Jesus Live on Scarth Street Part Four: Jesus and Wealth
Job 23:1-17; Psalm 34; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Sunday, October 28, 2018 — The Season of Creation and Emergence
Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory
This January, I was attending a week-long intensive course on the Book of Mark at St. Andrew’s College with author, activist and theologian Ched Myers. Ched’s work has truly shaped much of how I read understand and therefore preach about the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which open what we call the New Testament or the Christian Scriptures.
Ched asked us, during the opening of class on Thursday to name one biblical character or story that we identified with — and all I could think of was this story. As the class went around and shared, they all had much more hopeful examples, so I came up with something else, and I’ve been searching my memory for the past week or so and I really can’t remember what I landed on.
I share this at the outset simply to note that for a long time, this story that we heard today has for me been one of, if not the most challenging that I have encountered in my own journey of faith.
So what I share today is layered within my own grappling and pondering — because while I may not be a candidate to be interviewed on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, certainly in Global terms — having a regular wage, the ability to own a home, having savings — I am considered wealthy — and wealth, and inequality is at the core of this passage.
This story is often called “a Rich Young Ruler”, although in Mark’s version he is named neither as young or a ruler. Mark is considered to be both the oldest of the Gospels, and also is believed to have been taken by the authors of both Matthew and Luke (incidentally likely not individuals named Matthew or Luke) and used as a template, elaborating certain parts and adding in new material known to the communities out of which these writings emerge.
This morning’s reflection is the last of four reflections on some of Jesus’ most challenging sayings, which just happen to fall into one particular section in the Book of Mark from which the appointed readings have come from over these weeks.
During this segment, Jesus is travelling from Galilee, the Northern part of Jewish Palestine to Judea and Jerusalem in the South where the ruling class, governs on behalf of the Roman Empire.
There have been a number of repeated themes in this section, and the final line that we heard this morning is one of the most prevalent, the juxtaposition of first and last, which in other spots is laid out as greatest and least — if we read on we’d hear Jesus’ disciples asking for positions of power and prestige and hearing in response a call to serving and protecting the most vulnerable.
And if we continued from there we’d have this whole section wrapped up in a dramatic fashion, where after two chapters in which Jesus lays out this philosophy, and his disciples are still unable to get, or one might say, unable to see where he is going with these, they enter a town, meet a blind beggar named Bartimeaus, who calls out for mercy, is healed and joins Jesus’ companions – at which point the narrative moves to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, a story we read on Palm Sunday, leading up to Easter.
In stark contrast to the beggar, is our reading from today mere paragraphs earlier.
This passage involves a few terms of note — “eternal life”, “saved” and the “Kingdom of God”, which over the years have tended to become synonymous with the idea of entrance to heaven after one’s death — which risks this story becoming spiritual metaphor, rather than an exploration of the concrete conditions of life in human society.
I would suggest that, particularly in Mark, when we read these terms, that if we pay attention to how they are used throughout the text, that we see Jesus referring to a new social order of equality, and honouring the dignity of all — a way of being on earth in opposition to the dominant philosophies of his day — social stratification, concentration of wealth.
Martin Luther King Jr would speak of Beloved Community, Scandinavian Christian Communities have used the term Thoranblott (the coming of light), and Lakota Theologians George Tinker and Sr. Marie Therese Archambault suggest the expression MItakuyeuyasin – All my Relations. Others have suggested the term be amended to kin-dom as Jesus’ teaching on the subject is always relational, while Wendell Berry (theologian, philosopher, and farmer) has suggested The Great Economy — remembering that Economy means interconnected system, which he suggests both captures the relational nature of Jesus teaching on the subject, while also catching the subversive because every time we hear mention a Kingdom of God, we should remember that he is among other things, questioning the power of the Kingdom/Empire of Rome!
So the question comes, and if we pay attention to word choice we notice something interesting.
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.
Every other time eternal life/kingdom is discussed it is something to receive not inherit — we’ll come back to this.
“You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”
Jesus is listing what have come to be known as the 10 Commandments, but there is a word out of place, and if you caught it you’re more observant than I because I only noticed when it was pointed out to me.
There is no commandment about defraud but there is one about covet.
I have spoken at other times about the acquisition of wealth in the Mediterranean world during antiquity, and it always has to do with land or estates, and estates grow in this moment in history through debt and default. Incidentally, when we read in a few lines that the man had many possessions, the word being translated as possessions can also mean properties — and the practice of buying out ancestral land from families, turning subsistence in servitude and eventually expelling when debt cannot be paid was rampant during the time Rome ruled.
Wealth is therefore looked at in this time in history with suspicion because the ideal economy in the Ancient world benefits the community as a whole, this acquisition breaks apart bonds between people and land, and between peoples themselves.
‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Interestingly, when Jesus says go the word he uses here is the exact same word used each time Jesus heals someone and says get up, a not insignificant authorial choice, because indeed Jesus is proposing something that will heal a humanity, and indeed the individual himself — but he can’t, he goes away, and ostensibly, we don’t meet him again.
Then as he has done during so many other difficult conversations, Jesus has a follow up with his followers.
How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
In and around the medieval period (incidentally at a time in which the church in Europe) was both itself wealthy and often found to be supportive of the wealthy ruling classes, there comes this interpretation that there was in the wall of Jerusalem, a gate called “the eye of the needle” and when traders entered by that gate, camels, laden with goods to be sold needed to enter on their knees — so this came to mean that wealth is fine as long as it is second to piety. Unfortunately, there was no such gate, and I am pretty certain from my reading that this also misunderstands camel physiology.
Generations before Jesus’ time when a major portion of the people of Israel are living in exile in Babylon, Rabbis begin compiling a commentary of their Holy text in which can be found a saying about an elephant passing through the eye of a needle, the elephant being the largest animal in Mesopotamia, the camel in Palestine. Modern theologian and poet Frederich Beuchner suggested we could read this as “Norman Rockefeller squeezing himself through the night deposit slot for the First National Bank”.
Despite centuries of attempts to tranquillize this passage, it is hard to authentically read this as anything but a condemnation of accumulated wealth. Several years ago when it was popular to wear white bracelets calling to Make Poverty History Geez, a contemplative Christian magazine out of Winnipeg, offered a commentary with their campaign Make Affluence History.
Malawian Christian activist, Mtumiki Njira put it like this:
Any Christian stand on poverty needs to take into account the 250 references in Scripture that condemn the personal accumulation of riches. What we need to eliminate is not poverty (as the West understands it, which would be an environmental catastrophe), but gross wealth. Starvation, nakedness and homelessness are problems…but inequality is the problem.
Sell all you have and give the money, said Jesus, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom.
Hard sayings — how might they be framed today?
I don’t have perfect answers or ideas, and I fear how some of mine may tread into the territory of seeking to disarm the camel metaphor.
I wonder then today how Jesus would express this on Scarth Street — would he speak in riddles or might he more clearly extrapolate a dream of a community of love which has neither rich nor poor, in which everyone has enough? Would he be standing with those who call for Guaranteed Basic Income, stronger social nets, reparations?
I think that would be part of it — looking at systematic changes that pays attention to widening gaps, questions subsidies for wealth generating industries and advocating for progressive taxation and practicing redistribution wealth. Would Jesus be working alongside of Bonnie and Peter and others who call for system change — I think so — I think he’d do so outside of a political party system, but with implications for voting and governance.
How to heed that call today is not within my expertise, but I have mentioned the work of RAPM, who are well poised to help us as communities within the United Church and beyond mobilize around these issues.
But I have to think that Jesus also would be asking me about my own financial practices — about my investments and spending — and whether there is room for me to practice personally that which for which he might call me to advocate.
Mark and Lisa Scandrette, are cofounders of ReIMAGINE, A Centre For Integral Christian Practice, based in San Francisco, which sprung from their collective work to put this sort of thing into practice. Before it was a non-profit organization it was a small group that met in their living room called Have 2 Sell 1 picking up Jesus’ words in Luke that if you own two tunics give one away.
A group of friends committed together to practice this. So in community they met and looked at their possessions, and each one thought about what they owned, and what they did not need, for some it was clothes, technology, books (I hesitate to say thinking of my shelves in my office and at home), some even looked at vehicles, and they talked together about their feelings of attachment to these things. No one made suggestions for others — and then they got creative about the best way to turn their abundance into something for others.
They found the best place to turn these possession into money in ways that did not reproduce exploitative economics and worked together to research the best use of this money to support work that sought to end systemic inequality. It was intentional, iterative and invitational and for many of them it began paths of longer term work around economic solidarity.
It was a practice in what King called beloved community what Berry called a great economy — it was not an end, but a gate they walked through into a new way of relating to their world.
In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.