The One Thing
Passage: Mark 10:17-31
Date: October 14, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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So often we like to think that we can cut out a story from the gospel and plunk it down in the middle of right here, right now, and assume that the transfer will go well.We pretend that Jesus’ teachings are so universal that what he said back then was really meant for us. But usually that’s not the case.
Now this might be a week when we are not tempted to do that, when we are not tempted to lift out Jesus’ teaching back then and place it into our here and now.Surely, when Jesus said, “How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God” he didn’t mean that literally!Surely he meant it for that rich man back there on the road to Jerusalem and not for us.
Let’s see.Let us see.
I found the exegetical work on this passage quite interesting to me this week.Most helpful to me was an article by Ched Myers, an American theologian who specializes in biblical studies and political theology.He calls this story a text of terror, that is, scripture that should frighten us with its truth and its conviction.(https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/10/08/the-call-of-the-rich-man-as-a-text-of-terror/)
A man runs up to Jesus.In Matthew he is a young man, and in Luke he is a ruler, but in Mark he is a man who we find out is rich.He asks a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
What do you think of that question?Might he be sincere, wanting to please his God and live so virtuously that he will receive the reward of heaven?Might he be crafty, trying to figure out what he does (and does not) have to do to receive the reward of heaven?Might he be oblivious, unaware that God alone grants eternal life?Might he be greedy, wanting what is not his?
Let’s look at that last one.“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The word is correctly translated ‘inherit’; a few other translations use the phrase ‘to have eternal life’ or ‘to receive eternal life’ but here Mark uses a very specific Greek word, inherit.The root of that verb, kleronomeo, is the Greek word kleros, which is a parcel of land.Presumably because this man is rich, he will inherit land.He’s hoping it will go the same way with eternal life.
We find out that this man has many possessions, and that word ‘possessions’ can also be translated ‘property.’If we haven’t figured out that this guy is not particularly noble by now, this is our clue.Because in Jesus’ day, in that little corner of Jewish Palestine tucked into the outer edges of the Roman Empire, society was made of the rich and the very rich, and of the poor and the very poor.There was no middle class.
And in the context of Jesus’ life, the rich were considered to be crooked, because they obtained their wealth by taking something that belonged to someone else.In Jesus’ time it was believed that there was a limited good, that is, that there was only so much to go around.There was enough for everyone to have an equal share, but if someone took more than their fair share, that meant someone else did without, because that person couldn’t go find more.
Owning land was a sign of one’s status. The rich could increase their land holdings in a few different ways.They could join households by marriage or some political alliance.Sometimes they received land in gratitude from someone in power.More often, though, they received land because someone who owned it defaulted on their debt.
A peasant who owned a small piece of land was weighed down by rent, tithes, taxes, tariffs, and the usual operating expenses.If that peasant fell behind in paying a bill, he took out loans which were secured by his small piece of land.If hecouldn’t pay back the loan, he lost his land. There were no banks back then – the people the poor borrowed from were the large landowners. And the poor became poorer, and the rich became richer.It was an insidious system.
Back to the story – we’re not done yet.The rich man tells Jesus that he has followed all the commandments Jesus has just named.Indeed, Jesus namesthe six ‘ethical’ commandments of the ten commandments.Except he switches one out.Instead of “do not covet what belongs to your neighbor” Jesus subs in one of the laws from Leviticus.“You shall not defraud.”The longer version of that is “you shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer.”(Lev. 19:13)Jesus is subtly telling this man that because he gained his wealth by fraud, he has in fact not followed all the commandments.
Then three strange things happen.Mark tells us that Jesus loves this man.He loves this man.And Jesus tells this rich man who has much property and many possessions that he lacks one thing.He tells this rich man that he –the rich man – is in debt to those he has exploited in order to gain his wealth.Then Jesus tells the rich man to get up – the verb he almost always uses when he heals someone.
As Ched Myers says, “Jesus is not inviting this man to change his attitude toward his wealth, or to treat his servants better, or to reform his personal life.He is asserting the precondition for discipleship: economic justice.Stung, the man whirls and slinks away – thus becoming the only character in Mark’s story to expressly refuse Jesus’ call to follow.”
I am a very practical person, and I see some big flaws in this plan for us.If we were all going to sell our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, then we would be poor, and nothing would get better.And if everyone were poor, who would buy our possessions?Isn’t there any wiggle room in this?
I want to tell you that there is, that we can sell some of what we have, that giving away 10% of our post-tax income is enough, that it is entirely possible to love God and to love all our stuff.I want to tell you that because I want to tell myself that.The problem is that I’m not sure it’s true.Because I’m pretty sure that Ched Myers has it right, that the precondition for discipleship is economic justice, that if we really want to follow Jesus, we need to make sure that the way we’re living isn’t causing harm, oppression, or poverty to someone else.
Philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry says that we 21st century American Christians should call the Kingdom of God as “the Great Economy,” because the words ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ find their root in the Greek word oikonomia, which means household management.We need to remember that the best economics create the material well-being of all of society, not just the top strata of society.The Kingdom of God is good news for everyone, but first and foremost, it must be Good News for the poor.
As Myers says, “the Kingdom of God is simply that time and place in which there are no rich and poor.There are only people who are loved by God, people who have what they need and not more.”
This story, then, has some implications for us.There are a lot of implications, but I’ll limit them to three for this morning.You might think of more.
First, I think this story might make us feel guilty but I would hope it would make us courageous and curious about our own money.I tend to think of guilt as a pretty useless emotion – like bread, it goes stale after a day or two and loses its taste.But maybe understanding our own discipleship in terms of economic justice might help us explore where our money goes.Do we rebuy at Goodwill?Do we buy clothes made by children at overseas sweatshops?We can look at our clothing, at our food, and if you want to get really radical, at our taxes.Understanding the implications of our everyday spending might help us make different choices that create more economic justice for others.
Second, this story might motivate us to look at whom we give our money to.If we are privileged enough to have discretionary money, that is, money left over after paying for necessities, where does it go?What percentage goes to charity – to the church, to arts or education or disaster relief or aid for the less-advantaged?What percentage goes to vacation?How much goes to retirement savings or to a college education fund?What percentage is going to interest owed on credit card or student loan debt?
Third and last, this story might motivate us to get involved in at least one effort that addresses poverty at the level of root causes.I know people who are deeply engaged in workers’ rights and in tenants’ rights. Some are involved in lessening the ills caused by gentrification.Some advocate for more just compensation at all levels of an organization.
Is this what you must do to gain eternal life?What must you do to inherit eternal life?Nothing.There is nothing you must do because there is nothing you can do.Only God makes those decisions and we don’t know what the basis for the judgment is.What we do know is that God calls us to a particular way of life, a way that ensures abundant life not just for some but for all.
And we know that no matter how well or poorly we follow, no matter if we succeed or fail, God loves us, because that is the nature of God.And with God, nothing is impossible.