Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, October 14, 2012:

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Psalm: Psalm 90:12-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 22:1-15

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31

Like so many teachings of Jesus, this week’s teaching has sent many a believer off twisting themselves into pretzel shapes to determine that Jesus couldn’t possibly mean what he said.

I’ve heard many a sermon on this text that’s designed to reassure us that Jesus couldn’t possibly mean what he said. We can’t possibly be expected to sell all that we have and give the money to the poor.

But why would Jesus say such a thing if he didn’t really mean it? And if he really means it, what are we to do?

The obvious answer: sell all that we have, give the money to the poor, and trust God to reveal the next step.

I’m in no position to preach this approach. I’m as fearful and clutchy when it comes to my stuff as the next person. I suspect that Jesus wants us to be mindful of our tendency to trust our bank accounts more than we trust God when he gives instructions like the one he gave to the rich young man.

The last few years have taught us much about the danger of counting on our possessions for security. We've seen how quickly wealth can be liquidated--and for what? As I look at my decimated retirement account, I often think of how much happier I might be had I given that money to the poor instead of hoarding it for my future. Now it's vanished, gone, like steam. No one has benefited--except, perhaps, for the people who made a profit off my money before it vanished. And I'm fairly certain the poor didn't see the benefit of that.

Jesus returns to this message again and again: our attachment to money is spiritually dangerous, the biggest spiritual danger that most of us face. Comparatively speaking, he doesn't spend much time at all on other sins. For example, he never talks directly about homosexuality, the issue that's splitting so many churches. But he returns again and again to the message that the rich must share with the poor. Again and again he tells us of the dangers of excess wealth.

Like violence, wealth is a tool that is powerful, yet difficult to control, which probably explains why our scriptures caution us about both. Once we attain a certain level of wealth (and I believe that level is fairly low), we spend a lot more time taking care of our wealth than we do taking care of God's creation. Wealth demands a lot of our time and attention, and that's attention that we're not giving to God. All our time spent tracking our various accounts is time we could use in prayer, for example.

Many Christians tithe in hopes that their wealth won't control them. It's a good spiritual discipline. The common wisdom is to give 10%. As my wise father once explained to me, 10% is enough of the monthly budget that we must be intentional to be able to make that goal. It's not enough to break the bank, but it is enough that we notice it.

And once we’ve mastered that discipline, we can train ourselves to give more. We can be mindful of all the ways that we waste our resources, and we can redirect some of that money to developing nations, where so many researchers would remind us that a dollar stretches much further than in the first world.

The end of this week’s Gospel should give us hope, even if we feel we’ll never be able to give away anything. Does Jesus know that he’s given the rich young man an impossible task? What would have happened if the young man had come back and said, “Well, Jesus, I tried, but I was only able to give up half of what I owned. What should I do now?”

I suspect that Jesus would not have reacted angrily. I suspect that Jesus would have given the young man another chance.

The benefits of the radical generosity to which Christ calls us are many. We start with feeling lighter as we get rid of stuff. Along the way, we remember the joy of sharing. And eventually, if we stay on the path of radical hospitality, we might realize that God will be there for us when our economic resources fail, as they always will. All your wealth won't help you escape death forever. But God can transform all things, even death.

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