A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
In 1964 the Walt Disney film Mary Poppins was released to universal critical acclaim, receiving thirteen Academy Award nominations and winning five of them. The film earned a net profit of $28.5 million, and was the most profitable film of its time, surpassing The Sound of Music,Goldfinger, and My Fair Lady. In fact it was the profits from Mary Poppins that enabled Walt Disney, just before he died, to purchase the land and begin construction on what today is widely regarded as the Happiest Place on Earth – Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida. Which was quite a good investment. Last year Disney reported $2.2 billion in profits from its theme park division, and Disney World was no small part of that. How ironic, that a film which arguably pushes back against norms like financial security and profit-seeking would end up helping to finance one of the world’s largest and most profitable companies.
In the film, Jane and Michael are the children of a prominent banker, the aptly named Mr. Banks. At the beginning of the movie, Mr. Banks doesn’t seem too concerned with his family, especially his children – except to see that they behave properly. In fact, it is only with the help of the idiosyncratic nanny, Mary Poppins, that he manages to pay any attention to them at all. The critical scene comes toward the end of the movie, when Michael Banks, on an outing to the bank with his father, brings along tuppence – that’s two pence, or pennies, by the way; I had to look it up – from his money box to buy a bag of bird seed from the old woman on the cathedral steps; his intention is to feed the birds, according to the song Mary Poppins sang to the children the night before. Mr. Banks, however, has other ideas for his son’s tuppence. He insists that Michael invest it in the bank. Why? After all, tuppence is practically nothing – hardly worth depositing in the bank. But, for Mr. Banks, to spend it on the birds would be to throw it away, and to someone who has spent his entire adult life in a bank, that is both irresponsible and foolish. Mr. Banks wants to cultivate in his son the same habits and values he himself holds dear – investment, financial security, and the responsible use of money.
Michael, however, has been persuaded by another viewpoint. Michael wants to give his money to the old woman on the cathedral steps selling birdseed. Investing his money in this woman will have no reciprocal financial effect on him, as investing it in the bank would. But Michael simply wants to feed the birds. This is no surprise, is it? If you’ve ever given a child money, you know that they aren’t likely to practice fiscal responsibility with it. They’re probably going to spend it on the first thing they see that catches their eye. In fact if you send a child on a field trip with a $20 bill and you tell them to bring back the change, you’re likely to get back either just coins or nothing at all. Michael Banks, however, does not spend his money on himself; Mary Poppins has taught him better. He wants to feed the birds.
Of course, one thing leads to another, and long story short the children cause a run on the bank, eventually leading to Mr. Banks getting fired from his job. Mr. Banks, however, takes it in stride. He has learned something from his children, and so he giddily skips home from his disgraceful firing to be with his family, singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” all the way. Mr. Banks, we might say, was able to pass through the eye of the needle.
“Let the little children come to me. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Thus says Jesus right before he is confronted by the rich young ruler. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” It is no accident that these stories are right next to each other in all three of the synoptic gospels. They both tell us something about how to enter the kingdom of God. The first tells us that we must receive it as a little child – as, perhaps, Michael Banks. The second is more complicated. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he owns and to distribute it to the poor. Applied universally, it seems like Jesus is saying that nobody should own anything; but that wouldn’t make sense, because then who would everyone distribute all of their stuff to? So does this verse really mean we should sell all we have and give it to the poor if we want to enter the kingdom of God? I remember one time in college fielding a question about this passage from someone while manning our campus ministry group’s booth at the activity fair. This person was obviously looking to start something – he asked “how much money does everyone in the group make?”, seeking to show how hypocritical we were because, based on this passage, Christians shouldn’t have money. At the time, I honestly didn’t know how much each person in the group made, aside from myself, so that was my answer – “I don’t know.” But now, looking back on the situation, I realize that his question was the wrong question. Because Jesus doesn’t fault the rich young ruler for owning a lot of stuff. The only reason he is unable to enter the kingdom of God is that he is unable to give away his stuff. The question the kid in college should have asked was “how much money does everyone in the groupgive?”
This is fundamentally a different kind of question, because it is not concerned with what God has given to us, but rather with how we use it. Are we like Mr. Banks, prior to getting fired, or are we like his son, Michael? Now, I may get some pushback for saying this, but in our day and age I feel it needs to be said: Jesus doesn’t give a flying hoot about financial security. Just look at Luke 12:16-21; it’s Jesus’ parable of a man who decided to essentially create his own savings account of wheat, so to speak, and died the very next night. Jesus has harsh words for financial security – but Jesus does say that it is a child’s outlook on life that secures our position in the kingdom of God. Jesus, very, very clearly, is on the side of Michael Banks.
And that really upsets our modern sensibilities. Like it or not, we are a money-focused society. The entire American Dream is built on the pretense of making money. We open savings accounts, we invest, we have retirement plans – for many their entire goal in life is to be “set for life”. And this is understandable – we want to feel safe; we want to feel in control; we don’t want to have to worry about what is going to happen to us in the future, or to our children, or to our children’s children. But, from the Christian perspective, there’s a huge problem with that mentality. Because when we are so dependent on our finances for security that we are unable to let go of them, when all we give is from that which we don’t really need or depend on, when we have made money into our security blanket, and placed all responsibility for our future well-being on it instead of God, then we can be fairly sure that we have made a god out of money.
And that is precisely what we’ve done. Daniel Bell, in his book The Economy of Desire, astutely points out how our modern economic mentality has developed its own theology. This theology emphasizes, among other things, that God is not a God of abundance but a God of scarcity, that salvation is achieved by means of the accumulation of wealth, and that humans exist fundamentally as insatiable, self-interested individuals in constant competition with each other. Faced with this theology – which is not Christian, by the way – prominent as it is in our everyday lives, it’s no wonder that so many of us are unable to let go of our stuff. It is no wonder that so many of us have made our money into our god.
This, then, is the rich young ruler’s problem. It is not that he has too much stuff – it is that he has let that stuff be his god. His master is his wealth, and he can serve no other. Of course, wealthy persons are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon, because the more stuff we have, the greater our fear that we shall lose it all. So when Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, he says it not because rich people are bad people, per say, but because that’s how hard it is for persons who are rich to let go of their wealth. That’s how hard it is for many of us – who, by comparison with the rest of humanity, are extremely wealthy – to trust God.
However, if we think the rich young ruler’s problem is only about trust, then we’ve missed the bigger issue. Jesus hints at it early on in his conversation with the man – “Why do you call me good? No one is good except for God alone.” Jesus isn’t saying that he isn’t good or that he doesn’t do good things. Jesus is making a bigger point – whatever goodness I have, he says, comes from God, and likewise for everyone else. In fact, all things can trace their origin back to God, because through God all things were Created. And here is the rub – here is why financial security is not a guarantee; here is where the rich young ruler is mistaken in thinking he ever really had a choice in becoming and staying wealthy. None of his stuff ever truly belonged to him in the first place. Jesus was merely asking him to recognize the reality that everything he owned; indeed, everything anyone has ever owned, ever, all belongs to God, and God can do with it whatever God wishes. And God has wished to give, freely and generously. I mean, do you honestly think that any of us would have any part in this world if God didn’t wish it? So, when Jesus says “Go, sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor,” Jesus isn’t asking the young ruler to make a sacrifice. Jesus is informing the ruler that God wishes for the things which belong to God to be given to those who need them most. And the rich man is sad because his desire is not the same as God’s. He has made a God of his wealth, and he has failed to recognize that his wealth belongs to God.
So what does it look like when we obey Jesus’ command? A few years ago I was coming out of undergrad – I graduated a semester early, and I was looking to stay in St. Louis for the Spring before moving onto Divinity School in the Fall because, 1) I had an apartment there and the lease went through May; and 2) Emily was finishing up her final semester, and I didn’t want to be apart from her for six months. I had applied for several part time jobs and gone on interviews in November and December, but hadn’t heard back, and so when I went to Passion in January, I was understandably a bit concerned. I had $800 in my bank account, and I was sure I would have to move back to North Carolina with my parents. Now, Passion is a huge college Christian conference that takes place every year in Atlanta, and it features a lot of the big name contemporary Christian artists like Chris Tomlin and David Crowder Band, along with speakers like Francis Chan and Louie Giglio. That year their mission theme was anti-human trafficking – which, if you know anything about me, you know that’s my cause! And they had all these anti-trafficking organizations there that you could donate to. So I prayed. And then I said, “God, you gotta be kidding me!” and I prayed again. And then I said, “Ok, if you’re sure,” and swiped my debit card, and emptied half my bank account, which was the amount needed to give to every organization. I can’t really describe how I felt – it was scary and energizing all at the same time. I felt assured in my faith but also incredibly, incredibly stupid! An hour and a half later, I got a phone call. It was from the St. Louis YMCA, offering me a job as a lifeguard. I got to stay in St. Louis that semester. To be quite honest, that was the first and, so far, only time I have trusted God that much.
Now, I’ll admit, it doesn’t always work out that way. I’m not saying that if you give away half of your life savings today God is going to miraculously replenish it – or provide the means for replenishing it – an hour and a half later. It might take two hours. But I am saying that I think Jesus calls us to a different way of living in the world – it is a way of living that is more concerned with the well-being of others than with the bottom line, or how much I have in my savings account. It is a way of living defined by giving deeply of what God has given to us – not just from our excesses but even from what it appears we can’t afford to give. In that spirit, and because I believe in practicing what you preach, my lovely wife and I sat down and had a conversation the other day about our finances and our ability to give to the church, and we decided that, come Consecration Sunday, we would like to make what is – for us – a substantial pledge to the ministries of this church. It’s a little scary, but also somewhat liberating. And it feels right. Because I know – and I hope you do too – that God isn’t just the God of the Hebrews or even the Christians. God isn’t just the God of all people, or animals, or intangible things like love and justice. God is the God of all Creation, and so God is also the God of money. Who am I to tell Him what to do with it?