for every six families [i wonder if that is even a little conservative]. Whereas for many of you who are reading this now, you have more toilets in your house than people living there. Or at least as many. 

How do we even get our minds around that? Oh right, we don’t. We can’t. Because it is way too uncomfortable. If we think about this stuff for too long we might actually have to do something about it.

St Johns has been doing a series on James which has in part been based on a book called ‘Finding Spiritual Direction’ by Douglas W. Webster and this next quote might have been out of there but it punches you firmly in the gut:

‘Like maggot-infested manna, hoarded wealth becomes repulsive when it becomes an object of hope and security.’ 

A desert of enough

That quote relates to a story not many of us may be familiar with in the Old Testament part of the Bible [too many of us choose to live only in the New] and yet it is such a beautiful story and witness to the brilliance and creativity of God.

Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’”

17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.

19 Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”

20 However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. [Exodus 16]

Nothing like maggots to remind you to be obedient.

What is particularly insane [or just God] in this piece, which went on for years, was that the day before Sabbath they had to gather enough for two days as no one was allowed to work on the Sabbath. That bread didn’t go rotten. So God was clearly directly involved in this process and created a system which was designed to help God’s people to trust God for enough.

Blessed are the rich?

Let’s go back to the Rene quote: ‘Like maggot-infested manna, hoarded wealth becomes repulsive when it becomes an object of hope and security.’ 

What did Jesus have to say about wealth? Well quite a lot, really. But one thing he said is that it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven:

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, 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]

When coming face to face with one particular rich person, Jesus response to him was that he needed to sell everything:

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. [Matthew 19]

We do like to think this was just Jesus talking to that particular rich guy who was particularly addicted to his stuff and so it probably didn’t apply to us, which makes Luke 14 a little trickier for us to stomach:

33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

[Although this can maybe be linked to the idea of Luke 9.23 where Jesus calls those who would follow Him to “Deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow Me.”A call to absolute commitment which puts the call of Jesus above everything we have and are]

A rich example

We are, however, given one more amazing example, of wealth encountering Jesus, which is, of course, the beautiful freeing story of Jesus and Zacchaeus:

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” [Luke 19]

This message is for me

The danger when reading about the rich and the wealthy is that we tend to think it is about someone else. So we nod our heads in wide agreement while thinking, “Ooh yes, those people must hear this!” when in actual fact, if we are honest, we need to realise that we are likely in that group as well.

‘Like maggot-infested manna, hoarded wealth becomes repulsive when it becomes an object of hope and security.’ 

What is your relationship to money, to things, to savings, to safety nets, to hoarding and storing up?

It is easy enough these days to figure out just where we all fit in terms of percentage of most wealthy people in the world – once we have a computer or smart phone or car or live in a place with running water that tends to put us quickly into the top 10% of people and usually closer to the top 3%…

The next question becomes: Am I a rich young ruler or a Zacchaeus? How do i respond to Jesus eyeing my wealth? Do i hold it closer or to i release my grip and invite Him to free me up to be super generous?

Then moving on to my community… if this is true: ‘The church has so many programs to help alleviate poverty. The church has no programs to help people alleviate greed.’ Should i be in conversation with the leadership of my church to see if they might be the revolutionary ones to start such a thing?

It was Mahatma Gandhi who was attributed with saying “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed,” [to be fair he also said something about liking Jesus but not His followers because the followers were nothing like the Christ!] and yet we have the toilet situation, and the malnutrition situation and the education situation and so much more.

We need to fight to see the systems and structures change and we need to constantly call out for a world that has much smaller gaps between those who have and those who don’t… but in the meantime we need to start by looking in the mirror and seeing where we need to change. One practical way might be to work through our stuff [Valerie and i are busy with an eight week process of this which you can see over here] and pass on what we don’t need to others, and another might be to have a careful look at our budget and our giving and see if anything needs to be adjusted.

But let’s at all costs avoid the maggots.

Because maggots! 

And perhaps the way ‘Blessed are the rich…’ ends looks something like, ‘…for they have yet to come face to face with Jesus!’

[For a legal and legitimate way to get rich quickly, click here]

[For some more thoughts on money and the parable of the widow, click here]