By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Our series on the Sermon on the Mount continues with Jesus’ teaching about money. If you were here last Sunday, you may recall that I said the three sermon topics that cause people the most angst are money, sex and fasting. Well, we made it through the sermon on fasting last week without any casualties, and I don’t have a sermon in mind on sex; so, if we can get through this one unscathed, it should be clear sailing from here on out.
But before we talk about money, let’s go back to the point Lewie Donalson made in our Heritage Lectures. He said that the essence of the Sermon on the Mount is a restatement of Torah and a renewed vision of the type of people God created us to be. It’s God’s Word without the wiggle room.
In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reestablished the standard of God’s righteousness and calls us to measure up. The point is to do it – to take Jesus’ teachings seriously and follow them to the best of our ability. The Good News is God loves us, even when we fall short – which is most of the time – yet, as we strive for the righteousness of God we experience more of the fullness of God’s grace and love.
With that said, sit back and relax, fasten your seat belts, and let’s talk about money. Jesus said it straight up: “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth…” (Matthew 6:19)
So, what part of this do we not understand? It’s as plain as the nose on your face: Don’t lay up for yourself treasures on earth! Why is this so hard to do?
I can think of two reasons: One, Jesus’ teaching runs contrary to the world in which we live. All our lives we’ve been taught to make and save and invest and accumulate as much as we can. It’s the American way: “The one with the most toys wins!”
And two, I think we’re afraid if we don’t lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, we’ll run short. We won’t have enough to get by. An old hymn assures us,
“Be not dismayed whate’er betide,
God will take care of you.”
And we’d like to think we believe that – that God will provide – but, deep down inside, what we really believe is, “God takes care of those who take care of themselves.”
So, we’ve got a problem: We’re taught not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, but we do it anyway. As a result, we get so preoccupied with the things of this world that we fail to experience the abundant life God promises us through faith in Jesus Christ. (John 10:10)
I had a friend years ago who had more stuff than anyone I’ve ever known. He wasn’t all that materialistic; it just came easily for him to acquire things. He was an entrepreneur, and he’d wheel and deal and, just like that, he’d be the proud owner of another car, a boat, an airplane, or some gadget. One day he took inventory of everything he owned that had a motor. He said he had something like thirty-five internal combustion engines to keep running!
You may not have as much as this, but you know what I mean: If you’re not careful you can be possessed by your possessions. The more you have the more time and effort it takes to keep up with them.
I had a minister friend one time who dreamed of owning a lake cabin. One day his dream came true. After skimping and scraping for years, he and his wife bought a small cabin on a lake east of Dallas. They kept it for a couple of years and sold it. I asked him why. He said it was killing them. Instead of going to the cabin to relax, they spent all their time mowing and cleaning and making repairs. Possessions have a way of taking priority.
But the bigger problem is that our possessions tend to give us a false sense of security, as if to say, if we only had enough money, or enough property, or enough furniture and clothing and jewelry – and did I mention shoes? – we’d have it made.
And yet, we all know how quickly the things of this world – even those things we’ve devoted our whole lives to attaining – can be taken from us:
• Overnight, the stock market can wipe out a lifetime of investments;
• A failed company like Enron can deplete an entire pension fund;
• A hurricane or tornado can completely destroy a home and all its contents;
• A diagnosis of cancer can put an end to all the hopes and dreams you had for the future.
I read a devotional in The Upper Room a few years ago entitled, Sand Castles. A woman was walking on Stewart Beach in Galveston on a beautiful summer day. She was looking at all the sand castles up and down the beach. Some were elaborate and ornate, reflecting a lot of time and talent and imagination. Others were just big globs of fun. Then the tide came in. Within minutes the sand was smooth once more, and the sand castles were gone.
If we’re not careful, this can be the story of our lives – building sand castles that are here today and gone tomorrow. So, listen once more to Jesus’ words:
“Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth,
where moth and rust consume,
and where thieves break through and steal;
but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consume,
and where thieves don’t break through and steal;
for where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also.”
So, how do you lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven? The answer is simple – you learn the art of giving. Now, listen carefully, because it’s a paradox, and it goes like this: 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 from you.
We see this from time to time at a funeral service. When you die, 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 less fortunate?
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.
Some of the treasures we give away are tangible. One of the gifts I’ll always treasure is a book by Fred Gealy entitled, Let Us Break Bread Together. It’s a collection of communion meditations Dr. Gealy preached in the 1950s at Perkins Chapel on the campus of SMU.
Dr. Gealy was one of my favorite seminary professors. I was sitting in his study one day lamenting the fact that I couldn’t find a copy of his book – it had long since gone out of print – when he reached over, took his own personal copy off the shelf, inscribed it and gave it to me. He died many years ago, and by now his library is scattered to the four winds, but this book will always be special because he gave it to me. It’s a symbol of an enduring friendship not limited by time or space.
Think about some of the things others have given to you. It doesn’t matter what they’re worth monetarily; what matters is the fact that they were given to you by someone who loved you and wanted you to have it.
One of my oldest and dearest friends once said, “When you give a gift you give a part of yourself. The gift symbolizes the giver, so that to receive a gift is to receive the one who gives it, and the gift itself becomes a lasting treasure for both to enjoy.”
The things we accumulate over the years quickly fade and tarnish and become obsolete; but the things we give away last forever.
Not all gifts are tangible. A woman once told me of a counselor who helped her through a difficult time. “He believed in me,” she said, “and that made all the difference.”
Of course, one of the greatest gifts you can ever give or receive is the gift of faith. Think back to the time when you first began to hear the Good News, and to think of yourself as a child of God, and to know in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord. Who was it that helped you come to faith? Was it your mom or dad … your grandparents … a Sunday School teacher … a minister? Perhaps it was a neighbor or even a total stranger. Whoever helped you come to faith gave you a priceless gift; and in seeing you come to faith, received a lasting treasure in return.
There used to be a poster in the entrance of the Fain Memorial Presbyterian Church in Wichita Falls, Texas that read: “Someone once told you about Jesus. Who have you told lately?” Sharing the gift of your faith with another person may be the most lasting contribution you’ll ever make to the kingdom of God.
Whether tangible or intangible, the only treasures you get to keep are those you give away.
I don’t know of a better example than the story of the woman who anointed Jesus in the home of Simon the Leper. According to Mark, Jesus was at table with this rich man and his friends when a woman barged in and proceeded to anoint him with a whole jar of costly nard. It was an act of selfless devotion. Simon was incensed. He said,
“‘Why has this ointment been wasted? For this might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.’… They grumbled against her. But Jesus said,
‘Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her?
She has done a good work for me…
Most certainly I tell you,
wherever this Good News may be preached throughout the whole world,
that which this woman has done will also be spoken of
for a memorial of her.'” (Mark 14:3-9)
All Simon could think about was the money. The same can be said of the Rich Young Ruler. He wanted to follow Jesus, but he didn’t want to give up his worldly goods. (Mark 10:17-22)
One of the most haunting teachings of Jesus about money is the Parable of the Rich Fool. It’s found in Luke’s gospel, and it goes like this:
“The ground of a certain rich man brought forth abundantly.
He reasoned within himself,
saying, ‘What will I do,
because I don’t have room to store my crops?’
He said, ‘This is what I will do.
I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones,
and there I will store all my grain and my goods.
I will tell my soul, “Soul,
you have many goods laid up for many years.
Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.”
But God said to him, ‘You foolish one,
tonight your soul is required of you.
The things which you have prepared—
whose will they be?'” (Luke 12:16-20)
Jesus saw beyond the money to something more lasting and of greater worth. He pointed to a widow as a model of righteousness because she put her last two coins in the offering as a symbol of her faith and devotion to God. (Mark 12:41-44) In the eyes of the world, she was poor; in the eyes of God, she was wealthy beyond comparison.
Bob Moser is one of my heroes of the faith. I followed him in Odessa, where he’d served as interim pastor. It didn’t take me long to appreciate his good works and the legacy he’d left behind. One of the sermons the folks were quick to tell me about was a sermon he’d preached on stewardship. The gist of it was this: “When you’re gone, will you leave behind more than an empty pew?”
That question spoke to the congregation then, and it still speaks to me today: Will you leave anything more behind than an empty pew? You will, if you learn the art of giving, because the things you give away will live on long after you’re gone. They’ll benefit others and serve as a lasting legacy of a life well-lived.
I can’t think of a better example than Oseola McCarty. She was 87 and living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she’d lived all her life, when, one day out of the blue, she donated $150,000 to Southern Mississippi University. The press jumped on the story. “What inspired you to give such a generous gift?” they asked. She said, “I wanted to help somebody’s child go to college.”
Oseola McCarty never married and never had children of her own, but she had a heart for young people and wanted to do what she could to help them get ahead. What’s remarkable is that she made her living taking in laundry for the people of Hattiesburg who lived in the nicer parts of town. She washed and ironed their clothes, lived a simple life and saved as much as she could; then, before she died, she gave it all away. She died in 1997, but she’ll always be remembered, not only by the University, but by the students who received scholarships bearing her name.
When you go home today take a moment to figure your net worth – not the money you have in the bank, but the good you’ve done for others through your own benevolence and charitable giving. See for yourself: The greater your gifts, the greater your wealth.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010 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.