The Elwood Irony

Gordon Elwood wasnt a particularly impressive man. Folks around Medford, Oregon knew him as a shabbily-dressed guy who rode his bicycle from one end of the county to the other in search of cans and bottles that he could recycle for cash. He lived in a house with no heat, ate free holiday meals, and accepted food handouts from the Salvation Army. One of his trademarks was the bungee cord he used to hold up his second-hand pants. A few who were close to Gordon knew him to be a brilliant man, surprisingly well-read and painstakingly honest in all his dealings.

Gordon Elwood died in October, 1999, at the age of 79. He left behind an estate valued at over ten million dollars. Yes, you read it right—ten MILLION dollars, a fortune amassed as a result of shrewd investment strategy and his miserly lifestyle.

Those who handled Gordons financial dealings knew that he was far more than simply frugal—he was a man who took “miserly” to a new level. He drank outdated milk because it was cheaper. He wore old, second-hand clothes. To all but those who knew him best, Gordon was a poor man. The revelation of his ten million dollar estate came as quite a surprise to them. Workers at the Salvation Army and other service organizations experienced an odd mix of embarrassment and outrage—this wealthy man, masquerading as a pauper, routinely consumed resources that those who were truly needy could have used instead. Others shook their heads in amazement, remarking on the irony of a man having so much money but deliberately choosing to live such a meager existence.

Ive worked as a volunteer with ministries that try to help men and women who are truly in need. Its a sad and life-changing experience to see a man or woman who has lost their last shred of dignity and has to literally beg for food, clothing and shelter. Seeing a man digging through a box of cast-off clothes desperately looking for a shirt that fits and is presentable enough to wear when he applies for work as a day laborer is the sort of heart-wrenching experience that will make you want to go home and clean out your closet—and be thankful that you have excess to give.

Sadder still is seeing a person who doesnt realize that there is a way out of that seemingly hopeless pit of despair. Ive seen men who didnt know that they could have a shirt or a pair of work pants if they would only ask. I recently spoke with a homeless man who had lost out on a job opportunity because he had no way to get to work— he didnt realize that the shelter where he was staying would have found him a ride if he would have only asked.

Even sadder is seeing a man or woman who has the resources available to them that they need to improve their lot in life—and they KNOW that they have those resources —but they choose not to utilize them. They are like Gordon Elwood—they choose to live minimal lives, drink out-of-date milk, and never realize their full potential.

But the saddest thing of all is the man or woman who does the same thing in their spiritual lives. They call themselves Christians—”joint heirs with Christ,” according to Romans 8:17—yet they choose to live as though they are spiritually destitute. Though Romans 8:37 tells them that they are “more than conquerors” in Jesus Christ, they choose to live lives of defeat. Though Jesus advises them in Matthew 6:19-20 to lay up eternal treasures in heaven, they focus instead on building temporal wealth here on earth, citing scriptural references to prosperity. They “go to church,” and they may be genuine believers with all the rights and privileges due to sons and daughters of the King—but like Gordon Elwood, they never benefit from that wealth.

On the opposite pole, there is nothing that is more joyful than seeing a believer in Christ come to understand the resources that the Lord has available for them—and seeing them grow and prosper in the faith, living lives of victory and experiencing the fulfillment that only comes from putting Christ first in their lives. Whether they have money or not, these folks are truly wealthy. They have a type of prosperity that all of Gordon Elwoods millions could never buy.

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