Bruce Van Blair
September 21, 2014
Luke 6:20; 19:16-17; 10:30-35
II Thessalonians 3:5-15
MORE THAN GOLD
Some people say my mind works funny – at least when it comes to religion, and especially the Scriptures. Maybe so, but at least my mind works. When it comes to religion, and especially the Scriptures, most people’s minds do not work. They confuse their mind with their throat and just swallow. In fairness, most religious institutions encourage people to swallow and not think – to accept what they are told. If you do that from the time you are a child, then when you grow up you either tell your mind not to work when it comes to things religious or – if your mind insists on engaging – you are very likely to leave whatever church or religious institutions you have grown up in, because clearly they are telling you many things that are ridiculous, wrong, and even destructive. Many people don’t know there are churches where a working mind is still allowed, so they leave the church altogether.
By the way, there have always been such churches. They are not the big ones, but they do much to help keep the faith alive and renewing. Why do you think Paul was having trouble with the Jerusalem church? Or Origen with the Bishop of Alexandria? We think of Luther as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation; what do you think Jesus was? More than a Reformer, to be sure, but certainly not less. In many ways, Jesus’ experience with Judaism was similar to Luther’s experience with Catholicism. History does not repeat itself like a copycat, but major themes and principles are acted out over and over.
Does your mind work when it comes to religion and the Scriptures? If you just swallow, even in this church, you are not worshipping the Lord your God with all of your mind. I would never try to mislead you on purpose. I would consider that a very great sin, though it seems to me that many of my colleagues of the cloth do not share this conviction. On the other hand, I do try to make it difficult for those who want to merely go on swallowing. It makes it too easy for Satan to twist everything back to his own ends.
I don’t know how many Christians hold to their beliefs outside of the religious arena. One of the results of shutting off the mind in church is that it leads toward hypocrisy. Many thousands of people, for instance, use contraceptives in real life but say it is a sin when they are in the religious arena. It’s not hard to understand how that makes it possible to pray in church, devoutly and sincerely, but it has almost no carryover into the choices and decisions of everyday life.
Did they have pop quizzes when you were in school? Here comes one now. True or false: Poverty is good. Sex is bad. Celibacy is more saintly than having a family and raising children. The Bible was dictated to humans by God and contains no errors, inconsistencies, or mistakes. Anybody who doesn’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior is going straight to the burning fires of Hell for all eternity. Mary was and is a virgin. For the last two thousand years, Jesus has been about to “come again” in physical form, but even though He cannot seem to get it together, we still believe He is about to appear at any moment.
Over seventy-five percent of all Christians everywhere would answer “true” to all of these, even though anybody with a working mind knows that they are all false. And sadly – tragically – the Scriptures themselves, on closer examination, reveal them to be false. Indeed, the Scriptures reveal a far deeper, larger, more exciting WAY of Life – full of light, joy, fulfillment, and faith – far beyond what most Christians are believing or dealing with. But people who only swallow will never notice, and they wouldn’t allow themselves to think about it even if they did notice.
Well, we cannot talk about everything on one Sunday. That’s why, if you get serious about the Faith, you try to get here every Sunday. And not just to hear a sermon, but to see and talk with each other, to keep building the bonds, and to welcome anybody who wanders in here looking for something they cannot find in most places “out there.”
Today I want to talk about gold. Gold is good. Even though most of Christendom is telling people that gold is bad (unless, of course, you give it to the church or give it to the poor). But the truth is, gold is good. More accurately, gold – alias, money – is the value system of our entire culture and society. Therefore it represents our resources. Everything we do or try to do requires resources. Therefore, if well used, resources are essential and wonderful. Therefore, if I trust you at all, care about you, or have any intention of being in relationship or partnership or community with you, I want you to have resources. Unless I am jealous, twisted, negative, or evil, the more resources you have, the better I will like it. If you are faithful, then the more resources you have, the more you will accomplish for Jesus and His Kingdom. I wish you all had more gold – more money – in whatever form!
So why is the church telling people in most places that gold is bad? That rich people are never very good Christians? That wealth is the enemy of spirituality? That God loves the poor best of all? In short, that if you want to be loved by God truly and deeply, you should sell all you have and give it to the poor ... and help swell the welfare rolls?
That last one tries to get us into another one of those carelessly read and seldom-thought-about Bible passages, doesn’t it? (Matthew 19:16-24; Luke 18:18-25) What is the real point of the story of the rich ruler? Jesus is inviting him to come be one of His top disciples. He loves the man, not his wealth. He sees in the man potential enough to invite him into the twelve, to make room for a thirteenth. But the man is hung up on his wealth and all the time it takes to manage and grow it. To our knowledge, he is the only person invited into the inner sanctum – the top disciple band – who turns Jesus down. But it wouldn’t matter if it were sex, power, relatives, or whatever. Whatever stands between us and Jesus – between us and the New Life – must be expendable. That is the point of the story, not that gold is bad.
So why is the church telling so many people that wealth is bad and that being poor is good? I am not making this up. Vows of poverty have been honored as saintly for many generations now. A whiney, rebellious, spoiled-brat, neurotic, delusional son of a wealthy merchant is honored as one of our greatest saints. He was so fixated on poverty and suffering that his own best followers realized they had to break from his leadership and influence or the movement gathering around his turning away from the world could not survive. That’s right: the Franciscan Order survived by turning away from the leadership of Francis. I have no sympathy for Francis; everything that happened to him he called down upon himself on purpose. But I have great sympathy for his father – especially his earthly father.
We are always intrigued by movements that invite us to turn away from the world, because it is so much easier than being faithful in the world. By the way, despite all His mysticism and prayer, Jesus was always involved in the real world and was always coming back out of His prayers to be engaged in the real world. Mysticism and monasticism fit far better in a Hindu context than they do in a Christian one. And by the way again, if you take a vow of poverty but a multi-billion-dollar organization promises to feed you, clothe you, make sure you have shelter and medical attention and everything else you really need no matter what happens and for the rest of your life, is that really poverty? Over and over I have risked my job, my livelihood, and the well-being of my family to be faithful, and nobody ever promised to support me if things went bad (not that I ever asked them to). So I should be awestruck by the devotion of a priest? Actually, I have been very impressed by the devotion of a few priests I have known, but for very different reasons.
So why is the church telling most people in most places that gold is bad? That rich people are never very good Christians? That wealth is the enemy of spirituality? That God loves the poor more than the rest of us? What happens is that we start to warn people, over and over, of possible problems and pitfalls. Then the warnings turn into the message itself, and the Message itself is forgotten. Pretty soon we cannot even remember the real teaching or the real purpose. We only remember the warning. But warnings do not lead to LIFE. Warnings only try to protect us from the misuse of Life. If we end up with only the warnings, we end up negating Life and going more and more negative ourselves.
“Said the Reverend Joseph McCotten, ‘The dance of the devil’s begotten!’ Said young John to Miss Shy, ‘Never mind that old guy. To the pure, almost everything’s rotten.’”
But let’s be fair: Gold can be a problem. Gold, alias money, is always one of the top contenders for leading us into idol worship. Idol worship is putting anything or anyone in the role and place of God in our lives – anything that is not God. And the trouble with idolatry is not that it insults God; the trouble with idol worship is that when we most need the power and authority and love of the true God, idols let us down. Idols are not adequate on the other end of the prayer dialogue. They do not guide; they misguide. They do not care about our true identity or purpose. They do not care about our integrity or our spiritual growth. They do not care about our souls or the values of eternity. No sin is ever a sin just because it’s a sin. Nothing is wrong just because somebody says it’s wrong. Sin is sin because it destroys Life. Sin alienates us from God – our Creator, the source of all LIFE. Therefore, in the end, it also alienates us from ourselves, from others, and from everything we truly value.
Gold, if we get fixated on it, makes a terrible god. So does sex, power, popularity, fame, or any form of success; so does education, art, marriage, nationalism, health, ecology, or good deeds. Only GOD makes a good god. Anything else at the center of our lives will limit and sidetrack us from our true purpose and destiny. Some idols only warp us and leave us spiritually crippled, living our lives at half-mast. Others will destroy us entirely if we do not awaken, repent, and convert.
There is no doubt about it: gold has the power to corrupt and destroy us. So there are many warnings.
“There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” (I Timothy 6:6-11)
Of course, I would like it better if this teaching were not in the middle of a passage urging slaves to be cooperative and obedient to their masters. Oh well.
Gold is mentioned 412 times in my Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Everything from instructions about the vessels and decorations of the Tent of Meeting, and later the temple, to the passage I just read. Usually gold is mentioned in a good light. People have always brought gold to God. Why? Why all the gold in the temple? To impress God, or ourselves, or visitors? It is about maintenance: You have to keep polishing the silver. Gold does not tarnish; it cleans up easy and bright. Gold is not precious because it is precious; that happens after we can no longer remember what we are doing or why. Gold is the first metal humans learned to make pure, by smelting. It proved to be incredibly useful and beautiful. It became a symbol of purity, and purity (integrity, things without subterfuge) was a source of wisdom and a certain kind of power, at least to ancient peoples. Why put a crown of gold on your king? (Psalm 21:1-7) Originally it had nothing to do with riches. You wanted the king to have pure judgment – to have the wisdom to rule well – because the prosperity of the entire kingdom depended on it. Why are wedding rings made of gold? Never mind. But how many of you said, when you were getting married, “Be careful, this ring is a symbol of the root of all evil”? Maybe some of you should have ...
Sometimes the Bible mentions things more precious than gold, such as the laws and statutes of God (Psalm 19:7-10), wisdom (Job 28:12-28; Proverbs 3:14; 8:19), or faith (I Peter 1:7). But that is hardly a put-down of the preciousness of gold. In fact, it establishes it.
If we are fixated on money, or wealth of whatever kind, we cannot serve God with our whole heart and soul. There is no doubt about it. Fixated on wealth as our security, we cannot use our resources for their intended purpose – we cannot hear the guidance of the Holy Spirit when we are told of opportunities to accomplish important things with our resources. If we get fixated on wealth, we cannot learn the secret joy and power of generosity, which is its true purpose. Our lives shrivel up into survival for its own sake, and our partnership with God shrivels with it.
But in our time, with so many voices to the contrary – especially in the church itself, which should know better – I hope you will know with conviction and remember with clarity that gold itself is not the enemy. Gold (wealth, money) is a resource. As such, it is wonderful. The more you have, the more good you can do for yourself, your family, your community, your God. And your Lord will both approve of and appreciate that, if truly you are doing it in obedience and devotion to Him.
Contrary to some teachings, Jesus was no pauper. Of course, He had resources far beyond gold. But He also had a trade and He had a house in Capernaum. Some will tell you that being a carpenter was the low end of the scale in Jesus’ time, but the evidence is far from conclusive. There have been good carpenters and bad carpenters in all ages, including our own. Some carpenters today are not making much; some are making a very good living. I suspect Jesus was very good at what He did. We are also told that at the time, there was a building boom in nearby Tiberius and the Decapolis and several other communities within easy reach.
Jesus had many wealthy followers, and we are told outright that when He began His ministry, many of them believed in who He was and what He was doing and supported His ministry with their wealth. (Luke 8:3) Those who love and believe in Him have been doing so ever since.
Gold is neither good nor bad. Christianity is not for poverty and it is not against wealth. In our time, the only place we seem to remember this is when we think about eternal life. Few people picture Heaven as a place of poverty, scarcity, or deprivation. In the old language, the streets are paved with gold. That is only imagery for everybody being so wealthy that they don’t know what to do with it all. That is a lot closer to what we would expect from the love and abundance of a good God than what the church seems to be telling people today.
We do not have to have a lot of gold to be faithful. But if we are faithful, we will work to acquire all the resources we can, in good and honorable ways. And we will use our resources as well as we can – under guidance from the Spirit – for ourselves, our families, our friends, and our Lord. And hopefully along the way some people who were poor will no longer be poor, because they ran into us.
Anyway, I hope you know this. A lot of people do not. Therefore, I hope you will think it through for yourselves until you are confident and willing to tell others. Poverty sucks. Being poor is never the desire or purpose of God. Generosity is wonderful and full of blessings for all concerned. But just getting rid of earthly goods is not a way toward spiritual growth or sainthood. Nothing so valuable comes that easily.
On the other hand, we constantly hear of some individual who cheats, lies, or steals to get more gold than they can earn. Doubtless, in some twisted logic, they want to give more to mates or children or friends. Somewhere along the line they have stopped caring about other people or their mates or children or friends. And ultimately they stopped caring about God. Yes, some things are more precious than gold. We have to spend time to keep our heads and hearts straight. You, Lord God – You, Jesus, Lord and Christ – are more precious to us than gold.
Copyright 2014 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.