Tuesday, October 18, 2011

All, Jesus' Spirituality of Wealth (2): First, More

Psalm 37:1-11 (call to worship)

Matthew 13:44-45 (kids)
Matthew 6:1-4, 19-34 (message focus)

Last week as we examined this Scripture, we focused primarily on the themes in the first section, the section preceding the Lord’s Prayer. We looked at the strings attached, so often, to issues of wealth and giving. And, we see that Jesus acknowledges those strings, urges us to cut the strings that bind us, and urges us instead to bind ourselves to God by our giving. Giving, godly giving, unites us with our Father God.

I told the story of the young person in our church who prepared their offering envelope. On the “name” line they wrote “Dear Father God” – because it is not about us but about our Father who sees in secret. For “amount” they wrote, “25¢”. For “what special offering” they wrote, “Monies”. Because where their treasure is, there their heart will be also. “Lead with your treasure”; let it unite you to “Dear Father God”.

Today, we continue exploring this section, with more of a focus on the second half of this teaching, the section following the teaching on prayer and fasting.

These messages consider Jesus’ spirituality of wealth, a tremendously important aspect of his teaching. As I mentioned last week, Jesus spoke about work, business, and money more than he talked about heaven or hell. Jesus is concerned that all of our lives be fully devoted to God.

These messages also prepare us for Consecration Sunday, next week, with our District Superintendent, Rev. Mark Webb. As part of worship next week, Rev. Webb will lead us a prayerful and worshipful devotion of our wealth – whatever stuff we have – to God. Later in the worship service today, Ray Sandy, a member of our council, will provide a report on our giving, from the perspective of our discipleship, our following Jesus. Each week in worship, we give back to God. We do this in worship because we believe that this is part of our discipleship and part of our worship. If it was just about funding programs of a non-profit organization, we could charge membership fees or do a hundred other things that organizations do to raise money. But it is not just about funding. It is about giving back to God as an act of worship.

Before we dive into this second section, a couple introductory matters:

There are four parts, which Frederick Bruner describes as
The two treasures
The two eyes
The two lords
The two anxieties (Bruner, 319)
Thematically, we’re going to extend the “strings attached” language to more reflection on slavery and freedom. Last time, we saw how godly giving binds us to God. This week, we discover that godly giving sets us free.

Part 1, the two treasures, treasures on earth or treasures in heaven: We spoke about this last week, so I’ll expand with a couple quick references. Once more in this gospel, Jesus uses the phrase “treasures in heaven”. It comes in Matthew 19:16-22. A rich young man comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to have eternal life?” After a few moments of conversation, Jesus tells him, “If you want to be perfect/mature, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”.

What do you say to that? We mostly look for wiggle room. Jesus wasn’t speaking to every disciple, but to one particular young man who needed to do this for the sake of his soul. In all that look for wiggle room, we miss that Jesus is speaking about the economics of righteousness and the kingdom of God. It actually is simpler to sell everything. To live out the values of the kingdom and retain the title to stuff – no matter how much or how little we have – is much more complicated. If you give it all away, there is no question where your treasure is. Can you keep some, and not be tied to it?

This is where the biblical teaching of the tithe comes in. Jesus typically focuses on the fact that everything we have comes from God and belongs to God. The larger biblical tradition offers tithing – giving a tenth – as a practical way to consecrate everything to God, as a way to live in the complicated situation of having stuff that really isn’t ours, that really belongs to God. “If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, the whole batch is holy” (Romans 11:16). When we give God a portion, the first portion, a significant portion, a tithe, we become able to hold the remaining portion in trust for God. I put together a list of frequently asked questions about tithing and included it in the worship program today, along with a couple Consecration Sunday visual tools to guide our prayers this week as we consider growing in our giving practice, particularly our percentage giving, in the coming year.

Part 2, the two eyes, either light or darkness. This is notoriously difficult to understand. It views the metaphorical eye as a lamp, not as a lens. It speaks of the body as “full of light” or “luminous” by virtue of the eye (Bruner), rather than speaking of the road, path, or home as brightly lit by the sun or streetlight. What I suggest is that Jesus points out that what we focus our eyes on impacts our soul. If we obsess about what we don’t have, about scarcity, that is going to shape our soul with darkness. If we focus upon the gift of God in Jesus Christ, on plenty, we will be full of light.

Part 3, the two lords, God or “Mammon”. This section uses language from the relationship of slave and master, or servant and master. The word “Mammon”, a name used here for the god of wealth, reminds us that wealth or property has a spiritual power. There is no reference to how much or how little we have, but a simple acknowledgment that too often our possessions – or those we hope to possess – possess us.

“Mammon” comes from the Hebrew root “amen”. “Amen” is not just a word that we append to prayer, but a word for what we trust (Thayer). Our money has a saying on it: “In God we trust”. That begs a very important question: “Which god? Money or Jesus?” Bruner translates this verse, “You cannot possibly serve God and Gain”. John Chrysostom’s comment: When God says “not possible”, don’t you say “possible” (Bruner, 325).

Part 4, the two anxieties, for life, food, drink, clothing or for God’s kingdom. First, the practical – worry doesn’t accomplish anything. Take it one day at a time, don’t get ahead of yourself in your worrying about tomorrow. [Story: Paying for two college educations, tithing, peace.]

Second, a promise of God’s extravagant care. God cares for us more than the birds, and they eat a lot. The purple martin eats its weight in insects on a daily basis – 7000 mosquitoes a day! A hummingbird drinks twice its weight in nectar every day. (See http://www.birdola.com/bird_facts.htm ). God cares for us more than flowers, and they are more extravagantly clothed than the most glorious royals. It is amazing to see Jesus use such extravagant images for the care of God in a section in which he warns us against the worship of Gain. God only calls some to voluntary poverty, and God delights in beauty and God delights in extravagant giving to us. No wonder discipleship includes “excelling in the grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7, NIV). No wonder, in the language of Psalm 37, with which we began the worship hour, the psalm continues beyond our reading to say, “The righteous are generous and keep giving. . . . They are ever giving liberally” (Psalm 37:21, 26). Becoming generous is becoming godly. [Story: Our own folks who struggle to put food on the table ... and who are among the most generous people I know.]

Third, a priority, the kingdom of God FIRST in our lives. The drive for “more”, the pursuit of Gain, the worship of Mammon only pushes godliness and righteousness out of our lives. More is not God’s way forward. God’s way forward is “first”. And there is no “second”. Jesus just tells us that if we put God first, then we can let God take care of everything else. It is not an invitation to laziness or irresponsibility, but a call to actively devote everything in our lives to the kingdom . . . everything, as extravagantly as God gives to us.

[Story: Jesse in the grocery story with the lollipop.] But too often we find ourselves to be slaves of Gain, and Gain is a hard master. Our fists are clenched. We hold tight to everything we’ve got. Giving sets us free. Giving sets us free from the pursuit of more. Giving sets us free from worry about necessities. And, giving binds us to God. This week, I want to encourage you to pray over your next step to freedom, to God, by giving. May our whole bodies be “full of light”.

Frederick Dale Bruner, 2004 (1987), Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 1:The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon in Hermeneutika’s BibleWorks 6.0

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