Monday, October 8, 2018

Difficult Teaching, Week 2

Last week, like many preachers, I struggled to make sense of Mark 10:2-16 and Jesus' difficult teaching on divorce. On Monday, I noted with some surprise that all of us--parishioners and preachers--seem to take Jesus' words that liken divorce and remarriage to adultery more seriously than Jesus' teachings on selling all of our possessions, hating the members of our family, and losing our lives for the sake of the gospel. Well, this week I get what I asked from in Mark 10:17-31, which Jesus says, "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." Gulp.

A man runs up to Jesus and inquires about the necessary steps to inheriting (interesting word) eternal life. Jesus rehearses for him a short summary of the commandments: no murder, no adultery, no theft, no false witness, no fraud, parental respect. "Teacher," the man replies, "I have kept all these since my youth." And, in the next moment, the whole lesson pivots. Mark tells us that Jesus looks at him and loves him and then says, "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."

In what spirit do you encounter the young man today? Is he earnest, faithful, eagerly seeking the reign of God? Is he braggadocious, prideful, desperately seeking to prove to himself or others that he deserves to inherit God's kingdom? Because he is described as rich and, in Luke's version of the story, as a ruler, it is easy for us to associate negative connotations with the man. "Who could ever claim to have kept all of the commandments?" our Pauline Protestant Christian mindset interjects. But Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Even before we get to Jesus' response, we see love. It's agape love--unconditional, divine love. Jesus isn't impressed (there's a satisfaction for your Pauline disposition), but he is filled with love for the man. He wants to help him. He wants to give him what he seeks. His response won't be an exercise in shame or guilt. Jesus won't use the man to prove a larger point. Jesus wants the man to find eternal life, and that's why the answer he gives is so difficult.

Looking at the man and loving him, Jesus says, "You lack one thing: sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow me." We choose to hear those words as particular and not universal. Jesus isn't telling all of us that everyone needs to sell his or her possessions and give it all way. Some people, like monks and nuns, hear that call and respond to it by taking a vow of poverty, but most of us hear it and think, "I'm glad he wasn't talking to me." There's something about money that leads us to take teachings like this one metaphorically or hyperbolically instead of literally. But the words that follow are directed at a general audience: "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And I think he says those words with the same love in his heart. He's not trying to make us feel guilty for being rich. He's trying to help us get into God's reign, and he knows that it's nearly impossible if we're holding onto our wealth.

It's annual giving season in many churches, which gives the preacher the opportunity to use this text to talk about stewardship. Stewardship is the spiritual practice that teaches us how to enter the kingdom by letting go of our claim on our wealth. It is our response to passages like this one, in which we encounter the challenge of becoming poor. For 95% of the people who go to churches like ours, the thing that most threatens to keep them out of heaven won't be murder, adultery, theft, false witness, fraud, or disrespect for parents. It will be an indissoluble attachment to wealth. I wish preachers and parishioners paid as much attention to this part of Mark 10 as we pay to the part about divorce. We must hear Jesus' words with love in our hearts and a desire to enter the fullness of God's reign in our lives and in the world.

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