This week, we continue our series on Margin, reminding ourselves of the Biblical mandate to leave space in our lives, like the margin on a piece of notebook paper or a document. After the first week of the series, Joanna Gillette shared some initial reactions about the metaphor of margin. Many of you will know that Joanna works for Allen Press. She deals with literal margins on documents for a living, and knows the importance of white space on a document. She explained that if a page does not have enough margin, the technical printing term is that it “bleeds.” Is there a more perfect amplification of our metaphor? When we don’t have that margin in our lives, we are bleeding to the edge. And isn’t that what marginless living feels like? When we don’t have that margin, it feels like we are losing the lifeblood of what we need to survive and thrive.
Last week, we talked about that lack of margin in our schedules. This week, we talk about a lack of margin in our finances. What does this marginless living look like?
• When we bleed past our margin, we look at the income at the beginning of the month and know that we have plenty to live on, but yet find ourselves by the end of the month wondering where it all went.
• When we bleed past our margin, an unexpected expense throws us into chaos that we have to idea how to manage.
• When we bleed past our margin, our money and our possessions define us and how we feel. Maybe we live in fear of losing our money or our possessions, or perhaps on the contrary living in fear of spending money – in other words letting money determine how we will feel.
Many of us know this marginless living. We know what it means to bleed to the edges.
We are not alone. Today’s passage gives a powerful example of one who struggled with stress over money and possessions. A rich ruler comes to Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Biblical scholar Richard Vinson says that the Greek is more complex – it actually carries with it a certain assumption in the way that the question is asked. Perhaps a better translation, he says, is “Of course I going to inherit eternal life – but by doing what?”
He was not asking if, but how he was going to receive eternal life. Almost as if he were asking where he needs to sign in order to get paid. Even in his question, this assumption is demonstrated: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He poses it in the form of a question: “What do I need to do?” But also inherent is the fact that he knows it will come as an inheritance – it is a foregone conclusion. He already has it in the bag.
He is still sailing smooth as the conversation moves to the commandments – this is his wheelhouse. The ruler looks like he knew this was coming, so he gives Jesus his resume. “Of course, I have done all of these since I was a youth.” And he probably had. Someone with his stature and upbringing as a Jewish ruler had probably been trained well to follow the rules precisely. He was expecting that one from Jesus.
But he had no idea what was coming when Jesus continued: “one thing you lack.” That had to make the rich ruler pause. This was a man who was not well-versed in lacking. He did not lack much, and if he did lack it, he bought it. “Lacking” was not in his vocabulary. He thought he was in control of the conversation until this point. You could imagine the panic in his eyes when he realizes that the conversation – which was going so well – has taken a turn for the dangerous. With words as striking to the ruler as it was to everyone else who heard it, as it is to us: “Go and sell all your possessions, and give them to the poor, and then come and follow me.”
And the passage tells us that the man went away grieving, for he was very rich.
You cannot serve the god of your money and the God of the Kingdom. You must choose. The rich ruler made a choice. But he did not make the right choice. The man of privilege who came looking for a clarification about which stamp in his passport was going to get him into heaven went away realizing that he was simply on the wrong journey. Jesus went onto explain that for those who have many possessions, the task is incredibly hard to divest oneself of such possessions. Harder, even than a camel – the largest animal that any of them would have known – fitting through the eye of a needle – the smallest space that they could comprehend.
By the end of the passage, Jesus has turned everyone’s assumptions upside down. Instead of lifting up a man like this, one who would have been well-respected and envied by all who saw him, he highlights as the model his own disciples – poor, mostly uneducated fishermen. They alone had done what Jesus commanded. They had chosen well – they had left home and family and security and possession in order to follow Jesus. They had divested themselves from their possessions and the ways that they defined them. And so, Jesus lauded praise upon them. He points to them as the answer to the rich ruler’s original question. This, he says, pointing to Peter and the others, is how you receive eternal life.
Here we are, on this side of the millennia, asking where do we fit into this story. We may not like the answer. For we struggle with the same sense of privilege, many due to our race or gender or socioeconomic status, or all of the above. On the global scale, we are all rich rulers. Now, it is easy enough to look up the ladder and find someone who is richer and more powerful and affluent than we, and usually assume that Jesus is talking about them. Jesus is talking about Obama. Or Donald Trump. But not me.
It’s you. And me. And we know it. Deep down, we know it. If we take an honest look at the message of Jesus and the comfort of our own lives, we will see that we are the rich ruler, too. We know it is us because we feel the same draw to Jesus that that man did. He didn’t have to go to Jesus. The rich ruler could have drug up any one of his lackeys to tell him that he had already earned eternal life. That his hard work and stock portfolio was all it took. But deep down, he knew that there was something missing. He knew that that there was something he lacked.
We put together a puzzle at our house this Christmas, and when it was all done, we remembered that there were two pieces next to each other in the middle of puzzle missing. There is nothing as unsatisfying as a puzzle with a piece missing out of the middle.
I think the rich ruler walked around in his life of privilege and comfort wondering where the missing piece was. He knew there was something he lacked and it drove him to Jesus to ask the question. He hoped against hope that Jesus would say that he was good, that he had done enough, that his reliance on his possessions and money were the right play. But deep down, he knew he wouldn’t. And so he asked the question. And so must we.
“What must I do?”
Because I think that our lack of margin when it comes to our finances is exactly the same. We, too, know that there is something wrong. We know that there is a piece right there in the middle of the puzzle that is missing. We know that the culture’s message of owning and achieving is not quite right. We know that the possessing of things does not give us what we are really looking for. We know from experience the trap of living beyond our means because we think that one more pair of shoes or one more car or a few more square feet in that house on the corner lot is really what we are looking for. We know it isn’t. And we yearn for that missing piece. That missing margin.
Dr. Richard Swenson writes in his book on margin that the Bible has three answers to this question of money. When we encounter money in our life, there are three appropriate Biblical options.
First, he says, there are times when we need to just walk in the other direction. He calls this the prescription of fasting. There are times, he says, when we simply need to fast from buying things. “Use up what is in the refrigerator. Wear out the clothes in your closet before you buy new ones thinking they will make you happy. Can you get along with what you have, instead of what you see in the ads?” He quotes the old sampler from his grandmother’s wall: “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Do without.” Turn and walk in the other direction. Don’t pick it up if you don’t need it.
Then Swenson offers a second option. When we encounter money, we have to break its back. He writes, “before we can accomplish anything righteous with money, we first need to understand its power, confront it, and with the help of God, demolish it. How is it possible to break the substantial power money holds over us? Very simple – give it away.”
Sometimes we need to pick it up, and then give it away. He writes about the power of money and possessions, and repeats that familiar phrase that more often than not, our possessions often end up possessing us. What we think will give us freedom and power ends up shackling us to a power that we cannot control. I won’t ask how many of you bought a Powerball ticket a couple of weeks ago. And I don’t judge you for doing it. It’s fun to think about how we would spend the money, even about who we would be able to help along the way. But I will remind you that a significant portion of the people who have won the big lotto payoff wish that they hadn’t. That second option is not for the faint of heart.
But I have seen it done well. I have seen many people who have had success in business or have received an inheritance or have somehow received money in their life, and have used that money wisely to care for others. They save well, budget well, tithe well, and give out of their generosity. Note that Jesus did not judge the ruler for being rich, but for what he failed to do with that money. Give it away, he asked. If you do, you’ll find that missing piece that you lack. And you’ll also happen to bless many others in the process. It is possible to pick up that wealth, and then use it to care for the poor, to meet the needs of those who do not have enough to buy their necessities, to use it to influence and transform broken systems for good – like Kirk talked about last week. There are some who are called to use money – freely, openly, and wisely – by giving it away.
Finally, Swenson gives us a third option with our money: “we can use it for daily living, when needed.” Ah, there’s the rub. How do we know when it is necessity and when it is not? He suggests that an important safeguard is what he calls the “theology of enough.” The “theology of enough,” he says, suggests that “possessions are to be used, and not loved.” We will obviously all nod our heads to that one. “Of course, I don’t love my possessions,” we will agree. But pay attention to how we talk about our cars. About our homes. What happens when you lose track of your phone, even for a couple of hours? Do we talk about them like we use them, or love them? Like we need them! Have we truly put God before these possessions?
Social commentator John de Graff has created the term “affluenza” as a way of naming our greed, materialism, and financial marginless living as a disease. There is even a high profile case in the news in which a teenager used this term as a defense in case against him in a fatal drunk driving accident. He is a victim, it turns out, because he is too rich. Now, I believe that many of us are definitely infected with this disease, but we are not victims. We have ingested the poison willingly and overwhelmingly.
But Swenson says that there is a Biblical prescription. Walk away. Give it away. Live a life of contentment. Judy Lewis is a financial counselor who came in the fall as a part of our stewardship series. Her presentation “How to Make a Budget and Stick to it” is a meaningful and profound look at how money affects us and the decisions we make about it. I love the name of her blog: www.allmyneedsaremet.com. What a wondrous way to describe the return of the lifeblood that comes when contentment brings back our margin. May that be our prescription for the lack of margin in our lives today!