Proper 23B

Jesus said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

St. Anthony of Thebes, brought up in a wealthy Christian family, but orphaned at age 18, heard these words one day in the gospel reading at church. He felt like they were being addressed to him personally, a direct command from God telling him to abandon his comfortable existence.

He immediately gave all his possessions to the poor and spent the rest of his third century life as a hermit in the Egyptian desert.

About a thousand years later, St. Francis of Assisi was equally moved by these words of Jesus, and divested himself of his family’s great wealth.  Renouncing worldly goods became one of the tenets of the monastic order he founded.

This story from Mark’s gospel is one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings.  The fact that we can cite people who took this reading literally, and followed what it said, says something about how rare that is.

Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested and put to death, when they are approached by a young man, who respectfully kneels before Jesus and asks the question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus starts naming the commandments, but the young man brushes them aside, saying he has kept those holy laws all his life.

But the man obviously feels that despite his keeping of the religious laws, something is still missing in his life. He is still searching for peace of mind and a relationship with God.

Jesus, looking at the young man, immediately puts his finger on what the problem is. The man’s money has come between him and God.

So Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns, give the money away, and come follow him.

The man walks away crestfallen because he can not do this one thing.

It is very interesting to read the commentaries on this story, and whether it should be taken literally or not.

Many state emphatically that this story is not a “summons to ordinary Christians today to embrace a life of ‘holy poverty.’”

And indeed, there are other valid ways to interpret this story. 

Jesus did not condemn the man in the story because he was wealthy.  The man condemned himself because he let his wealth become his chief concern, let it get in the way of his relationship to God.

The man’s wealth and possessions claimed his highest loyalty.

We can look at this story and say it is about anything that claims our highest loyalty, our ultimate concern, anything that stands between us and truly following Jesus. That could be our ambitions, our education, our desire for the right job or social status, or anything to which we place ultimate importance.

This story calls us all to identify the “one thing” we lack, to name whatever it is that blocks our relationship to God, and thus blocks our participation in life in all its fullness, mystery and joy.

That is a valid interpretation of this passage, and one that we can and should all spend time contemplating.

I seriously doubt that anyone here today hearing this story, including me, is going to leave this church and sell everything we have and give the money to the poor. So it is a relief to have other ways to think about what this passage is calling us to do.

But the conversation that Jesus has with his disciples after the young man leaves warn us from leaving the topic of money too quickly.

“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says.

The disciples are perplexed at these words. In the minds of the disciples, and of many people today, material riches are a sign of God’s blessing.

The Bible itself is full of examples of this – Abraham and Isaac, King David, King Solomon – all giants of the faith and all wealthy men, whose wealth was seen as a sign that they were blessed by God.

That way of thinking is alive and well today in some parts of Christianity. The leaders of the so-called prosperity gospel movement teach that wealth is a sign of God’s favor.

That Jesus viewed wealth as a hindrance to enter the kingdom of God was amazing to the disciples and difficult for us to hear today.

I realize that hearing this story about the benefits of shedding oneself of one’s possessions seems more than little ironic in this week that we have seen thousands of people in Florida lose everything they own.

No one can suggest that is a good thing. Time and again Jesus proclaims that God’s first concern is for those who lack shelter, food, and clothing – the basic necessities of life.

But this story is a good reminder that our possessions have a peculiar and insidious way of becoming our masters. Precisely because they can be used for good they can seduce us.

“If we only had that one thing then we would be satisfied,” we think.

The problem is that we live in a consumer culture, an economy based on greed, a society where the “success” of Christmas is measured by how much consumer spending increased over the previous year.

It’s hard to resist a culture which generates perpetual needs for more and newer possessions.

Jesus’ words cut to the heart of such a system.  That’s why we would prefer to find some other interpretation of the story.

Yet the tension of this radical passage resists resolution in any way that removes any pressure for us to consider our relationship to our money and possessions.

After we have done our best to make the text say something less upsetting to our value system, Jesus looks intently at us, loves us, and continues to affirm that true life is to be had not by accumulating things, but by disencumbering ourselves.

This passage proclaims the good news that the way to be really rich is to die to wealth.

I agree with a commentator who says, “If this message doesn’t take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we need to listen to it again.”

Amen.

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