Let me start with a legend, some biography, some information, and Scripture.
First the legend. A great, powerful and wealthy king lacked only one thing in the world, and that was happiness. He was loaded with cares and responsibilities. One especially wise man told him, “To be happy, your highness, you must find the happiest man in your kingdom, and wear that man’s shirt for one day.”
The king immediately sent ambassadors all over the kingdom, but they could find no truly, utterly happy person. Finally, one of his knights announced that he had found the most supremely happy man in the whole kingdom: a simple woodchopper. The king went to the woodchopper, and asked if he could wear his shirt for one day. “Your majesty,” the man answered, “I don’t have a shirt.”
Next, some biography. St. Francis of Assisi is probably the best known and most universally revered saint of the church. He lived in the early thirteenth century and was the son of an Italian cloth merchant. Francis grew up dreaming of becoming a troubador or a soldier, but more than likely preparing to be a merchant like his father.
As a young man he had a spiritual experience that made him devote his life to serving Christ. He is remembered as the one who took care of lepers, who rebuilt ruined churches, who was so much in harmony with the entire world that he could preach sermons to the birds, and they would listen and understand. He founded the Franciscan order of friars, which carried the gospel to every corner of the world. He lit a light of faith and morality that helped break the whole Christian Church out of the Dark Ages.
Before he did any of that, he renounced all possessions. He gave back to his father everything his father had ever given him, including the very clothes he was wearing, and walked away from his home naked. He never again owned anything, except robes that he obtained by begging. He ate only what he could beg; he lived in caves and abandoned buildings.
When he was dying, the famous head of a great religious order, he lay on the dirt floor. St. Francis’ amazing life of Christian service was built on his conviction that he couldn’t serve Christ if he owned or needed anything worldly.
Third, some information. Psychology Today conducted a survey a number of years ago on the role and influence of money in people’s lives. The survey found that the people who are most money-conscious — that is, those who consider money most important and who think about their money the most, not necessarily those who have the most money — are “least likely to be involved in a satisfactory love relationship.”
They also “report worsening health, and almost half of them are troubled by constant worry, anxiety, and loneliness.” The more important wealth becomes to people, the more troubled their lives are. (Carin Rubenstein, in Psychology Today, May 1981, p. 42)
Fourth, a Scripture lesson, in
Jesus tells him, “Obey the commandments.” “I have,” he answers, “all my life.”
And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.” At that saying, his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
These four illustrations all come to the same conclusion: that being attached to material possessions is an obstacle to happiness rather than a means to it, and the way to overcome the obstacle is to get free of the attachment. It’s not the material possessions themselves that stand in the way of our happiness, but it’s our attachment to them, our belief that we need to own things for our security.
The problem is this: it is difficult to have possessions without loving them. That’s why Jesus goes on to say it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. That’s also why St. Francis felt compelled to renounce forever all ownership of anything.
Many writers, beginning with the philosopher Diogenes in the fourth century B.C., have made the claim that if you own something you can’t give away, then you don’t own it; it owns you. After all, if you can’t give up alcohol or cigarettes, you’re an addict, a slave.
But how about your house: could you give it up if you were asked to? How about your car? your TV? your VCR? Would you give up a chunk of your salary to take a more enjoyable job, or one that would allow you to spend more time with your family? Most of us are just like that rich man in the gospel lesson: slaves, owned by our own possessions.
The problem with that, in turn, is twofold. First, it gives us a false sense of security. We profess to be saved by our faith in God, and we understand faith to mean complete, absolute, unconditional trust. Yet if we can’t free ourselves from our dependence on possessions, then we’re like a pole vaulter who is scared to let go of the pole and ends up dangling over the bar sixteen feet up. Being torn between our material and our spiritual desires just makes us more anxious and afraid.
Second, a materialistic life becomes our way of measuring our value as persons. We even use the phrase, in talking about a person’s assets or estate, “How much is he worth?” A Christian is worth the love of God, the death of God’s own Son Jesus on the cross, the promise God makes to us in our baptismal covenant. And we cheapen ourselves if we measure our worth in dollars or shares or acres.
All of which leads us back to our gospel lesson. This rich young man, captive to his wealth, full of doubts and fears about his worth and about God’s love for him, comes to Jesus on his knees, begging for assurance and peace. And right away Jesus sees what his problem is, and tells him to give away everything he has.
Jesus’ instructions sound harsh and demanding, and Mark tells us the young man went away sorrowful. But look at the text again. “And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him,’ … go, sell what you have and give to the poor’.” Why did Jesus tell him to give away all his possessions? Not to test his faith, or to see how committed he was; not because the poor needed his money; but because He loved him.
Jesus’ heart went out to this young man, and He wanted to show him what he was missing in life. Jesus knew that the man’s attachment to his wealth was what was keeping him from finding joy in his relationship with God, and He offered freedom from his slavery to his own possessions. “Give away what you have,” Jesus urged the man, “and then you will be free to follow me.”
Giving things away, in this lesson, turns out to be for the benefit of the giver. Jesus told the man in the story to give for his own benefit: to feel the power of faith in his life and prove to himself that he was not a slave to his own possessions.
And that is our theology of giving — of stewardship — in the Christian church today. When we pass the collection plate on Sunday, or when a stewardship caller comes to your home to ask for your pledge, it’s not primarily because the church needs the money. It’s not to make you put your money where your mouth is about being a Christian. It’s not collecting dues.
It’s part of our proclamation of the gospel: “You are saved by the death of Christ and freed from bondage to the world and Satan — and look at the fruits of that freedom in your own life!” Being able to give away what you have is one of the fruits of faith, and one of the ways your faith is nurtured and deepened. Giving is the best thing you can do for yourself!
Of course, we don’t live in the first century like Jesus did, or the thirteenth century like St. Francis did. People choosing to live a Christian life aren’t supported by begging or wandering around the countryside anymore. We don’t live on what we raise or make ourselves, or expect our children to take care of us in our old age. So no one would suggest that Christians have to give away everything they own.
Yet Christians do need to be free: free from slavery to worldly values, from addiction to wealth, from false dependence on material security, from deceptive measures of their own worth; free to love God and to feel the joy of being loved by God. Jesus died and rose to set us free, and giving is one of the fruits and one of the proofs of our freedom.
One of the civic charities has used the slogan, “Give ’til it helps.” And that’s the message of this gospel lesson. Give ’til it helps you. That’s not a demand from Jesus, or a test of your devotion. It’s a gift, a promise. Jesus is letting us in on a great blessing, a secret for happiness. Loosen your hold on worldly blessings, and you’ll find those empty hands ready to be filled with heavenly blessings.