Jesus and the Rich Man: “Do you want me to tell you easy things?”

The Getty Villa in Malibu, California, is a careful reconstruction of a Roman villa. Funded by the estate of a 20th century oil billionaire, it is a lavish display of the wealth of two eras: the ancient world and our own Gilded Age.

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.

American Nomads

You can do everything right, just the way society wants you to do it,
and still end up broke, alone, and homeless.

–– Bob Wells

I’ve found all space is hallowed ground,
If we will but look around
In our sacred search for the New Earth.
Queens of the Road!  

–– Sylvianne Delmars

 

At last weekend’s Search for Meaning literary festival at Seattle University, there was a multitude of interesting authors speaking on “topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life.” The challenge was to select only one out of nineteen offerings per hourly session. That was tough for for an indecisively curious omnivore like me. Among the choices were “Rain: A History for Stormy Times,” “Spotlighting Forgotten Injustices Through Historical Fiction,” “Competing Fundamentalisms: The Violent Face of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism,” “The Tao of Raven,” “Writing on the Canvas of Eternity,” and “The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse.”

I was a little surprised by where I ended up––in Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland: Surviving in the Shadow of the American Economy.” Instead of sticking to a well-hewn path of accustomed interests, I felt pulled aside by the strange and unfamiliar, like Moses yanked off course by the unlikely voice from a burning bush. The analogy may seem grandiose, but the session, and the book it led me to read, turned out to be a revelation which continues to haunt me.[i]

Jessica Bruder is a journalist who spent three years immersed in the alternative world of “vandwellers”––the “houseless” (not “homeless”) ascetics,[ii] mostly of retirement age, who wander the marginal spaces of America, surviving on ingenuity, grit and arduous seasonal labor. In her beautifully written book, Nomadland, she documents the daunting challenges and indomitable spirits of downwardly mobile elders who find ways to survive the hardships and cruelties of an economic system whose shocking inequality puts America near last place among developed nations.

The foreclosure crisis and the 2008 crash only accelerated the ongoing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Three American billionaires––Bezos, Buffet and Gates–– are now worth more than the bottom half of the whole U.S. population. Wages remain stagnant or falling while the system continues to suck money upward, stranding the majority in a barren waste of meager scraps. Nearly half of middle class workers contemplate a food budget of $5 a day in retirement, while one in six American households now spends more than 50% of their income on shelter (the recommended maximum is 30%).

As Bruder writes, the choices are becoming excruciating for many: “Would you rather have food or dental work? Pay your mortgage or your electric bill? Make a car payment or buy medicine? Cover rent or student loans? Purchase warm clothes or gas for your commute?”[iii]

For the elders who have played by society’s rules all their lives, the prospect of perpetual misery in their golden years has prompted them to go off the grid and live in the margins. They dump their biggest expense––housing––and take to the roads in RVs, vans and campers, for “a life just a little freer, a little more autonomous, and less anxiety-ridden, a little closer to their heart’s desires.”[iv] This rapidly expanding nomadic movement has been dubbed “the Old Rush.”

As Sylvianne Delmars, age 60, puts it in her “Vandweller’s Anthem” (to the tune of “King of the Road”):

Old beat-up high-top van,
Like livin’ in a large tin can.
No rent, no rules, no man,
I ain’t tied to no plot of land.[v]

Bruder describes vandwellers as “conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupted social order. Whether or not they choose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.”[vi] It is not an easy life; for many of us, it is almost unimaginable. In my youth I sometimes slept in my car outside of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, enjoying pleasant evenings of reading in its luxurious public interiors before retiring to my free lodging in the parking lot. It was hardly comparable to the rigors of nomadic life, but that tiny taste of slipping beneath the system’s radar returned when I read Bruder’s book.

Nomadland left me in awe of the enterprising can-do spirit of the vandwellers, who generously share their hard-earned survival knowledge both online and in tribal gatherings. “Boondocking” is one of the most essential topics: learning to be self-sufficient in the boondocks, without any hookups to electricity or water, using solar panels, gas generators and water tanks. “Stealth parking” is also a vital skill: how and where to park overnight or longer in towns and cities without getting the dreaded “knock” on your vehicle’s window.

Even such a radically frugal and improvisational lifestyle requires infusions of cash, which “workampers” earn through seasonal labor. They may flip your burger at a Cactus league game, take your ticket at NASCAR races, staff tourist traps like Wall Drug, run the rides at amusement parks, lift your Christmas tree onto your car roof, or guard the gate at a Texas oil field.

The three jobs which Bruder treats in detail are campground host, beet picker and “CamperForce,” Amazon’s motivational euphemism for shopping season warehouse temps. All three are physically hard and verge on exploitation. But since the work is temporary, the justice questions are not pursued. As long as the seasonal end remains in sight, there seems to be tacit agreement by both employers and workers to live with necessary evils.

“Get paid to go camping!” is a typical recruiting slogan for campground hosting, where you are paid for 30 hours a week even if the job really requires 45 long hours of cleaning, maintenance and managing. That leaves hosts little time––or energy––to enjoy the natural beauty. You work for a private concessionaire hired by government agencies who look the other way if you lodge a complaint, and you can be terminated at any time without cause. But the literature still insists that “retirement has never been this fun!”

Signing up for an autumn beet harvest in North Dakota, Bruder spent a short time working twelve-hour shifts, dodging beet bits and dirt clods flying off a conveyer belt while holding vinyl sacks to collect beets pouring down a vertical chute. “It felt like catching bowling balls in a pillowcase,” she says. Although she was 30 years younger than many of her co-workers, her whole body hurt at the end of every day.[vii]

Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1927)

Her experience at Amazon, though, provides the most harrowing reading in the book. It reminded me of the factory scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where workers are mere cogs in a rigidly determined mechanism. In an Amazon warehouse, you are constantly under the eye of your masters. Your scanner sets off a timer monitored by computers. Take too long walking to your next scan, and a supervisor will suddenly appear to deliver a reprimand. At the end of the day, you endure a 30-minute (unpaid) wait in a security line to be screened as a potential thief.

Amazon loves the elderly plug-and-play labor force. They are conscientious workers, and few complain about the lack of benefits. But it’s grueling work for aging bodies: walking 15 miles a day on concrete in a warehouse the size of 13 football fields, going up and down stairs, lifting 50 pound loads in 90 degree heat, injuring arms, back and shoulders, or getting “trigger-finger,” a repetitive strain from operating barcode scanners.

The motivational newsletters are cheerful about “getting paid to exercise,” power walking the vast spaces to lose weight and get those “buns of steel.” But the ubiquitous wall dispensers full of free painkillers tell a different story. The 68-year-old former university academic advisor who begins and ends every Amazon workday with 4 ibuprofen is not untypical.

Although CamperForce recruiters advertise the fun of camaraderie and friendship with fellow workers (“worth more than money!”), Bruder’s own conversations during an “undercover” stint in an Amazon warehouse sometimes felt “like talking to prison inmates. It was tempting to cut through the pleasantries and ask, ‘What are you in for?’” [viii]

Some workampers take pride in surviving the ordeal of a demanding seasonal job, like the marathoner or Camino pilgrim who embraces physical hardship as a spiritual trial. Disparagement of “whiners” and slackers is not uncommon. But Bruder also records instances of joy and pleasure even in the rough stretches. “The truth as I see it,” she writes, “is that people can both struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Rather, it testifies to the remarkable ability of humankind to adapt, to seek meaning and kinship when confronted with adversity.”[ix]

Nomads live for the day when the work ends and they can return to the road, where open space and distant horizons provide the allure of reinvention, or at least escape. Many of them are loners, thriving on solitude and detachment and treasuring their self-sufficiency. But like the Christian desert hermits of the ancient world, they also take genuine joy in the community of tribal gatherings, such as the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.

For two weeks every winter, thousands of vandwellers gather in Quartzsite, Arizona, to trade nomadic wisdom, share stories of work and travel, renew friendships, and bask in the love of a community that loves and accepts them. As veteran nomad Bob Wells has suggested on his popular website, CheapRVLiving, “In many ways we vandwellers are just like the Mountain Men of old: We need to be alone and on the move, but we equally need to occasionally gather together and make connections with like-minded people who understand us.”[x] Or as another nomad describes the experience of community where no one feels a stranger, “This is what family looks like.”

Another blogger, LaVonne Ellis, conveys the sense of melancholy when the Rendezvous ends:  “One by one, they are leaving for other places. I will see some of them again, I’m sure, but this sadness is an inevitable consequence of nomadic living. People come and go in your life. You don’t get to hang on to them forever.”[xi]

Nomadlands chief protagonist, 64-year-old Linda May, dreams of settling into a permanent home of her own, beyond the reach of consumer society, “something she owned free and clear, something that could outlast her.”[xii] Others resign themselves to endless wandering until they become “bleached bones in the desert.” And some hold dear the final image of Thelma and Louise––as if they too will one day vanish into an unimaginable beyond. But few seem to look backward, or dream about the day when they can return to their former life.

Perhaps, Bruder suggests, the vandwellers “are analogous to what biologists call an ‘indicator species’––sensitive organisms with the capacity to signal much larger shifts in an ecosystem.” Some even hope that this nomadic phenomenon foreshadows the emergence of “a wandering tribe whose members could operate outside of––or even transcend––the fraying social order: a parallel world on wheels.”[xiii]

Nomadland left me with so many questions about our unjust and damaging system, and my own participation in it. Can I ever buy another book from Amazon without thinking of the exhausted person who has to walk miles to retrieve it? Will I start to see the nomadic elders beneath the cloak of social invisibility? How will my own comforts and privileged insularity be challenged by these stories of struggle and pain? And are there any alternative to our nation’s passive acquiescence to the insatiable predations of the one-percent?

Bruder’s remarkable book is unsettling, but it is by no means a downer. She has given us a life-affirming, inspiring and often funny read, filled with engaging and memorable characters––not just survivors, but pioneers, pointing the way toward a world more free, more just, and more loving. Whether any vandwellers finally reach that future of human flourishing, or provoke the rest of us to try the same, their single-minded pursuit of something radically better cracks open the cave of our collective complacencies to admit the light of New Possibility.

It wouldn’t be the first time a desert drop-out performed such a divine labor.

Photo by Jim Friedrich

 

 

Related Posts

You Can Never Go Fast Enough

The Questions That Matter

 

[i] Jessica Bruder’s book is Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).

[ii] I employ this largely religious term because the nomads’ rejection of the dominant system, their practices of radical simplification, and their love of the desert seems akin to the monastic flight to the wilderness in the third and fourth centuries. I will say more about this in another post.

[iii] Nomadland, xii.

[iv] David A. Thornburg, Galloping Bungalows: The Rise and Demise of the American House Trailer (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1991), q. in Nomadland, 76.

[v] Sylvianne K. Delmars, “Queen of the Road,” q. in Nomadland, 17. Her song is also quoted in the epigraph. Her blog is Silvianne Wanders: The Adventures of a Cosmic Change Agent.

[vi] Nomadland, 204. Bruder is paraphrasing Bob Wells, drawing on his book, How to Live in a Car, Van, or RV: And Get Out of Debt, Travel, & Find True Freedom (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).

[vii] Ibid., 187.

[viii] Ibid., 57.

[ix] Ibid., 164-5.

[x] RTR invitation posted in January, 2014, on Bob Wells’ website, cheaprvliving.com, q. in Nomadland, 136. I also quote Mr. Wells in the epigraph.

[xi] Posted on LaVonne Ellis’ blog, completeflake.com, q. in Nomadland, 157.

[xii] Nomadland, 235.

[xiii] Ibid., 247, 79.