Sometimes unity is hard work! Many years ago, I was at a meeting where our local church leadership was meeting the new conference president and our new pastor. As Lay Pastor, I was the leader of the local church. The new conference president asked each of the local elders their thoughts about the church. A newly elected elder said things were fine, except their was something wrong with my theology and the church leadership had a problem with racism. My immediate thought was that unity would be best preserved if I walked over and strangled him! The two of us had never had a personal discussion about theology. He had just transferred to our church, and although he was of a minority race, within a year we had elected him an elder - unlikely actions for a group of racists! This unexpected and unwarranted attack on my reputation and the church leadership created hard feelings in my heart. What should we do when things like that happen? Let's dive into our Bibles and see what we can learn!
Reformation: Healing Broken Relationships
Commentary for the September 21, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’” Luke 12:13, NIV
A few short verses in the Gospel of Luke about relationships are the tip of the iceberg only. However, the rest of the story might easily be surmised from what is said. Apparently the father of two sons had worked hard for much of his life to accumulate an estate that eventually could be passed on to the next generation. There may have been daughters as well, but in biblical times, property was rarely passed on to daughters unless there were no surviving male heirs.[i] For whatever reason, the father of the two sons chose to leave his entire estate to only one son, either intentionally or by default. Perhaps he was following the principle of primogeniture. Under this principle, the first-born son inherits the entire estate, leaving any siblings to seek their fortune or even their basic sustenance elsewhere. Some feel this was the issue referred to as “birthright” in the controversy between Jacob and Esau.[ii] Sometimes, when the first-born son inherited the lands and any titles attached to a noble patrimony, the second born son might serve in the military or go adventuring to acquire an estate through plunder or discovery. If that alternative lacked appeal or failed to be profitable, the church was often a refuge of last resort with the disinherited son seeking a clerical appointment.
Perhaps the second son in this instance felt such a system of inheritance was unjust. Maybe he felt both sons had contributed to the profitability of the estate while the father was living. Whether the father intentionally left everything to one son, or he simply failed to make provision ahead of time for both of his sons, one boy came up empty handed. In any event, he seemed to feel that Jesus could correct the situation. If the favored son had become a follower of Jesus, the other son might have felt that he would listen to Jesus if he commanded him to give a portion of his inheritance to his brother. How often have Christians had to hear the condemning words of those who do not care for Christ or Christianity, but nonetheless, they rebuke Christians for not blessing them with money or other worldly goods. Was this the disinherited son’s only interest in Jesus, that he could get money out of Him? The Bible doesn’t say. However, Jesus’ strong rebuke of his request might lead us to believe that could be the case.
In some cases the only attraction that Christianity holds for individuals is a belief that professing fellowship with Christians will open the storehouses of heaven to pour down material blessings on the believer. Perhaps prosperity gospel preaching has played a role in this perception. It is tempting to believe that if you only have enough faith and persevere long enough with that belief, you will become wealthy. However, this belief provides no adequate explanation of why someone who walks daily in close fellowship with Jesus might still be poor. For that matter, it gives no explanation for the poverty of Jesus. Jesus seemed to preach the exact opposite of the prosperity gospel, encouraging people to shed their wealth rather than accumulate it.[iii]
Those who profess Christianity in order to gain material wealth were often referred to as “Rice Christians” before the prosperity gospel became popular. This was because of the common occurrence of the destitute of Asia, where rice was a staple, converting to Christianity because of the apparently endless streams of rice that flowed to the various missions. Once the rice stopped flowing, as when Mao’s communists closed many China missions,[iv] the “rice” converts reverted back to their former beliefs and practices. Because of the turmoil of those times, it is impossible to document how common such backsliding actually was, but oftentimes the perception is more enduring than actual fact. Perhaps it was to prevent such occurrences that Jesus challenged the common desire to accumulate wealth, even to the extent of illustrating that entrance to heaven for the rich would be like a camel passing through the eye of a needle.[v]
This might surprise some, but we might ask, “Why?” Even secular relationships that are built on what someone else can do for us rather than mutual respect and service can be in trouble from the beginning. Some have married based on hopes that a second person will contribute to greater prosperity and security than one person alone was able to find. When that prosperity was in some way challenged, perhaps by job loss or disability, the marriage fell apart. The expectations of one party that the other would ensure their security could no longer be realized, and since that was the foundation of the relationship, it ended, and often that security was sought elsewhere. As with such a marriage, so it can sadly be with “rice” Christians.
When such a Christian eventually discovers that Christianity is not a meal ticket or a path to worldly wealth, they either must mature in their faith to a more realistic understanding of their responsibilities to others and to God, or they will fall away, searching for the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, never understanding the role of hard work and consistent faithfulness based on love in ensuring their security, both present and future. Like the young bride who remains committed to her marriage even when she learns she may have to scrub floors to keep the wolf from the door because her husband has become disabled or unemployed, or the young groom whose wife becomes disabled, and he chooses to remain married even though it means he must fulfill the role of breadwinner, caregiver and housekeeper, the Christian chooses to remain in relationship with Christ, because of love, not wealth. Though that relationship may mean toil, persecution and even death, it endures.
Perhaps the greatest value of such a relationship is the love foundational to its success. Wealth may bring some feelings of security, but it is a cold security. It does not warm the heart like love can. Love can provide security that nothing else can. It can survive economic downturns, sickness, ill fortune of all sorts, and even death. Wealth can fly away in the face of any of these things. It is fickle and sometimes needs no reason to abandon those who trust in its ephemeral promises.
There is good news, though, even for “rice” Christians. Change is possible. It may seem an impossibility to ever release one’s grasp from the golden treasure whether real or hoped for in the future, but God can make it possible.[vi] We need only turn and walk toward God.
A very real danger exists that wealth can cause us to walk away from God instead. Jesus warned us of this when He told us that no man can serve two masters.[vii] The desire to accumulate and retain wealth can consume all of our devotion, leaving little for God. When that happens, we may be like a trapped animal, unable to extricate ourselves and perhaps unwilling to even consider the idea. We might become unable to see that love provides greater security than money ever can. This might prevent us from hearing God’s call to our hearts. But that call never stops coming, even if we can no longer hear it. God never gives up on a relationship with us. He always urges us to turn and walk toward Him.
God is love.[viii] Love endures even if we don’t care about it. His love is what He offers as a counter to the wealth that so beguiles. It is the essence of our choice: love or wealth. The paradox is if we choose the first we get both love and security, but if we choose the second, we may end up with neither.
A problem with security based on wealth is that no one can answer a very simple question: How much wealth is enough? At one point, as a young married, I used to tell my wife, “If we only had a thousand dollars of income, we could feel secure.” After I graduated from college and went into the ministry, our income ballooned to eighteen hundred dollars a month, along with a rent-free parsonage. We soon discovered that the security that we thought we would have at an income of one thousand a month was still elusive at a much higher amount. I have since had incomes much higher than a young pastor could expect, but still it never seemed enough to ensure security. However, I have since come to understand that security comes from love, not wealth. Perhaps that is what Jesus is trying to tell us with His comments about money.
I cannot help but wonder if the young man who accosted Jesus about his inheritance ever was able to see what Jesus was all about. Maybe he spent the rest of his life bemoaning the inheritance he didn’t get. If he did, he may have missed out on building real security in the arms of a loving God. That is an inheritance that is guaranteed and nothing can take away.[ix]
[i] Numbers 27:1-11
[ii] Genesis 25:29-34
[iii] Luke 12:33-34
[iv] “Persecution of Christians in China,” www.mtholyoke.edu/~geary20d/worldpolitics/maozedeng.html
[v] Matthew 19:23-24
[vi] Matthew 19:26
[vii] Matthew 6:24
[viii] 1 John 4:16
[ix] Romans 8:17
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