A Pepper Grinder Post

Money – part 1

Imagine a man asleep in bed.  He is dreaming.  Near his bed, a lamp cord whose insulation was worn through in one spot is causing the carpet to smolder.  A small flame appears and begins to spread. 

Now imagine two different cases.  In one case, the man is having a delightful dream—the kind that makes you feel disappointed when you wake up and realize that it’s only a dream.  In the other case, he’s having a miserable dream—the kind where you wake up and feel so glad that what you dreamed did not really happen.

flameIn which kind of dreaming is the man more likely to wake up, realize the true danger that he’s in, and escape his house before toxic fumes overcome him and he dies in the fire?

I have not personally tested this, but I would think that the man having the miserable dream would have a better chance.

In the same way, I believe that those of us living comfortable, affluent lives are in greater danger than people living in misery.  It is so much harder for us to realize that what we are experiencing is not the true, eternal reality because the dream is so pleasant.  We do not want to wake up.

Here are Christ’s words on the subject:

A certain official asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?” 
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God.  You know the commandments: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, honor your father and mother.” 
And he answered, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” 
Hearing this, Jesus said, “You’re still missing one thing: sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow me.”  When he heard this, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 
Seeing him, Jesus said, “How hard it is for the people with money to get into the kingdom of God.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those with money to go into the kingdom of God.” 
The people listening said, “Then who can be saved?” 
And he said, “What is impossible for men is possible for God.”
(Luke 18:18-27, my translation)

We, in countries like the U.S.A., tend to hear something like this and say, “Well, I’m not rich.”  Something I noticed years ago was that when I said something about yuppies to anyone, they always defined the group in such a way that it did not include THEM.  In the same way, very few people think they are rich.  The truth is that by world standards, most people in the U.S.A. and many other first or second-world countries ARE rich, often fabulously rich.  We consider necessities things that would have seemed like a fairy tale to wealthy people of Jesus’s day.

Something seems funny about this.  It doesn’t seem that hard for well-off people (by world-wide standards) to be saved.  Look at the U.S.A..  We’re just brimming with saved people, and we’re the wealthiest country in the world.  Jesus said that many are called but few are chosen, but here in America, the belief seems more to be that everyone is called and many are chosen.  You could say that things have changed from when these passages were written and they are no longer accurate today, but that is the type of argument that can explain away ANYTHING in the Bible that we don’t like.  You could say that America is a modern-day Promised Land, but this is an idea that is completely outside Biblical teaching.

snowAnother option is that we have made salvation easier than Jesus made it.  What would a modern-day evangelist say if someone came to him and said, “I have a fairly comfortable life, but I’ve started worrying about the afterlife lately.  Is it possible for me to be saved?”  The standard American evangelical response would be to quote a few passages showing that we are sinful, that we can only be saved through Christ’s sacrifice, and that if we confess Jesus as Lord and believe in our hearts, we will be saved.  In the light of the story of the rich official in Luke, what would Jesus’s answer be?  Something more like, “No, it’s utterly impossible.  But God can do it.”  Then I think, Jesus would look at the man with his laser eyes that cut through all the pretenses we put up and say, “If you want to be saved,” followed by something tailor-made for that person.  For example, if wealth was the biggest thing that held his life, “Sell everything and give the money to the poor.”  If it was the dream of a married life, “Pledge yourself to live a single life.”  If it was having a fantastic body, “Stop trying to stay fit and give that time to me.”  If it was a prestigious job, “Quit your job and go to work in a home for people with developmental disabilities.”

camelsI can hear the sputtering. “But, those things are gifts from God!  God says that wealth, marriage, health, and work are gifts from him.”  True enough.  But I don’t believe that Jesus was telling the official to sell everything he had because wealth was, in itself, bad.  He was doing it because he saw that wealth was sitting on the throne of this official’s heart.  Yes, the official wanted to please God, as long as God did not demand that wealth get down off its throne and let God sit there.  God is not willing to be our new hobby.  He must either be everything to us or nothing.

This is a radical teaching in our day, but it was also very surprising in Jesus’s time.  Then, as in the time of Job, it was assumed that if someone was wealthy and a Jew, he was rich because God was pleased with him and had blessed him.  Jesus has turned this thinking on its head by pointing out that riches are a barrier to salvation.  It is true that in the account of this parable in Mark, Jesus first says how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom, and then follows this with a general statement, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”  (Mark 10:24)  This fits in well with Jesus’s statement that: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  So it is true that nobody, rich or poor, can be saved unless God does it.  However, it is also true that Jesus is clearly making the point that it is HARDER for a rich person than for a poor person to be saved.

Think about someone driving down the street in a brand-new $100,000 Mercedes.  First he comes up to a homeless man and says, “I’ll give you this car in return for everything you’ve got.”  The homeless man quickly hands over the $2.24 he has in his pocket and the trash bag he is carrying, takes the keys, and climbs into his new car. 

needle and threadNow picture, the same exchange with a wealthy man.  He has a lot more to lose.  I have heard it said that Jesus’s statement about a camel going through the eye of a needle actually referred to a low gate leading into Jerusalem.  The story is that camels could go through this gate, but only on their knees.  The idea is that Jesus is saying that a rich person can be saved if he will humble himself.  It sounds cool.  The only problem is that the gate in question wasn’t built until around 1,000 years after Jesus’s time. 

We’re left with Jesus’s bald statement that it is UTTERLY impossible for a rich person to be saved—it can only happen if God works a miracle.  That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that God DOES work miracles.  Look at the story of Zaccheaus, not long after the passage about the rich official:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.  A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.  He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd.  So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 
All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.'"
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."
Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.            Luke 19:1-9  NIV

Jesus didn’t preach to Zacchaeus or lead him in the sinner’s prayer—he just invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house and instantly Zacchaeus pushed wealth (that had controlled him so completely that he was willing to oppress and be hated by his own countrymen to get it) out of the top spot in his life and put Jesus there.

Does this mean that many people in the wealthy western world who think they are saved are not really saved?  To me, it seems like this has to be true, or else Jesus’s statement that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14) no longer applies to us.  Does this mean we should start looking at people who claim to be Christians and deciding whether they really are or not?  I don’t think so.  That would make us judges.  I want to approach other people the way I want them, and most importantly, God to approach me—with mercy, giving me the benefit of the doubt.  I believe that historically, when the church in a place has become “diluted,” God has allowed persecution or hardship to come along to separate the true believers from the posers.  I would be surprised if God did not eventually do this in the U.S.

flowering treeI think our most important response should be to turn to God.  Our response should be something along the lines of, “Lord, if there is anything besides you on the throne of my life, please pull it down so you can have the center spot.  Please help me to see where I am not making you my king and to change.”  The wonderful thing is that God is merciful and powerful.  If we are too weak or stupid to live the way we should (which I certainly am), he is willing and able to help us!  If we pray a heartfelt prayer that God will help us make him our only king, he will DO it.  My only warning is that it won’t necessarily be comfortable.  I have had times when I prayed a prayer similar to the above, and then later in the day, I wondered why things were happening that made me unhappy.  Duh!

But what if you are in the spot where you do not feel you can honestly pray that God would take away whatever is separating you from him?  I believe God is so merciful that we can come to him honestly (there’s certainly no point in being dishonest with someone who knows our innermost thoughts better than we do) and say, “God, I like my life the way it is, and I don’t want to give any of it up, even though I know I should be putting you first.  Can you please make me willing to give anything up that stands in the way of you?”  I believe if we pray a prayer like this and truly mean it, God will answer.

Before my wife recommitted her life to Jesus her junior year in college she prayed something along the lines of the following:  “Really?  Is that (following Jesus) what it’s all about?  I’ll do it, but you have to make me want to.”  Within a month, he had done exactly what she asked.  I know a man who injured his leg and said defiantly, “If God is really real, he could heal me.”  God healed him on the spot and said, “Now you know I’m real; what are you going to do about it?”  God is very merciful and patient, and that is a very good thing.

What if you are not even willing to be made willing to place God above everything else in your life?  In that case, you must ask yourself if you really are a follower of Christ.  I am sure the official who went away sad because he was unwilling to surrender his wealth did not go around telling people he was a follower of Christ.  Unfortunately, many in the modern church, in their desire to see more and more people “get saved,” have reduced salvation to a cookbook approach.

  1. Pray to receive Christ.
  2. Go to church.
  3. Have a quiet time.
  4. Try not to do bad things.
  5. Try to do good things.

It isn’t that any of those things are necessarily bad.  The problem comes when following the recipe is substituted for total surrender to Jesus.  Many people have done #1 and are making some effort to do #2-5.  Judging by the standard set by Jesus, that is not enough to call yourself his follower.  Are you dreaming a pleasant dream while your bedroom starts to burn?  Wake up!


Photo credits: camels by , needle and thread by