October 14, 2012
20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 23
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
This is a hard gospel. For as wealth-centric a nation as we live in, it is considered terribly rude to speak about such things. But as Paul reminds us, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…” When it came to class and caste, wealth and poverty Jesus did not mince words. We must not either, nor may we shy from the piercing truth of the Word of God.
Today, Jesus teaches us about proper relationships to wealth along two lines. First is the injustice of concentrated wealth. Second is the overall moral and spiritual hazard of wealth itself, of materialism. We, as Jesus did, will walk down both roads.
But first, I need to be honest about my own hypocrisy in relation to this gospel and in relation to wealth. I surely count myself among the wealthy. The clerical shirt I am wearing today was made in Indonesia in what I have to assume was slave-like conditions. That’s morally upright, no? More was spent on my education alone than the vast majority of the world will spend in their lifetimes on everything. In placing myself in this story, I am there, kneeling before Jesus Christ right next to that man as he says, “Jesus, look at all the good that I do,” then being dismayed at how much more I have left to do, how many more pounds of flesh I owe the world’s collective kitty, how much more I have to pare away from my worldly excesses and attachments. All I can say is that I am praying on it and trying to do better and that I will keep praying on it and keep trying to do better; that is all I ask of you all.
So a man whom Jesus knows to be wealthy presents himself and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ reply was not as straight forward as it seems. “Do not defraud” is not in the Decalogue. The Greek distinctly refers to economic exploitation. It infers a violation of trust somewhere along the lines of “keeping back the wages of hirelings” or “refusing to return things deposited with another for safekeeping.” So when Jesus says “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” the connotation is clearly, “return what you have wrongly taken, then you may be my follower.” Jesus proscribes reparations, a timeless and true form of reconciliation. And the man’s glum response is a timeless and true reaction to such a direct call to reconciliation.
So that is pretty clear, no? If the wealth you possess was generated by exploitation, if it was stolen or extorted from those weaker or less advantaged than yourself, then obviously there are moral and spiritual issues. A demand for reconciliation would be justified if your wealth came at the expense of others and you care to consider yourself a follower of Jesus Christ. Yes? That is the text and it holds true today. But the bigger question is whether concentrated wealth is ever “clean”? Can wealth ever be consolidated in a way that is not at the expense of others?
The law of wealth is that wealth begets wealth. And that is OK, it would be fine, actually, if everyone had equal access to the means of wealth, but that is patently not the case. Forbes Magazine just released its voyeuristic list of the 400 richest people. 40% of those on that list earned their fortunes the old fashioned way: they inherited it. Talk about a violation the first social sin identified by Gandhi: that is the sin of wealth without work. It is sinful in that it is detached from reality. Wealth takes work, so if you have it without work, your whole ability to relate to the true nature of things willbe distorted. You will be distanced from God.
Wealth is concentrated by the few largely because the very means of gaining wealth are already concentrated. If you are born poor, the vast, vast, vast majority of the time you are gong to die poor. It is just as true that if you are born wealthy, the chance of you dying poor is about the same as, oh I don’t know, as a camel fitting through the eye of a needle? A tiny percentage, let’s round it to 1% of the world’s population controls most of the world’s resources, and structurally that is not going to change. Now that is a moral and spiritual problem.
All the world is a commonwealth. No one lives in a vacuum. No one works or earns or amasses a fortune on their own. I am not going to get into the theology of the ownership of the means of production, or the economics of the public ownership of the infrastructure of commerce; the roads, ports, the electromagnetic spectrum, the laws and courts that makes business, hence the concentration of wealth possible, but when some have at their command more wealth than required to meet any worldly desire while others do not have enough to meet even the most basic worldly needs, what we are witnessing is sin. What we are experiencing is a form of evil. When wealth is concentrated to the detriment of others, the commonwealth is violated, by which I mean, which Jesus means, the kingdom of God is pushed once again out of reach. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The depth of this sin is made ever so worse when the suffering of poverty, or the stresses of keeping out of poverty prevents us from being the children of God we were born to be. Can wealth ever become great, ever become concentrated in a way that is not, or does not lead to evil? I find that hard to imagine.
But Jesus was not only concerned with the problem of concentrated wealth, but with material riches in general. Remember how dismissive he was when the disciples critiqued the woman who poured the costly ointment on his head? It was valued the same as a year’s worth of wages. The disciples cried, “We could have sold it and fed the poor!” He tells them to leave her alone, that the value ascribed to material things is bupkis when compared to the value of relationships, of kindness displayed, generosity offered. No material thing has value when compared to our relationship with God and with each other. Jesus, God, is very concerned with misplaced priorities. Jesus, God is very concerned with what St. Ignatius of Loyola called disordered attachments.
Jesus, in this part of St. Mark’s gospel is clearly talking about the virtues of the itinerant life, the virtue of mission-oriented poverty. “Give up everything and follow me.” Give up all of the worldly things that get in the way of your complete and utter service to God and the people of God. So everyone here, we already are settling for second best. Just like those of us who are married, or have children, Paul was clear that the celibate life was better, but if you must be married, if the misery or distraction of celibacy would interfere with the rest of your vocation as a Christian, if celibacy would prevent you from being as good as you could be otherwise, then get married, have sex, but do it responsibly, do it honestly. I think we can transfer that teaching to our material wealth. Be a householder and not a mendicant, but do it well, live modestly if not simply.
Having what you need is a God given right. Sufficient food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, meaningful work… this is not an exhaustive list, anything without which we cannot be full and productive participants in the kingdom of God, these are fundamental needs established by our creator. But when we start accumulating more than that, when we start having “relationships” with inanimate objects, our attachments to worldly things become disordered and we start having problems. Remember Mae West, she said, “Too much of a good thing is just right.” She was wrong. Too much of a good thing is just that, too much. It chokes us. It distracts us from what is truly right and good and joyful, what has meaning, what endures. Where our attention is, there follows our bodies, our hearts, our very souls.
So what are we to do? What are we to do with our own wealth? How do we discern what we need, what is enough and what is too much? How do we discern what comes between us and right relationship with God and each other? Well, it just so happens that our stewardship campaign begins today, so any excess wealth you have… Truly, these are intimate questions and I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what is too much, what is too little and what is just right. Windy and I don’t know what our family needs as opposed to simply wants. We used to live with monks and they decided all the material things together, collectively and that was that. Sometimes I long for that simplicity of process even with all its flaws, but that is not the world most of us live in.
We are entering our time of stewardship, which is all about our relationship to the material world. This is a time to hold all of this in our individual and collective hearts. As you are considering how you will support the life of this community, you might pray on this gospel. Mark 10:17-31. Read it and ponder it. Talk about it as a family or with a friend. Have a conversation about what you have, what your wealth does and does not do for you, and what it all means. And give. We break the power wealth holds over us when we give it away. Give to the church, yes, I am asking for that; it is a Christian’s responsibility to support the Body of Christ. And also give to KLCC. Give to ShelterCare, Sponsors, the HIV Alliance, St. Vinnies, the Relief Nursery, give to whatever draws your soul. Give as if your life depends on it, because really, it does, and so do the lives of others. AMEN