If you haven’t figured it out by now, today’s the big kickoff of our stewardship campaign. The Session has approved a tentative budget for next year, but it won’t mean much unless we have the pledges of support to underwrite it. So, thanks to David and Cherry, we’re going to have a fish fry after church and hear some testimonials about why it’s important to support the church; then we’re going to be asked to take a pledge card home with us and pray about our commitment to the church for next year. We’ll bring our pledge cards back to the church on November 12 and dedicate them to God.
All this coincides with the gospel lesson from the lectionary today – the story of the rich young ruler – which has to do with money all right; but, as we’ll see, there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s a story about stewardship and putting God first in every part of our lives.
It’s found in each of the synoptic gospels with slight variations. For example, only Luke refers to him as a ruler (Lk. 18:18). The fact that he was rich is inferred from the way the story ends. It says, “he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions.” (Mark 10:22)
Whether he was a ruler or just some guy on the street, everyone agrees he had a burning question in his heart: “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” He’d kept the Ten Commandments since he was a kid and, in the Jewish faith, that was your ticket to heaven. Yet, Jesus said,
“One thing you lack.
Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven;
and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” (Mark 10:21).
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Our tendency is to take what Jesus said to the rich young ruler and apply it across the board – that, in order to be faithful, you’ve got to have a big garage sale and get rid of everything you own, giving the proceeds to those in need.
I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind, though I don’t doubt that’s what he said to the rich young ruler. I figure when Jesus looked into his heart, that’s what he saw as the obstacle standing between him and God. In other words, it could’ve been any number of things – the rich young ruler could have been a workaholic or an alcoholic or a sex maniac. He could’ve been a compulsive gambler, golfer, fisherman or hunter; he could’ve been hung up on soap operas, Internet web sites or radio talk shows … whatever – Jesus addressed that part of his life that stood between him and God … which, in his case, was money.
In this sense, the story illustrates our tendency to compartmentalize – to put God in a box – to go to Sunday School and church on Sunday morning and go about our business the rest of the week.
We’re like the little four-year-old girl who, when the minister came to her home to visit, asked him, “Would you like to see Jesus?” He said, “Why, of course I would!” She ran to her closet, climbed up on a chair and got a little ceramic figure of Jesus down and brought it for him to see. “That’s beautiful,” he said, “Thank you for showing it to me.” “You’re welcome,” she replied, “Now I’ve got to go and put Jesus back on the shelf where he belongs.”
We tend to compartmentalize – this is religious, that’s secular; this belongs to God, that belongs to me. We divvy up our time, talent and treasure in such a way as to give God a portion – and we can be very generous in doing this – then we think of the rest as ours to do with in whatever way we please.
That’s the essence of the story of the rich young ruler: “I’ll keep the Commandments, Lord, just leave my money alone!”
Yet, Jesus looked upon his heart and said, “One thing you lack – go and sell all that you own and give it to the poor, then come and follow me.”
If you were to meet Jesus today, and he said you lacked one thing in order to be faithful, what one thing would that be?
Would it be your talent? I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known with beautiful voices who refused to sing in the choir.
Would it be your ability? I’ve known lots of people with a gift for teaching who wouldn’t dream of teaching Sunday School.
Would it be your personality – your people skills? I know people with charisma out the gazoo – folks who’ve never met a stranger – yet who wouldn’t dare put in a good word for the Lord and invite someone to come with them to church.
The truth is everything belongs to God, all that we have and all that we are. It’s God’s, not ours. We’re stewards, not owners, and our job is to manage faithfully what God has entrusted to us and use it to the fullest to glorify God and serve the common good. An old gospel hymn says it best:
“All to Jesus I surrender;
All to him I freely give.”
The story of the rich young ruler is not essentially about money, it’s about the faithful stewardship of our time, talent and treasure. Yet, the truth is a lot of folks are hung up on money and, for this reason, I think it deserves a little straight talk.
First, when it comes to money, you can’t take it with you.
I challenge you to show me a hearse with a trailer hitch. When you take that last ride out to the cemetery, whatever you’ve managed to accumulate in the way of worldly assets is going to stay behind.
You can’t take it with you … but you can’t help wishing you could. We all have this fascination about getting to the Pearly Gates and needing a little cash.
The story is told of three men who went to the funeral home to pay their respects to a mutual friend. The first looked at the body and said, “I don’t know if we’ll need money in heaven or not, but I’d hate to think ole Charlie would wake up and be caught short.” With that, he took a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet and slipped it into Charlie’s coat pocket. The second man said, “That’s awfully nice of you, and, to tell you the truth, I owed Charlie some money.” With that, he took out a twenty-dollar bill and slipped it into Charlie’s coat pocket. The third man said, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to need money in heaven, and I certainly didn’t owe Charlie anything, but I feel like I ought to follow suit. So, he took out his checkbook and wrote a check for fifty dollars and slipped it into Charlie’s coat pocket, and then he took the two twenties in change.
You can’t take it with you. Even if you could, it wouldn’t do you any good. That’s the first point. The second is the only treasures you get to keep are those you give away.
When you give with a generous spirit, and when you receive nothing in return except the joy of giving, then your gifts become lasting assets – treasures in heaven – that can never be taken away from you.
We see this from time to time at funeral services. At the time of death, no one really cares to know how much money you made, how many suits you owned, how many fur coats you had in your closet; the question is, how did you use what you had to help others, particularly those in need? What we hope others will say of us is something like, “She paid my way through college” … “He gave me a job when I was down and out” … “He kept me on the payroll long after I got sick” … “She was always there for me.”
The only treasures you get to keep are those you give away. That’s the second point, and the third isthe best way to gauge money’s hold on you is tithing – taking ten percent of your disposable income and giving it as a thank offering to God.
Just so we’re clear: That’s ten percent off the top, before taxes, not including what you give to the United Way or the March of Dimes and not counting how many boxes of Girl Scout cookies you buy.
I couldn’t be more serious. Those who tithe discover a greater joy in giving and a greater abundance of real wealth than ever before. It took me a long time to discover this for myself, but it’s one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever had.
Tithing is a healthy discipline. It’s systematic, consistent and proportionate to your income. It reminds you that God is responsible for all that you have.
When you give ten percent to God, it makes you that much more grateful for the remaining ninety percent. Plus, tithing holds you accountable. Specifying ten percent takes out the wiggle room and keeps you from rationalizing and pretending you’re giving more than you actually are.
Most importantly, tithing puts God first. It’s a concrete and tangible way of respecting the sovereignty of God over your life and trusting that, by putting God first, God will provide for your needs.
And this is what most people discover when they tithe – that, rather than not having enough money to get by, they actually have more. It’s like the story of the loaves and fish – when the little boy gave Jesus his sack lunch, Jesus was able to feed the multitude, and the little boy got all he wanted to eat to boot!
So, the best way to gauge money’s hold on you is tithing. That’s the third point, and the final point is this:If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t count.
Good stewardship requires more than pitching loose coins into a beggar’s cup on your way to nice restaurant. Good stewardship requires commitment and devotion and sacrifice. A good rule-of-thumb is: Give until it hurts, then give some more. Before long, the pain will give way to a greater joy of giving than you can ever imagine.
I saw this first-hand in 1973. I was serving as student pastor of a small church in Prosper, Texas, just north of Dallas. We had a Board of Trustees that looked after the property. They wanted to buy a vacant lot across the street from the church for parking and for future development. The price was $8,000, which was a lot of money in those days, particularly for a small congregation. To raise the money, the chairman of the board asked the others to join him in making a pledge. He hoped that would serve as a catalyst for the rest of the congregation to follow suit.
We met in the basement of the church around folding tables. There were eight men and one woman. Her name was Mary James. She and her husband, Larry, had two young children. Larry worked in McKinney for Fisher Controls. Mary ran a small beauty shop next to their house. They were doing all right, but they didn’t have a lot of discretionary income. So, it sort of put Mary in a bind to be asked to make a pledge right there in front of the others. But she was a faithful member of the church and she was proud to be member of the Board of Trustees, and she wanted to do her part.
The chairman passed out little slips of paper, and, like the others, Mary jotted down her pledge. Then one of the men went around the table and collected them in his hat and took them to the chairman, who tallied them up and read the results.
Most were for a hundred dollars a year. When he got to Mary’s pledge, it read, “One haircut per week.” He paused for a moment with a puzzled look on his face, then he asked Mary, “How much do you get for a haircut.” She said, “$5.00. He did the math and put down the amount of Mary’s pledge. $260. More than two and half times the others. Yet, not all at once. One haircut per week. It was her pledge of support and a symbol of her devotion to God.
May we be as faithful in our giving, now and always. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.