Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Riches that kill

Don’t be overawed when others grow rich, when the splendour of their houses increases; for they will take nothing with them when they die... People who have wealth but lack understanding are like the beasts that perish. Psalm 49:16-20

The Bible has a lot to say about wealth - about how it can get a grip on us, how it can become virtually a god (“mammon” as Jesus referred to it), how it can cloud and corrupt our thinking, ruining our sense of priorities and even our relationships.

There was an article in the paper the other day about various high-powered business-people. Apparently they go to extraordinary lengths in order not to lose even a few seconds of their lives that could be devoted to making money. There was a woman who got her exercise by walking on a treadmill at the same time as working at her desk (complete with high-heeled shoes). (She would also watch television at double-speed: “It’s fine,” she said, “you get the drift quite easily”.) And a man who wore exactly the same outfit every day so as not to have to take up valuable micro-seconds making a choice.

You hear such stories and you shake your head and think: “Why? What’s the point?” After all, when somebody dies and the question is asked, “How much did they leave?” there is only one right answer: “Everything”.

And this is the point of Psalm 49. It’s an unusual psalm: rather than prayer or praise addressed to God, it’s more like something out of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. The writer is addressing his fellow-Israelites and, in effect, preaching them a sermon. Verse 12 sums up his message well: “People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish.”

Well, we might say, this is very true - but of course, it doesn’t apply to me: I’m not rich!

But wait a minute. You don’t have to be a millionaire, or like the people I’ve mentioned, for money to be a danger and a trap. There are two things to notice.

First, many of us are in fact pretty wealthy compared with millions of our fellow human beings. And second, even relative wealth can have an addictive quality. As the saying goes, the more we have, the more we want: we can all get sucked in.

Wealth itself, of course, isn’t bad. It’s what we choose to do with it that matters - the psalmist says that it’s people who “have wealth but lack understanding” who are like the beasts that perish. In other words, wealth combined with wisdom about using it in a godly way can be a good and creative thing.

Jesus taught about this. Two people in particular whom he met prompted him to comment.

First, there was the man who tragically clung to his wealth: the so-called “rich young ruler” (Matthew 19:16-22).

He asked Jesus “what good thing” he needed to do to gain eternal life, and Jesus pointed him to the Ten Commandments (or, at least, to the five commandments which deal with our relations with other people). No problem, he replied, I’ve done all that. To which Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At which, Matthew tells us, “he went away sad.”

“Perfect” doesn’t mainly mean “sinless”, but “complete”, “mature” or “fully formed”. (Remember, all of Jesus’ followers are called to be perfect - Matthew 5:48). But the message is clear: anyone who puts earthly riches before spiritual treasures is going to end up “sad”.

Second, there was the woman who had next to nothing - but was willing to give it to God (Mark 12:42). She put two small copper coins into the temple treasury, and so, according to Jesus, she “put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on.”

If that story doesn’t challenge those of us who claim “Well, I’m not really very rich”, then I don’t know what will! It certainly challenges me...

The perils of material wealth... I’ve no idea why I felt drawn to write about this today - it took me rather by surprise, in fact. But I can only assume that it’s a word somebody reading this needs.

In fact, I suspect that that “somebody” is in fact “everybody”... this is a topic that’s relevant for all of us. So, I suggest, “whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”.

Or, in a slightly more colloquial translation: if the cap fits, wear it.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the material things I enjoy in this life. Help me to remember that one day I must let them all go, and therefore to use them for your glory and the good of others. Amen.

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