Some time ago, I read a true story about a man who came to Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the United States Senate, with a concern about tithing. “I have a problem,” he said. “I have been tithing for some time. It wasn’t too bad when I was making $20,000 a year; I could afford to give up $2,000. But now that I am making $500,000, there is no way I can afford to give away $50,000 a year.”
Chaplain Marshall reflected on this wealthy man’s dilemma but gave no advice. He simply said, “Yes, sir. I see that you have a problem. I think we ought to pray about it. Is that all right?”
The man agreed, so Dr. Marshall bowed his head and prayed, “Dear Lord, this man has a problem, and I pray that you will help him. Please reduce his salary back to the place where he can afford to tithe again.”
In point of fact, those who make $20,000 or less truly do give the highest percentage of their annual income to charity (about 4.6%).
Homiletics gurus will tell you that the more difficult the subject you intend to preach on, the more humor you need use to sort of mediate it. That’s why, during stewardship season, humor typically abounds in the sermons we hear. Because, of all the touchy subjects to preach about, money is probably the most touchy of all.
And Presbyterians are as prickly as anyone about it.
Especially when it comes to how much we give or don’t give to the church.
“It’s nobody else’s business,” they’ll tell you. “That’s between me and God.”
According to the Pew Research Center, Presbyterians – per capita – are among the wealthiest of all religious groups in the United States, coming in fourth from the top—just below the Episcopalians and just ahead of the Atheists. Sixty-one percent of Presbyterians have an annual income of more than $50,000, with thirty-two percent making over $100,000.[i] The median household income probably hovers somewhere between $70 and 80,000.
On the other hand, the average financial contribution, per Presbyterian, to his or her local church is around $1,500 each year. You do the math.
All of which leaves the preacher sort of scrambling this time of the year; especially considering that Jesus talked about money more than anything else. Sixteen of his thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses deals directly with the subject of money. The Bible as a whole offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, and over 2,000 verses on money and possessions.[ii]
Maybe Jesus talked so much about money – particularly in relationship to one’s faith – because he knew that those two subjects were among the most important things to people; but very few people seemed to make the connection between the two.
In a sermon on stewardship former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Susan R. Andrews, challenged her listeners by quoting something a colleague of hers said. Rabbi Reeve Brenner, declared to the members of his Bethesda Jewish Congregation that the most religious book ever written is not the Bible. No, no. The most religious book ever written is your checkbook—and mine. What is really important to us? What really matters to us? Who or what is it that truly rules over our life? Stated the good Rabbi: our checkbook, or our automated online balance sheet, gives the most honest answer to those questions.
A highly educated, very wealthy young man comes to Jesus seeking . . . What?
He is a privileged man; one with great power and possessions, wealth and influence, status and social standing. So, what is he looking to get from Jesus?
He kneels before this itinerant rabbi and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherent eternal life?” It’s a good question. A question any one of us might ask on any given Sunday morning. But, Jesus gives him answer he is not expecting.
Jesus looks into this man’s heart and sees a deeper issue going on.
“You know the commandments,” Jesus says and goes on to list them.
“Check,” says the young man, “Teacher, I’ve kept all those since I was a boy.”
Now, we have to understand that, “All of this his life, this young man’s money has equaled access, favor and special consideration. So, when he came to Jesus, he probably expected Jesus to affirm his piety and obedience to the commandments; you know, give him a pat on the back and send him on his way.”
“The young man perhaps thinks: I work hard. I got into a top-notch university. I volunteer with my church. So, the rich man kneels before Jesus looking for yet one more seal of approval, one more accolade to add to the long list on his resume.”[iii]
But Jesus looks at him – looks through him – and sees that all the wealth and education and status and power in the world cannot give this young man what his heart most deeply yearns for—that, truly, for which all our hearts most deeply yearn. The Affirmation of Love; Complete Love, Ultimate Love—Divine Love.
And he will never find such Love by focusing on his own personal achievement.
So Jesus challenges him to stop acquiring – wealth, status, affirmation – and start relinquishing – power, money, privilege – in order to follow the One who doesn’t puff himself up, but pours himself out.[iv]
In other words, you find the truth of love and the fulfillment of love – the reality of love – not by seeking to acquire it for yourself, but by giving it away to others.
The rich young man is simply stunned – and grieved – by Jesus’ answer. For he has a whole lot of money and stuff. And he turns away and leaves Jesus’ presence filled with sorrow; for he knows – or at least he believes in his heart – that he can never give up all that wealth.
This is, indeed, a stewardship sermon. But it is not primarily about money. It’s more about our attitude toward money and what we hold as sanctified in life. It’s about humility and gratitude and priorities and responsibility. It’s about the condition of our soul. It’s about where we choose to invest the riches of our hearts—in material possessions that can never fulfill the heart’s deepest desire; or in the One who resides in the deepest recesses of every human heart.
This is a story about what – and whom – we will worship and serve in this life.
To hear Jesus tell this rich young man to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” is a shock to our ears today as well. Because, let’s face it, relatively speaking, we here in the United States are among the richest people in the world.
And, of course, we all, presumably, want to follow Jesus in our lives—or we wouldn’t be here. Right?
But how in the world can we possibly be an asset to Jesus by impoverishing ourselves?
It’s a ridiculous notion. Right?
“How can anyone be saved?” the disciples asked Jesus.
“What is impossible for mortals,” Jesus simply says, “is yet quite possible for God.”
Well, no one ever said that discipleship was going to be easy.
And, I’ve got to tell you, if you’re expecting me to explain precisely what Jesus is saying here, to make this tough sounding Jesus – who challenges us to `go…sell…give…follow’ – sound more user-friendly, more marketable, easier to live with, then I’m afraid you might well leave this place `filled with sorrow.’
But I will leave you with a story that has helped me to better understand – or at least `make amends’ – with the sore challenge at hand.
It’s about a young couple who suddenly found themselves to be the benefits of a rather large inheritance—well over a million dollars. They had always worked hard to make ends meet, never had a lot of extra money. And so were in somewhat of a quandary over what to do with this inheritance. Now, this young couple were very religious, very faithful, church-going people, and so they naturally went to their pastor for advice on this matter.
After explaining their predicament – and their desire to do the right thing with their newfound wealth – their pastor thought about it for a moment, seemingly deep in prayer, and then looked up at them and said, “You must give the money away—all of it.”
As you can imagine, the young couple was somewhat shocked by the pastor’s words, at first. But then – knowing that he was a wise and loving pastor and, again, wanting very much to do the right thing – they agreed to do so.
“But who should we give it to?” they asked him.
The pastor told them to make a list of the most worthy, most benevolent charities they could think of, and then bring that list back to him in a week. The young couple dutifully followed their pastor’s advice; they agonized over which charities to choose; and even grieved a little bit together over what they had fantasized about how the money might improve their own lives.
Finally, they came up with their list of several possible charities, including a sizable donation to the church. The next week, they brought the list to the church and presented it to their pastor. The pastor took the list, looked at it for several minutes, nodding approvingly, and then handed it back to them and said, “Now you have to keep the money.”
The young couple was stunned by his words. They looked at each other and then back at their pastor completely baffled.
“But we thought you wanted us to give it all away,” they exclaimed.
Replied their pastor, “I wanted to know – and I wanted you to know – that you were willing and able to give it all away; that you could resist allowing this newfound wealth take possession of you. But now that you know it doesn’t belong to you, you have to keep it and faithfully use it for God’s good purposes. You see, if you gave it all away at once, it would no doubt make some positive differences in the world, at least for a short time. But, by being good stewards of this money – by managing it for the sake of building God’s kingdom of love and mercy and grace in the world – you can make a much bigger difference over time.”
You know, it’s most definitely true – what we Presbyterians are wont to say – that what we do with the money that is entrusted to us is strictly between us and God. Most certainly, we have all been richly blessed with that which we have. Therefore we also bear the burden of responsibility for what we do with that wealth.
As we do, let’s keep God in the decision-making process through prayer. And then let us use it wisely, humbly, unselfishly and generously for the sake of God’s love, that others might also share in the inheritance that is ours in Jesus Christ.
And then we’ll surely have treasure in heaven.
[ii] Rowell, Edward K. (ed.), 1001 Quotes, Illustrations & Humorous Stories for preachers, teachers & writers, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006, 4th ed.
[iii] Duffield, Jill, “Looking into the Lectionary”, 21st Sunday after Pentecost, The Presbyterian Outlook, Oct. 8, 2018.