Most of us have a complicated, if not conflicted, relationship with our treasure – our wealth, our relationships, our status, and our small and sometimes shaky sense of control over our life. The words of Jesus, and before him the prophets, invite us into a field of abundance and surrender, trust and uncertainty, obedience and freedom. And business as usual will not take us there. (RCL Luke 12:32-40)
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Not two sentences you would necessarily think go together – God wants you to have good pleasures, and by the way, sell your possessions and give away your wealth! But the holy is often to be found in the creative tension between two paradoxical opposites both of which are true.
Let us explore. On the one hand Jesus is speaking to us out of the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament that sees everywhere the generous hand of the creator at work and sees God as providential. Jesus is inviting us to remember that our Creator in heaven is good and knows our needs, and desires us to have good and right things. Desires not only us but all creation to live in abundance and plentiful trusting joy – as do the birds of the air and flowers of the field. God’s good creation can only come to fullness where we participate with just and generous full heartedness.
On the other hand Jesus was no doubt also speaking out of the Old Testament prophetic tradition that was deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the widow, the orphan and the alien – the most vulnerable and the least important in the community. Again and again whole communities are judged in the Old Testament by how this poor and unimportant group is treated. So we do need to listen to the warning that we are being and will be judged by how well the poorest and least important in our local community and global community are fairing. There is an ethical imperative to our being just and generous in what we have, how we get it, and how we share it.
Therefore we must engage with the promise and the call at multiple levels. We can begin with the interior or personal spirituality level (although for some it makes more sense to start with the global). Jesus is speaking to us as spiritual seekers, as companions on the way and is both encouraging us and challenging us. Jesus often speaks most challengingly to those who would follow him – the rich young man who is told just one thing remains to do – to sell all his possessions. We have it again this morning …”Do not be afraid …sell your possessions …” in many ways Jesus again and again tells his disciples that they must give up their possessions, their way of life – leave your nets behind and follow me - all that gives them security, personal independence and the sense of control over their own lives to follow him into uncertainty and life abundant and eternal.
But always, it seems, in the context of what we have just read this week and last week, that God knows what we need and wants us to have good things. Elsewhere Jesus says that those who have given up family and property for him will receive much. Clearly Jesus is not asking us to give up our possessions in order to be poor per see. There is no sense in which Jesus says living a life of deprivation is good in itself. What he does say is “Where you treasure is there your heart will be also” so in effect Jesus is saying ‘I need you to loosen your grip on your material and relational treasures in order to free your heart and mind to follow.’
We try and fool ourselves that we can have our wealth over here and our heart somewhere else – thus we try and convince ourselves that we possess our possessions and that we could give them up if we needed to. The story of the rich young man points to how hard it is. Our possessions tend to possess us. The challenge to give up our possessions is an invitation to life and freedom not a command to suffer.
Many spiritual traditions have addressed this paradox. The Buddha began life as a very rich prince who lived quite happily it seems until at age twenty nine he gave up all his wealth to seek enlightenment, after having seen a number of signs. For six years he lived a life of extreme poverty but nothing worked. So he ate a good meal, bathed in the river and sat down under a tree to await enlightenment. That night he passed into a super conscious state and was enlightened. He then came to understand and teach the Middle Way.
St Frances of Assisi began life as the son of a wealthy merchant. He was a happy soul, a party animal and desired the glory of being a great knight. But only one day into his journey to the Crusades he had a dream and gave away his expensive armour. His father became so frustrated with his searching for God that he renounced him. And in a delightful scene Frances stripped naked in the church and handed his opulent clothes to his father. He then took up a life of radical poverty – working with his hands and begging for what else he needed. Constantly he was aware of the goodness and generosity of God, especially through the witness of nature. Slowly others joined him and an order built up around him. He struggled his whole life between the call to radical dependence on God and the needs and tendencies of a group of people to organise and start collecting possessions and traditions.
In the spiritual life we do need to live in the tension between the challenge to give up all our possessions, all our small securities, and the invitation to trust in God’s good and generous desires for us. The middle way is not simple the way of compromise, which is what we as Christians in the west often do. “Oh well, I will have a modest average western life and give my left over money to the poor.”
But left over slices of the pie, or crumbs from our overladen table, are not justice or reflective of God’s desire to see that all God’s children live in abundance, that all of God’s beautiful creation is healthy and flowing with clean water and fresh air. And at this time when Richard Sider has just entered into his rest, forty four years after publishing his seminal work “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” and we are teetering on ecological collapse we cannot pretend that it is just a matter of personal spiritual priorities and greater generosity with our left overs. For this leaves our heart still focused on managing our possessions which leaves us with the original two problems. The poor – the vast majority of the world’s population - are still trapped in inequitable and vulnerable relationship with us, so there is still no justice or mercy. And we still have our primary relationship with our self and our possessions rather than with God. God is always beckoning us into God’s loving embrace. The justice that the prophets spoke of, the abundance Jesus promised, are for all not merely us and our group.
So how do we faithfully live into the middle way, the holy third way, of living in the abundance of God while giving away our personal wealth that possesses us and leaves others starving. There of course are no easy answers. What may be helpful is to think about what are our personal tasks, what is our work as local churches and communities, and what is our communal task as wealthy western nations.
As individuals of faith we need to include times of prayer and meditation when we allow ourselves to sink into the abundant goodness of God and to grow in trust (and just watch the anxious mind complain and raise fears when we do?!). Working as best we can from the place of abundant hope we need to make decisions about our personal wealth and debt, responsibilities and abilities, life stage and relationship connections, about what we need as well as what we want; about where to invest and in what with great attention to our direct and indirect impact on the environment and other peoples; about reducing, reusing and recycling what we can; about giving away and downsizing at the right stage of life; about maybe living more communally and sharing more of those things we only use occasionally; about growing what we can for ourselves and our neighbours; about making sure that when our wills are read that we will share what we have not yet been able to give away with those beyond our immediate family; and we know lots of other ways we could start or continue to become more responsible and free from our personal treasures.
As communities of faith we also need to be more focused on our neighbours and our neighbourhoods. Churches are ideal places for the recycling of belongings; for supporting other community groups; the development of community vegetable gardens that bring people and appetites together and help create communities out of neighbourhoods. Larger church networks can bring resources including but not only money and knowledge and skills from places of greater wealth to places of lesser wealth. At this very moment many of the bishops of the world wide Anglican communion are gathered in Lambeth, England, and my distress as some make it a gathering about judging some others gender identity and sexual orientation (they’ve got it wrong anyway!) while the world burns in some places while drowning in others! Church can be a powerful voice for justice for those who do not have safe homes and food for their children and it is a sin to squander that opportunity while choosing to distract ourselves with supposed personal sins!!
And of course much of the change must happen at a national and global level but even here we have some influence. We can keep in mind issues such as military spending and overseas aid when voting. We can choose to give what we personally can to those organisations that focus on community development such as micro financing local entrepreneurs in developing countries.
You know better than I do what needs to happen in your life, in your church, and in your nation. My prayer for you and myself is that we will faithfully rest in the abundant love of God and be moved to courageously and generously let all that we have and are flow into the world which our God created for our interconnected joy and pleasure.
Even so, come Lord Jesus, come orientate our fearful hearts toward the goodness of our God until we too are open hearted.