20 Pentecost B—10/11/15
Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Pr. Scott Kramer
I have learned from parents of young children that one of the things they miss most is a “grown-up” conversation. I was talking this past week with one of my pastor colleagues in the area whose children are now teenagers, and I asked how they were doing. “Oh,” she said, “it is so nice to be able to have adult conversations with them!”
The past two weeks we have heard Jesus praise and protect the little ones in our lives. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” And then last Sunday: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
The “kingdom of God” comes up again in today’s reading. And by now we know that when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God he’s talking about this life, and when he speaks of children he’s not just talking about the little ones. Children, he says, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier, in fact, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
What prompted all this was a question from an eager, wealthy, sincere, and religious man: Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? This man speaks for many of us, for this is the main motivation for many people’s religious convictions. What’s in it for me, God? How can I earn your favor? How can I get to heaven?
Jesus’ response is very disappointing! Why do you call me good? he answers. No one is good but God alone! Instead of encouraging or praising the rich man for his hard work and obedience to the rules Jesus says, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. And the man did what any of the rest of us would likely do in that situation. When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
I was at the monthly REACH meeting this past week. REACH is our local ecumenical social service organization. Among the many good things REACH does is provide shelter for people without. As we gathered, Executive Director Maggie Breen shared with us something that had just happened a few minutes earlier. She said, Richard came in the door a few minutes ago. Richard is schizophrenic. He’s also homeless. But just before the meeting Richard walked up to Maggie and gave her a plastic bag with ten pennies inside. These pennies were pretty beat up, pennies that he’d found on the street. And he said to Maggie, Here, these for REACH.
Ten pennies is nothing to you and me. It’s not much to anybody, really—even Richard. But here is someone who, out of gratitude, gave what he had for an organization that has blessed his life. The more we have, the more we have to lose. It’s sometimes true that the less we have, the less we have to lose. It’s often easier for those who have less to be generous.
Sometimes Christians—and non-Christians—get the idea that Christian teaching makes wealth out to be some sort of moral evil. But the problem with wealth is not a moral problem. It is a spiritual problem, and as Jesus shows us the problem is this: Wealth creates distance between people. The greater the distance, the less understanding, the less trust, and the less love. When Jesus told the man to sell everything and give it to the poor, he was saying, The only way you can walk a mile in the shoes of your brother or sister in need is to become like them.
The man wouldn’t do that, any more than you or I would. And that’s Jesus point. No one is good, because only God sees and loves and includes all people as equal. Wealth, on the other hand, tends to create gate-keepers and wall-builders. Gated communities, border walls and endless prison walls are symptoms of spiritual sickness, designed by “good people” to keep “bad people” away. Wealth tends to separate us from one another.
Jesus didn’t claim goodness even for himself. Why would the Son of God not say, “I’m the only good guy around here!”? Maybe because he knew that goodness is more than being nice, more than obeying the rules, more than being hard-working, and certainly more than going to church. Jesus was saying to the rich man, Can we have a grown-up conversation about what it means to be my disciple?
Take a minute to inventory what you own, and let that represent your wealth. Think of the place you live, the clothes you wear, the vehicle you drive, the food you eat—is there anything you have that you have made or obtained all by yourself? Did you plant and harvest and package and transport and sell the food you eat? Did you make the clothes you wear? Did you build your car and all the furnishings in your house? If not, do you know all the people who did? Have you heard their stories? Or, are they as unknown and invisible to you as Renton Richard and his ten pennies?
Wealth distorts the truth of who we are by leading us to believe the illusion that we are independent, self-sufficient and—worst of all–self-made. Wealth leads us to believe that what we have is the result of our hard work. It’s likely true that we have worked hard. But it is only a microscopic part of the truth! The deeper truth is that anything we have or anything we achieve is only possible because of millions of invisible people in fields, factories, mines, offices, schools and sweat shops whose blood, sweat, tears and generosity make our lives possible.
Wealth is not a moral problem. It’s a spiritual problem. Wealth tempts us to think of ourselves as entitled and deserving. The problem with wealth is not that it makes us liars, but that it can lead us to tell as little of the truth about ourselves as possible. The rich man in Mark’s story was not an evil man. He’d just never had anyone invite him to have a grown-up conversation about wealth and discipleship.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, at its best, opens the hearts and minds of gate-keepers and wall builders to see the truth of who we are: Our existence and well-being is inseparable from the existence and well-being of countless others. It is simply not enough to say that God has richly blessed us with what we have. That’s children’s talk! It is the expansive, all-inclusive grace of God that leads us in humility to see the deeper truth of how we are inseparably bound to—and dependent on—the lives of countless others.
But this is not what we want to hear. Our response may be that of the rich man in Mark’s story. Although Jesus looked at the man and loved him, we may turn our backs and walk away. We may not be ready for a grown-up conversation about discipleship, a difficult conversation about wealth and our relationship to it. And if walking away from that conversation becomes the habit of a lifetime, we gradually become more isolated from others, more angry, more lonely, more fearful of losing what we have—more preoccupied with ourselves.
What Jesus promises is the very opposite of that. He promises nothing less than the kingdom of God. There is no one who has let go of what they have who will not receive a hundred times more, in this life and beyond. For disciples of Jesus, the world doesn’t shrink behind walls and gates. We are not promised a hundred times more stuff but a hundred times more people than our own little group. Our world expands and opens up to include a church, a community, a world in which the living God is seen and powerfully experienced in unexpected ways and places, full of people to whom our lives are inextricably linked, people to love and people to love us.
We don’t know the end of Mark’s story. The rich man walked away at first, but maybe he came back to Jesus a day or a week or a month later, and said, “What you said about a camel and the eye of a needle. Can we talk about that?”
What do you think? Are we ready for a grown-up conversation about wealth and discipleship?