Last year at First Church in Cambridge, I sat down for a small group. At this small group, the financial director, Karen, gave us all a competitive task. She said, “In your groups, list as many passages as you can where Jesus talks about money.” So that’s what we did, and because I was in my Introduction to New Testament class at the time, the activity was actually pretty thrilling. How many do you think there are? I don’t remember exactly, but I think we came up with something in the twenties. Now, I’m not going to ask you to do the same, though I think it’s a worthwhile challenge for all of you, but do take 15 seconds and see if in your head you can think of a few.
Jesus says all sorts of things about money. Sometimes he’s positive about it—like in the example of the widow’s might in Mark 12, where Jesus commends the poor widow for giving her two mites to the treasury—although to be fair, he’s more interested in the woman’s generosity and selflessness than about the money she gave.
Other times, Jesus is fairly neutral about money—think of the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, who wastes all his father’s money, but the father welcomes him home gladly, as if the money did not matter one bit. Or think of Jesus’ attitude towards taxes in Matthew 22 when he says, “Render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Or the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20, in which a vineyard owner pays all his workers the same, even though some started work earlier in the day. Those who worked longer for the same grumbled that it was unfair. The point of the message? The last shall be first and the first shall be last. Ouch.
There are also times that Jesus is flat out negative about money. He warns us over and over again not to store up treasures here on earth because the real treasure is in heaven. In Matthew 24 he says, “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money.” In Luke 12, he tsk-tsks at the man who tries to store up his grain, saying “whoever stores up things for themselves is not rich toward God.” Conversely, in Mark 14, Jesus receives the woman with the alabaster jar who washes him in oil, while the men Jesus was staying with ridiculed her for wasting her money. Jesus praised her for her faithfulness. Oh, and let’s not forget the story of Jesus flipping the money-changer’s tables in the Temple. Have I exhausted you yet?
So, I have the undesirable task of preaching to you on Stewardship Sunday. Why is it undesirable you might ask? Because who the heck wants to talk about money in church? Especially when it’s the church that’s asking for your money, and finding all sorts of clever ways to make it sound more appealing. No one wants to do that. You all are probably thinking, wasn’t Christmas just last week? I mean, didn’t I just donate all my savings to good causes and to my family’s Christmas presents like, um, yesterday? No one wants to talk about it. When Susan and I were figuring out which days I could preach, and she realized I would preach today, I’m pretty sure—I’m not certain—but I’m pretty sure in her head Susan was like [do a little dance], and then she turned to me and said, “It’ll be a good learning experience for you.”
Well, after getting more familiar with the Bible in the past two years, I have the somewhat unconventional message for you on this stewardship Sunday. Jesus didn’t care much for money. Let’s face it. Jesus did not care much for money. Nowhere—and I mean, I scoured the Gospels, NOWHERE in the Bible does Jesus ever say, “Truly, I tell you, in order to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, you must pay your church dues.” Nowhere does it say, “Blessed are those who tithe 10%.”
I don’t think Jesus ever intended a church system that relied on people tithing. In fact, Jesus seems to say the opposite: sell all your possessions, give them to the poor and follow me. Andrew, Simon, drop your nets, drop all your sources of income, and follow me.” In fact, following Jesus required absolutely no money at all. Jesus would rather you give it away.
Not only is Jesus kind of negative about money, but the whole New Testament condemns money and wealth. During his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, Jesus declares, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” James 5 is even more explicit. “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.”
And of course, we have the strong condemnation from 1 Timothy that we read today. “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” Those of us who have ever desired a comfortable life should be trembling in our seats when hearing this passage.
And this is where I offer a random and shameless plug for the Bible study I’ll be doing in March. In this Bible Study, we will be taking a hard look at what the Bible says about wealth and what we should do about it. We’ll be grounding our discussion off of Mark 10 and the parable of the Rich Young Ruler. We will dig into the uncomfortable stories that give a harsh critique for wealth, and we’ll talk about . I’ll share more during the announcements. Random plug over.
So, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the New Testament is fairly negative about money. As I mentioned before, Jesus didn’t care much for money. On the whole, Jesus and all the writers of the New Testament teach us that money is barrier to holiness. And I chose 1 Timothy as our illustrative passage for today because it captures a beautiful sentiment related to our conversation on money—“for we were born with nothing and we leave with nothing.” It’s reminiscent of the truth we learn on ash Wednesday. From dust you came and to dust you will return.
No matter how much money we make in this life time, when it comes time to be reunified with God in our deaths, all this money will mean nothing. If anything, it stops us from seeing the real treasure on Earth, which is connection with God and with each other.
There are many passages that speak to the evil of money, 1 Timothy being one of them, though I’m not convinced wealth in and of itself is evil. But what it does point to is that money is not ultimate. We cannot take it with us when we die. God is ultimate, and as Jesus says, You can’t serve two masters at the same time.
So, considering this, isn’t it ironic that we as a church, the followers of Jesus, would be doing something like stewardship Sunday? Why is the church, the body of Christ, asking for money? Isn’t it that ironic that an institution of Jesus’ disciples relies so heavily on money? What is the point of tithing, anyway? (I know we don’t like the word tithing in our mainline Protestant church, but I’m Catholic, so I’m going to say it anyway)
Well, it might be true that Jesus isn’t very money-positive, but he does care a lot that everyone is taken care of. We know this because he spent so much of his time ministering to the poor and healing the lepers and the blind. We know this because in Matthew, Jesus sees to it twice that all the people have enough to eat. In Matthew 14, Jesus feeds five thousand, and in Matthew 15, he feeds another four thousand with only a few fish and a loaf of bread. And we all know the passage in Matthew when Jesus is predicted to say, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did unto me.” Jesus cares that all are taken care of, especially the poor.
So, Jesus is kind of money-negative, but his ministry is all about making sure people have enough to live. If you boil Jesus’ ministry down to its basics, it’s about feeding and healing, with an emphasis on doing these things for the poor. So, if you put these two things together, it seems to be that Jesus isn’t against wealth, per say, but the unequal distribution of wealth. He’s against the way money keeps people from the abundance of this material world. He’s against the fact that there are some people who let their purses get fat on money, meanwhile other people are without something to eat. Truly, it’s a basic concept.
In Jesus’ world, money doesn’t mean anything good unless it is shared with others. The blessing of material life rots when it is stored. It’s actually a basic lesson from nature. If I hoard more food than I can eat while leaving you with none, you’ll have gone hungry, and eventually the food I stored will rot, leaving me hungry too. It’s overall a bad deal. And meanwhile, I’ve accumulated the bad karma of hoarding sustenance while others go hungry. This is God’s rule. This is what Jesus taught us. Material wealth is no good unless it is shared.
And what better purpose for the church than to share the blessings of this material world? What better way to be disciples than to share our abundance so that all may be fed?
Sometimes we forget why we give to the church. We see it as an obligation, or as another self-serving means of creating these exclusive institutions. But really, giving in a church context, is about sharing the abundance with others. If our church is doing a good job, then that money is given for charitable purposes, for purposes of social justice. Yes, we need a substantial amount of money to maintain our building and to keep all our blessed staff doing what they do, but ultimately all our money, whether for the sake of our building or given directly for to a social justice organization is for a missional purpose. Money is given so that abundance may be shared, and the more money we have, the more it is our responsibility to share it. It’s not a one-time kind thing. It’s a life-long mission for the church—to administer food and healing to everyone, especially the poor. We only begin that process when we give to the church.
Ultimately, giving to the church is a way of saying, this money isn’t really mine. It was a gift I was given. I have been blessed with this material abundance, and now it’s meant to be given to our whole community. It’s not just our Christian responsibility to share our wealth with others, it’s our Christian joy. For, truly, I tell you, we are the body of Christ par excellence when all of God’s children are taken care of. Amen.