October 14, 2018
The Wendell Berry poem we heard speaks to the way that being caught in the rat race of the quick profit does something to your soul. Something that can be resisted, that can be playfully confounded, and that keeps your soul fresh and free.
Because the things of our material reality really do have bearing on our spiritual life.
And this connects because this story we heard from Mark today can be read as a healing story, just like many other people who kneel at Jesus’ feet and ask for something from him.
See, the young man had lived a life that was about accumulation. And back then, wealth didn’t look like having five slick cars and the most top-of-the-line sporting gear and I don’t know, whatever else rich people spend money on. It wasn’t so much about possessions as it was about land. THat’s how people got and maintained wealth, through accumulating property.
And the way that property was most easily and quickly and regularly acquired was when people who were financially struggling defaulted on debts, and lost their property that was offered up as collateral.
So if someone was wealthy with property in this time, the chances are that they had acquired it or inherited it via economic exploitation. They had let the most vulnerable people in their community be submerged under debts they couldn’t pay, and took advantage of their peril to consolidate more of their own wealth.
And you can tell that this has done something to how this young man approaches his faith, too: he doesn’t ask Jesus “how do I live in accordance with eternal life?” he asks it through the lens he is used to seeing everything else: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” as though this realm is one more property to consolidate. The word inherit, here, in Greek, is close to “be the tenant of, or enjoying the proceeds from”
How do I get in on the benefits of eternal life?
How do I collect on the dividends from eternal life?
As though this is the next step in this system of entitlement he’s been living in.
And so that’s why Jesus, when he’s listing off the commandments, throws one more in that he knows is the barrier to this young man’s faith: do not defraud.
This story is perhaps not so much about wealth as inherently bad (although it’s hard to be wealthy without depriving someone, at some point, of something—even if it’s just “I save money to keep accumulated by buying cheap clothes, made by people made slave wages in Bangladesh), but that you can’t be part of God’s realm, you can’t live in God’s way, without living with economic justice.
The ENTIRE Bible lifts this up over and over: that faith in God connects directly with economic justice.
I have seen how money keep people trapped in inhumane and soul-devouring situations.
I don’t think it’s inherently bad to have money, but I have witnessed choices related to money support the most vile and violent systems.
When I was living in the PNW, I would visit people who were being held indefinitely in immigration detention in a local county jail.
This jail was meant to hold people for days to a couple weeks at a time. this is a place that was meant to be a way-station—you’d either get out on bail quickly, or be transferred to a larger prison.
But, because the county jail needed to balance its budget, they entered into a contract with ICE to have 40 beds for those held in immigration detention.
And the men and women in detention started going on hunger strikes, protesting the conditions—little warm clothing, poor medical treatment, strip searches, no access to immigration law resources, prohibitively expensive phone calls, etc. Things that, if you’re just there for a few days, is not a significant hardship. But If you are held for months that roll into years, and never know when you might get out…that can break the spirit.
The administration knew full well that this was unjust, but they had every reason to deny and diminish the complaints of those in detention because if they were to break the contract with ICE, they would have to find another several million dollars somewhere else. The jail could close.
So they kept this contract, even as it did physical and spiritual violence to people, because of money.
This is to say money, itself, is not inherently evil. And I have seen wealth be shared justly and generously. But money can, for some people and in some situations, be a prison.
So, getting back to the text, perhaps there is a healing story in here.
Because clutching to money for the sheer sake of always accumulating is a sickness that alienates people from God and neighbor.
And for this wealthy young man, Jesus loves him enough to heal him of this approach to faith that is so earnest, yet misses the point of the whole thing, to love your neighbor as yourself.
Maybe this man knows, in his gut, that there is something still missing even in his life of perfect piety and abundant wealth. He feels the anxiousness and the grasping and the squirmy feeling of looking at people and seeing them in terms of what they can do for you, and he wants something real.
Maybe his healing looks like divesting himself of faith in the wealth he has accumulated and the precision of perfect piety, and looks like living finally in faith in God and solidarity with his neighbors far and near.
What’s with the young man walking away sad, because he has many possessions?
was he afraid?
He arrived excited and perhaps entitled, and left somber and somehow grieved.
And the typical way many have heard it interpreted is that he’s sad because he’s like “well shoot. I guess I don’t get to follow Jesus. Selling all that I have and redistributing it to the poor is simply impossible, a barrier to great for me. Oh well”
But what if he’s grieved not because Jesus’ command is too hard for him to do, but precisely because he knows what he has to do, and is emotionally processing selling all he has to follow Jesus?
Because you’d think, and the text usually reflects this, that when Jesus tells people something that is challenging to the way they’ve lived, to business as usual, they either argue with him or start scheming to get him out of the way.
But this young man is simply somber and sorrowful.
What if he’s not sad because he can’t do what Jesus asks, but is grieved because he is now considering doing exactly what Jesus asks of him?
Because when you take a bold step in a new direction, and you know your life will be different, there is usually some substantial emotion, yes?
Have you ever felt some grief, felt somber and sorrowful, even as you stood at the threshold of an exciting new stage of your life?
When you are standing right at the precipice of that hinge between how your world has been, what you have known, and where your world is opening to and your life is leading you, isn’t there some grief there?
I remember moments I’ve been on a threshold—like when I realized I would go to Grinnell—the way I discern God’s call is actually somber, there’s grieving, and a sense of a wide opening before me that feels a bit dizzying, because I just KNOW that “this is where I’ll be” and I know that the life I know, the life I have, the friends I love, the home I know, will now come to an end.
Change, even the threshold of a promising new chapter of our lives, can also leave us walking away somber and grieved.
So whatever lens you bring to this text, however it lands with you and whatever interpretations make sense of it, there is one thing for certain: It is making clear that our economic life is linked with our faith.
Over and over and over and over, the Bible links economic justice directly with one’s relationship to and worship of God.
Now, I know that this particular story, which I promise was on the lectionary, on the day that the stewardship season begins in a church, could feel a bit laughably and a bit uncomfortably on the nose.
But this isn’t about giving money to the church, because the church is not God.
It’s about how we, the young man then and each of us now, live as citizens of the Kingdom, the realm, of God. How we partner to create, day by day, a world shaped with the vision of God.
The young man asks what he can do to inherit eternal life. Eternal life is not heaven, but fullness of life on earth. The way of life associated with God’s coming realm. A particular quality of life that had a transcendence to it, the kind that comes from living in harmony and connection with God.
The Kingdom of God is not something one can inherit. Not a possession one can add to a very good life to make it perfect. It is a practice, daily, a way of living with God and with one another in solidarity.
So how do you form your life, just a bit more, to live with justice to your neighbor, and in harmony with God?
How do we not just seek to inherit fullness of life, but work and partner with God to make this earth now a bit more shaped by God’s vision?