The Problem of Wealth

A homily given by Christopher L. Webber on August 19, 2014.

Bible Readings: Ezekiel 28:1-10 and St. Matthew 19:23-30

The two readings this morning deal with wealth, the problem of wealth, which may not be the problem most on your mind this morning – there’s said to be 1% of the population that has a wealth problem and most of us are more like the 99%. But wealth is one of the major themes not only of the Bible as a whole but especially of the Gospels and especially of Jesus’ teaching and it should be our concern because whether you and I are wealthy or not we are members of a wealthy society.

Let me give you a few statistics to put that in perspective: average household income: US – $53,000; Norway and Switzerland and Luxemburg do better and Germany is close at 45,000 and England at 39,000 but Mexico is 10,000 and Haiti is 860 – less than three dollars a day. No wonder there are illegal immigrants.

The Old Testament reading speaks directly to this situation. The prophet Ezekiel is denouncing the prince of Tyre and what’s interesting about that is that the experts tend to doubt that Ezekiel was ever in Tyre or even near it. Ezekiel was born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon in the 6th century before Christ and Tyre is in modern Lebanon north of Israel. In those days it was an island with two of the best harbors in the eastern Mediterranean which were the source of its wealth – and it had great wealth. Alexander the Great came along three centuries later and built a causeway to the island to capture it and its wealth. But Ezekiel is holding it up as an example, a city of legendary wealth, whose people imagine that all that wealth came to them because of their godlike wisdom.

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Ezekiel tells them that they compare their minds to the mind of a god and they will learn, God will teach them, that they are mortals and not god. It was not, after all, their wisdom that formed that harbor, a natural geological formation, any more than it was our wisdom that created the natural harbor here in San Francisco or put the gold in the inland hills or created the great agricultural resources of the central valley. Like the people of Tyre we have exploited the natural resources that were here; it wasn’t our wisdom that created them and the prophet might have some things to say to us about the use we make of these resources and our willingness to share them.

So that’s the first point to make about the first lesson. There’s a human tendency to assume that we should get credit for being smart enough, wise enough, to be born in Tyre or San Francisco and that we have a right to the resources that come with that wisdom. Ezekiel would question that.

But there’s a second point to notice and that is that although Ezekiel was not a Tyrian and may never have been there he denounces Tyre all the same and says that God has some issues with them. Those were days when local tribes had local gods and it seldom occurred to them that their local gods would care at all about the people of other tribes but here is Ezekiel denouncing Tyre and telling them God sees and God judges. That was a new idea in the 6th century BC and Isaiah in the same century make the same point. Up to that point in Jewish history the Jews had thought of their God as powerful and able to defeat other peoples and gods but not as the only God, not as a God who took an interest in other people. But Ezekiel and Isaiah see very clearly that God is a God of all the earth and does care and does judge.

Justice is not a local matter. God cares as much or more about the people of Haiti and Mexico and Latin America than about us. The people of Tyre knew nothing of the God of Israel but that didn’t matter. God knows them and God judges them. The people of Haiti and Central America know and honor the same God we know and honor and that God knows us and knows how often we as a nation put our own interests first and send our military to control the oil resources of the middle east and the fruit supplies of Central America and to depose rulers who displease us in the Middle East and Central America. But God cares about them as much or more than God cares about us. Ezekiel understood that 2500 years ago but we still are prone to forget.

Now when we look at the Old Testament we find a vision of God at work in the sweep of history and the affairs of nations and when we turn to the New Testament we find a much more personal focus: Jesus the Good Shepherd reaching out to heal the individual, but equally to challenge the individual as in the second reading.

Jesus never said anything good about rich people that I remember and here this morning we have the end of the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus to ask what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him: “Keep the commandments,” and he says “I’ve done that all my life.” I think we all have that feeling at times: I’ve done the right thing most of the time – but is that really enough? This morning Jesus is telling the rich young man that there’s more to do. Jesus is saying: don’t let your riches come between you and God. If it does, and it often does, you may need to give it away so there’s nothing holding you back. And the young man can’t do that. Like most of us he feels that he needs it, he can’t go the next step and put himself in a place of total dependence and Jesus was sympathetic. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story also but oddly Mark, who usually has the shortest version, tells us something that Matthew and Luke leave out: that Jesus instinctively loved him. He saw him as someone who really cared and was really trying and he loved him for that. But even Jesus’ love couldn’t overcome the man’s need, his feeling of need, for wealth.

That’s a feeling I think we all know and understand: that we have a need for what we have and can’t give it away to the point where we depend entirely on God. But if we stop to think deeply I believe I do have more than I need, more than I can justify possessing especially, when I look around and see how little others have. Jesus loved the young man and he loves us and he called him and calls us on to a higher way, to a greater ability to give, to put God first, to get over that feeling that we have earned or deserve the wealth we have and are somehow morally superior to those who have less and need to live in comfort as we do when we could so easily – we really could — do with less and share more.

Again and again the Bible reminds us, Jesus reminds us, we didn’t dredge that harbor, it’s not our wisdom that put these natural resources in our hands but God has put them in our hands in faith that unlike so many others we will use them well. Look at the subject from a national level or an individual level: our economics, our pattern of getting and spending, is no private matter – because God put us here and God shaped the environment in which we find ourselves and God gives us a stewardship of wealth and many who are first now will be last in that day and many who are last now will be first.

© 2014 by Chistopher L Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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