Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Let's Stop Apologizing for the Rich Man

My apologies for the lack of posting this week--I was attending (and presenting twice at) the Turner Lecture series that my region puts on every year in Yakima, Washington.  I had thought at the time I might still have the time to be able to write here as I usually do, and I was mistaken.  I did not preach on Sunday because this week I am in the Seattle area for another round of doctoral classes, so there was no sermon for me to post this Sunday.  I am back writing for you, though, and I'll leave this here as I head off for class for the day... ~E.A.

As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?” 18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19 You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”  20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Mark 10:17-22 (CEB)

Sitting some distance down the road from my apartment there is a very large Roman Catholic parish, with a unique blend of modern and classic architecture that reflects the blend of contemporary and traditional elements of its liturgy.  Despite the size of the sanctuary, it can be standing room only if you arrive late, so packed the pews are on Sundays.

I attended Mass there this past Sunday en route to my time this week in another session of intensive classes for my coursework at a Roman Catholic (Jesuit) seminary.  The priest's homily was on the story above from Mark 10, as part of the lectionary (assigned set of readings for a week) that this year, is going through the Gospel of Mark.

The sermon was great in many respects--the priest acknowledged the radicalness of what Jesus was really saying, that what was being said here is meant to discomfort us and that it should discomfort us, even if we do not think of ourselves as wealthy by American standards, because by global standards, most of us absolutely are materially rich.

But then something else stuck with me--the repeated reference in his message to this man as "sincere."

Except that sincerity is never actually mentioned in the story.  Re-read it again.  The man is not referred to as sincere, or eager, or earnest.  The closest we get to his sincerity is that he knelt before Jesus and referred to Him as good, something that Jesus rebukes him for.

But the Pharisees, scribes, and temple leaders who opposed Jesus also referred to Him as "Teacher" (Mark 12:14, 19).  And one legal expert who did not oppose Jesus similarly referred to Him as "Teacher" (Mark 12:32).  Put simply, both opponents and allies of Jesus refer to Him as "Teacher."

Yes, there is the addition of kneeling.  And that gesture of genuflection may well have been genuine.  But when Jesus is identified by his betrayer with a kiss, can we at least acknowledge that a gesture is not necessarily genuine on spec?

I'm not saying the rich man who came to Jesus here in Mark 10 must have been in the same league as the Pharisees and scribes and temple leaders who opposed Jesus in Jerusalem, I'm just saying there may not be enough evidence to conclusively say he was genuine in his inquiry here either.

But our default is to think that he was.  We want him to be, we need him to be, because in our 21st century capitalist, plutocratic way thinking, this man could not possibly be jaded or less virtuous simply because he was rich, despite what Jesus proceeds to say immediately after the man leaves Him: “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

None of that jibes with our celebration of prosperity and adherence to prosperity theology--the belief that God wants us to be wealthy.  According to fellow (but much more prominent) Disciple blogger Christian Piatt, of the 250 largest churches in the United States, 60-some are explicitly proponents of prosperity theology, flying right in the face of stories like these.

But even outside the realm of prosperity theology, we try to negate the true import and impact of this story.  I hear Christians all the time minimize Jesus's command to the young man to sell all he owned and give the proceeds to the poor by saying, "That was a private command, to one person, which means we don't have to follow it."  Despite what Jesus says immediately afterwards.  And despite the reality of minimizing the scope and scale of a teaching by someone we purport to be our Lord, Savior, and Messiah.

If Jesus truly is all of those things to us, I don't see how we can possibly minimize His words, much as we may want to.  That desire to do so is a temptation, just like the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness at the hands of Satan, and we are called to resist this temptation just as Jesus resisted His temptation, for Satan tempted Jesus by misinterpreting Scripture to Him.

As difficult as it is to hear, when we misinterpret Scripture, we are doing as the devil did to Jesus.  Which means we absolutely cannot minimize what is happening here by trying to take the side of the rich man by portraying him in such a sympathetic light in the face of this unyielding, rigid teacher of a Messiah.  We cannot afford to try to add virtue to this man with no grounds for doing so, because this man, with all his wealth and splendor, could not afford to add virtue to himself either.  We do not get to do that job for him, or is it our business to even try to do so.

None of this should be taken as a vehement criticism of a colleague in particular--as I said, I appreciated almost all of the rest of his sermon.  I'm not trying to call him out, I'm trying to call out this tendency that so many of us are wont to follow: the tendency to add virtue to someone by dint of them being wealthy.

That is a privilege, that is privilege, and is not one that the rich man demonstrated he deserved.  His insincerity, no matter his gestures and references to Jesus as "Teacher," was demonstrated in full by his unwillingness to part with his possessions, his unwillingness to follow Jesus, and his sadness at learning that the kingdom of Heaven cannot in fact be bought and paid for.

The priest made one other point that I resonated with--that we are all the rich man, by way of our own wealth relative to the rest of the world.  He was exactly right in saying that.

We ought to be saddened that the kingdom of God is made much more difficult for us to reach because of our own material richness.

But unlike the rich man, we ought not, cannot, and should not ever walk away as a result of having heard what he--and we--have just heard.

I know that our sincerity is deeper than that.  I know it.  And I have faith that it will lead us even further, in new and amazing ways, to the One who is God of you and me alike.

Federal Way, Washington
October 13, 2015

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