October 11, 2015 Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Mark 10:17-31
If you’ve been listening closely to the readings chosen for today, it seems as if they have given us all the ingredients for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, no matter which way you cut it. First we have Job, who is once again trying to explain to his friends that the horrible predicament he’s in is not his fault. He can’t even find God to ask the burning question of, “Why me?” and it frightens him. Following that is the Psalmist’s plaintive cry that she or he is in big trouble and there is no one to help. And THEN, to top it all off, we have the story of a rich young man who can’t deal with Jesus’ instructions to go and sell all his possessions and donate the proceeds to the poor. It is not what he expected in return for his piety. The shock of hearing that he hasn’t been doing things right all along all leaves him unable to do anything other than leave in tears. For better or for worse, he is the only one who has any ability to fix it.
Just like many of us at times, this young man can’t quite come to grips with the idea of giving up his many possessions. It isn’t the stuff itself so much as it is his attitude towards it. Just as it was with Job, it is all too easy to think that his material wealth is a tangible sign of God’s blessing, regardless of what he’s done with it. Also like most of us, this young man is faithful, at least when it comes to his obedience to the Law. Keeping all the commandments is an essential piece to maintaining his relationship with God. It’s just the right way to live – and, it definitely has its rewards, as evidenced by his status as one of society’s elites.
These two things, material wealth and slavish obedience to the Law, are the only things which seem to matter to this young man, and to so many of the other people who approach Jesus. It could not have been easy for them to hear that a great deal of what they took for granted wasn’t quite right. However, Jesus NEVER tells his questioners not to follow the rules. He simply wants them to remember that those rules are rooted in the need for connection with one’s fellow human beings. It’s in this area that the rich young man has gone off the rails a bit. Jesus’ instruction to him to sell everything he owns is intended to force him to pay attention to those outside his immediate sphere of influence. He can only get access to that region beyond if he isn’t burdened by the many possessions he has. The implications of Jesus’ words are clear: sharing in the hardships and need of one’s fellow human beings is a requirement for life in the Kingdom.1 Or, as St. Paul would later remind the Christian community to whom he addressed his Letter to Galatians, the Law doesn’t matter nearly as much as their faith in Christ. At the end of a long rant about slavish obedience to the Law, he writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14, NRSV)
Love of neighbor is precisely where the rich young man has come up short. His wealth is NOT the problem in and of itself. Jesus never says it is. However, what Jesus DOES point out is the huge burden brought on by the young man’s apparent failure to use that wealth to benefit his neighbors who don’t have as much as he does. Changing his behavior requires giving something up, something he clearly values greatly. It means prioritizing people and relationships over both his stuff and his social status. No, it’s not an easy thing to do – not for the rich young man, and not for us now.
However you define it, privilege still has a tendency to blind us to the needs of the people around us. I experienced quite a bit of this during my time in Pennsylvania. While our church was nestled among the lovely Victorian homes in the historic district of downtown Bethlehem, and had been for well over a century, the people who came through our doors on most days were decidedly not the sorts who might live in one of those houses. You see, the church hosts a feeding program five days a week. It was started in the early 1980s by a group of parishioners who simply could not ignore the cold and hungry people they often saw hanging out on the street corner just two blocks away. In the intervening years, it has grown from a team of three serving soup on the tailgate of a station wagon to a restaurant-like operation which serves an average of 150 lunches per day.
As you can probably imagine, many of the neighbors who live in the historic homes are not too happy to have “those people” lined up on the sidewalk outside the church every day – and, they don’t hesitate to let the staff know about it. The loudest complainer I encountered was the owner of a bed and breakfast at the end of our block. One day, when I was the only clergy person in the building to supervise lunch, he angrily marched himself right down the street and started yelling at some of the guests who were waiting in line. I went outside to check out the commotion, and immediately became the target for this man’s anger. “I think one of them,” he spat, “relieved himself in my yard. If I point him out to you, you’re going to call the cops for me. You have to control these people, because they’re homeless and they’re ruining our neighborhood.” He was not at all interested in my explanation to the effect that all we could do is put the word out to our guests as to what had happened and that calling the police was actually the innkeeper’s responsibility. Nor was he interested in actually TALKING with the guys milling around and smoking on the sidewalk in front of the church. If he had, he would have found they were mostly harmless, though mostly down on their luck for one reason or another. Sadly, the innkeeper’s desire to protect his property only served to short-circuit any possibility of being in relationship with the church or the people it serves. And so he stomped off down the block, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Just as it is with the rich young man, the innkeeper’s privileged position in the neighborhood is not really the issue. What is, is how that privilege is used. The question we should be asking where it’s concerned is this: is it something we hoard only for ourselves, or do we share it with another person who doesn’t have as much?
This need to share points to how our faith requires us to take action. That is, all of those rules we learn in Sunday School are more than just something we are to spout back at our teachers on demand. This is exactly the point Jesus is trying to make: if, for whatever reason, we aren’t able to act on the two greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbors, it makes it that much harder for the Kingdom of God to take root and grow. It seems like a lot to ask at times, especially when it requires us to be deliberate about maintaining relationships with people we might not otherwise even consider talking to.
However, Jesus is asking no more of the rich young man, and all of us, than was being asked of himself in that moment.2 That request is simply to pour out a little of who we are on someone else’s behalf. It will probably not, for most of us, mean the sacrifice of our lives on a cross. What it might involve are things along the lines of sharing our resources with those who don’t have them; or actively promoting and encouraging the leadership of people who don’t traditionally occupy those positions; or perhaps, as many people in our diocese are doing now, trying to understand more fully how their ancestors may have been involved in or benefited from in the slave trade. All of these intimately involve connection with others, which is what the rich young man, the innkeeper in Bethlehem, and I would suspect all of us, to some degree, are missing. Making and maintaining these connections is just the beginning. As Jesus tells Peter, the rewards will be great: a hundredfold now, and in the age to come, eternal life.