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Sunday, June 21, 2020
“We are confronted by an either/or” in Christianity.[i] If our lives are lived according to New Testament teaching, if we desire to walk in the way of Jesus, we must choose this, and reject that. It’s clear and decisively obvious.
Some teaching are not as black and white. In Mark 9:40, Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” and in Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yet in Luke 23, one of the criminals on one of the crosses next to Jesus admits he deserves his fate. He is guilty. Jesus promises him, whose righteousness certainly does not exceed the scribes’ that he will be with Jesus in paradise that very day (Luke 23:41, 43). The Bible contains nuance and mystery. We spend our lives interpreting it.
Matthew 6:19-24 is not one of those contradiction passages hard to understand. Jesus’ words here are clear. The difficulty of Matthew 6:19-24 is we have to deal with it. “Do not store up treasures on earth; … store up treasures in heaven. … Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth”.
Jesus does not mean slaves have to love cruel overlords. Every black slave during the first centuries of American history up to the Civil War was a victim of kidnapping, and every white person who perpetuated the institution perpetuated crimes against humanity akin to genocide. Jesus promised liberation to people in chains (Luke 4:18). Yet, he also declares all of us are slaves to something. If we soften the term to “servant,” we gain nothing and miss what Jesus is really saying. You and I and every person will serve God as master or serve money as master.
Does Jesus have the right to do that? America is a land of choices. How many fast food places are there? You could get your burger at Burger King, your fries at MacDonald’s, and your milk shake at Chik-Fil-A. Jesus may be Lord, but are we willing to submit to this bipolar set of options he’s foisted on us? Must we agree that it’s either Jesus or money? Must we adopt that mindsight to be Christians?
We like the idea of choosing how we worship. I told I guy I had just met I was a pastor. He brought our entire conversation to a grinding halt by saying, “I follow God in my own way.” What does that even mean? When Bill Bradley opposed Al Gore in the Democratic primaries in 2000, he was asked about his religion. He put a hard stop to the question. “That’s personal, he said.” Jesus has no use for self-made religion or unexpressed faith. If we want to follow him, sometimes we have to come to grips with polar opposite choices. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
If we accept Jesus’ authority to impose the “either/or” on us, then we have to respond. Our response is not seen in statements we write. Our response is how we live, and especially in how we think about money and use money.
Some very wealthy Christians attempt an end run around Jesus’ extreme teaching by insisting their priority is faith and love, and their riches serve faith and love. In some cases, it’s true. Read Luke 8:3. Among Jesus’ followers were a group of affluent women who underwrote Jesus’ ministry out of their own funds. The reason they could give the money to Jesus is they had it. In our own church’ story, God has blessed us with an anonymous donor or donors. In the past 7 months we have received two separate significant financial gifts. We’ve also been able to refinance our building with the North Carolina Baptist Foundation. The reason? Wealthy Christians donate to the foundation and make their work possible. We received big gifts is because someone had money and wanted to give it.
The serving God v. serving money dichotomy is not as simple as declaring wealth evil. But, as Hauerwas writes, “Jesus is very clear. Wealth is a problem.”[ii] Too often, people have a lot of money or come into a lot of money and their lives begin to shift. The money starts determining how they make life decisions, instead of existing to bring glory to God. Preservation of their wealth, not discipleship, shapes their lives. When that happens, their service to God is made subject to the whims of the true master: the wealth itself. Often, driven to hold onto their riches, wealthy Christians exhibit anemic discipleship in which Jesus is hardly seen.
If we’re reading the Sermon on the Mount then we’re taking discipleship seriously. This sermon is for disciples of Jesus. If we take discipleship seriously, then we have to face up to the confrontation. Jesus has put it before us, right in our faces. Will it be this or that? Will I be a slave to God, or will I be owned by money?
We’ve said yes, Jesus has the right to confront us with this either/or. We’ve agreed that in the face of this either/or, we have to respond and our response is evident in our daily lives. How do we submit to Jesus as our overlord?
I knew two different women who went through seasons of real poverty. In both cases from month to month, they weren’t sure how the bills would be paid. The first thing both women did when receiving their small paychecks was to tithe, 10% to their church. They trusted God to cover them that month.
Whatever your economic circumstance, are your trusting God in it? Wealthy disciples of Jesus should be giving a lot more than 10%. All Christians, whether giving time, money, attention, or talent must find ways to be extravagantly generous; Zacchaeus, the short tax collector Jesus saved, offered to repay everyone he’d cheated 4 times the amount (Luke 19:8). He had gotten rich cheating a lot of people. We find ways we can be that generous. We structure our lives so that there are areas where we have to trust God to make it day-to-day, week-to-week.
Both of my friends eventually saw their circumstances greatly improve. It wasn’t like those health-and-wealth charlatans who promise God will give a miracle in the form of financial windfalls. Rather, my friends worked hard, lived faithfully, and trusted God. We have to restructure our lives so that we can see how we trust him daily. I can’t be more precise with your individual life because this kind of lived faith varies in what it looks like from person to person. Do an honest assessment. Is there any area of life where God isn’t first? That area of life must be reordered so that the master is in His rightful place.
Finally, depending on God and seeking ways to be extravagantly generous, we see with eyes of love. That’s the best way to understand verses 22-23, “if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” Seeing with eyes of love, we notice people who are hurting and we help them. Seeing with eyes of love, we recognize where God is at work in the world. We encourage those involved in God’s good work and we join in it. Through this seeing and the help and encouragement we give based on what we see, we store up treasures in heaven
Yes, we are confronted by this or that. Jesus requires extreme commitment of us. It’s worth giving it. It’s contrary to our society’s values, but we reject money and wealth as masters over us; we reject money and wealth as organizing principles that determine how our lives are structured. We reduce money and wealth’s power. Money is a tool to be used. God is our Lord and we live our lives for his glory.
[i] D. Bonhoeffer (1963), The Cost of Discipleship, MacMillan Publishing Company (New York), p.196.
[ii] S. Hauerwas (2006), Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew, Brazos Press (Grand Rapids), p.80.