The problem with the ‘rich’

The problem is that for most of us, we instinctively know that "rich" doesn't apply to us.

Yme Woensdregt

Let me invite you to read the title of this column correctly. I’m not talking about people who are rich. This column is not about “the rich” or “the one per cent”. The problem I want to identify is that for most of us, we instinctively know that “rich” doesn’t apply to us.

I grew up in a household which claimed never to be rich. One of my father’s favourite sayings was — you guessed it — “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” My family’s story was that we never had enough.

It didn’t matter that we always had electricity and a warm house and food on the table and enough clothes to wear, that we had a car and annual vacations in a cottage when I was very young, and later a tent trailer which took us from Surrey to the Okanagan. It didn’t matter that we had a TV (do you remember those old, small black and white sets?). We were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we know in our minds, or sometimes see with our eyes, what real poverty looks like. It doesn’t matter that we know that even the poorest in our society has more stuff than 80 per cent of the people in the rest of the world. We just know that we are not rich.

I visited a website where I could input my salary, and it calculates my wealth in relation to the rest of the world. It tells me that I am in the wealthiest 2.5 per cent of people in the world. Even when I input the poverty line in Canada ($20,000), that amount puts people in the top 12 per cent of the world’s wealth. But that doesn’t matter; we are not rich.

And that’s why “rich” is a problem. “Rich” simply doesn’t apply to me. “Others” are rich; not us. They have more. We have less.

So when the Bible warns “those who are rich”, it doesn’t apply to us. Both Jesus and the Old Testament prophets warn the rich about the dangers of wealth. Those stories, of course, are meant for someone else —”Wow, I wonder what I would do if I were rich. Would I be able to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus?” Or, “Wow, it will be hard for those folks to get into the Kingdom of God. I should pray for them.”

Then comes a wonderful story in Mark’s gospel which redefines the question and does us a great favour. A man runs up to Jesus in Mark 10:17. We don’t know anything about him, except that he wants to know what he must do to inherit life.

Jesus loves this man, and invites him to live deeply and abundantly: “Go, sell what you have, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! Follow me!”

But the man becomes gloomy, and goes away sad. As the translation “The Message” puts it, “he walked off with a heavy heart.”

Why? Because he was “someone who had a lot of stuff.” Literally, he had “many possessions.” Or as The Message puts it, “He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.”

Uh oh.

“He had a lot of stuff. He wasn’t about to loosen his grip.”

Now that sounds familiar. Mark’s warning is not for someone who is “rich”. The warning is for someone “who has a lot of stuff.”

Now that hits home.

It hits home in garages cluttered with too many bicycles. It hits home in bookshelves with too many books or DVD’s or other stuff. It hits home in houses loaded up with retired phones and iPads and computers and televisions and multiple sets of dishes and overflowing closets and basketfuls of toys.

Jesus doesn’t warn “the rich”— those ethereal others — but us. Us! “Oh, how tough it is for those who have a ton of crap (okay, more literally, ‘a lot of stuff’) to enter the kingdom of God!”

This is not for some mysterious “them.” It is for us.

Why might this be so? I think “The Message” translation helps us understand why — we hold on tightly to our stuff, so tightly that sometimes it seems as if our stuff owns us. Imagine the freedom of letting go. Imagine, if you even can, the sense of no longer being held by our stuff.

So let’s leave behind the word “rich”. It is too full of problems for us. Let’s dwell on the challenge for those non–rich who still have too much. Let’s just acknowledge that our lives are cluttered by all this stuff around us.

How difficult it will be for those… for us… for me… who have a ton of crap to enter the kingdom of God. Imagine letting go of the clutter… and living abundantly.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook