Did you get a phone call from Bill Gates or Warren Buffett this week? They’ve only contacted 70-80 of their friends so far – so there’s still a chance! "We're off to a terrific start,” Buffett said. Their plan is to have others on the list call their friends, and to hold small groups and small dinner parties across the country in the months ahead to enlist others in their campaign. But they wanted to share the results with the rest of us, on how it’s going so far. Seems they’ve gotten bit by the ‘Sell your possessions, and give alms’ bug! Gates and Buffett have been asking their social peers to take this pledge: ‘to, give away at least half of their wealth to charity.’ And of the 70-80 invitations, 40 have said yes, including most notably, Michael Bloomberg, George Lucas, and Ted Turner. Buffett himself already pledged to give away 99% of his $43B, 4 years ago, and is known for his modest lifestyle. Jesus is reported to have blogged about the campaign, “if they’re not against us, do not hinder them!” But anyway, if you didn’t get a call, it just might be because you’re not on their short list of the nation’s wealthiest individuals.
Even though I tease, it’s obviously a good thing, maybe even a very good thing, that Bill and Warren are doing. Personally, I’d also like to see rich corporations be made to ante up, those who spend so much energy on paying little or no taxes through legal loop holes, which seems to be the exact opposite of the Gates-Buffett pledge.
Certainly, from a public relations or news cycle perspective, the “sell your possessions and give at least 50% in alms movement” is exemplary, and an important step to take. It’s heartening to read some of the letters from the 40 philanthropists who signed on – standing up for giving away their wealth; admitting they really don’t need it; and testifying how it isn’t a personal, or social benefit, to pass on that much to their families. They certainly can’t be accused any longer of being the “rich fool” in Jesus’ parable, we heard last week, the one who stored up his enormous good fortune and windfall profits in the brand new barns he built, holding on tightly to every last penny, all for himself. And it points up Jesus question, not only for them, but for all of us, “are you rich toward God?”
Today Jesus expands on that idea. "… it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” he says. “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out – and do not grow old – with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches, and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus took sides, in the money debate. He advocated a choice: Mammon or God. Live rich, or live rich toward God! “Make purses for yourselves that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.” Only a few people actually were able to store up Mammon in their treasuries, like the tax collectors, and the few rich business men and government officials who in turn loaned it to subsistence businesses, like fishers and farmers, only to make them further indebted. Most people, like Jesus and the disciples, lived in the barter economy, and would rather have a loaf a bread or some fish in their hands at the end of the day, than silver coins. So, controlling money was about controlling the people. And this Mammon, as Jesus called it, was a false trust, which in Aramaic is where the word trust comes from! Where do you put your trust? What kind of a purse do you have? What are you working for?
Luke’s gospel was written to the privileged Theophilus, his patron, and to his richer, more well off, congregation. And so it is particularly astonishing that so many of the stories about money, take the rich to the woodshed! Why didn’t Luke have Jesus preach the ‘prosperity gospel’ to them!? Instead Jesus tells the story about Zacchaeus, who like Michael Bloomberg, is very short, and very rich. And when Jesus came to town, Zacchaeus climbed up into his skybox, a Sycamore tree, to see Jesus. When Jesus spots the rich tax-collector on his way through Jericho, he stops the parade and invites himself over to his house. The crowds are scandalized that Jesus would eat with a tax-collector. But in Jesus’ boldness, he declares him pardoned, in front of everyone! And Jesus’ pledge to ‘break bread’ with Zacchaeus frees him to make a pledge of his own. Zacchaeus declares, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” So it seems, Zacchaeus is the original pledger, ala Bill Gates and Warren Buffett! Where do we put our trust? What kind of a purse do we have? Are we rich toward God?
There was one ‘purse’ that Jesus and the disciples kept. It was a common purse, held in trust by Judas. They were to use it to pay for common expenses in their nomadic missionary life. Having left everything, their families and livelihoods, all they had financially in this world, they kept collectively in ‘the purse’. And even from that, their one earthly treasury, Judas stole from. “Make purses for yourselves that do not grow old – with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches, and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” said Jesus. "… it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Imagine that! If we were as concerned about God’s kingdom as we are about the size of next month’s paycheck, the next harvest, or the next step up the career ladder, what changes would we make in our lives?
A read a surprising review of a book about some in the Amish community who have changed from farming to manufacturing, for the first time in generations. It’s called, “Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive.” While the failure rate of small business start-ups on a whole is 50% in the first 5 years, the number of Amish businesses that don’t make it is only 10%. Some have become millionaires! But they chalk their success up to keeping their vision and values ahead of profit taking – “financial success is a means to an end,” says author Erik Wesner. What they value is to stay small, keep a low overhead, treat employees and customers with kindness, practice frugality, help each other out, and seek strong relationships, values that Wall Street might find refreshing about now!
In a word, these Amish folks are trying to live out their faith, and hold to Jesus admonition: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” They don’t need to learn what Bill and Warren have just recently discovered. They are seeking, from the beginning, to be rich toward God, to live into the ‘kingdom’ that God is trying to ‘give us,’ a gift that, it ‘pleases God,’ just to en-trust to us, a gift of salvation, each and every day! Come on down out of that tree; make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven!