When the lectionary texts turn each fall, as regular as the turning of the leaves, towards themes of wealth and poverty, and of being generous with one’s assets, I am reminded that in most churches in the land we have entered Pledge Season. It’s time to make budgets for the year, and that means that congregations need to know how much money they have to work with, and that means they need to get promises from every member as to how much money they plan to give. Homilies during this holy time have been given the nickname, “The Sermon on the Amount.” We don’t need to do this at the Princeton University Chapel – Princetonians of faith have been so generous as to fund the running of this place, and to make it possible for us to collect money each Sunday solely to give away to people in challenging circumstances. How wonderful! So we don’t need to hear our pointed texts as a summons to give money to our church, we are in the less comfortable position of being able to hear them simply for what they say always. From Amos: God will punish those who distort the processes of justice and arbitration and taxation in order to enrich themselves. God will punish those who push around the poor, take what little they have away from them saying they owe it to you anyway, who take bribes and use their power to benefit those who say they will keep them in power as long as they keep the kickbacks coming, and who shove the poor and the powerless out of their way in the streets. What an indictment of the greedy and grasping in every age and society, right down to our own - manipulating the political and taxation systems to benefit themselves, proclaiming that the poor owe money to the rich and are undeserving of anything they have, while believing that the wealthy are divinely entitled to all that they have, and responsible to no one else. If only we were simply talking about the costs of Sunday nursery care.
And then there is our passage from Mark: sell everything you own, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Christ. How hard it is for the wealthy and for all to enter the Kingdom of God. To follow Christ now is to be met with persecutions. Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. If only we were talking about paving the church parking lot.
These texts are invitations to healing, to repentance from whatever are the stumbling blocks that separate us from God and involve us in sin. They are an invitation to wholeness, to parting ways with greed, disregard, uncaring, consumption with status, consumption with consumption. Central to each text is our commitment to the people to whom we feel no obvious obligation, as we do feel towards our family, our good friends, and the people we would think of in any particular circumstance as our community. The Prophet Amos notes that the whole community suffers God’s judgments, while it is the rulers and nobility who actually make decisions on going to war and regulating taxes. Jesus says in Mark’s gospel that following his law is not a matter of what we do for and through ourselves but for others. A wonderful young man presents himself to Christ and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It turns out that he has kept every law related to being a good and devout person. Everything that he could do to cultivate honor and faith and integrity within himself he has done. But his stumbling block to eternal life is that he hasn’t yet lived for others. He happens to have many possessions, and they could become such blessings for others if he were to sell them and give the proceeds to the poor. But this has never occurred to him. He has been very busy being very good. He has been so pre-occupied with being a good person, so focused on his own relationship with God, that he has forgotten his relatedness to others. Following Christ’s law turns out to be centered not on what you do for yourself, even in pursuit of inheriting eternal life, but on what you also do for others. Jesus looked at him and “loved him” – he saw a man of purest intention, profoundest faith, utter kindness, a lovely human being. But he had so many assets, and it had never occurred to him to give them away so that others might live more fully. Perhaps that is, in fact, why he went away “shocked” and “grieving” as we read. It wasn’t that he was upset to hear that he couldn’t inherit eternal life without separating from his possessions, but that he was leaving to sell them all, give the money to the poor, and he was mourning the loss of the things, lifestyle, and probably also some relationships that he truly loved.
What are your assets? What do you have a pile of, that you could really give away, and thereby help others to live more fully? Doing this is absolutely central to those of us who wish to follow Christ’s law in this life, and to inherit eternal life in the next. Jesus asks the young man before him, why do you have all those possessions if you aren’t giving them away? It defies a kind of Gospel Common Sense: why are you sitting upon your blessings? You are a pass-through. You are the steward of those blessings for now, and your job is to share them – your holy work is to share them. What are your assets? Wealth or possessions? Share them liberally. Knowledge and understanding? Scatter it about like seed. Leave off any hierarchies about who deserves to have knowledge most – all are worthy. All are intelligent. All recipients are equipped to make the most of it, and to flourish with it, in whatever their context. Share!
What are your assets? Is it compassion? Is it a love for humanity that makes your throat feel tight when you see or hear of the suffering of others? Give that love away. Spend it down. Don’t hoard it, and don’t be afraid to show it. Pour it out. Thoreau said, “There is no remedy for love but to love more.” Pour it out. You know your well of love is bottomless. Manifest your love for hurting humanity through what whatever gifts and talents and other assets have been given to you, including your money. “There is no remedy for love but to love more.”
Do you have faith? Share that. Share it with the people around you who are struggling to believe, who wonder how there can be a God in the midst of suffering, whose own pain has taught them never to hope again. Share your faith. Every blessing we have is a gift meant to be re-gifted, because following the law of Christ is never about the righteousness we pursue for ourselves, but the blessings, the love, the help we bestow upon others, and it is the key to eternal life.
When we live by the Gospel of Christ, we move ever outward. We begin in our own inner circle, caring for our own needs, focused on our own actions and blessings. Then we move beyond that to the lives and needs of others, and our goal becomes not the shoring up of blessings for ourselves but dispensing it to others. And if we can do this, the circle of our lives grows even bigger – we expand into the gift of eternal life. The circle has three concentric rings that go from ourselves, to others, to God – a circle that starts with the self and ends in the universe. It is not circles of tightening regulations but of expanding freedom, our freedom in Christ. Some of us are enslaved, denied our freedom, by the things both internal and external that oppress us, and others of us are enslaved not by oppression but by privilege. All of them are stumbling blocks to freedom, freedom from the things that control us. The lovely young man of Mark’s gospel was controlled by his possessions. What controls you?
The disciples in this passage may point to a stumbling block for many of us. They ask Jesus if they are good enough, having left behind everything, including their possessions. Jesus tells them that no one is good enough alone, but only with God’s help. The disciples, it would seem, fall into a “virtue trap” – they ask, “Surely, we are good enough?” But it’s the wrong question. The right question is, “how are we sharing our blessings with others?” It’s the question that Jesus puts to the wealthy young man. Peter’s question should serve as caution to all of us who truly strive to be good, really, really good. (How about us ministers?) For all of us that calling is not to be good enough but simply to be authentic, and to be faithful at all times. I hope that the students among us, who have worked to be so good and successful as to get into Princeton, hear that being good enough is the wrong question. Being good enough is for God alone. You get to be faithful, to be authentic, to be generous in what you have and who you are. Let go of the “good enough” and live into the freedom that Christ sets before you, to love and to serve.
Hear the Good News in our hard text, everyone – Jesus looks at all who are working so hard to be good enough and he loves us. He invites us to give away our blessings so that others might live more fully, and that we might live more fully as well, even into eternity.
www.workingpreacher.org , 10/14/12, “Amos 5:6-7, 10-15” By David Garber, “Mark 10:17-31” by David Lose.
Feasting on the Word , Year B, Vol. 4, ed. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, pp. 164-169.