October 3, 2010

Can’t Serve Both

Let me share a secret with you this morning that not a lot of people in the church know.  Furthermore, those who do know about it don’t really like to admit it.  Are you ready for this?  Jesus said a lot of things that are pretty hard to deal with if taken seriously.  Let me give you an example.  Near the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus transitioned His home base from Galilee to Judea.  Sometime after He had arrived in Judea He was in a place teaching and interacting with the people around Him.  One day a man came to Jesus out of this crowd and asked Him a question that He had surely been asked many times before: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”  Jesus takes the young man’s question and banters with him a bit regarding his definition of good but ultimately gives him a clear answer: obey the commands of God.  As it turns out this man is wealthy.  Furthermore, he is wealthy at a young age which doesn’t happen unless a person is either lucky (unlikely in this culture) or an incredibly savvy businessman.  This guy was clearly the latter.  As soon as Jesus tells him to keep God’s commandments he immediately fires back: “Which ones?”  You see, he wanted to know how little he could do and still make it into the kingdom.  His time was money and he was simply looking for a way to get the maximum benefit out of what he put into his quest for eternal life.  And I mean that makes perfect sense doesn’t it?  If we could somehow achieve eternal life by being on duty only half the time or by keeping just half of the Ten Commandments doesn’t that seem like a better way to go over spending the full amount of time it would take to keep all of them if we don’t need to?  Anyway, Jesus indulges him a bit further and gives him a list: “Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  At this point the guy thinks he has it.  Jesus actually gave him a list with just half of the Ten Commandments and an additional command that basically translated: be nice to people.  It seems like he’s made it.  But, remember, this guy is a savvy businessman.  He can smell a catch from a mile away.  So with a bit more caution in his voice he responds: “I have kept all these.  What do I still lack?…”  With the setup fully in place, Jesus drops the bomb on him: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow Me.”  In the end, the story closes with the man walking away sadly because he had many possessions.

Jesus said a lot of things that are pretty hard to deal with if taken seriously.  This statement by Jesus has given believers sensitive to the words of Scripture trouble for a long, long time.  How should we understand what Jesus is saying here?  Some have argued for a position that views this as literal and prescriptive.  In other words, if anyone is going to be a “real” follower of Christ then they must sell everything they have, give it to the poor, and then follow Jesus.  Skipping out on the first two of that sequence negates the third.  Others have tried to argue that Jesus was being entirely metaphorical here.  He was making a spiritual point that God should receive our first and most dedicated obedience.  Therefore we can more or less disregard what Jesus says.  More often, though, believers have tried to find some sort of a middling position.  The reason for this is pretty simple: we like our stuff.  We say: “Surely Jesus couldn’t have meant this for everyone.  Why then believers would all be dirt poor and couldn’t afford to do ministry.  If we can’t feed ourselves how can we continue feeding others?”  The thoughts and worries run long in this direction.  Most of us, though, manage to go through most of our lives without worrying too much about things like this.  But every once in a while we can’t help but wondering: what if Jesus really did mean it that way?   Still, there are others who react to this in an entirely different direction (perhaps to shift focus away from them?).  These folks jump up and down because it seems like Jesus needlessly puts up this huge barrier to this guy coming to the faith.  What if he never came to faith and went to his grave in an unbelieving state?  Would that make Jesus culpable for such a tragedy?  We’d better stay away from the hard words of Jesus so that we don’t drive too many people away from God.

But what if there is entirely something different going on here?  What if this passage is a pointer to another principle that turns out to be one of the most important spiritual principles we will ever encounter?  This morning, I do not plan to answer any of the questions we asked just a minute ago.  I am not going to give you the answer on whether or not Jesus expects you to sell all of your stuff in order to really be His follower.  That’s between you and Him.  Instead, I want to focus our attention on an entirely different passage, but with this last question firmly planted in your minds.  What is the principle to which Jesus’ interaction with the Rich Young Ruler points and does it matter for us?  Furthermore, if this principle matters, what impact does it have on the rest of our lives and specifically on our relationship with our stuff?  Here’s the thing: we like our stuff.  We like our stuff a lot.  We like our stuff whether the economy is up or down.  The down economy may change how much stuff we can acquire and how quickly, but it doesn’t change our attitude towards it.  Actually check that, the down economy can change our attitude.  It can lead us to like our stuff even more because we recognize how precious it is.  We recognize how precious it is and so we cling to it even more tightly.  With all of this in mind, I want to spend this month with you taking a look at how we can develop the proper attitude towards our stuff.  This morning we are going to take a look at our tendency to divide our loyalties.  The next couple of weeks after this we are going to explore some of the results of this tendency.  Then the final couple of weeks I am going to offer you some practical advice on what to do instead.

Ultimately, I want to keep you from going the way of the Rich Young Ruler.  His departure from Christ because of his relationship with his stuff may have been much more public than any of us would ever take, but that doesn’t make it any less of a threat.  The thing is, this guy wanted it all.  He was serving his stuff, no doubt.  That’s why he had a lot of it and why he didn’t want to let go of it.  But he also wanted to serve God.  The reasons for that should be fairly obvious to us even if 2,000 years removed.  The problem, though, is that when we try and serve God and our stuff, we wind up serving neither.  Trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.  In order to make this case, let me take you to another passage in which Jesus was teaching a crowd.  Grab your Bibles and find Matthew 6:19.  This bit of teaching comes from the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  There is a ton of teaching in this Sermon, but ultimately, what Jesus was doing was setting out His vision of what life in the kingdom for His followers would look like.  Specifically, chapter six focuses in on how we should relate to God.  Starting in v. 19 Jesus says this: “Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.  But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.  So if the light within you is darkness—how deep is that darkness!  No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot be slaves of God and of money.”

Now, this is a passage that is familiar to many of you.  Indeed we have looked at it together before.  But this morning I want to look at it with you in a slightly different light.  I want to focus the bulk of our attention this morning on the two summary statements in verses 21 and 25.  Seeing them in context, though, is important, so we’ll start from the beginning and work our way there.  In this light, Jesus first encourages us to store up treasures in heaven instead of treasures on earth.  The reason for this is that the ones in heaven last, while the ones on earth don’t.  Let’s be honest for a minute.  This saying of Jesus falls under the category of things that Christians are simply supposed to know.  It’s in the secret handbook they hand out to all the new believers.  God unscrews the tops of our heads while we sleep and packs this stuff in.  I wonder, though, how many of us really believe this in our heart of hearts.  I mean, let’s face it: we can see the earthly treasures and we can’t see the heavenly ones.  It’s a lot easier to strive for something we can see than to hope for something we can’t.  No, I suspect that for most of us, our attitude is more along the lines of this: As long as I make sure the scales tip in the direction of heavenly treasures at the end of time, I can go about acquiring stuff in this life as I please.  I’ll be honest with you, I have an area or two in which I never really mind spending money.  There are certain kinds of treasures on earth I am always happy to store up.  I suspect all of us are like that.  Besides, without too much trouble I suspect that most of us can think of examples of stuff that clearly has lasted.  Consider some of the relics we have from ancient Egypt that are three, four, and five thousand years old.  That’s a longer period of time than we can get our minds around.  If stuff has lasted for that long and not rusted or been moth eaten or stolen it might as well last forever.  Anyway, why would Jesus want to limit our enjoyment of the things of this world in this way?  Weren’t they given by God in order for us to enjoy them?  And furthermore, there were a lot of people in the Bible whom God Himself blessed with great wealth—in other words, a lot of stuff.  In fact, God specifically told Solomon that He was going to give him fantastic amounts of wealth.  And He did!   So the question we are left wrestling with here is whether or not this is really true.  Sure most of us will say it’s true because we’re in church and supposed to do that sort of thing, but is it really?

A few months ago Lisa and I watched the movie Leap Year starring Amy Adams.  It’s a love story about this woman who goes to Ireland on a business trip and plans to meet her boyfriend on the other side of the island from where she is staying a few days after she arrives.  As it turns out, the only person she can find to drive her across the country is a young man who owns a little tavern and inn.  To call him cantankerous would be a bit of an understatement.  The two infuriate each other but, of course, gradually fall in love.  Of all of this, there was one part that stood out to me.  During one of their conversations the guy asks her what she would grab if her house caught on fire.  His point, of course, was to force her to exam what things she really valued in life.  Near the end of the movie, her boyfriend has become her fiancé and the two are throwing a house-warming party in the fancy apartment they now (unfortunately and unwisely) share.  Well, Adams’ character is still reeling from her encounter with the young Irishman with whom she is in love, is still haunted by the question he asked her, and is starting to see more clearly that she is not the top priority in her fiancé’s life.  So, during the party she pulls the fire alarm.  The guests, who were not invested in anything in the apartment, of course leave promptly.  Then, while she stands there watching, her fiancé runs around the apartment grabbing all of his electronic and work-related devices, oblivious to her unmoving pose.  This particular part of the movie was really poignant to me and I began to think about the Irishman’s question.  The list I quickly compiled in my head disturbed me.  It sent up huge red flags that my attitude towards my stuff was not what it should be.

The reason Jesus tells us to store up (which, by the way, is probably better translated “treasure up”) treasures in heaven instead of treasures on earth is not so that we will split hairs in a feeble attempt to justify the things we already have and the necessity of those we still wish to accumulate.  The reason for this is stated quite simply in v. 21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Things that we value and hold dear are where we tend to place our heart’s devotion.  And, the more we have in this life, the easier it is for us to give our heart to these things.  The fact is, as we acquire stuff, that stuff also acquires us.  The more stuff we get, the less of us there is to be able to give to God’s purposes.  This is part of why God only truly blesses a very few with wealth.  This tendency plays itself out in all kinds of different ways.  A young guy with a fancy car says to his girlfriend, “I love you, Honey, but you can’t drive my car.”  A husband or wife says to the other, “I know that things are tight financially, but I just couldn’t bear to sell…  You wouldn’t fault me this one little pleasure, would you?”  How about this: do you have anything that you wouldn’t lend out to anyone?  The question whose answer we must face and face with bare-knuckled, albeit, loving, honesty is if we have anything in our lives that we would not gladly and without hesitation see given away or destroyed should God call us to do so.  How about your money?  Your car?  Your house?  Your golf clubs?  Your jewelry?  Your entertainment system?  Your video games?  Your collectibles?  Your picture frames and albums?  The list could go on and on.  The tough reality here is that the human heart is a fickle and deceptive creature.  It often takes very careful and sometimes painfully honest introspection to find all the places where our hearts have made attachments to this world.  All of this is to illustrate the point: the location of our heart is revealed by the things we treasure most.  Yet as we have seen, trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.

In this sense, there are many people in this world who are public theists, yet practical materialists.  Let me explain what I mean by this.  Theism is a philosophical position that there is a god or gods involved in the administration of the world.  A genuine materialist, on the other hand, though often simply understood as a person who has or wants a lot of stuff, is actually a person who believes that the stuff is all there is.  In other words, materialism argues that nothing exists or matters beyond what we can see.  Let me speak prophetically for just a bit.  Our culture on the whole, while publicly theistic, when the rubber hits the road, is one marked by thoroughgoing materialism.  Listen very hard or long to the messages being broadcast to all people in this country, but especially our young people, and you will soon recognize that while lip service and moderate tolerance is granted to people who need their religion as a crutch to get by, the foundational assumption is that value and our ability to know things are defined by what can be experienced with the five senses.  This is a worldview that is entirely hostile to the Christian faith.  With the understanding that behavior reveals true belief regardless of what we affirm verbally, we can begin to see why Jesus said what He did in v. 21.  If we are merely intellectual or philosophical theists and practical materialists, then our hearts do not belong to God.  Put another way, if we have places in our lives where the materialism of our culture holds sway, then these are places where our heart does not belong to God.

Oh, and one more thing on this.  We weren’t created with a dividable heart.  Our hearts are more of an all-or-nothing deal.  Perhaps the reason Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor was not because Jesus is against having stuff or wanted to put up a huge wall for the guy to climb in order to reach the prize of life, but rather because Jesus knew that this guy was going to be tempted to try and divide his heart as long as he had his stuff.  Jesus wanted to save him from the frustration and heartache of trying to serve two masters.  Trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.  In this light, after a word on the necessity of guarding our hearts lest the junk associated with such a materialistic worldview be let in, He makes this very point.  From v. 25 again: “No one can be a slave to two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot be slaves of God and of money [which is literally, mammon, a word used to describe broadly the things of this world].”

At last we are starting to clarify the broader principle active in Jesus’ interaction with the Rich Young Ruler.  Now, if you have a translation other than HCSB, which I have this morning, you have the word “serve” there instead of the phrase “be a slave.”  The most literal translation of the Greek, however, is “to be a slave.”  When Jesus spoke these words He could have used at word that carried more of a sense of a paid servant, but He didn’t.  He used the very common word for “to be a slave.”  The reason for this was because slavery was simply a fact of life for His audience.  The Roman Empire was largely built on slavery.  There were only a very few people employed as servants who were not in fact slaves.  In our culture, however, the word slave carries with it very negative connotations thanks to our nation’s history with the “peculiar institution” as some of our Founding Fathers described.  As a result, modern translations will generally shy away from the word “slave.”  Again, though, this doesn’t change the fact that Jesus used the word slave here.  Let’s think for a minute about why this is.  When we think of a servant today, we naturally think of someone who is employed.  A slave is different, though.  In the ancient world slaves were viewed simply as property.  People who were slaves weren’t really people, they were things, tools, to be used by their owners in whatever manner the owners saw fit.  Now certainly there were some slave owners who were God-fearing men even if they did not yet know who this God was and who treated their slaves as valuable individuals, but this doesn’t change the fact that slaves were the property of their owners.  In the infamous Dred Scott case of the 1840s, the U. S. Supreme Court came to much the same conclusion.

Now, let’s take all of this and put it in a modern context.  In this culture, there are very few people who would be willing to admit that they are not in control of their destiny and that instead some God whom they have never seen is completely in charge.  Such an idea goes beyond what most people, including many alleged Christ-followers, can swallow as reasonable.  God is in charge, but we are free.  In addition to this, using solely the understanding of slavery I’ve just laid out for you, by a show of hands, who in here believes they are slaves of their stuff?  People today simply don’t believe something so seemingly preposterous as people being slaves of their mammon.  I mean, am I supposed to believe that I serve at the beck and call of my video game system?  Who is the master, the golfer or the golf clubs?  There is no way you are going to get me to believe that a little piece of plastic in my back pocket sets the agenda for my life.  Do you see what we’ve done here?  Jesus said, “You cannot be slaves of God and of money,” and we have said through both our confessions and our behavior: “Right, I’m not a slave of anybody or anything.”  This is the reason so many today are practical nihilists, meaning they believe in nothing.  I have said that trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.  There are folks who, following the lines of thought we have ourselves just been following, decide to opt for nothing.

The reality, and the wisdom of Christ boldly on display here, is that if we do not find our identity in God then we are slaves of this world.  We weren’t created for freedom as we are taught to understand freedom today.  We were created to make meaningful and consequential choices that bring glory to God.  He is the Creator and we the creatures.  We are not on an equal plane with God.  At the same time, we were created to be greater than the things of this world.  Yet, given our predilections towards worship and the safety of boundaries (people who act out are looking for secure boundaries and if misbehavior is met with retreating boundaries for the sake of peace the fear of openness will result in wilder and wilder behavior until boundaries are discovered), if we detach from God then we will naturally attach ourselves to the stuff of this world.  This is our natural state apart from God.  The problem is that just as God created us with an undividable heart, both He and the world are looking to have exclusive rights to us.  The commands of God and the commands of the mammon of this world will always be in conflict.  This is why we cannot be slaves to both.  And the things in which we place value will reveal the place of our hearts.  Trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.

We have now examined this issue from the position of Biblical interpretation, theology, and philosophy.  Let us come full circle now and ask the most important question.  We understand now that the location of our treasure reveals the location of hearts.  We understand further that this information is sometimes hard and painful to come upon and face.  Also, we understand that we are going to be enslaved to something in this life, be it God or the world.  Only in God, though, will we find a slavery that manifests itself in the kind of freedom for which we were created.  In light of this, we cannot possibly be slaves to the things of this world and at the same time the God who gives us life, meaning, and hope.  Trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.  The call of Christ on our lives is to serve God with an undivided heart.  In doing this we are able to develop the proper relationship with our stuff.  In the end, then, what is the result of this serving God with an undivided heart?  The result, my friends, is freedom.  Because trying to serve anything other than God is idolatry we are free from the sin of idolatry.  Idolatry is a poison to the soul.  Materialism at its core is idolatry.  The thing is, materialists—whether practical or full-fledged—recognize that their philosophy goes against their creation.  As a result materialists of all stripes are driven by a tyrannical need to do good deeds in vain attempts to assuage their guilty consciences and to tip the heavenly treasures scale in the right direction.  Enslaving ourselves to God brings freedom from this tyranny.  The other thing about materialists is that they are enslaved to gods who cannot care for themselves.  Our stuff is inanimate and so we must care for it.  This spiritually freeing slavery to God, however, frees us from having to worry so much over our stuff.  While we are good stewards of everything God has given us, we are free from obsessing about the care of our stuff.  More positively, when we are slaves of God and not the world, we are free to invest ourselves in things that matter.  Materialists must always be on the lookout for replacement gods in case their current idols rust, rot, or are stolen.  This means the greatest part of their lives is spent acquiring more stuff.   Slaves of God, however, are able to pour themselves into activities that hasten the advance of the kingdom of their Master on earth.  These are the heavenly treasures with eternal value Jesus talked about.  Finally, when we are slaves of God we are free to be more generous.  If our stuff isn’t the most important thing in the world to us, if it isn’t even on the list of top ten important things, then it doesn’t matter how much we give away.  When we truly understand the extravagant nature of God’s ability to provide for His slaves, we are freed to give more than we ever thought possible.  The question of the materialist is: How much must I make in order to live the lifestyle I desire?  The questions of the one who is a slave to God, however, are: How much can I get away with giving before I don’t have enough left to live on? and, How can I use ­­­­_________ to serve God more fully?  Thus, when Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything, He was not establishing a precedent for all believers to follow.  He was giving this man whom Jesus recognized was enslaved to his stuff an opportunity to experience the incredible freedom of the kingdom of God.  The principle to which Jesus was pointing is this one: Trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.  But, when we hock it all in order to be slaves of the Creator of the stuff we gain it all back with interest, and more importantly, in its proper place.