Love and Sacrifice Part 2 – Rich Men and Needles

In Love and Sacrifice Part 1 – Tearing Away we took a look at what giving out of our natural abundance is, and if love thus meant sacrifice.  This week we’ll be looking at rich men and needles.  More specifically, we’ll be looking at what wealth really is.

We are referencing the comparison Jesus drew when he challenged a rich man to sell all his possessions to follow him, specifically in Matthew 19:

16Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17″Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”

18″Which ones?” the man inquired.

Jesus replied, ” ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19honor your father and mother,'[d] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.'[e]”

20″All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21Jesus 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.”

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

23Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

This passage presents us with an interesting conundrum.  On the surface, it appears to be an indictment of having and keeping wealth.  Indeed, this seems to be echoed by what Jesus said in Matthew 6:

19″Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So what are we to do?  Are we to remain impoverished throughout our lives in order to fulfill charitable obligation?  This is what is regularly told to us from the pulpit, that we must give and give, and even if it hurts, give more.  We’re regularly hammered with this week in, week out at brick-and-mortar churches.  Of course it seems sensible that for us to be “good” we give.  For us to be better, we give when it hurts.  All the while we smile and nod and pretend that it makes us better to tithe the extra 20 dollars.

But let’s admit it.  We don’t like that feeling, do we?  We are in our innermost parts feeling somewhat resentful.  We worked hard for the money we have, and would like to enjoy it’s fruits.  So we reconcile, thinking to ourselves “Oh, the payment on that TV can wait.”, “Oh, we can go out to eat some other time.”

Let me be very clear here, this is not everyone.  However seeing how people no-show any sermon-series on tithing, and how angsty they get when the plate comes around in brick-and-mortar churches, it’s pretty easy to see that it is considered a burden by most, even if privately.  This presents us with another question, however.  Why?  Why do we feel that strange, subconscious itch of angst when it comes to giving?

If giving is good, an expression of love, why do we feel angst over it?  Like the rich man in the first example above, why do we feel sorrowful at the giving of our “treasures” over to those in need?  In the above example, it’s easy to imagine for most of us… having a lot and selling it all would be hard.  But why?  Furthermore, why even when we give a little?

To examine this, let’s start by looking at what wealth really is.  In it’s simplest form, wealth is abundance, a lack of need.  When we have abundance, we do not feel the pressure associated with lack.  Now that pressure can be self-inspired or inspired by forces outside of us.  Indeed, with the amount of commercials and ads telling you that you need a better car, faster computer, super sized fries and a Carribean cruise, it can be maddening to resist feeling you could have “just a little more”.  This does 2 things; it focuses us on always getting a little more, generating an “artificial lack”, and it also draws that focus purely into the material realm.

I say that because wealth is not just monetary.  Money is symbolic, not real.  Those green slips of paper we exchange are just that, green slips of paper.  When we swipe a credit/debit card it’s just a piece of plastic that is tied to numbers in a digital account register.  The actual value of them is nothing other than what we ascribe.  There’s the crux… money is symbolic of value based on our perceptions of worth in relation to other goods.  It’s a medium of exchange.  Our real assets are our time and skills used in that time.  Every man, woman and child on earth are alloted the same 24 hours of each day, and only so many to go around.  Hence, what we are bartering via the exchange of money is how much our time is worth in doing whatever it is we do with that time.

Think of it this way.  If you make 10 dollars an hour, and think you are paid fairly, and buy a television for 300 dollars, you estimate that the television is worth 30 hours of your time in doing the work you are paid for.  If your overachiever brother who always acts so smarmy towards you at family reunions makes 50 dollars an hour, the same TV is only worth 6 hours of his time.  Society views his skills, his service, his time at roughly 5 times the rate of yours.

If all things were equal, everyone would love what they do and be paid the same regardless of what it was, and merrily go their ways enjoying abundance in a forever-fixed marketplace.  Of course this doesn’t happen.  To exacerbate the situation, we tend to fall into the trap of thinking that our “worth” is tied to whatever it is that we’re paid to do in our “normal job”.  You’ve all heard someone at one time or another club someone else with the “My time is worth xxx an hour, I don’t need this.” line.  Yes, your time may be worth 384 dollars an hour as an attorney, but it’s worth about 30 cents an hour as a companion because you do that.  Go away.

It’s pretty easy to see that basing our lives and our giving on income is at best maddening, and at worst reducing us to occupational widgets in a giving-assembly-line.  I would reason in looking at that, I don’t think the concern about giving is money-based, outside of what we are told.  In fact, if we reference the previous article again, we can see that the true value of giving isn’t in the symbolic monetary units we dump onto the plate, but in our spirit.

The rich man in the example above was saddened by what he was told, not because he had the wealth to begin with, but because he felt giving it up was the “tearing away”.  He had associated to his material goods to a degree where they were the basis for his life.  Does anyone think seriously if he really didn’t care about the money he had that he wouldn’t do as he was challenged?

So why the challenge for the rich?  Is having wealth a signal that you’ve turned into the kind of person who hoards with avarice?  Not necessarily.  In fact the second passage is actually kind of clarifying.  We’re told not to “store up treasures”, or more accurately “not to hoard up crap you don’t need”.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice car or a spare bedroom or duck for dinner.  It is saying don’t pile stuff up, be wise and frugal. Good advice for any of us, I’d say.

But it still doesn’t point to why we feel angst over the giving.  Why is it tearing away and not just “giving”?  Why are we worse than passing camels through needles?  I think the answer is all in our attitude towards our wealth.  If we are living abundant lives, lives where we aren’t concerned with money, or more importantly, the use of our time, it becomes much easier to give freely, to give well and truly.  “Sure,” you say, “We’ll just all win the lottery so we can do that now won’t we?”.  No, I’m not saying living in luxury, I’m saying living abundantly.

Have you ever met someone who lives abundantly?  They have an inner fire about them.  They are enthusiastic, positive, engaging people.  Whether they’re mopping a floor, or deciding matters of law, or a student or housewife or delivering the mail… they fill their moments with love and great energy.  They are where they want to be, and what they have is good enough for them.  If they want a TV, well they may get it, they may not, but either way it’s all good.

To put it bluntly, their minds are on higher things, and thus they are as wealthy as they need to be.  They feel their time (their true wealth) is well spent.  They are the ones who don’t get angsty about giving.  They give when able and do so with a glad heart.

This seems much more preferrable to trying to wrangle a percentage or wringing hands over how much “giving ’til it hurts” should hurt.  If we refocus on higher things, we don’t worry so much about the little slips of paper in the plate, and think more upon what we can do to improve not just our lives but those around us.  Volunteering, counseling, praying, all of it is, in effect, a way of giving.  A balance of those things as well as a grateful and giving attitude can allow even a fat camel through the eye of that needle.  All we need to do is let go of our notions of what wealth is.  It’s not material goods, it is in our spirit.

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