Summary: The call to follow Jesus takes priority over every other obligation in life, and when we have a lot, it is difficult to respond to that call.
I was raised by a single mom from the time I was three years old until I was about nine years old. Back then we lived in a small trailer in Los Angeles. My mom was on welfare. I remember at one time having a teenage runaway living with us, and he would baby-sit me at night while my mom worked. We bought our groceries with food stamps, and recycled our bottles and cans to make ends meet. Although it wasn’t poverty in the same sense that the rest of the world faces poverty, I have vivid memories of cars that didn’t run, meals of macaroni and cheese, and wondering if how we were going to make it.
Then my mom married my adopted dad, and things started to change. We bought a nicer trailer in Gardena, still in the Los Angeles area, but in a nicer area. Both my mom and adoptive dad worked outside the home, so the need for food stamps and welfare checks ended. Then my adoptive dad’s mother died and he received a sizeable inheritance. My parents bought their first home in a suburb of Los Angeles, and we went from being close to the poverty level to being middle class. From that point on, I don’t remember ever having clothes with holes in them, dinners of macaroni and cheese, or cars that wouldn’t start. Our story wasn’t a rags to riches story, but it was a classic story of American upward mobility, coming from the trailer parks of Los Angeles to the middle class suburbs.
But I’ve come to realize as an adult that my experience during those childhood years wasn’t genuine poverty. Genuine poverty is where there’s no hope that anything will ever change. Genuine poverty is having no place to sleep, no prospects for the next meal, and no hope that things will change.
Even the poorest people in America are considered well off from a global perspective. When we see the poverty in places like North Korea and Sudan in Africa we realize that even the poorest in our culture have opportunities that other people only dream about. I don’t want to minimize how difficult it is for people in our culture living in poverty, because I know it’s hard, and many never break the cycle of poverty in their lives. But as Americans we live in the richest economy in the history of the human race.
Now I share all this because today we’re going to look at what Jesus says to a very wealthy young man. And our tendency is to think of wealthy people as people who make a lot more money than we do. We simply don’t consider ourselves to be rich or affluent, because there’s always someone else who has a lot more. Even multimillionaire Ted Turner, at the height of his financial success, admitted that he felt like a loser because Bill Gates had so much more money than Ted had.
But I believe Jesus’ words to the wealthy young man apply to each and every one of us in this room. If you know how to read and write, you’re among the world’s elite. If you own a Bible or have ever paid to have your hair cut, you’re among the world’s most affluent people. Now I’m not saying this to make us feel guilty. People don’t decide where they’re born, and most of us just happened to be born in an affluent society where we have incredible opportunities. So I’m not here to throw a guilt trip on us. But I do want to give us a reality check, so we realize that the words we look at today aren’t just for the people we see on TV at Oscar night or read about in People magazine, but they’re for us, each of us.