Date: August 6, 2017
Title: “How Much is Enough? (And How Do You Know?)”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
Several years ago, in another church I served, I was called to the bedside of a dying man who desperately needed to see his pastor. This man was rich – very rich. And while he had been a good supporter of the church, and a generous giver to various charitable causes, he was worried. He was agitated. And he was terrified, all because of the passage we read from the Gospel of Mark today.
He thanked me profusely for coming to see him and then he asked me, Do you think it’s true, what Jesus says? Is it really easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for someone who is rich to enter into heaven?
I have joked in later years that I really missed a golden opportunity there… I could have told this suffering man – I can help you out…where’s your checkbook? And here’s how you spell my name… But of course, it was not a laughing matter. This poor rich man was struggling to find peace in a moment of chaos, searching for strength in the face of death, grasping for hope in a time of fear, all because he wasn’t sure how much was enough – and it was too late to figure out how he would know!
John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, was at one point the world’s richest man, and the first ever American billionaire. A reporter once asked him “How much money is enough?” And he famously replied, “Just a little bit more.”
You don’t have to be rich to be confused about how much is enough. We all think we need just a little bit more and then we will be satisfied, then our lives will be in order. And isn’t it interesting, the way we judge our relative wealth – always comparing our abundance with someone who has more than we have, never with those with less, so that we are constantly searching for ways to grab that “little bit more.”
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached on this question of “how much is enough?” by offering us (in good Methodical fashion) 3 rules of thumb:
• First, he told Methodists to gain all that you can
• Then, Wesley said, save all that you can
• And finally, he instructed us to give all that you can
Of course Wesley had a lot more to say, and fleshed out each of these rules with additional instructions. He taught that the terms on which we gain our wealth, the ways we earn all that we can, could only be done without harm to ourselves, or harm to others, or even harm to the planet. And the dictate about saving was not just about prudent planning for the future, it was also an attack on a consumer-oriented society in the 1700s, no less. Wesley was clearly taking aim at our desires for “things” beyond what we need for basic life. All of which leads Wesley to his premise that the whole point of earning and saving, the whole point of knowing what is “enough”, is to be able to give it away, to make certain that everyone has what they need for health and safety and joy.
That was the problem confronting the rich young man in the Gospel text. It wasn’t just that he was rich. The problem was that he was also unable to go beyond himself. Beginning with the very question he puts to Jesus, What must I do to inherit eternal life?, this man cannot imagine that the fullness of life he seeks is beyond his doing. And he certainly cannot risk sharing his abundance with others!
It turns out that Wesley was a man ahead of his time in many ways – including his financial advice. Psychologist Michael Norton, who teaches at Harvard Business School, has done extensive research on money and how it affects happiness. You could say he is trying to help the rich young man in Mark’s story,
and he is trying to help us figure out “how much is enough?” Dr. Norton has done experiments with people around the world, and has come to this conclusion:
If you believe that money can’t buy happiness, then you are not spending it right.
Time and again, Norton gave people money to spend – some with the instruction to spend it on themselves, while others were told to spend it on someone else. Every time, those who spent it on others increased their happiness, while those who spent it on themselves reported no change in their level of satisfaction or joy. It didn’t matter how much money was involved… a little or a lot, the results were always the same.
So the question of “how much is enough?” may not be the most pressing question when it comes to our wealth. Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests:
Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning… for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little different for our having been here.
Do you remember the Steve Martin movie called “The Jerk”? The story went like this – Martin’s character invents a simple device which sells like hotcakes, making him rich beyond his wildest dreams. Everything is going well – he has the big house, the fancy car, the wife who loves spending his money – until something is discovered in his invention which causes people damage. So he is sued, and loses everything. In one scene, toward the end of the movie, he and his wife are arguing, and Martin’s character decides to leave in a bit of a tantrum, telling her “I don’t need you! I don’t need anything… except for this ashtray. That’s all. Except maybe this remote control, or this lamp. On his way out the door he keeps mumbling about “just this, this is all I need”, and loading up his arms with all manner of useless stuff.
Michael Coffey reflects on our very human propensity to go after that which really doesn’t matter, using this scene as his poetic image:
Like Steve Martin’s Jerk
We think we only need this one precious thing.
A paddle game is all, and we will be satisfied, slogging out the door
Until we see the TV remote and pick it up with an artifice of glee
And mumble: “this is all I need”
But you know how this goes, don’t you, fellow jerk?
One more thing will do it
And we will finally in our bones, against all past comic failures,
Be satisfied and done with grabbing.
And then our de-jerkifying Jesus stops us and tells us to let go,
Drop the lamp and put down the ashtray
Let go of it all, including yourself, so we can grasp the one thing
We jerks are always questing for…
The stuff is not our problem. How much makes up our “enough” is not the problem either. Our problem is our inability to see beyond ourselves, and our hesitance to empty ourselves long enough to let God fill us anew.
So here’s a little experiment we can do together this morning. Take out your wallet, or dig down into your pants pocket and find a little bit of money. It doesn’t have to be much – it could be a nickel, a dime, a quarter, a dollar bill. Whatever it is, just take it out, hold it in your hand, and look at it. Do you see where it says “In God we trust”? Look at that, think about it. And now ask yourself – is that true? Do we in the United States of America, in 2017 really trust God? Now, ask yourself, do you believe it? What would it look like for you to trust God this week? What would you do differently if you really trusted God? You see, I think the answer to the question “How Much is Enough?” is not “just a little bit more”. I think the answer is just enough. Just enough to trust God, just enough to follow Jesus, and just enough to go beyond yourself. Thank God for just enough. Amen.