“Do our ways derive from ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ of which we have been well warned for such a long time? Or do they serve life in the kingdom of God and the following of Jesus in which we have been given, historically and liturgically, a long apprenticeship?“
– Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way, p.2
While I was on tour with my former college choir last January, I had the unique experience of seeing many churches throughout the country. Many were Lutheran, some were not. One of the churches we visited that was not Lutheran was a very wealthy Methodist church in Tennessee (I am choosing not to name the church specifically). The church building itself was enormous with a very large sanctuary that only comprised (from what I could tell) maybe 5% of the total square feet of the building, and I was told it was the “home church” of several high-profile celebrities. It was and is reasonable to assume that the church has a rather healthy supply of money.
As I was exploring the church, I saw this this slide from the announcements. Take a second to click that link. You’ll notice that of the four “Core Values”, the underlined letters create the acronym R.I.C.H. Now, I understand that the word “rich” can mean more than monetary wealth, but I just don’t believe that’s what this particular slide was getting at. Either way, it points to a significant issue for universal church and its members. How are we to reconcile Jesus’ teachings on money and our own wealth?
It seems to me that the church has dealt with this conundrum by a tradition with which we are all familiar: tithing. Church members are encouraged practice the spiritual discipline of actively tithing a substantial portion of their income to the church (I usually hear 10%), and it is then the church’s job to distribute those funds as it sees fit. Church building maintenance and expansion, staff salary, program funding, etc. I don’t doubt that in many churches some of the tithing goes towards international aid and Christian relief organizations, but I can’t help but wonder if we (as the church) are either missing, or, I would argue, avoiding the point.
Clearly, the passage of scripture that should be referenced here is the parable of the rich young man/ruler, which can be found in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18. While reading the parable, it is hard to find much room for a lenient interpretation. Jesus says very clearly, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; come, follow me,” and “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven,” and “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (this last quote is also a reference to economic status). These words of Jesus are rather convicting, and should resonate in the souls of many Christians.
I don’t pretend to have an answer to this difficult question, but the question itself grips me tightly. How do we, as Jesus’ followers, if we truly believe that He is the Way, Truth, and Life, remain loyal to His teachings on wealth in our 21st century, money-hungry, globalized context?
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