Simply getting rid of our stuff isn’t the action Jesus is calling for. Not exactly. Though it is certainly much closer than “GOD wants you to be rich.”
Love and inheritance
Proper 23B | Mark 10:17-31
A mind-blowing teaching
We have arrived in Judea. Days ago we’ve predicted the Passion and watched Jesus transfigured on a mountain. And all the while, Jesus has been talking about the Kingdom of GOD and trying to help us see it. See that now/not yet, always illusive kingdom. And he keeps saying to us over and over again that it has to do with people.
He’s narrowed his spiel, hasn’t he? The mustard seeds and the sheep are gone. Now we’re talking about people. So he shows them the people who will be first, the real royalty in GOD’s kingdom: the children, women, widows, divorced, the sick, disabled, possessed, and all those abused and ignored. These get to be first. And the people first in our world? The ones with all the power and influence and wealth? Well, they get to be last.
So when Jesus drops the hammer this morning and says that the wealthy will be last — if they get in at all — we stare at one another, the other disciples, jaws dropped, minds blown. What is there to say but “Then who can be saved?”
The part of the story we receive this morning begins with a man, an unknown stranger, coming to Jesus and asking a question:
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
We know this is an important question, don’t we? We know that it deals with the heart of the matter. And we treat it like it does. We focus on the phrase
“what must I do”
and we hear ancient theologians arguing over whether we do anything for salvation or whether it is purely given without regard to our behavior.
And we hear the phrase
and we know that this is the endgame – at least as it is presented in a variety of sources. Is it living forever? Is it heaven? Is it not our primary pursuit?
But these questions may be the sorts of things the man comes to Jesus looking for answers to. The exact sorts of things. But that isn’t the part of the question Jesus gives his attention to. He focuses on a word we skipped right over:
We know the word as dealing with receiving property from one’s parents. And in a world in which wealth is found almost entirely in land, there are few other ways to be wealthy. And that wealth was jealously protected and preserved within families. So the only ways to expand one’s wealth were intermarriage and debt-default of the poor. Like a modern day bail bondsman.
So when Jesus starts listing the later 6 of the Ten Commandments, about killing and stealing and adultery, he gets to the 10th one, about coveting and he changes it. He alters it to defraud. He reaches back into Leviticus and names the practice of swindling, and stealing property from the poor and the weak as one of the Big 10 deals for GOD.
Jesus clearly knows something about this man that the narrator reveals only in that word: inherit. Wealth, success, even salvation, inherited by one’s parents? This man is presupposing that he is the one, that he is somehow deserving of GOD’s grace. Perhaps like a parent wanting their children to get into the best schools, who cares about the rest? Or maybe worse: our kid’s school looks even better when the other schools suffer.
The Great Economy
Jesus has been talking about the Kingdom through his whole ministry, and perhaps we ought to start referring to the Kingdom of GOD the way the writer Wendell Berry does, calling it The Great Economy. As Jesus invites us to upend and overturn this order and this thinking.
Jesus says about the Great Economy
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
because this wealth has come on the backs of the poor. That’s still the case in our economy. So when Jesus tells this man to go, and get rid of all of his stuff, he isn’t saying that the wealth itself is evil, but the defrauding nature of accumulating wealth, protecting wealth, also protects the system and prevents the poor from getting out of poverty. The simple truth that our system of credit rewards “good” behavior means that we should not overlook that the vast majority of what constitutes that behavior is a steady, substantial income. The wealthier you are, the better rates you get, the easier it is to pay it off, the better your score becomes. It not only begins with wealth, but it serves to protect wealth creation while making large sums off of the poor, whose rates of interest are far higher, and often used to keep themselves afloat. I’ve always thought the overdraft fee is the cruelest of ideas: literally charging people who have no money.
The man isn’t just getting right with GOD by giving his stuff away, as a virtuous act, he is getting right with his neighbors: the very people he has taken advantage of.
Simply getting rid of our stuff isn’t the action Jesus is calling for. Not exactly. Though it is certainly much closer than “GOD wants you to be rich.” Jesus is talking about the Great Economy. He’s talking about our restored world. He’s talking about the here and now world transformed into the world that GOD intended from the beginning. And that camel and that needle image is to say that there isn’t any room in GOD’s vision of the world for rich or for poor. It is an economy of abundance, generosity, and love. A world in which we all are loved and protected and treated as special.
This is our promise of equality revealed. This is why it is so different to their ears and to ours. Why we so struggle to find ourselves in this.
I like to point out that the easiest thing for a Miss America contestant to say is that her dream is for world peace. Nobody is against world peace ideologically. Only in behavior! We don’t have peace because the idea of laying aside our weapons is too frightening. But the gospel tells us to do that, too.
This is how Jesus is describing the Great Economy, so close to Jerusalem, so close to the end. This is how we are to receive this good news: with great challenge. And it is why we pray for the forgiveness of our sins: those things we have done and the things done on our behalf. That a big part of the deal is us. And a big part of the deal is the Bad Economy of our world. May we bring the true economy, GOD’s Great Upside Down Economy through our actions and preparations and through the remaking of the whole world. May we relinquish the unjust system we have inherited and bring in those the system despises. And may we do this with love and respect for the dignity of every human being.