Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tithe or Burn

This morning, I went to Holy Cross Episcopal School, where I help lead chapel fairly regularly. In order to help teachers, staff members, and the local clergy unify their theological efforts, we have designed a chapel schedule for the entire academic year, designating a different theme for each week. I love it when the reading from the Daily Office coincides with the theme at Holy Cross. When I opened my office book and read the gospel lesson (Mark 10:32-45), I rejoiced. This week’s focus in chapel is stewardship.

Jesus said, “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.” Why did he say that? Why did Jesus think that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven? The answers I got from the students all shared a common thread. “Because they are selfish and greedy,” one child answered. “Because they have too strong an attachment to their material possessions,” a precocious sixth-grader replied. “Because they are rich and aren’t willing to give their money away and so don’t have much faith in God,” an insightful student suggested.

If we take Jesus at his words (usually the best way of reading the gospel), we discover an unavoidable and inverse relationship between riches and God’s kingdom. There’s something about being rich that makes it harder (almost impossible) to get into the kingdom. Some pseudo-scholars (cf. today’s Forward Day by Day meditation) like to mention a famous gate in Jerusalem called the “Eye of the Needle,” but I am unconvinced that Jesus had that in mind. (Wasn’t that gate only so named long after Jesus lived?) In fact, to suggest that he was referring to that gate undermines the real power of his teaching and reveals a tendency on our part to avoid real stewardship if at all possible.

The real shocker of this passage comes when we realize what it means to be rich. “Who here is rich?” I asked the students in chapel this morning. No hands went up. Although I’m not sure my message got through, I tried to convince everyone there that all of us are rich by Jesus’ standards. Since we have money to buy food, clothing, education, transportation, medicine, and other necessities and luxuries, we are the rich men and women whom Jesus imagines trying to push a camel through a needle’s eye. The question this passage raises, therefore, is much more personal: “Why does Jesus teach us that it is so hard for you and me to get into heaven?”

As relatively rich people, we have the ability to sustain ourselves with our financial resources. Food to eat, clothes to wear, and shelter to inhabit—those essentials of life which we are able to provide for ourselves inevitably convince us that we are able to do it—to live this life—on our own. And that’s the attitude that keeps us from entering the kingdom. As long as we operate under the delusion that we are self-sufficient, we cannot get to heaven. If nothing else, God’s kingdom represents a complete reliance on God, meaning there’s no room in heaven for “I can do it on my own.”

Stewardship isn’t about raising money for worthwhile causes. We don’t tithe in order to help those in need. We dedicate the first ten percent of our income to God in order to help ourselves understand that only through God’s sustenance are we able to survive. By giving away the first ten percent of our resources, we force ourselves to survive on less, and, in so doing, we discover that we can’t do it on our own. We learn again that everything we have—the first ten percent and the remaining ninety percent—are all gifts from God. Until we get to that point—until we can respond to Jesus’ instruction to the rich man by selling all that we have and giving it away, we can’t enter the kingdom of God.

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