The truth is, we are all rich, and we have a lot to be thankful for. When you compare any of us to the vast majority of the people in the world, we are wealthy beyond most people’s wildest dreams. If we had half of what we currently own and earned half of what we are now earning,, we would still be among the richest 10% of the world’s people. And it’s not like we did anything to be in this category: we were simply born in the United States.
So, if we think back to Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than it is for a rich person to enter the Reign of God, we should realize that we are the ones he’s talking about. It’s not about the wealthy Hollywood actors, or overpaid ball players—it’s about us, the ones who can afford to be going to movies or spending time watching a ball game.
As North Americans, we don’t like to talk about money, and we especially don’t like to talk about our own money. It’s OK to talk about taxes and inflation and the price of gasoline, but it’s another thing altogether to speak about personal assets. By contrast, Jesus seems to talk more about money than he does about prayer, family, or even faith. (You can count the instances yourself if you think I’m mistaken.) In fact, the only thing he spoke about more often than money was the Reign of God.
Money is more than just a “medium of exchange” as I teach my world history students in high school. It’s a powerful force in our society and sometimes seems to be the ultimate power on earth. “In God We Trust” is on our money, but it seems more true to say that it’s the money we trust most of all.
Those who have no money as well as those who have plenty of money can fall prey to the power of money. Those who have no money can easily spend their lives wishing they had money or pursuing money as if having it were the solution to all their problems. Those who have money can easily spend their lives looking at the bottom line when they make decisions. Think about those who call themselves Christian who are marching against health care for the needy on the pretext that the country “can’t afford it”. Think of those who oppose gay marriage rights because we “can’t afford” to be giving tax breaks to that many more people. These are often the same people who supported the war effort, and despite the costs that continue to spiral out of control, they never say we can’t afford the war. It’s easier to use economic excuses to support our ideas than to balance economic and justice principles on issues that we find threatening.
In both cases—the moneyless and the rich– money is making the decisions, and money thus serves as a false god. I can confess my own guilt on this point. While I have tried to live my life differently, I can still think of times in my life – some of them have been fairly recent – when money made decisions for me. I suspect that we are all guilty of this.
So, what are we to do? We are wealthy, but we want to serve God, and we want to be in the flow of God’s creative transforming power for our world. “What must we do to inherit life eternal?” we ask with the young man in Mark’s Gospel.
The money we give away is the only money that has no hold over us. One of the best ways to become free of the power money has over us is to give enough of it away so we can be open to God’s will for us and our money.
Think about when we first started using computers. They were billed as an important tool that would make our lives easier, but from the very beginning, there were people who became addicted to being online. I have a Facebook account, and have a few hundred so-called friends there. I spend maybe two full hours online a week, but it doesn’t matter what time I check in on Facebook—4:30 am or 9 pm–there are always at least a dozen of my friends also online. Sometimes there are so many, the computer won’t even list them all. For me, the computer is a tool, and that’s how our money should be used.
When we get to the point where our money becomes only a tool in our hands, we will have arrived at the consciousness of Jesus. AIDS research, cancer research, assistance for the needy in our own community, these are all things that urgently need our financial support. We will never inherit Jesus’ vision for a world of peace and justice if our hands are full of other things. We’ll never grasp the meaning of the Reign of God if we’re always grasping at some finite resource without which we feel incomplete. And we’ll never appreciate the grace that God extends to us if we are so distracted by economic issues that we forget how well off and wealthy we really are.
I have, at this writing, just returned from the 2009 International Synod of the Reformed Catholic Church, where priests and bishops, male and female, from all over the world were present. The theme this year was on making ministry happen even in areas of the world where financial resources are scarce. Fr. Thomas, a priest in the Darfur region of Sudan, is one of our clergy who clearly sees the real value of his life. He and his parish have to keep changing locations for their Masses because of rogue bands of militiamen who routinely attack vulnerable people. Recently, a band of men with machetes entered his house and told him if he didn’t stop giving aid to their targeted victims, if he didn’t stop doing his ministry, they would chop off his hands. Fr. Thomas put both hands on the table before them and told them they may as well cut them off right then, since he had no choice but to continue helping them. In surprise and anger, the men left without harming Fr. Thomas, vowing to return another day.
In a wealthy country such as ours, with so much focus on financial matters, it was illuminating for me to learn the story of Fr. Thomas and the Reformed Catholics in Sudan who have bigger concerns than money. They only want to be left in peace so they can pray and build up the Reign of God. Fort Wayne is full of churches that are always and forever having building campaigns, pledge drives, tithing programs and the like. A local bishop makes no secret of the fact that he wants a new multi-million dollar chancery office. An all-white Roman church in a declining neighborhood recently erected a $200,000 steeple, while poor Hispanic and Black kids play outside on the church grounds without enough food or even warm winter clothes. Maybe we should all emulate Fr. Thomas and focus instead on our faith, and serving the children of God, instead of letting money overshadow the message of Jesus!