Profit Margins

(Psalm 49:5-9; Mark 8:34-38)

As we’ve spent the last several weeks considering what Jesus has to say to us about money, we’ve talked about a number of things; among them are the effect of money on our worship, and the ease with which money can become an idol; the question of our priorities, and what our financial habits say about what really matters to us; whether our trust is in money or in God; and what it means that everything we have comes to us from God. This has not, I realize, been the most typical sermon series on stewardship; I haven’t gotten into any of the financial-planning-type stuff, or talked to you about the importance of tithing—or even made it clear that tithing means giving 10% of your income. (You may well have all known that, but I know there were folks in my last church who didn’t until I told them.)

As it happens, I think the question “Do Christians have to tithe?” is a dubious one; the attitude of the New Testament seems to be that we should be so inspired to generosity by the work of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we don’t need to be told to give only 10%. To ask, essentially, “Do we have to give that much?” isn’t the question of someone looking to honor God with their money—it’s the question of someone trying to justify giving as little as possible. Which, granted, is where we all are at least some of the time; but it’s not where Jesus wants us to be. Rather, he wants to pull us out of that mindset, to teach us to see our lives not from a worldly perspective, but from a heavenly perspective. As a writer, Isaac Asimov talked about the importance of “the backward look”—that you have to look at your story from the end to know how you’ll get there; we need to learn to look at our lives in much the same way.

That, I think, is the implicit question underlying our passage from Mark this morning, and the implicit challenge to us: what do you want out of life? What do you want to accomplish, what do you hope to gain? What’s worth living for—and what, if anything, do you believe is worth dying for? In financial terms, you take the money and time God has invested in you and invest them in turn in various ways; what profit do you hope to make off your investments? Logically, whatever goal you set determines the path you take to get there, and the choices you make along the way.

And here’s the kicker: when you get right down to it, we only have two choices. We can go all in on following Jesus, or not. This isn’t to say that anyone whose commitment to Christ ever falters or anyone who ever sins is therefore not saved—that would eliminate all of us, for none of us ever follows him perfectly for any great length of time. It is, however, to say that our fundamental commitment must be to following him and him alone, to taking his road and no other. Yes, we drive off onto the shoulder sometimes, and we often don’t do a good job of staying in the right lane, but those are all things which are correctable and recoverable. Trying to drive two different cars on two completely different roads going two very different places, isn’t. No one can do that; no one can serve two masters. You have to make a choice.

Now, some of you might be sitting there thinking I’m exaggerating; but just look at the text—Jesus puts this in even starker terms, almost paradoxical. He says that to follow him means, first, to deny yourself, to renounce yourself, to set aside your own claims and your own interest and your own agenda. It’s the state of mind Paul describes in Philippians 2 when he tells us that Jesus didn’t see equality with the Father as something to hang on to for dear life, but set it aside; he traded in the worship of angels who knew exactly who he was for the company of human beings who refused to recognize and acknowledge him, but instead treated him as a slave and a threat. To follow Jesus, we need to do as he did; rather than insisting on our rights, on our due, on our own way, on what we think we have coming to us—rather than designing our life to make things come out, as much as possible, the way we want them to be—we need to let go of all that and seek to serve others before ourselves.

More, we need to take up our cross. Our culture tends to use the phrase “cross to bear” to mean some irritation or annoyance, some unfair burden—but that’s not what Jesus means. This is the British judge pronouncing capital sentence: “that you are to be taken from the place where you now are to the prison whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.” The man carrying his cross was a dead man walking, disgraced and humiliated, shamed and debased, condemned not only to die but to supply his executioners with the very thing they would use to kill him. Jesus did it, surrendering his right to defend his life and voluntarily accepting death so that he might be faithful to serve God; and he calls us to do the same. If we want to follow him, that’s the road he walks, and that’s what following him looks like.

This, Jesus says, is the path to life—the only path to life. I should note, the NIV has a couple different words here, “life” and “soul,” but it’s all the same word in Greek—the word psuche; it’s most often translated “soul,” but what we usually mean by that is less than what the word really means. Jesus isn’t just talking about salvation in the sense of going to Heaven here, he’s talking about true life in every sense—the full and eternal life of God, which we have now in this world by his Holy Spirit, though we don’t experience it in the same way as we will when Christ returns. He’s talking about being fully who he made us to be. If our highest priority is preserving our own life—and along with it, our wealth, comfort, reputation, worldly success, and other things of that sort—then we may well have a longer and easier life in this world, but we will lose Jesus; and along with him, we’ll lose our true selves, and everything that makes life worth living.

And to that, Jesus asks, is it worth it? Some people think it is, and make their decisions accordingly; indeed, there are many who are perfectly happy to trade in the future to get what they want in the present. Like Wimpy, they would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today—and never mind what Tuesday will cost; like Esau, they will trade their birthright for a bowl of stew, because they’re hungry now, and what good is a birthright to satisfy their hunger? Without faith, if you don’t believe that birthright’s really worth anything, this makes perfect sense.

By faith, though, we know better—and because of faith, we have felt the blessings of God, and we have experienced his life. We haven’t fully received our reward in Christ, but we have tasted the firstfruits, and we have seen the faithfulness of God even in the midst of this lost and broken world. We’ve been given every reason to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And yet—it’s easy to love the world, and it’s easy to let it distract us; it’s easy to focus on what’s right before our eyes, and lose sight of the bigger picture.

And so the key to stewardship isn’t percentages and budgets and duty; the key to stewardship is, as they say, to keep the main thing the main thing. It’s to change the goal toward which we invest our time and money and abilities, the organizing principle that sorts out all our priorities; in the end, it’s a very simple and very profound change in the way we look at life. The essence of biblical stewardship is to say, “I see the world, and I see Jesus, and I want Jesus.” Nothing more; nothing less.

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