Let’s look at the stories of two men and their money. These are two guys with a lot of money, actually. Both of them had an encounter with Jesus, who challenged their love affair with their stuff. The first guy probably inherited his money, while the second man got his by extorting his own countrymen. They were both devoted to their wealth but only one of them was willing to part ways with as much of it as his born-again conscience insisted. The other, rather than part ways with his money, parted ways with Jesus.
The rich young ruler sought Jesus out to ask him how he could acquire eternal life. Jesus told him to give all his money away and then come back and follow him. Since the man preferred his wealth to eternal life and to following the Son of God he walked away sad. He chose gloom and money over God and meaning.
So, what do you think? If Jesus once required someone to give everything away before becoming a follower of his and inheriting eternal life, could it be that he would require it again? I mean it’s not like this is a parable that we could interpret the edge off of it by saying, “Well, it’s just a metaphor. It just means…”
I’m not proposing that giving all our stuff away is a universal rule of thumb for salvation. But I am asking the question that since he did require one person to empty his bank account before he could have eternal life, then is it possible that he would require it of you or me? And then the harder question: If he did require this same act of faith of you to inherit eternal life, what would you do?
Obviously, you can’t earn eternal life by pulling a Francis of Assisi and walking away from it all naked. In fact, please, please don’t! There’s no earning the present that Jesus paid for. Faith is what unwraps the gift and uses it. But the question is: What kind of faith are we talking about here? What kind of faith connects us to the benefit of Jesus’ blood? James said that the kind of faith that saves is the kind that shows. If it doesn’t show then that’s all your faith is––a “show.”
That “faith without works is dead” is Christianity 101. Everyone who believes in Jesus knows this. But I’d venture to say that when we’re listing the kinds of works that qualify as character references for the genuine Christian, giving all (or at least large portions of) our wealth away is not on many people’s list.
But in this case, Jesus required it. Why? I suppose it was because this guy’s god was his money. Remember when Jesus said that we can’t serve God and money (Mammon)? God and Mammon are mutually exclusive masters. They make different demands and offer different rewards.
Weird, isn’t it, that Jesus personified wealth as though, like God, it had a personality and power? He spoke of Mammon, not as an object, but as a presence, as an idol.
Idols have as much power as we give them, more accurately as we “give in” to them. Maybe this is why Luke transliterated the Aramaic word “Mammon” instead of finding one that represented the idea of wealth in Greek. Like the false gods of Baal, Athena, or Zeus; Mammon is an idol. Paul wrote, “Do I mean then … that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons.” (1 Corinthians 10:20)
So, when he says we can’t serve God and money at the same time, he’s saying that in order to serve God we have to give up whatever else we’re serving! He doesn’t save us with our idols, but from them. We don’t get to bring our idols with us, we have to turn away from them in order to turn to God. It’s neither feasible nor possible to take hold of God while still holding on to another god. It’s no more possible than standing in a boat without first stepping off the dock. At least in this one man’s case, the dock, his place of safety, his god, was his money.
He probably expected that Jesus’ response to his inquiry about eternal life would entail something less costly. He claimed that he didn’t do the other don’ts that Jesus referenced, don’t cheat on your wife, murder anybody, take what’s not yours, tell lies, or disrespect your parents. If he was being honest, I suppose that those weren’t his idols. He could avoid doing those don’ts because they had little-to-no power over him. What did have power over him were his material assets; the house, the nice clothes, the fine wines, the trips to the Bahamas. (OK, not the Bahamas. Maybe Rome.) Those were the things that had idol power in his heart.
So, this begs the question, what is it that Jesus asks you to give up as part of your following? Since the ruler had no idolatrous relationships with adultery or murder it was easy for him to give those to God. He was a good son to his parents, hardly ever lied, and didn’t seal. But his money. That was a different story.
Since I’m not into cars, if he asked me to give my car away it wouldn’t be as big a deal as, say, giving away my free time or my love of baseball! I’d gladly give up meat, better yet, spinach, but I pray he doesn’t mess with my caffeine!
The thing is, he insists that we give up our idols. If it’s not an idol he might let you keep it. But our idols–– and he knows what they are for each of us, so don’t think you can hide ‘em from him––they gotta go! But even if you do get to keep something for now, you still have to manage it and use it his way. It’s got to stay on the table as something he may require at any time. It always has to be at his disposal.
He might ask you to give it away, not just when it becomes an idol, but when someone else needs it more than you do. When our money and the stuff it buys isn’t an idol, we are able to be a free-flowing conduit of provision to people in need. If our relationship with the material still tends toward the idolatrous, God can kill two birds with one stone by requiring us to share it with the hungry. He frees us and feeds them at the same time!
One last thing before we move on to the second rich guy. I’ll remind us that eternal life isn’t in giving everything away. It’s not just about flouting Mammon, it’s about following Jesus. After he told the young man to give all his money away he told him, “Then come and follow me.” Eternal life begins with and consists of following Jesus. It’s not just about “letting go of such and such” so you’re a good Christian now. It’s about getting free of your idols so you can go and follow Jesus without encumbrance!
So, what does Jesus want from us? He wants us to give up our idols and lay down our lives to follow him.
Next time well look at a wealthy extortionist named Zacchaeus and how meeting Jesus influenced his relationship to his money…