By Sandy Webb
In Matthew 19, we meet a rich young man. We know that he has many possessions, but nothing else – not even his name. He comes to Jesus because he is looking for something. He has kept all of the commandments, yet he wonders if he has done enough to inherit eternal life. In the depths of his heart, he knows that something is missing, but he can’t figure out what.
Jesus’ response is as shocking to him as it is to us: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Does following Jesus really mean selling everything we have? If so, faithful living is a mirage. If so, I have no hope of eternal life. If so, God’s grace is severely limited.
Matthew has no sympathy for the rich young man, though I can certainly empathize with him. I try to be as generous as I can, but I also live comfortably. I try to lead a faithful life, yet I still wonder sometimes if I have done enough to please God.
Eight chapters later, we meet another rich man, and this one has a name. Matthew tells us that St. Joseph of Arimathea is rich, but we can conclude that he is very rich because he has direct access to the governor and a spare tomb readily available. This rich man does not give away his money or deny his special privileges, yet Matthew does not critique him. His place in God’s kingdom is not questioned.
The difference between Matthew’s two rich men is the way that they approach their faith and their wealth. The rich young man regards the law as a checklist to be completed. He does what is required, gives what is required, and then does as he pleases. By contrast, St. Joseph of Arimathea knows that he has a role to play in advancing the story of salvation, and he uses his resources to do that in a way that only he can.
St. Paul’s story is much the same. In ancient times, nothing was more valuable than Roman citizenship. Paul never renounced this valuable asset, and he was not embarrassed to have it. Instead, he used his citizenship to spread the Gospel in a way that only a citizen could. By appealing his case to the emperor, a privilege reserved only for citizens, Paul created opportunities to tell the story of his conversion in at least three different levels of the Roman hierarchy.
Perspective on the faithful handling of wealth comes from a fuller examination of the role that wealthy people play in the New Testament. The biblical narrative does critique people who hoard their resources, but at the same time it recognizes and relies on people who use their resources to advance God’s kingdom. Our spiritual challenge is not having money, but doing something meaningful with the money we have.
The rich young man fell into a trap that was set for him by his ancestors, a trap into which many of us still fall today. When it comes to salvation, there is no checklist of things to be done. Salvation comes through grace alone. It cannot be bought or earned, only given. In my own spiritual life, I struggle to accept the fact that I can never repay God for the abundant supply of grace that he has bestowed upon me. God and I will never be even, yet he loves me anyway.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Nothing. What can I do as a result of inheriting eternal life? I can regard money as a tool to be used rather than as a commodity to be hoarded. I can be generous to a fault.
St. Joseph of Arimathea probably knew the sense of guilt that can come from living a comfortable life in a city where many do not, and of being among the privileged few who have access to influential people – I know that feeling. Joseph did not let it stop him in the same way that it often stops me.
The Reverend Sandy Webb is rector of Church of the Holy Communion (Episcopal) in Memphis, Tennessee. Prior to ordination, he worked in the Executive Office of the General Convention at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City; he has planned and directed worship for the General Convention since 2003. An honors graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and Virginia Theological Seminary, he was ordained at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2010. His work has been published in the Journal of Episcopal Church Canon Law, The Living Church, Christian Century, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The Anglican Digest.
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