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God’s Grace

The gospel reading from Mark today is a particularly difficult one for us to hear. It challenges us to examine our relationship with money, material possessions, and social status. Throughout the centuries, there has always been the temptation to spiritualize or allegorize its meaning, to somehow soften the demands of discipleship and lessen the cost of following Jesus. What if this difficult teaching wasn’t really about money but was just about our attitude instead? If the question at hand was really about a spirit of generosity over the practice of hoarding wealth? But that doesn’t really seem to be the question at hand, and Jesus does speak plainly here about money and possessions. And, what’s more, the anonymity of the man seems to function as an invitation to put ourselves in his shoes, to wrestle with the question that he brings and with Jesus’ response.

Curiously, Mark tells us that the man did not simple walk up to, or casually approach Jesus. Instead, we’re given the image of someone running to catch Jesus before he leaves town. There is an earnest sense of urgency about him. We don’t know much else about him. Could he have heard Jesus teaching at another time? Did he, perhaps, hear Jesus’ teaching about the need to receive the kingdom like a child? Is this what prompts his urgent question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus’ first words cause us to immediately re-frame or re-center the question by putting it into the context of the inbreaking of God’s reign. It is God alone who is good and who is the source of all that is good. Jesus does not mock the man in this response. Instead, he indicates to the man that the very basis of that question doesn’t make sense in light of the reign of God. Jesus then moves quickly through a list of commands, and the man confirms that he has indeed kept all these since his youth. Calvin and Luther both find deep-seated fault in the man: he clearly is too naïve to think he could really keep all those commandments; just as the Pharisees had tested Jesus, so he now tests the man who asks after eternal life. However, we have no reason, from the story itself, to believe that the man was being boastful or insincere, or that he only thought he had kept all the commandments. The story simply does not support such a reading and, in fact, Mark’s next comments invite us to abandon such notions: “Jesus, looking at him, and loved him..” 

In our reading from Hebrews this morning, we’re told that “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.” The story of the man who runs to Jesus to ask his question gives us a glimpse into this kind of judgment. The love that Jesus has for the man must not be sentimentalized for it is a kind of love that mirrors back to him the places of his innermost being that remain hardened against God’s grace and God’s reign. Jesus does not denounce or otherwise criticize the man’s piety. He seems to assume that the man is sincere, that he is truly seeking after the promise of life. And yet he is still found lacking in one thing – “Go,” Jesus tells him, “sell your possessions and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven.”

In Jesus’ day, it was widely believed that wealth and material possession functioned as an indicator of divine favor and proof of spiritual virtue. In telling the man to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor, Jesus is rejecting all theologies that support such a conclusion. In our day, we may not make the connection between divine favor and material wealth in the same way, but there remains an undercurrent of such judgments in our own relationship to socio-economic status. We live in a society that continues to criminalize poverty and reward wealth. The poor are judged as violent addicts, as lazy and dirty. Even the programs that cities like Seattle have in place to help the poor require the poor to navigate barrier and after barrier, proving that they are worthy of dignity and help. 

“Go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor.” Upon hearing Jesus’ words, the man goes away, grieving because he had many possessions. Again, Jesus does not mock or condemn. He turns to his disciples and voices an observation: How hard it will be for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Clearly, there is a real (not symbolic) connection between one’s wealth and one’s capacity to follow Jesus on the way. But why this difficulty? What, really, have our money and possessions to do with the kingdom of God? 

We don’t have to look to the ancient past to recognize the ways that wealth distorts human relationship. But Mark implies that it distorts as well something of who we are, of who we were created to be. The more wealth we amass the more likely we are to become desensitized to the very people Jesus wishes us to keep in the center of our field of vision. The accumulation of wealth leads to an insolated life, disconnected from the needs of others and gives us the false conviction that our material wealth is just that, ours, to do with as we please. In this way, we lose a vital dimension of human existence. As one commentator put it, “As wealth removes us from the natural dependence and contingency of the human condition, we actually lose some of our humanity.” 

It doesn’t take an overactive imagination to start feeling some anxiety and fear when we take this command at face value. Does God really call us to sell all we own and give the money away? How, then, are we expected to live? How would that not simply perpetuate the problem of poverty? It is perhaps here that we can begin to see the issue at stake is not about being generous with versus being a hoarder of wealth. For even generous giving can lead us to the same falsehoods that support the lie of self-sufficiency. Rather, what is at stake here is the very concept of possession, of ownership and control. The lack that Jesus identifies in the man is not poverty but trust. Trust that God is the One who provides; trust that the resources we need to follow Jesus on the Way will be given to us; trust that our worth and honor and dignity are not tied to our economic or social status. 

By exposing this lack, Jesus is rejecting the economic systems of the world that create the conditions of poverty. To follow Jesus on the way, even the most basic needs to survive in a market economy must come under the judgment of God’s word. Jesus is telling the man, his disciples, and us that there is no place in the reign of God for systems that allow people to go hungry, to endure violence and persecution. The Way of Jesus is incompatible with the world’s concepts of ownership and possession, of divine favor and blessing. All things, all things, belong to God and we are called to steward the resources to which we have access in such a way that our financial narrative exposes the greed of the powerful and the exploitation of the poor and proclaims an alternative way of living, a way of living that has been transformed by the gaze and the love of Christ. 

“Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” The invitation that Jesus offers in these words is none other than an invitation to total transformation. What we have is not really our own and we, who live in one of the most affluent and privileged societies, must never lose sight of the beauty of the kind of community that God is forming. We must not allow ourselves to become disconnected from the poor, desensitized to the plight of the marginalized, and distanced from the consequences of unjust systems and imbalances of power. 

I wonder, if we have been faithful in seeing ourselves in the shoes of the man in this story, what the mirror of God’s love might expose for us? What parts of our hearts are still hidden in the shadows? What is the living and active word of God piercing in us this morning? What is the one thing in which we lack? And how is God calling us to greater depths of faithfulness and to the attendant joy that comes from being liberated from the systems and structures that distort our trust in God. 

Perhaps, if we attend to the image in the mirror of Christ’s love, we might find that whatever fears of scarcity that we face are based in the falsehood of an economic system that seeks to keep the poor and the marginalized in their place and the wealthy in their comfort. Jesus calls us to an alternative way of life that bears testimony to this falsehood. And while all of this has bearing on our own personal finances, it is also a message that we as a parish must take to heart. Over the coming weeks we will be kicking off our annual campaign, our season of giving. In conjunction with that we will be setting our budget priorities. We must ask of our common life the same questions that this story poses for our own personal relationship with money and the poor. And we are challenged just as equally to recognize the abundance with which Jesus gives to us in return. 

May God’s grace go before and after us, indeed, that we might continually be given to good works!……