The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
–– Hebrews 4:12-13
Is that why we come to church––to be pierced by the sharpness of God’s word, to have our innermost selves laid bare to the eyes of the one “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid?” [i]
Not all the time, surely. Who could bear that? In a world of sin and strife, we all need an oasis of rest and refreshment, a word of consolation and encouragement. But God is not always easy, as our first two readings make clear.
“Today my complaint is bitter,” cries Job. “God’s hand is heavy despite my groaning. . .
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” [ii]
And the Psalmist who sings of goodness and mercy, and a soul restored by divine presence, is now heard to cry out one of the most terrible lines in all of Scripture:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [iii]
No, God is not always easy. And neither is Jesus. One moment he’s the Good Shepherd, saying “Come unto me, all you who struggle and are heavily laden, and I will refresh you,” and the next moment he’s challenging you to change your life.
The poet John Berryman captures this contradictory quality when he says that Jesus’ words were “short, precise, terrible, & full of refreshment.” [iv] Another poet, James McAuley, echoes the image from Hebrews in his own poem about Jesus:
He thrust his speech among them like a sword. . .
And told them nothing that they wished to hear. [v]
Today’s gospel, Mark 10:17-31, is a case in point. A man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” At first, Jesus gives the stock answer, like something out of the catechism:
“You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
The man, impatient for an answer he has not yet found, shoots back, “Yes, Teacher. I’ve always kept those commandments, even when I was young.” This gets Jesus’ full attention. The text tells us that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. That’s such an interesting description. He looked at him and loved him. It sounds a little like love at first sight. There isn’t another sentence quite like it in the gospels.
If this were a movie we’d get a closeup of Jesus’ face, taking in the man’s truest and best self with a gaze that is both affectionate and inquisitive, as though his eyes are asking, “Are you the disciple I’ve been waiting for so long to show up, the disciple whose singleness of heart, shorn of all lesser desires, wants nothing but the only thing truly worth having?” Then we’d cut to a closeup of the man’s face, so earnest and hopeful, on the verge of finding at last his heart’s true desire.
But then Jesus says to him, “There’s just one more thing you need to do; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”
We can imagine the man’s expectant face slowly collapsing into disappointment. This is not what he wanted to hear. He lowers his head and stares at the ground, trying to absorb the shock of Jesus’ shattering directive. Then he gets up and backs away slowly, like a boxer reeling from a punch, until he finally turns his back on Jesus and disappears into the crowd. As Mark reports, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
As a lifelong Episcopalian, I’ve had to listen to this gospel many, many times in the liturgy––for seven decades. And as a North American person with more privileges and possessions than most of the earth’s inhabitants, I have always shared the agonizing discomfort of that man who found it way too hard to give up everything for the sake of the gospel.
Some Christians have taken this story quite literally. In the 3rdcentury, a wealthy young man named Antony heard it read at Sunday mass. He could not escape the feeling that the words were aimed directly at him. As soon as the liturgy was over, he rushed out to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and move to the desert, where for the next 80 years he lived a life of radical simplicity and exemplary sanctity––a life which had a great impact on the development of monastic spirituality.
A thousand years later, another wealthy young man shocked his family and friends when he renounced his worldly goods to embrace a life of poverty, service and prayer. We are still in awe of that man, Francis of Assisi, who found himself utterly unable to say no to Jesus.
In the 20th century, Dorothy Day would sacrifice the comforts of her class to live in solidarity with the poor, founding the Catholic Worker and devoting her heart and mind and strength to the vision of a just and peaceful society.
Many other saints have done the same. And even though you and I are not going to walk out those doors this morning to give away everything we have, we cannot repress the questions which the story of the rich man poses for us. We’ve heard this gospel before, and we’ll hear it again. And each time we must wonder, what is it trying to say to us?
There is no single answer, no single response to the challenge of this gospel. It’s a story, not a rule, and most Christians have not felt compelled to take Jesus’ words to the rich man in the demandingly literal way of an Antony, Francis, or Dorothy Day. But this gospel will never cease to trouble us with questions about both personal and social economics. Is the common wealth of society justly distributed? What is true wealth in God’s eyes? And where does our own treasure lie?
In first-century Palestine, wealth was measured more by the amount of land you owned than by the number of things you had. And since land acquisition usually came through the default of debtors who could not keep up their payments, wealth at the top was accrued at the expense of those further down the economic ladder. More wealth for the rich meant more poverty for the rest.
We have a similar imbalance in our own day. Right now in America, the richest 10% own 77% of the nation’s wealth. The 20 richest individualsown more than the entire bottom half of the population. As wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, the poverty of the many grows wider and deeper. As in the time of Jesus, those at the top get richer by taking from those below them. The recent tax cuts are a perfect example, siphoning huge increases in wealth to the rich, while cutting survival assistance to the needy. Fewer school lunches for poor children, more private jets for the rich.
But if ours is an age of grotesque economic inequality, it is also an age of remarkable private generosity. We have come to look upon billionaires and wealthy foundations as the solvers of public problems, as they dispense impressive grants to improve the lives of the many. So when Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos give away enormous sums or underwrite beneficial actions, are they in fact doing what the rich man fails to do in the gospel story? Are they doing what Jesus asked?
Anand Giridharadas has studied this critical question, and in his provocative book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, he argues that the powerful rich who address problems without changing the very conditions that create those problems is at best a failure of social imagination. A lot of good may be done by the rich, but the system that perpetuates the wrongs being addressed remains firmly in place. In fact, such acts of benevolence provide justification for the continuation of the status quo, making it appear more benign than it really is.
In a recent talk in Seattle, Giridharadas put it this way:
“You can tell rich people to do more good, but you can never tell them to do less harm. You can tell them to give back, but you can never tell them to take less. You can tell them to share the spoils of the system that benefitted them, but you can’t ask them to concede that system.” [vi]
If this is true, then the question that Jesus poses to the rich man, and to us, is not simply about the individual stewardship of our personal wealth, but about our willingness to work and pray for a very different kind of economy.
As biblical scholar Ched Myers has argued in his commentary on this gospel story, if you want to enter God’s kingdom, you have to make an exodus from the dominant paradigm of economic inequality. “The only way [into the Kingdom],” he says, “is to restore to the poor what is theirs by the right of community justice.” [vii]
Perhaps a better term for the Kingdom of God would be the Economy of God, something that was first described in the Book of Exodus. God delivered the people of Israel from the unjust slave economy of Egypt, and then spent the next 40 years providing a desert workshop, trying to teach them a new economy, a new way of living together––without greed, fear, or self-protective violence.
In the desert, God’s people learned to depend on what the Lord’s Prayer calls “our daily bread” – whatever each day provides for you (“give us the bread we need today”).
In Egypt, the idea was to accumulate enough stuff that you didn’t have to depend on others. You didn’t have to trust that you would be provided for as you went along. You could live without God and live without neighbor. But in the desert, you needed God and you needed each other. Whenever the Israelites tried to hoard the manna that fell from heaven each morning, the manna would rot.
Now when the people of Israel came into the Promised Land, they succumbed to the trap of accumulation like the rest of us. But they did not entirely forget their desert wisdom. In the concepts of Sabbath and Jubilee, as well as the impassioned exhortations of the prophets, the Economy of God opposed the concentration of wealth through accumulation, while advocating the circulation of wealth through redistribution.
The Economy of God is an interdependent, communal condition where there are no more divisions of rich and poor. So when Jesus says that the idea of a rich man getting into the kingdom is as absurd as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle, is he judging individual behavior? Or is he saying that in the Economy of God the categories of rich and poor will vanish with the just distribution of divine abundance?
The Economy of God is not like our commodity economy, where things are accumulated, hoarded, and protected by the threat of force. The Economy of God is a gift economy, where the gifts of creation and the gifts of human labor and skill are freely shared, the way manna was shared in the desert by the Israelites of the Exodus.
We practice that economy in this church every Sunday. Every time we break the bread and share it at Christ’s table, we remember the economy of grace taught to our ancestors. The eucharist is a rebuke to the selfish economics of haves and have-nots. It is an invitation into a new way of living and being together.
Is this too much to ask? The rich man in the gospel thought so. But as Wendell Berry reminds us, “The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent upon what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.”
When Jesus invites the rich man to let go not only of his wealth, but also of his participation in an unjust economy, he is calling him out of his comfort zone into an entirely new way of being. That’s what Jesus did, and what Jesus continues to do. As one of my former theology professors, Harvey Cox, has said,
“Meeting [Jesus] always seemed to shake people up. He constantly pushed them to think beyond their own immediate interests, to picture themselves in a variety of situations in which choice and action were required – in short, to use their imaginations.” [viii]
In 1969, BBC television aired an unusual production on the life of Jesus, written by the brilliant David Potter. [ix] My favorite scene in this film shows Jesus trying to convey another one of his most challenging teachings––in this case, to love your enemies. As he moves among the crowd, Jesus gets them to embrace one other, as in our liturgical Passing of the Peace.
“Go on,” he says, “love each other. See? It’s nice, isn’t it? It’s easy––easy to love your brother, easy to love those who love you. Even the tax collector can do that. But tell me, tell me, happy people, what is so extraordinary about holding the hands of your brothers and sisters? Do you want me to congratulate you for that, for loving only those who love you? But I say, love your enemy. Love your enemy!
[The crowd is taken aback. Some murmur in protest.]
Love those who hate you, love those who would destroy you,
love the man who would kick you and spit at you. . .
[The protests grow louder.]
Listen to me! What I’m telling you now hasn’t been said since the world began.
I bring you the Way. I am holding up a light in the darkness. . .
We cannot divide ourselves. We must love each other. . . Pray for your enemy, love your persecutor. . . It is easy to love only those who love you. Would I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?
Jesus might have said the same to the rich man. And to us.
Do you want me to tell you easy things?
[i] Collect for Purity, The Holy Eucharist Rite Two, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
[ii] Job 23:2, 16.
[iii] Psalm 22:1.
[iv] John Berryman, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” Love and Fame (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970). Berryman attributes the description to Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165).
[v] James McAuley, “Jesus,” Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess & Peggy Rosenthal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 104. McAuley (1912-1981) was an Australian Roman Catholic.
[vi] Originally delivered September 20th, 2018, at Seattle’s Southside Commons as part of the Town Hall Civics lecture series, it was broadcast on the Seattle NPR station, KUOW, in their Speakers Forum: https://soundcloud.com/kuow/anand-giridharasdas-full-talk-at-southside-community-center
[vii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).
[viii] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard (New York: Mariner Books, 2004), 25-6.
[ix] Son of Man (BBC, 1969), directed by Gareth Davies. Irish actor Colin Blakely played Jesus. Dennis Potter, who wrote the script, also wrote the strange and brilliant serial drama, The Singing Detectivein the 1980s.
Actually, the majority of people (myself included) very much want to be told easy things—much like going to see the latest Star Wars movie. We wish to walk into a darkened theater, Check our brains at the door, and escape into the comfortableness of the then and there.
While we embrace the adventure we know a short journey back to where we entered the theater—or church—will return us to our home world of the present no matter how good or bad, rich or poor (in all the manifestations that may conjure up).
The ‘J-curve’ of rising expectations theory sought to explain the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe it did; maybe it didn’t. People have to be really mad and desperate to go against a system or belief—even if they know, intuitively, that it’s working against them.
It’s easier to believe in a savior to do all the heavy thought lifting.
I do believe people can be transformed, but it is never easy. And a true savior won’t let us off the hook by leaving all the work to him or her.
Jim–beautifully stated, powerful, wise, and oh, so needed.
Thanks, Bob. How I wish it were less needed!
The church that I’ve attended for many, many years happens to have received a gift of money that each year provides an amount of funds that more than equals the annual budget of the place. This amazing good fortune only lasts for twenty years or so, but the effect this has had on the place is stunning. Suddenly many things that were out of reach became possible such as essential building repairs, investment in staffing and their salaries, new equipment, new programs, and saving for the future as well.
But the congregation is dispirited and divided. After four years of receiving this amazing gift with so much potential to enliven the ministry of the church, the majority of the dollars have either been spent on the building or invested in an endowment meant for a future that may never come about. To my knowledge none of the money has been deployed in a direct way to shelter refugees, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or spread the Good News of God’s loving purposes for the world.
This reflection seems to hint at what is going wrong, and why. Thank you for your ministry and your always wonderful words.
Joseph – Thank you so much for sharing your instructive story. I am grateful that my post felt helpful, but my heart goes out to you, and I pray that the sense of doubt and distress are but a prelude to a reimagining of your community’s economic theology. Dissatisfaction is in the Spirit’s toolbox. Lewis Hyde, in his influential book, The Gift, says that the gift must always move, must keep being passed on to stay in circulation, or else it will wither and die. That book might be a good choice for a study group. And Giridharadas’ entire talk (at the link in the footnotes) is well worth a listen. I appreciate your illuminating comments, and your supportive reading of this blog. Keep the faith!