When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Matthew 19:22, NIV
It’s said an economic recession is when your neighbor loses his job; a depression is when you lose yours. If that’s the case, a lot of us are depressed these days. Some of us can’t pay our rent or mortgage; others are wondering where the next meal is coming from. People once set on retiring are frowning at dried-up investments, while students are finding it harder to pay for college, and 20-somethings, harder to repay loans.
I know the pain of this economy firsthand. Until landing a consulting gig a few weeks ago, I was at my wits end, staring at the ceiling late at night, wondering how I was going to afford simple things like groceries or my modest electricity bill, let alone rent. If money had ever insulated me from the stark realities of this world, my insulation was removed. I felt the cold wind of poverty blowing through my walls. I felt depressed.
However, my financial desperation also reminded me of a powerful spiritual truth: “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” (Matthew 19:24). That’s something Jesus said shortly after a rich young man approached Him with the question, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). Jesus responded:
“Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Matthew 19:18-22, NIV
Some people are fond of back-peddling from this story and quickly noting that there’s nothing wrong with money, that money was simply this particular young man’s vice, the thing that kept him from true spiritual freedom. And while it’s true that there is nothing inherently wrong with money, the sad reality is that in America, money is our vice, too. It is our healer, soother, comforter, protector, and defender. It bails us out of trouble, covers over our mistakes, and gives us access to “the good life.” It’s unpopular to say, but the real American Idol is not the latest fresh-faced singing sensation, it’s money-and Christians are by no means immune to its grip over our culture.
Think about it: Whenever someone returns from a mission trip to a third-world country, this person almost inevitably shakes her head and says something like, “They’re so poor-they have nothing-but they’re so happy.” This is because we tend to associate economic stability with happiness, and we find it almost unbelievable that anyone could find joy in the midst of poverty. After all, the word we use is depression.
I don’t mean to glamorize desperate financial circumstances or dismiss the real pain many people are feeling today (I too am feeling it). I don’t mean to dismiss our obligation as Christians to help those in need, especially those living in extreme poverty. My point is that we are almost blind to the fact that money is what we really trust in, and when the money is gone, we hardly know what to do. But Jesus understood that when the money is gone, people can actually begin to see again-and true Christian spirituality is always about seeing. Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven because He knew that wealth not only blinded us to spiritual realities but also competed for our affection, trust, and allegiance.
Perhaps this is why Jesus never chose to build a kingdom on earth-no glass office building, no 401(k) plan, no diverse investment portfolio. Instead, “Birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Jesus had to trust His Father to provide His every need, and when He taught His disciples to pray-when He taught us to pray-He implored God to “give us this day our daily bread.” Perhaps in this economic recession, many of us can now pray this prayer and actually mean it-trusting not in our bank accounts, but relying on God to get us through the financial storm that rages around us, relying on God to literally provide our food for that particular day.
So we are faced with a decision: will we, like the rich young man, walk away sad because we have been asked to slough off the true source of our security-our money? Or will we embrace this hardship as an opportunity to begin living the radical life of faith we are called to, a life of full surrender to Jesus-One who rejected a kingdom of personal wealth and ascension for a kingdom of poverty and descent? Today, let us sacrifice our empty freedom for the true freedom of an open heart and an empty hand.