Kristin Leigh Grassel
Scripture: Mark 10:17-31, 19th Sunday after Pentecost
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."
As the church year gears up into full swing, Unitarian Universalist churches and other faith communities all across the country are beginning to explore the many stewardship programs available to help give structure and focus to their annual fundraising canvas. You may even have volunteered (or been volunteered!) to serve on your congregation’s Stewardship Committee this year. Conventional wisdom maintains that the most authentic expression of our faith as Unitarian Universalists is to be good stewards of our resources, giving generously of our bounty out of a sense of gratitude for the Source from whence those resources have been given to us. While the misuse or hoarding of wealth is criticized and discouraged, society seems to view wealth itself in neutral terms.
This Sunday’s lectionary reading seems to say quite the opposite. This story is one of many instances in which Jesus calls his followers to give up their wealth, their status, or their privilege, in order to follow him in living an existence on the margins. This lectionary reading seems to insist that wealth is neither neutral nor positive, but rather a force that carries with it obligation and peril.
“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."
Despite popular sentiment that wealth offers greater freedom, all possessions impose responsibility and liability. With each object we acquire comes a new set of anxieties, worries about our possessions. With the purchase of a house come worries about upkeep and increasing land taxes. The purchase of a car necessitates the subsequent purchase of insurance, tags, and repairs. Many families in this country live in their own houses and drive their own cars because it is ‘easier’ and more ‘comfortable’ than sharing living space and transportation with another family. Yet, many families do not actually need spacious single-family homes, and many others could share cars or vans with their neighbors and free up resources that could be used to help others in need. In this country, as in many others, our living habits reflect our values of privacy and independence over our values of generosity and community prosperity. In this way, the effort it takes acquire and then keep these possessions, and the values that inspire us to do so, in fact limit our freedom.
Wealth, and the seeming comfort it imparts, separates us from those who are in need and fools us into believing that we have greater control over our lives than they do over theirs. When we acquire a savings account, IRA, pension plan, or credit card, it feels like an exterior sign of the faith we have in ourselves to manage our money and our lives, and we are proud that we have taken another step on the road toward financial responsibility and stability. But as the current economic crisis has revealed, we actually put our faith in other people, people we don’t know and can’t develop a relationship with, when we open a savings account, IRA, pension plan, or credit card. These forms of growing wealth can be very dangerous because they fool us into believing we have more control than we do, and they separate us from the many people whose decisions affect our prosperity.
It is sadly ironic that politicians all over this country raised the banner of injustice when the national unemployment rate reached 8%, and yet the many reservations on which the surviving indigenous peoples of this land struggle to survive have suffered from unemployment rates surpassing 75% for decades. This seems to reflect that we as a nation value the appearance of financial equity, as long as poverty does not affect us directly.
"Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house… for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age… and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
We are called to be good stewards, to use our wealth for the benefit of others and not ourselves, but this is harder than it sounds. “Does that beggar really need my change?” we ask. “Why doesn’t she sacrifice her cable TV if she wants health insurance?” we wonder. “He should go get a job,” we chastise. Many of us donate hefty sums to charities, for the relief of suffering for the poor. But Jesus calls the wealthy man to sell his possessions and follow him, in essence calling the wealthy man not to make donations for the poor, but to take his place among the poor.
To give up our wealth, status, and privilege is to live in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. We may lose our house, our car, our status, our privilege, but we gain brothers and sisters in the common struggle for justice. In this way, we can make our lives a continual living sacrifice, out of love for God and our fellow human beings, in the faith that through our sacrifice the Lord of Love will make manifest on earth the community of God as it is in heaven.
"For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
There is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life; it is a gift freely given to all of us. We cannot exchange acts of charity or self-sacrifice for this blessing because it is imparted to us outside the influence of human agency. And yet by giving our lives to God in living sacrifice we can cooperate with God; we can gain not only human brothers and sisters in the struggle but gain a Father and Mother in God in our shared labor toward the deepest holy desire that all creation be reconciled to itself and its Source. In spite of the insidiousness of wealth and the intoxicating allure of privilege, God’s desire for shalom, wholeness, equity on earth will be made manifest, for God’s love is greater than all else.
Thanks be to God. Amen.