Are you rich, or are you poor? Stop and ponder this for a minute. Why have you decided that you’re rich or poor?
If you have a place to sleep and clothes to wear and food to eat, you and your household are better off than the half of the world’s population who live on $2.50 a day or less. 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. Are you rich or poor?
The United States has slightly over 6% of the world’s population, and about 50% of its wealth. Are we rich or poor?
The answer is important, because it tends to influence how we see the world around us and our own place within it. Much of what we hear and see from the society we live in tells us that we’re poor, that we need more stuff, because we don’t have enough, and that our security and safety depend on getting more. The loudest rhetoric in Congress right now insists that caring for the poorer members of our communities is too expensive. That rhetoric is largely driven by a tiny portion of the population who control an outsize portion of the wealth in this country – people who seem to believe they are poor, even though by any possible economic measure they are very rich.
Yet this is more than an economic question. The words we heard from Jeremiah were spoken to terrified people who felt desperately poor. Jeremiah was living in captivity, held by the king because he kept telling people they were going to get what was coming to them for ignoring the poor and failing to love God by loving their neighbors. They were living under threat of war and occupation and their economy had collapsed. That’s why he goes through all the mechanics of buying a piece of land and recording the deed. It’s a prophetic drama that says, eventually the real estate market will function again, and people will buy land with an expectation of being able to plant crops and vines and live on what they produce. And others will sell land, expecting to be able to live off the proceeds. The time they’re living in is so chaotic that buying and selling land makes no sense at all – maybe it’s something like the Great Depression, when vast numbers of people were quite literally dirt poor. Jeremiah is lending hope to frightened people, both rich and poor, saying that even if the enemy conquers them and their nation collapses, that it won’t be the end of God’s story.
Are we rich or poor? Timothy is also written for the benefit of the whole community, rich and poor. All are to be reminded that we leave this world as naked as we came into it, and that loving God and neighbor looks like being contented with necessities, rather than accumulating luxuries. When rushing after riches becomes the primary focus of a person’s life, it leads only to ruin and death. If you want real life, be rich in doing good and acting generously. Depend on God, not your bank account. That famous line, “the love of money is the root of all evil” is a reminder that only when the commandment to love God and neighbor is at the center of our lives will we find the kind of life that is really living – eternal, abundant, holy living ‘on earth as in heaven.’
Jesus’ parable sounds the same theme. The rich man spends his life feasting and ignoring the street person on his doorstep. After they die, each one enjoys the opposite of what he experienced in life. After the rich man asks for a do-over, he begins to expand his circle of concern, but only to his immediate family. That is progress, but Jesus insists it’s too late. It’s a surprising response from somebody who seems to be a paragon of forgiveness – but if we recognize that Jesus is talking more about living and dying in this life, it’s a simple statement of fact. The rich man is stuck in hell until he changes, and he has to make that decision for himself. Nobody else can do it for him.
Most of us – all of us – are both rich and poor. We are wealthier than most of the rest of the world, and yes, there are people in our communities who are richer than we are. But that is not the most important question. The question that the prophet, the psalmist, and Jesus are asking is about where we put our trust. Our forebears, who designed and adopted the money we still use, remembered that. Do we trust in that green stuff, or in the content of our bank accounts, or have we noticed that subversive message printed on our money?
In God We Trust was first added to coins in 1864, and it’s been included on all the green stuff since it was adopted as the national motto in 1956. It’s interesting to note what was going on in this nation when the push came to identify our money this way. It began during the Civil War, a time not unlike Jeremiah’s, and the final push came in the midst of the Cold War and McCarthyism in the mid-1950s. The legislative statement that ‘of course this nation trusts in God’ has a lot in common with King Zedekiah throwing Jeremiah in jail because of his “unpatriotic” reminder that judgment is coming to those who don’t love God and neighbor. It rings hollow to claim, in every act of buying and selling, that God is on our side, yet the underlying reality of judgment remains: who or what do we really trust?
That is the central issue – do we have faith that money will buy safety, security, and what is eternally important? Or do we trust that ultimately God is the source of what is eternally important? The balance of our bank account doesn’t answer the question.
A person’s net worth does not completely define whether we are rich or poor, but there is a high correlation with where we put our trust. The poor often have a much deeper relationship with God and neighbor because they know the reality of their own lives – money has not saved them, even though it could make life a whole lot easier and more secure. The love and care of neighbors is far more reliable than the bank – particularly given recent history with some of those banks.
On Friday I got to see some evidence of that neighborly reliability, that concrete expression of the trustworthiness of God, evidenced in human flesh. HeartSide ministry has been serving neighbors in downtown Grand Rapids for 30 years. Its work is befriending people on the street, the mentally ill, and anybody who needs a little help from a friend. HeartSide offers 12-step groups, Sunday worship, social service referrals, a computer lab and GED classes, scores of volunteers, several art studios and a gallery, and a neighborly atmosphere. It started with a storefront and a coffee pot. The coffee’s still on. The current mayor of Grand Rapids was the founding pastor. HeartSide is a place of real life.
So is IHN, helping homeless families back into stability and homes in Grand Rapids and all over this nation. You can find real life at St. Mark’s Sunday morning Breakfast Café, feeding 150-200 neighbors. St. Martin’s is finding real life in the children’s hostel in Durgapur, and in all the ministries you shared with me this morning (Open Doors, Loaves and Fishes, Clean Water for the World, your environmental work like Nurturing Our Woods, and through taking people out of their comfort zones to meet neighbors in South Dakota and New Orleans). You are becoming poor by giving yourselves away, and becoming rich in the process.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable has a way out of his hell. It involves shifting his fiduciary attention to the people in his neighborhood, and opening his heart as well as his hands. It is possible to leave that kind of hell – that is at least part of what motivated Bill Gates to challenge his peers to give away their billions for the well-being of their neighbors. We may have a real challenge in getting our legislators to listen at the moment, but we can show them how to love our neighbors, whatever our bank balance is. The way to a more balanced and abundant life is in discovering the trust documents around us – those neighbors God has given us to love.