Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
P.T. Barnum is famously attributed to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” In true grifter fashion, Barnum did not actually say his most well-known quote. It was actually said in reference to his cons by a rival showman. Even if Barnum did not say it, his greatest hoaxes proved it. P.T. Barnum was a genius at conning people into willingly giving him money. Perhaps his best known and most successful hoax is the Fiji mermaid. Barnum acquired what he claimed to be the remains of a real mermaid. He then contacted every paper in New York and offered them an “exclusive” look at his new exhibit. Every paper ran their exclusive the same day, saturating the city in free publicity, and causing people to flock to see the curiosity. Once people paid admission for the exhibit they got to see the mermaid and hear a lecture about it from Dr. Griffin a naturalist from the British Lyceum of Natural History. There were three issues with this though. First, Dr. Griffin was not a doctor and his name was actually Levi Lyman. Second, there was never any such thing as the British Lyceum of Natural History. Most importantly, the mermaid was not real. It was a taxidermy creation made by sewing the remains of a monkey infant to a fish tale. So nothing about it was real, but the marks that paid to see it wanted to believe it was and that is what made it such a successful con.
I am not sure exactly when in history humanity invented the concept of wealth, but I feel fairly confident that it was only a couple of days later that history’s first conman invented a way to trick that wealth from someone else. Perhaps, this is why “a fool and his money are soon parted” is such an old and enduring proverb. The origins of the phrase is sometime misattributed to the Bible because the King James translation of Proverbs 21:20 sounds like it is communicating a similar idea. The phrase though pre-dates the 17th century of the King James Bible though. A version of the saying appeared in a publication printed 35 years before the King James Bible, and the origins in English likely go back further than that.
It has been nearly 450 years since a version of the saying first appeared in English, and the idea that a “fool and his money are soon parted” endures to this day. I think one of the reasons why it has remained popular is because we really like the inverse of the proverb. If a fool and his money are soon parted, then that means the wise are those who hold onto money. The implication of the proverb is that the poor are poor because they are foolish and the rich are rich because they are wise. This is clearly a gross simplification as mountains of data show that there are generational and systemic factors that play in to wealth and poverty, but it is also a thought that endures. However, I have to wonder if when we consider it from a biblical perspective, we have it wrong? When we consider what the scripture says about wealth and poverty, I have to wonder if the foolish person is the one who hoards wealth. A fool and his money are soon parted, is such a well-known proverb today that we accept it as gospel truth, but as we consider the words in Jesus’ gospel just what does he say about fools and their money?
When we read this morning’s scripture, it can be our knee-jerk to not associate ourselves with the rich man who came asking Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We are quick to think that we do not qualify as the rich man, because after all we call can think of a whole lot of people who are wealthier and better off than we are. We ignore the fact that the opposite is true. No matter what our financial situation, we are in better place than a lot of other people. It does not matter how big or small our bank account is, it does not matter healthy our credit score is, and it does not matter if we consider ourselves wealthy or not. This morning’s scripture is one that should cause ourselves to question our relationship with wealth.
Scriptures like this morning, show us that Jesus message is not one that can be molded or crafted to whatever makes us feel comfortable. Jesus does not mince words in this morning’s scripture. From the very beginning he is fairly to the point. The man wants to know how to inherit eternal life, and when Jesus tells him to sell all of his possessions and give it to the poor, the man gives up. When Jesus says it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, the bible records the disciples are amazed. Why would they not be? If we live in a world of economic disparity today, then the first century world the disciples lived in was worse. The first century Roman world was very much a world of the haves and the have nots. There was no real concept of the middle class. There was the rich and there was everyone else. The disciples were amazed that there is something that a wealthy person could not do, because it had been there experience that money can buy anything. Yet, here they were learning without a shadow of a doubt that money could not buy salvation. When the disciples ask about this, Jesus makes it as clear as he can by saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The camel was the largest creature in the Mideast and a needle the smallest opening. The size disparity on display was 100% intentional here. There was no doubt that Jesus was saying that for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God is a realistic impossibility.
Verse 26 records “The disciples were even more amazed and said to each other, “who then can be saved?” Again, the experience of the disciples is that the rich had the means to do whatever they wish. They always have the resources to meet their needs and every want. The disciples, who were poor and had internalized themselves as poor, were frightened at this point because they were thinking if a rich person cannot make it into the kingdom of God, what chance do I possibly have? The answer that gave the disciples hope, and the answer that should feel us with great hope is found in verse 27 “Jesus looked at them and said ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’ “ I think this has a dual meaning. The primary meaning is that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. It does not matter how righteous we are or how much we spend, we cannot save ourselves. Salvation is an act of God through Christ. We cannot buy our way into the kingdom of God, because God has already paid our entry fee with the blood of Jesus. What is impossible for us, was possible for God.
The second meaning, in light of the rest of this scripture, has to do with our view of wealth. The man who approached Jesus in this scripture claims that he has kept all of the Ten Commandments, but the reason why he could not inherit eternal life is because he refused to give up his wealth. Money controlled him. He could not inherit the kingdom of God because when push came to shove his wealth more important to him than eternal life. For many people wealth controls their life. This is true for those who horde more wealth than anyone could spend in their life time, but it can also be true for those who are barely getting by. For instance, the are people below the poverty line spending more money than they should on lottery tickets each week in hopes to strike it rich. We think money is the cure for all that ails us, but money is a false god that only leads to destruction. If wealth is our primary concern in life, then there is not space in our hearts for the kingdom of God to be our main motivation and desire. The good news of this scripture, is that with God all things are possible and even the very rich can change their hearts and perspective on money.
I do believe that there is wisdom to saving and not just living paycheck to paycheck, but there is also a point where wise saving can cross over into accumulating more for the sake of having more. We might try to pass off a desire to horde wealth as a virtue, but our views on money can often have selfish motivations. We are concerned about making sure that no one gets what we think should be ours, and we look around to make sure we are always getting enough. An obsession with wealth is always “me” centered and always about what I can get. Jesus though told the man to give everything to the poor, because the kingdom of God is “other” centered. In the kingdom of God, the foolish action is to not part with money. Our wealth is just resource that God has blessed with, and just like our time and talents we should seek to use that resource to invest in God’s love so that lives can be changed and communities transformed. Our wealth as large or as meager as it might be gives us a means to help ensure our neighbors have enough. TV preachers are quick to talk about God providing financial blessings. However, when I read the bible, especially scriptures like this one, I believe that wealth is not a blessing but a responsibility. Our wealth is a resource that God has allowed us to have, and we have responsibility to be good stewards of those resources. In the kingdom of God the foolish thing to do with our resources is horde them, and the responsible thing to do is use our resources to benefit others.
John Wesley, found of the Methodist movement, once famously preached: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” The middle statement, “save all you can” is perhaps the most misunderstood one today. Wesley was not advocating for building up an emergency fund in a bank account, but was rather warning people against excess. John Wesley took seriously the idea of earn all you can and give all you can. For him this was not an abstract concept, but one that he lived out. John Wesley was an extremely pragmatic individual. Fairly early in his professional life calculated what he needed as a livable income, and he donated excess to charitable causes. John Wesley was very wise in how he used, saved, and invested money so his means grew. However, he continued to live off what he calculated as his livable income. At the height of Wesley’s career he earned what would equate to 1.4 million in a year. He lived on 2% of that (about 28,000) and gave the rest a way. He tithed 98% of his income! He used the rest to fund orphanages, missions, hospitals, and other projects that shared the love of God. In short he used the vast majority of his earthly wealth as a resource to better fulfill the mission that he (and we) are stewards of. John Wesley was extremely efficient in doing this to the point, that when he died his worldly wealth consisted of a few odd and end coins and two silver spoons, he had given away the rest.
I am fairly sure that in the kingdom of God, the proverb goes “ A fool and his money are hard to part with”, for only a fool would value money more than the all-surpassing wealth of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and being reconciled with God. The rich man struggles to enter the kingdom of God, because he was that kind of fool. May God continue to change our hearts so that we have a more kingdom minded view of wealth. May we stop seeing our wealth, no matter how great or meager it is, as something only for ourselves but may we see it as a resource to bless and help others. May we be willing to put others first, and use our resources to meet great needs. In doing so may we make disciples, transform the world, and help bring about the kingdom of God on this earth.