God’s Economy

Mark 10: 17-27

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”


When trying to understand the significance of a particular gospel reading, it is often useful to look at the passage as it might be depicted on stage or screen – imagining an elaborate set and noting how characters move in and out of the scene. In this scene, Jesus is in Judea beyond the Jordon River, surrounded by his 12 disciples as they are about to embark on a journey, apparently preparing for a trip to Jerusalem. A man runs up to Jesus (in the same story in Matthew he is described as a young man, and in Luke, as a certain ruler). The backdrop might contain sycamores or date palms, and perhaps camels – camels laden with salted fish – part of the tribute the region was required to pay to their Roman rulers. Armed Roman legionnaires would have been milling about the marketplace. Remember that we are looking at a part of the world that was occupied by foreign military forces. I can imagine Jesus watching the soldiers, remembering the stories that his mother Mary must have told him as a child, frightening stories of the brutal Roman invasion that had swept thought their homeland a generation earlier.

I had the pleasure of attending a lecture earlier this week on the University of Arkansas campus given by John Dominic Crossan – considered by many to be the preeminent New Testament scholar in the world today. Professor Crossan pointed out that trying to understand what Jesus was teaching without placing the lessons in their historical context was a little like trying to understand what Martin Luther King was talking about… without the racism part. Otherwise, when we look at a story, like the story of the rich man who came to Jesus, we tend to automatically try to interpret it solely in terms of who we are and what our own experience is. If we don’t look at the passage in terms of the context, then our understanding of the Christ of the Gospel becomes a kind of Rorschach Jesus. We look at the image of Jesus as we might at an inkblot test – where we decide for ourselves what kind of Jesus we are looking at.

The context, or what Professor Crossan, calls the matrix in which this encounter with the rich man takes place is Imperial Rome. The world’s first territorial empire. A top down society if there ever was one. A brutal empire ruled according the four great Roman themes: piety, war, victory, peace – or more simply Peace through Victory. Now the message of Jesus was formed by his experience with Jewish covenantal theology, a theology that didn’t even allow for individual ownership of land – the land was given by God to God’s people and collectively owned by the tribe. Jesus experience prepared him to proclaim a message of peace through justice – justice for all God’s people. This is the kind of message that had already gotten John the Baptist beheaded and was beginning to get Jesus in trouble too.

So in the middle of this top down society, a society where the rich and powerful called all the shots, a rich man comes to Jesus. Rather than subscribing to the norms of a Roman structure, Jesus has the audacity to suggest that the meek will inherit the earth, advising his followers to not lay up for themselves treasures on earth, and to sell what they have and give alms.

Now let’s look at this rich man, who doesn’t just walk onto the scene, but runs up and kneels down before Jesus. Jesus, Mark tells us, looking at him, loved him.”. Jesus looking kindly on this rich man and loved him. Of course Jesus loved him, Jesus could see through him. Jesus would have agreed with WC Field’s observation, “a rich man is just a poor man with money” – and Jesus loved the poor. He ran up to Jesus, knelt before him, called him, Good Teacher, and showed him the utmost respect. He had learned good manners. He wasn’t arrogant. He was the kind of rich man that is famous in northwest Arkansas. Never ostentatious with their wealth. Never showy. If this rich man had driven a pickup, it would have been an old one, without air conditioning, maybe with a dog kennel in the back. A likable, law abiding, ordinary sort of guy. The kind of rich man that dots the landscape in Northwest Arkansas.

Jesus knew before he asked, that this rich man obeyed the law – that he didn’t lie and cheat and steal. But instead of commending him for his piety and obedience, Jesus insisted that if wished to fully participate in God’s kingdom he must first sell all that he had and give the money to the poor.

You know, reading a conversation like this, kind of makes you wonder how Christianity ever caught on. By contemporary standards, I’m not sure that Jesus would have made a very good church planter. Imagine, if while climbing into my truck this morning, preparing for my trip from Bentonville to Springdale that one of the rather large number of millionaires in Benton County ran up to me and asked about joining our congregation. If my response had been that he first sell all his Wal-Mart stock and give the money to the poor, I’m not sure that I would have found another Episcopalian.

But, this isn’t really the story of the rich man. Jesus comments weren’t so much for the rich man as they were for his disciples. This is a story of discipleship. The encounter with the rich man is for the edification of the poor. Consider that this story isn’t really about us. Not that we can’t learn a lesson from it. But we learn from it by overhearing a conversation. The lesson is no more for us than it was for the rich man who played a bit part in this little vignette. Because, you see, we are the rich man. By any global standards, we, you and I, must be included among the world’s rich. We live in a world where the average family lives on less, than what we, as a typical American family… throw out with the garbage.

And let’s not fall into the trap of overspiritualizing the story. The parable isn’t so much about the salvation of the rich man. The rich man had already found what he was seeking – otherwise he would have heeded Jesus’ advice and Jesus would have had a 13th disciple. The tragedy isn’t that the rich man lost an opportunity to experience a “personal relationship with Jesus”. The tragedy is the lost lives of the countless people who continued to live in poverty because the rich man was unwilling to sell his barley fields and his camels and give the money to the poor.

You see we rich people like to look at the gospel and imagine that all the stories were intended for us. I’m reminded of once standing in a thunderstorm and being told that in Mexico the poor say that when there’s lightning the rich think that God is taking their picture.

God’s economy is different than what was practiced in Imperial Rome and what we practice as Americans. As Michael Budde noted in an essay titled God is Not a Capitalist – “God has a lousy business model”. Remember the parable in Matthew where the workers in a vineyard arrived at different times of the day – some got to work early, some showed up a few hours before quitting time – and all received the same wage. Or recall the parable of the Shepherd who abandoned his 99 sheep so that he could go out looking for the one that was lost. A highly irresponsible business practice – certainly frowned on by the sheeps’ owner. And look at who Jesus chose to further the cause of his kingdom – “the halt and the lame, the poor, those at the margins of society.” Sounds like God needed to look at hiring a new human resources manager – Jesus was clearly not up to the task. Or look at the promise that the gospel makes to Jesus’ followers, “as they did it to me they will do it to you.” I’m not sure that a new hire, who saw his boss nailed to a cross, would hang around very long – once he learned that a similar fate awaited him. Your most promising MBA’s are not likely to be attracted to “a career ladder shaped like a cross.”

Neither was God’s economy the economy of the rich man who wanted to know what it took to inherit eternal life. That’s why he walked away, “shocked and grieving” because he had too much to give up. As I said earlier, it seems likely that Jesus knew that this was the reaction he would get from the rich man when he made him his audacious proposal. So why did he ask it? As a lesson to his disciples. After the rich man departs, Jesus uses his example to explain to the disciples how difficult it is for the rich to receive God’s kingdom. This was such a perplexing lesson that Jesus had to tell them twice. “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” “Children”…Jesus said, how hard it is…” – like a camel going through the eye of a needle.”

And then Jesus offers his disciples, these followers taken from the ranks of the poor, good news. News about this upside down economy that Jesus was proposing. This economy that contrasted so sharply with the economy of the Romans. The disciples, those who had left everything behind – in a way that the wealth of the rich man prevented him from doing – would be rewarded. In God’s economy, Jesus tells them “the first will be last, and last will be first.” Jesus central message was one of hope – hope for the poor that in God’s kingdom, not the kingdom of the Romans, things would be turned upside down.

So what about us? What about the bit players in this story? The characters that are used to illustrate the point. Maybe we are called to get on board with the program. Maybe to recognize that, as Christians, we have enlisted in a religion that was meant to turn things upside down.

Maybe, as bit players in the plan that God laid out, God cares less about out piety and more about out generosity. Perhaps, if we the rich are to find a place in this story, we need to get serious about Millennium Development Goals – a plan to eradicate world poverty that doesn’t ask that we sell all that we have, but only that we commit a small portion of our annual income. Or maybe we seriously engage in a program like Heifer International or the Wheelchair Foundation…. Or maybe we are in a position to influence how billions of corporate dollars can be used to heal the sick or feed the hungry – the work that Jesus talks of over and over again.

A Zen Buddhist haiku has followed me, haunted me really, over the years. It runs like this, “My storehouse having burnt down, nothing obscures the light of the moon.” Perhaps we have to ask ourselves if our money, or maybe its blinding pursuit, is obscuring the light of the moon.

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Springdale, Arkansas

 

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