Sunday, October 11, 2009

Divine Economics

Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 23) – Year B (RCL)
Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Sunday, October 11, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

Let’s be honest. How many of us got just a little uncomfortable when we heard the Gospel lesson read just now? Well, maybe we should feel uncomfortable when we hear such words. If we feel uncomfortable, maybe there’s a reason for it. Because in addressing the rich man, Jesus is addressing us.

And if you didn’t feel a little uncomfortable, how many found yourselves thinking, “well, that doesn’t really apply to me. Jesus was talking about being wealthy, and I’m certainly not wealthy”? Guess again. The reality is that among the roughly 6.7 billion people on the planet, we are the wealthy. The median household income in Redlands is just over $58,000 per year. Someone with that income level is in the top 1.6 percent of the world’s population. Over 98 percent of the people on Earth earn less money than is earned in the average Redlands household. Even if you used the city’s per capita income figure of just over $24,200 per year, that would still put the average Redlands resident in the wealthiest 8.5 percent of the world’s population.

Pretty sobering when you stop to think about it. So what does this mean for us? What do we do with Jesus’ injunction to the rich that they need to sell what they have in order to follow him and to obtain eternal life? To answer that, we need to put the whole subject of wealth into its proper context.

The subject of wealth and the proper use of money is a common theme in the Bible – both in the Old and New Testaments. Our Old Testament lesson from the Book of Amos has some particularly harsh things to say about the use of wealth. This passage specifically deals with the treatment of the poor. At this point in Israel’s history, the rich have gotten richer by acquiring land from the poor in less than ethical ways, thereby depriving them of their means of livelihood. Amos’ prophecy is a not so subtle reminder to the people that not only is exploitation of the poor a grave sin, but so is the people’s complacency in allowing it to happen. Now, I seriously doubt any of us could be accused of making our livelihood through exploitation of the poor. I’m sure someone could try to make that argument, but no, we are not out there purposefully depriving the poor for our own gain.

But that does not let us off the hook. Jesus has a little more to say on the matter in today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, which explores the subject of wealth from several angles. To really help us understand what is going on here, we need to jump into the middle of the story, where Jesus is talking to the disciples, who are perplexed by what he has just told the rich man. You see, there is a fundamental misunderstanding between Jesus and his disciples about the nature of wealth. Jesus sees wealth as having an exploitative aspect, not unlike the prophesies of Amos. The disciples, on the other hand, see wealth as a blessing, the fruits of righteousness. Now in all fairness, this was the common notion of the day.

In that day and age, scholars studied the scriptures to figure out what they needed to do to gain God’s favor. They believed that life was a filled with blessings and curses. Do the right things, and you would gain blessings and avoid being cursed. Of course, everyone wanted to be blessed, and they believed that God’s blessing was manifest in material ways, through wealth. So, rather than sit idly by and trust that God would bless them, people attempted to dissect God’s covenant promises to find ways to get ahead. If you succeeded, so they thought, you were blessed. If you were down on your luck, hit a rough patch, you were cursed. Everyone knew this was how the system worked – the disciples, and the rich man. That’s why he came to Jesus, to try to get a new angle on the system. But Jesus had news for both the disciples and the rich man. That’s not how things really work in the kingdom of God. It’s not a patronage system.

But Jesus was not only concerned with wealth, but also the general view of salvation. When the rich man comes to Jesus with concern for his own salvation, Jesus immediately turns attention away from this concern to the concern for others. This raises not only questions about wealth but also questions about the rich man’s, and our, attitudes toward salvation. The connection between the two may not be readily apparent to us, but remember that under the prevailing notion of the day, there was a direct connection between wealth and salvation. According to this understanding, if a person was blessed, as signified by wealth, that person must also be assured of salvation, or at least have easy access to it, right? That’s what people of that day thought. And there are still people in our own day who hold this notion.

Yes, there is a connection between wealth and salvation, but not necessarily in the way one might think. We have all heard sermons about how money is not bad in and of itself – it’s how you use it that really matters. And I would have to agree. But the part that is not explored quite as often is the general attitude about money – what money can do for us. I think that what Jesus was decrying in his challenge to the rich man, and in his challenge to us, is how we view money. Jesus saw that money so often becomes a substitute for God. We are tempted to trust more in our financial resources than we trust in God. We are tempted to rely more on our ability to earn money, through our work and through our investments, than we rely on God. We are more concerned about the standing of our portfolios than about where we stand with God. Our secular society tells us that money is the source of our security and comfort, not God. Wealth becomes the source of our salvation, not God.

The irony is that our modern economic system was supposed to be the corrective to love and worship of wealth over and against the love and worship of God. “Sociologist Max Weber wrote that Christianity – particularly Protestant Calvinism – gave rise to modern capitalism because, among other things, it motivated Europeans to restrain their immediate desires and save money, thus creating the capital necessary for investment and economic growth. This worldly asceticism combined the discipline of people who could delay gratification for the hope of something better with the social vision of a world redeemed by its Creator. The Protestant ethic made it possible for people to put their treasure where they wanted their heart to be” (Wilson-Hartgrove, 23). While the motives were not completely altruistic, there was certainly an element that was geared toward making money not for self but to provide for the needs of others and to help further God’s work here on earth. But somewhere along the line, the experiment went awry. The focus shifted from wealth as a means to further God’s kingdom to obtaining wealth as a means of personal salvation. We stepped backward from Jesus’ understanding of wealth to the rich man’s understanding.

In this respect, Jesus’ message to the rich man is also a message to us. As one commentator noted, wealth is not a sin. It is more of a weakness – a captivity to possessions that prevent the rich man, and us, from living into the full life of the kingdom of God. It is a temptation to rely on something transient for our salvation, as opposed to relying on the one true thing that can insure our salvation – God’s unlimited grace.

Does that mean that in order to get back on track we need to do as Jesus told the rich man, to sell everything and give it to the poor, in order to truly be his followers? No. That might be the ideal. That might actually work for some people. Some people do manage to do this. Some people feel called to do this. Those who are called to monastic life must give up all their possessions. But for most of us who are not called to such a life that would not be prudent. Quite frankly, giving away everything we have would not be good stewardship. How would we survive? How would we take care of our families? In our society, giving away everything would merely be contributing to the problem. It would land us on the streets, hungry and homeless, in need of assistance from others, adding to the burden already placed on our over-taxed relief agencies and aid organizations.

So the good news is, we get to keep what we have. But that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. Because the other part of Jesus message, in turning attention from the rich man’s concern for his own salvation to concern for the needs of others, is that we have a responsibility. If our primary concern is for our own salvation, we have missed the point of both faith and works. The point is not to focus on our own salvation, but to focus on God and on our neighbors, on those in need of our help. And in our society, that, of necessity, means being concerned with our wealth. More specifically, with how we view our wealth, with how we use our wealth. This means we are called to educate ourselves and to be examples of what it means to be good stewards of the wealth we do have, so that we may be better able to work not for our own purposes, but for God’s purposes – to help the poor, the widows, the orphans, the homeless, the hungry – the least of these among God’s beloved children, those who are our neighbors, our brothers and sisters.

This is what the youth of this parish are doing. Our senior high students are currently engaged in study of the economics of poverty. They are learning what it means for those who do not have the wealth they all take for granted. They are learning what those who must do without need to do merely to survive. They are learning how little help is truly available, and of that which is available, how frustrating it can be to locate needed assistance and how demeaning it can be to have to ask for help, to fight for limited resources, just to do something as basic as feed their children and put a roof over their heads. Our youth are learning what the basic needs are for mere survival, and how this truly compares with what they have. They are learning how truly fortunate they are and how they have more riches than they really need. By beginning to understand their own wealth in relation to the needs of others, they will be in a better position, as they grow into adulthood, to assess what their wealth truly means to them and to discern how they might use their own resources for not only their own but also for God’s purposes.

Maybe we can take a cue from our young people and begin to evaluate our own relationship with our financial resources. Rather than being like the rich man and asking what we can do to inherit the kingdom of God, maybe we can be a little more proactive, and use some of our riches not for our own salvation, but for the salvation of others – to help make the kingdom of God a reality here and now.

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

Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. “Economics for Disciples.” Christian Century, September 8, 2009, 22-27.

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