Sermon delivered November 26, 2006.
Do I rule my wealth, or does my wealth rule me?
The year is ending and income tax time is soon approaching. We will sit down to calculate our income and expenses, wealth and liabilities. We will fill in the tax forms with our name at the top and signature at the bottom. We'll calculate the car payments, mortgage payments, and other expenses and long for the day when the payments stop and we can say, "It's mine!"
But is anything really ours? Or should another name be superimposed over our name such as "God and Father" or perhaps "Our Lord Jesus Christ"? If we really understood our Orthodox Christian faith we would respond, "Yes!" "All I have is the Lord's!" Why? Because we don't really own anything in this life. Everything we have belongs to God. From this perspective, we can better understand today's Gospel reading about the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-27).
Let's review the story. A rich young ruler approached Jesus and asked Him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells the young man to sell all that he had and give to the poor (v.22). The rich man left Jesus feeling sad.
If we know our scriptures we will recognize that Christ's command fulfills the lessons taught in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13) and the Parable of the Vineyard Owner (Mark 12, Luke 20). All three stories tell of a master who appointed servants to manage his possessions and lands, and later returned to collect the profits. In this case, the rich young ruler was asked to give an account of the wealth entrusted to him. When Jesus said that that was one thing that the young ruler still lacked (v.22), he implied that the young man should have already given to the poor.
Sometimes this does not make much sense to us. Don't we work hard for what we have? Yes, many of us do. However, the exhortation that what we have ultimately belongs to God tells us about what God is like and what we should be like too. Look at Christ for example.
When Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead, He paid a ransom to purchase us from the bondage of sin and death. He was the ransom. It's like one slave owner buying a slave from another owner. Christ bought us, but then He set us free. St. Clement of Alexandria wrote:
As a further motivation to give, remember that Jesus gave his all to save us. For each of us He gave His life. Because he gave up His life for us, He demands we give our lives for each other. If we owe our very lives to our brothers, shall we hoard our wealth and keep it away from them? Shall we keep things away from each other only to have those things burn at the end of the world? No, no! If we do not love our brothers, we are children of the devil and heading for the flames ourselves. But the true Christian loves his brothers! Love seeks not her own, but is diffused on the brother. About the brother love is fluttered, about him she is soberly insane! And as Paul tells us, love is the only thing that lasts.
If we become sad, angry, bitter, defensive, or uncomfortable when we hear the message of today's gospel, then we have not yet relinquished our attachment to worldly possessions. We are responding just like the rich young ruler did. St. Ambrose wrote:
A possession ought not to belong to the possessor, not the possessor to the possession. Whosoever, therefore, does not use his patrimony as a possession, who does not know how to give and distribute to the poor, he is the servant of his wealth, not its master; because like a servant he watches over the wealth of another and not like a master does he use it on his own. Hence, in a disposition of this kind we say that the man belongs to his riches, not the riches to the man.
Who is the alternative to rich young ruler? Who should we seek to emulate? Again the scripture shows us in the parable of the Poor Widow. We find the story in Mark 12 and Luke 21:
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, "Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had" (Luke 21:1-4).
The widow did not have much but she gave it all to God in the temple. Her offering, even though a mite is an equivalent to a penny, was generous and sacrificial. Her gift was of more value than the hundreds or thousands of dollars some might give today.
The purpose of giving is not only to help the poor, but also to allow Christ to work in our lives. If we can return our wealth to its first and proper owner, the ties that bind us to possessions can be broken and a barrier to eternal life removed. Amen.
Quotes of St. Clement and St. Ambrose from "What the Church Fathers Say About..." by George Grube (LL 1996), pp.145,148.