Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Rich Young Ruler and Listening for the Heartbeat of God

Proper 23 – Year B
Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Psalm 90:1-8,12; Hebrews 3:1-6; Mark 10:17-27(28-31)
Sunday, October 15, 2006 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Now you have to admit, as we start our annual stewardship campaign, today’s Gospel lesson is pretty scary. How would you like to have Jesus as the chair of your stewardship committee? Imagine that stewardship talk.

“Do I have to pledge to be a member of the parish?”

“Of course you do.”

“Well, how much should I pledge?”

“You know the guidelines.”

“So I should do proportional giving?”

“Sorry, not enough.”

“Okay, so I have to tithe to be a member?”

“Nope. Still not good enough.”

“Well then, what do I have to pledge to be a member?”

“Everything. You have to give all your money to the church. Oh, and you have to sell all your possessions and give that money to the church, too. If you do that, then we’ll talk about your membership status.”

If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, the vast majority of us would go running for the door. The pews would be empty, or at least, pretty nearly so. Come Monday morning, the rector would have received so many calls she would have no choice but to call a special vestry meeting to figure out what to do about the situation.

The reality is that in contemporary American society, people cannot readily survive without money and possessions. Our society and its institutions just aren’t set-up or equipped to deal with that way of life. Even our ecclesiastical institutions, our parishes, diocese, the Episcopal Church, or the entirety of Christianity, are not equipped to deal with that way of life – with a constituency comprised entirely of people without financial means or material possessions, of a constituency totally reliant upon society or the Church for their support. This is most vividly evidenced by the lack of success of our nation’s welfare system, and of the lack of sufficient resources available to care for the needy in our midst – the hungry, the homeless, and those without access to basic human services.

Yes, the demands that Jesus places on his disciples and the demand he places on the rich young ruler to give up everything to follow him may be the Gospel ideal. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if our society, if our religious institutions, were able to provided for all the needs of all the people? Personally, I would love to not have to worry about having enough money to pay the bills, or provide maintenance and upkeep on my possessions. Sure, there are small pockets within the Church where this is possible. There are monastic communities where the men or women living in them have given up all their possessions and all their money to serve God. And in return, they are provided with what they need for a reasonably comfortable life. But such communities are the exception, not the rule – they are the exception to our societal norms, because they follow the rule of the Gospel.

But the fact remains, we have this difficult, if not troublesome, passage from Mark’s Gospel. “Jesus’ sayings on the difficulty in entering the reign of God is repeated twice for emphasis. We cannot ‘read around’ it; it is not a minor point in the passage, but at its heart” (Hanson, 21). So, let’s take a look at what this means, and then we can start to figure out what to do about it – we can start to figure out our response so that we may remain true and faithful to the Gospel and living as Jesus commands us.

First, let me say that if we are astonished by the demands made by Jesus, and the seriousness with which he seems to make them, we are not alone. According to Mark, Jesus’ “exclamation that it is difficult for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God” also astonishes the disciples, “presumably because they, like many of their contemporaries, saw wealth as an indication of God’s pleasure” (Hooker, 242). The understanding of the day was that God granted wealth and power to some people and that these people would use those gifts for the service and betterment of society. Even today, this perspective continues to be prevalent among many who have wealth and power. So, for Jesus to make statements condemning wealth and demanding that people give up all they have was a radical indictment against prevailing social constructs. His statements and demands floored everyone, including his closest followers and companions.

In explaining the meaning of Jesus’ demands, Biblical Studies scholar K. C. Hanson frames the argument in terms of the economic institutions of the day – the patronage conferred by the wealthy and powerful upon those of lower social and economic status. Hanson writes, “Put in terms of patronage, the wealthy tend to see themselves as self-sufficient. Jesus’ call to discipleship entails a commitment and loyalty to God, his patronage (the kingdom), his broker (Jesus), and the community of his other clients (Jesus’ followers). The wealthy have their own clients, estate obligations, and complex business arrangements. The time, energy, and commitment that Jesus is calling for is precluded by the life-style of the wealthy” (Hanson, 22). While the terms may be slightly different, the concept continues to apply today. And while many of us would not consider ourselves wealthy or powerful by contemporary standards, the principles nonetheless apply to us. Compared to the rest of the world, we are the wealthy and the powerful. The bottom line for contemporary society, according to Hanson, is that “one thing is clear from the Gospels: Jesus did not try to cover up the consequences of discipleship. Following him means calling our commitments and loyalties into question, both in terms of our values and of the institutions to which we align ourselves. He does not call us to be more ‘pious,’ but more loyal” (Hanson, 23). Jesus’ demands are not related to “asceticism, but to commitment and loyalty over against self-sufficiency” (Hanson, 21).

New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins shifts the perspective ever so slightly, noting that “the story of the rich man who turns down the invitation to discipleship illustrates the fact that desire for wealth can stifle the seed sown by the Word” (Perkins, 648). The complexity of dealing with wealth and possessions occupies our time and energy and keeps us from focusing on what the Gospel commands of us. Perkins goes on to relate the situation to contemporary Christians, regardless of social or economic status. She asserts that “Resisting the pressures of a consumer culture, which generates perpetual needs for more and new possessions, is difficult for many Christians today. Our excess consumption may deprive others of resources they need just to survive. It is a hidden form of structural greed that wastes the world’s resources and creates suffering for others we may never meet” (Perkins, 649). But despite this indictment against all of us in twenty-first century American culture, Perkins offers a glimmer of hope. She points out that today’s Gospel lesson “provides an important example of how the apparent impossibility of renouncing all things to follow Jesus can be both possible and even rewarding. The key lies in Christianity as a new community, the ‘family’ gathered around Jesus” (Perkins, 651).

How do we avert the dire consequences implied in Jesus’ discussion on wealth and obtain the rewards that he alludes to at the end of the Gospel passage? If we answer that, we are well on our way to addressing the issue of stewardship. After all, stewardship is about more than just money. It’s about our entire relationship with and use of everything God has given us: money, material possessions, time, our gifts and talents, and our entire selves – body, mind, and spirit.

This past week, I attended the Fall Clergy Conference in Solvang. While actually a misnomer, the event was not so much intended to be a conference as a retreat. The primary purpose of the event is to bring clergy together from all over the Diocese for fellowship, to reconnect with one another, and to provide a time of rest and relaxation. In addition, there is some content built into the event. The focus of this clergy conference was on spiritual self-care, on exploring ways of connecting with God, on the theme of listening for the heartbeat of God.

Monday morning, the first full day of the conference, was absolutely wonderful. After morning prayer, we had a brief program to help set the tone for the day. Melissa McCarthy, a priest in the Diocese, a former dancer, and a dear friend, led us in an experience involving breathing exercises and body movement. Done in a very safe and non-threatening way, the experience was designed to help us to be present to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives at that moment and to help us listen for the heartbeat of God.

After the breathing and movement exercise, I decided that I would take a long walk into the countryside. I set off with no preconceived agenda about what I would do or what I would think about. I just wanted to walk and allow myself to be open to the promptings of the Spirit. At first, I had no particularly profound thoughts. I was just enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside and being in the beauty of God’s creation. After awhile, I discovered that my thoughts turned to the exercise that guided me to hear the heartbeat of God in the midst of an otherwise crazy period. Guided by the Spirit, my mind started making connections to the sense of being in community and the importance of community to us as a people of faith; and to the importance of listening for and actually hearing the heartbeat of God, both as individuals and as a community. I began to realize, through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the connection between that morning’s activities and the message that Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel lesson.

When Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he must sell all that he owns, give the money to the poor, and to follow him, he is telling the young man that he must listen for the heartbeat of God. Jesus recognizes that all the hub-bub of every day life, all the frenetic activity that life demands of us, our concern over money and the material things in life, only serve to get in the way of hearing what God is saying to us – they distract us from hearing the heartbeat of God. Only by clearing our minds and our lives of all those concerns will we be free to sit and listen for and to the heartbeat of God. And when we are able to do that, we will be able to hear and understand what is of greatest concern to God. We will begin to realize what it is that we must do to live in harmony with God’s desires.

If we listen to the heartbeat of God, we will hear God calling us to engage in the work of creating equality for all God’s beloved children. We will begin to recognize how out of whack our society is in the work of inclusivity and social justice. We will begin to recognize that “the price society pays for a few to be wealthy” results in many who are poor. We will begin to recognize how seriously God, as revealed in Scripture “take[s] the challenge to do economic and social justice” (Gottwald, 13). By attending to the heartbeat of God, we will see that we are all God’s children, rich and poor, powerful and weak.

The message of today’s Gospel lesson is specifically intended for us, the wealthy and powerful of the world. It is a call to action. It is a call to stewardship. In this lesson, we are the rich young ruler who is called by God to be stewards of all creation, to care for all of creation. The most precious resource in all of creation is humanity, which is made in God’s image. For God, that means leveling the playing field so that all may be equal, not only in God’s eyes, but in the eyes of one another. We can only come to that realization through stripping ourselves of all that distracts us and listening to the heartbeat of God, which cries out for justice. The Church, as the physical Body of Christ in a broken world, is the instrument by which justice for the poor and the oppressed can be achieved. By giving of ourselves to the Church, through our financial resources, as well as our time and our talents and gifts, we strengthen the Church to do the work that God, through Jesus, has called us into – to care for our fellow human beings, God’s children.

Does that mean giving up everything we have? I don’t think so. In our contemporary society that is not feasible. But today’s Gospel does call us to take a long hard look at how we use our resources. It means loosening our attachment to the material, reducing our obsession with our own agendas and self-concerns, and diverting our attention to those things that are of concern to God – to listening to the heartbeat of God and acting in concert with what we hear by using our resources – all our resources – to not merely give lip service to proclaiming the Kingdom of God, but to work toward really making it happen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Hanson, K.C. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Hooker, Morna D. The Gospel According to Mark. In Black’s New Testament Commentaries series. London: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Lagerquist-Gottwald, Laura and Norman K. Gottwald. Proclamation 6: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Perkins, Pheme. “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. VIII of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

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