October 14, 2012 - The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

20 Pentecost, Year B
Dr. Loren Crow
Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Heb 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

At some churches, when they talk about money (and they will talk about money), they'll tell you that God wants you to be rich, that wealth is reward from God for good behavior. They won't usually come right out and say it, but they really do believe the flip-side of that as well, that poverty is a punishment from God showing divine disfavor. If you're in financial straits, the way to solve it is to give money to the church. Usually they'll quote from Malachi or Joel something to the effect that material prosperity results automatically from supporting their church.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum, where you will hear them talk about the love of money being the root of all evil and therefore that having material wealth is a sign of wickedness. To some people's way of thinking, it's hardly possible even to be a Christian without forsaking money altogether. The only truly Christian life is a monastic life, a life that deliberately chooses poverty and spiritual discipline over wealth. Now I don't want to demean this position: choosing poverty and devoting your life to God and service of others is a high, noble calling, and people who live this way are rightly admired by the rest of us. But, in my opinion, to say that this is the only way to be truly Christian, the only way to follow Jesus, isn't right. We are more than simply economic creatures. We are not simply "consumers." As important as money is, it is not, in and of itself, sufficiently important either to save us or to damn us.

The problem is that each of these extremes is supported by some parts of the Bible. If we're seriously trying to live a Christian life we sometimes fixate on the parts that resonate with us and ignore the parts that don't. Today's gospel reading is one of those that tends to get latched onto, because there it seems like we have a clear teaching from Jesus that the only way to be his follower is to give up all our possessions, that the only way to enter the Kingdom of God is to become poor. But I think this gospel story invites us to consider more broadly the question of what money means and what God expects us to do with it.

First to the Gospel reading. I don't know if you noticed this when the Gospel was read, but there's something very peculiar about this text. Actually, there are quite a few peculiar things about it, but let me draw your attention to one thing. The man asks Jesus what he must do to "inherit eternal life." Jesus responds by naming six commandments, five of which are from The Ten Commandments. But Jesus doesn't quote all ten, and he adds one. I think it's worth paying attention to what he adds and to what he leaves out. Here's the list as Jesus states it:

Do not kill
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Do not defraud
Honor your father and mother

So what does Jesus add? The second-to-last statement, "Do not defraud." And what does Jesus leave out? He leaves out the first four commandments, and the last commandment. Let's see if we can remember them:

You shall have no other gods before me
You shall not make graven images
You shall not abuse the name of the LORD your God
Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy
You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor

I think, myself, that the things Jesus leaves unstated would have resonated all the more strongly in the minds of early Christian readers because they were left unsaid, kind of like what would happen in your mind if I were to say, "All things come of thee, O Lord." If you're familiar with that phrase, then the phrase "And of thine own have we given thee" is already adding a certain tint to what you hear afterwards.

There's another reason to think this is what Jesus is talking about. Because this is exactly what he addresses next. The man -- maybe he's feeling pretty good at this point -- says, "I've done these things since I was a kid." In other words, he's okay on the five things Jesus listed. Jesus, for his part, is impressed: this isn't a bad guy. He's just missing one little piece of the puzzle, and Jesus tells them what it is. Aye, and there's the rub: "Go, sell your stuff and give to the poor."

Now I know what you're thinking: Jesus doesn't actually mean that, or he only means it for this particular guy. The problem is that he then goes on and makes a universal application: it's not just that it's sad that this particular fellow didn't want to follow Jesus more than he wanted his money, it's practically impossible for any rich person to enter the Kingdom.

Mark's original audience knew the Old Testament better than most of us do. When they heard Jesus' response, they couldn't have resisted also remembering the rest of the Ten Commandments: the requirement to worship God alone, the prohibition on idolatry, the prohibition of coveting your neighbor's property, and the commandment to observe the Sabbath. I think the idea is that the man who came to Jesus only claims to have kept the commandments Jesus actually names. Talking about what he lacks, in other words, seems to me to be a way of referring to other four commandments that were left unsaid.

How is selling everything and giving to the poor related to those commandments? The best answer, I think, is the Old Testament idea of Sabbath, which is the last of the commandments Jesus doesn't name. In ancient Israel, everyone understood that the world was created by God and that it was good. From that it made sense that material prosperity was something to be relished, not something to be ashamed of. In some biblical texts, like the book of Proverbs, it is assumed that if you are rich it's because you are pleasing to God. How different is that from our Gospel text! The idea of Sabbath acknowledges both sides of the spectrum: God blesses people with time (which is another way of saying money; time, after all, is money), but also teaches that the use of this time is not simply a matter of personal gain.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that the Israelites were required to rest on the seventh day, the sabbath. Since God rested on the seventh day of creation, Israel was supposed to imitate God by working for six days and then resting on the seventh. But the Sabbath idea goes well beyond that. Not only are Israelites not allowed to work on the seventh day, but they aren't allowed to make anyone else work either, including their slaves. Israelites could "own" slaves (which is another important topic that we can address some other time), but owning them did not mean they could treat them as mere objects. Even though Israelites could "own" slaves, it was really God who owned them; human ownership of God's human beings was a second-order ownership, and to make that fact clear God placed limitations on what Israelites could do with them. The same was true for animals, which had to be given a sabbath rest just as human beings did. Well, you might say, so God cares about people and animals, that seems right. But wait, there's more. It wasn't just humans and animals. Also your field and your vineyard had to be given a Sabbath: one year in seven they were to be left fallow and unharvested. The idea isn't crop rotation so much as it is Sabbath: it is God's world, not ours, and God has built into the world a cycle of work and rest that we have to honor. That's what the commandment says, Honor the Sabbath.

So the Old Testament idea of Sabbath asserts that God owns the whole world, and that any claims of ownership we might make are at most strongly limited. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in particular, go on to articulate another extension of the Sabbath idea. It's not only about human and animal work, it's also about economics. God is the creator and owner of everything, and more particularly God is the owner of all the land. When Israel first crossed over the Jordan to possess the land, the land was divided by lot -- essentially a kind of lottery for the fair distribution of the land. The whole land was given to the whole people of Israel, but as a practical matter some individual families had to be entrusted with particular plots. This wasn't because God liked those families better (which is the point of having the decision made by lottery) or because they deserved it. It was simply a matter of logistics. 

The land God gave to the Israelite families was to belong to those families forever. It could be bought and sold, but after 49 years (a sabbath of sabbaths) it reverted to the families to whom God gave it. That fiftieth year was called the Year of Jubilee. Why? Because humans were not the ultimate owners of the land; God was. And consequently, the "owners" of the land could not do with it as they pleased, but only what God allowed.

Now some families got beautiful, fertile pieces of land filled with vineyards and olive orchards and fig trees and lots of water. Other families got barren desert. In between the two, most Israelites had plots of land that would produce bountiful crops about one year in three. You can imagine that sometimes they had to borrow money to be able to plant the next year's crops. Now suppose old Menahem, whose fields always seem to do well, has a neighbor who lacks adequate water and comes to him for a loan after a particularly bad year. The Sabbath idea tells Menahem that God is the true owner of the land and that therefore his neighbor is entitled to a loan. But Menahem thinks to himself, "He might not be able to pay it back before the Jubilee year!" What do you think? Should he make the loan? Here's what the book of Deuteronomy says on the subject:

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, 'The seventh year, the year of release is near,' and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land. (Deut 15:7-12)

The point being made, in Deuteronomy and so many other places in the Bible, is this: God gives the gift of the land to all of Israel. Likewise, God gives the gift of money to us, not for our personal benefit only, but for the good of our neighbors as well. This isn't a political point. I don't think it matters much to God whether we take care of our neighbors by means of private donations or by means of governmental programs. What God cares about is the people themselves: are they well? Do they flourish? Our attitude must be one that imitates God's attitude: we must share the bounty God has given us, because that's the whole purpose of our being given bounty in the first place.

The Gospel story shows us a crucial aspect of what it means to follow Jesus. Following Jesus cannot be just a matter of going to church or reading the Bible or believing Christian doctrine. It includes our attitudes toward one another as well. If we really believe, as we say we do, that God Almighty is the Creator of heaven and earth, if we really believe God created everyone, and if we really believe that every good thing comes from God, then it follows that the good things we possess, our time and our treasure, must be shared freely and without reservation with our neighbors. We must relinquish our claim to everything we think we own and open our hand to others. In doing so we're imitating the God whose extravagance gives us everything we have. That is what is means to follow Jesus, to imitate the God who sent him. Our lives are a gift from God, our wealth is a gift from God, our world is a gift from God. And gifts are for sharing.