The Rev. Anna Doherty, Assisting Priest
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
It never ceases to amaze me how sometimes the lectionary, just magically seems to fit the season of the year. How else can you explain why, as we prepare to kickoff stewardship season in a few weeks, we hear from Jesus about the proverbial “camel and the eye of a needle”? A text that deals so directly with the issue of personal wealth and giving seems perfect for stewardship season.
But, the truth is, this isn’t always such a welcome thing to hear. Clearly, Jesus’ message isn’t so welcome for the wealthy man in this morning’s gospel, who goes away shocked and grieving. For those of us who have sufficient financial resources, in fact, it can be not only shocking, but also a scary thing to hear. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
In fact, every time I hear Jesus say this, I feel convicted. The truth is, by the standards of much of the rest of the world, and even by the standards of many living right here in Milwaukee, most of us are rich indeed. Most of us have places to live, and don’t have to worry about adequately feeding ourselves and our families. Most of us can afford things like the cost of education, travel, medical attention. If we are open and honest with ourselves, I think most of us would acknowledge that we likely fall into Jesus’ understanding of “someone who is rich.” We’re not so different from the man with many possessions who we hear about this morning.
But the thing I think we tend to loose sight of in this morning’s gospel, is that Jesus loves this man. In fact, the text says that, despite knowing the man’s attachment to his wealth, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” And Jesus loves us too.
The truth is that we, as Christians, are asked to give of our wealth to God and to others. We cannot just keep it for ourselves. But, as we hear in this morning’s gospel, the key to that giving is not out of condemnation, a sense of superiority, or guilt. The key to that giving is love.
This is perhaps best illustrated by an example. About a year ago, I read a New York Times article online that completely changed my understanding of financial giving. Ironically, the article was loosely about Paris Hilton, one of the wealthiest people in popular culture. The article began by discussing the Hilton heir’s many foibles, escapades and superficialities. Such as her bright pink sports car, her tendency to accessorize her pets and her recent run-in with the law.
The point of the article was that we are so often shocked by the seemingly ludicrous actions of the über-wealthy, because the majority of us have to prioritize and weigh our spending in ways the ultra-rich do not.
In other words, what we spend our money on reflects the things we most value and appreciate. As a result, our spending can help us to define for ourselves what is most important to us. Those, like Miss Hilton, who don’t need to prioritize their spending because of their immense wealth, may also lack a sense of what they most deeply value, what is most important to them. They may lack the moral compass the rest of us have.
Whether or not you agree with the premise of the article, here’s what I discovered from reading it. For those of us who have the means to spend money beyond the most basic of necessities, we spend money on what we most value and appreciate. We give to what we love.
If we spend money on a college education, it’s because we value the experience of learning and we appreciate the benefits that learning can give us. If we spend money on family activities, it’s because spending time with family is important to us, as is making sure our loved ones are well-cared for. And, if we spend money on our churches and on the ministry of Christ in the world, it’s because we value that work and ministry. It is because that work is vitally, critically, and morally important to us.
Giving of our wealth to the work of God in the world, is a way of giving expression to our appreciation and love of that work. It’s an act of faith, an expression of love. Because of God’s love, we want to help bring about God’s kingdom here on earth, in whatever way we can.
And this, I think, is really the point of this morning’s gospel lesson. Jesus talks openly about the complicated nature of giving. Giving of our financial resources is an important moral decision that shouldn’t be ignored. And Jesus acknowledges that it is difficult. Why else would Jesus love the wealthy man who comes to him, even as that man fails to give as completely as he can? But Jesus also acknowledges that giving should be an expression of our love for God and for the world. It can’t be ignored.
But, just as giving is an expression of our love, so too do we receive the benefits of love. We are loved by God and receive the benefits of God’s presence in our lives. We live in hope and in faith because, as Jesus says in this morning’s gospel, “for God, all things are possible.”
I want you to know, that as I prepare in these next few weeks to take leave of you all at St. Paul’s and begin ministry at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Hartford, that I have, during my time here, very much felt the expression and the giving of your love. You are loving people. You have welcomed me into your midst with hospitality and care. You have offered me a spiritual home and been a tremendous source of support and encouragement. You truly do give of your love and offer that love to God and to others. Thank you all very much for the love you’ve shown me. Thank you all very much for the love you’ve shown to other people. And may God continue to teach us all to love and give as generously as God does.