Proper 23, Year B
Mark 10:17-27(28-31) - link to NRSV text
Those who have heard me talk about my process when I write a sermon know that I have a few questions that are central as I think about what to say:
- What is difficult, puzzling, and/or shocking in the passage? What would be challenging about trying to live out the message of the passage?
- What comes across as Good News in the passage? Why would someone want to take on the challenges of living this way? What invitations are in the passage to experience more fully the life God offers?
This Sunday's gospel can rightly be called a doozy, though. If you include the optional portion of the gospel, it's got at least three points that the vast majority of nice, churchgoing people I know will find literally incredible; they wouldn't believe that Jesus really said this stuff, and if he did, they wouldn't believe that he meant it. In one Sunday's reading, we get:
- It's harder for a rich person to enter God's kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
- Jesus says that God will reward people who LEAVE THEIR FAMILIES, including children and parents they're caring for, for his sake and for the sake of the Good News. It's right there in verses 29 and 30.
- If you compare the list Jesus gives of things that people will (and should -- God will reward them for it) leave for Jesus' sake and for the Good News with the list of things God with which God will reward them, there's one category of person conspicuously absent: fathers. Fathers seem to be absent from God's kingdom.
Careful readers will see even more points in this Sunday's reading likely to stick in our throats, but those three are more than enough to take on here and now. I'm betting that a lot of sermons this Sunday will fall into the genre of "he didn't really mean it," a point supported by a slew of fictititious technicalities.
For example, I'm sure that many have heard that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem (or, in some versions, Jericho) called "The Eye of the Needle," which was so narrow that a camel couldn't get through it unless the packs it was carrying were removed, at which point it could get through laboriously on its knees. Sermons citing this story usually go on to say that Jesus' point is that rich people can enter God's kingdom as long as they aren't overly attached to their possessions and have a humble and/or prayerful attitude. Depending on how stewardship campaigns are progressing, the preacher might add something to the effect (though hopefully with more tactful phrasing) that if you're concerned about this, upping your pledge couldn't hurt. Preachers who are particularly enthusiastic about the Millennium Development Goals (about which there is much good cause to be genuinely enthusiastic) might add that all it really takes to get that camel ready to get through the gate is giving 0.7% of income to intelligently targeted international aid. The congregation sighs with relief, and we all get on with business as usual, secure in the knowledge that following Jesus doesn't really require that we do anything radical, for heaven's sake.
I'm sorry to say, though, that there is no evidence whatsoever that there was ever any such "Eye of the Needle" gate. It's a kind of ecclesial version of an urban legend -- invented, I would guess, as a metaphor that, as generations repeated the story, turned into a solid "archeologists have discovered" report. But it's fiction. Careful readers could tell as much just from Mark 10 itself. If Jesus had been talking about such a gate, his hearers wouldn't have been astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?!"; they would have said something more like, "what a bummer to have to carry those packs yourself for 50 feet." And Jesus would not have replied that it's impossible for mortals but nothing is impossible for God; he would have said something more like, "gosh you all are dim sometimes -- just take off the camel's packs and you're fine!"
There is no such easy out for us, though. There is no "Eye of the Needle" gate that camels can crawl through. There is no technical point of Greek to tell us that Jesus really didn't mean what he seems to be saying here. Those things belong to the Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus, not to the canonical gospels. As absolutely hilarious as Eddie Izzard's comedy routine in Dress to Kill is about how you really just need a very, very powerful blender and a lot of patience to get the camel through the needle's eye, that clearly is not Jesus' point either.
Nor can most of us say, "oh, but I'm not rich." Try entering your income in the Global Rich List and see where you end up. I'm back to full-time seminary/dissertating now, but the $36,000 salary I earned in my last full-time job would have put me in the top 4% of wage earners worldwide.
As with Jesus' saying in Luke (which I've blogged about before) that "whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26), preachers often invent or conveniently misremember some technical point that would make "hate" mean "love less," "rich" mean "ungenerous," and "follow me" mean "do pretty much what your parents taught you will make you respectable and successful."
But that isn't so.
Please, preachers, take your congregations there for a moment and pause. Work this Sunday to bring your congregation to the place Jesus' disciples were when they said, in effect, "WTF are you saying?" We haven't done our jobs if we don't get there. The job of a sermon, in my opinion, is not to resolve difficulties. The job of a sermon is to inspire deeper discipleship, and discipleship is not easy. Jesus offers us abundant and eternal life -- real joy, real love, real peace. Worldly success and respectability can't give those to us; worldly ordering of our relationships can't give those to us. The opportunity we are being offered this Sunday and every day is to let the shock of Jesus' word jolt us out of those old, unfulfilling, enslaving ways of seeing, living, and relating to others so that we're freed to experience more of what God wants for us, as individuals, as members of the Body of Christ, and as members of our communities, our society, our world. That's profound transformation, and we do a profound disservice to one another when we pretend otherwise. I beg you, preachers, not to imply that this Sunday's gospel does anything other than call on each and every one of us to be transformed, to think and pray long and hard about what we're called to do in this world with respect to wealth and poverty.
I hope that many will also use the optional extended reading from Mark, because I think it helps to clarify what comes before. Wealth isn't just "stuff," shiny metals, stacked bills, and numbers on a page or in a computer. Wealth is a -- perhaps the -- worldly value. It orders our relationships -- with one another, with our neighbors, with people across town and on other continents -- in subtle and powerful ways too numerous to count. And therefore the obscene, unjust patterns along which we distribute wealth in our world are symptoms of our disordered, broken relationships that also exacerbate that disordered, unhealthy brokenness.
Jesus wasn't kidding when he said what he did about wealth any more than he was kidding when he said what he did about relationships. God's kingdom, God's rule, God's way of using power are entirely incompatible with our way of using power to maintain our wealth and shut the rest of the world out of it. "Charity" -- the practice of doling out money from our considerable wealth to those who are poor in a way that in no way changes the recipient's lack of access to wealth and power -- is a seductive trap that consolidates our power, adding to it even the power of doling out life and death around our choices of how much to give and to whom, and yet lets us feel particularly generous and self-righteous in the process. Jesus is not calling us to make some minor tweaks in our relationship to wealth. He's calling us to something far more radical and far more transforming; he's calling us to reconciliation, with one another and with God.
That's no small thing. It's huge. Nothing will be the same, and yet that's what we need to be more fully ourselves, more fully human in God's image, more fully alive in the eternal life God offers. That's why Jesus talks about it as he does in the full passage allotted for this Sunday, putting nothing in parentheses for "optional discipleship." Jesus is not just talking about a few minor tweaks to financial planning; he's talking about a new world. And yes, that means new ways of relating to one another. Jesus' words about what the world means when it says "family" were at least as shocking in his own culture as they are in ours. As I've blogged about before, he was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original "family values" politician, who wanted to rebuild the empire from civil war by exalting the family as the basic unit of the empire and the best guarantee of good social order. He grew up hearing that God commanded every Israelite to honor father and mother and to "be fruitful and multiply." He must have known just how appalling, how immoral, it would sound to say that anything that could inspire someone to leave parents and children alike might be God's Good News.
And yet there it is. He said it. He meant it. There's no hermeneutical trick that will get us with any integrity from what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived and died to "God wants you to be respectable, but MORE so." Following Jesus leads to radical change -- in us, in our families, in our communities, in our world. Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel would be grossly unfair if they didn't invite every parent and every child to follow him too. In any case, that kind of radical change is particularly hard on people who, like fathers in a patriarchal society, find that the world as it is is working well for them. "Fathers" don't appear in Jesus' list of relationships in God's reign because there are patriarchal "top dogs" in God's kingdom; God's reign means of necessity that nobody else is reigning. Those who happen to be fathers are called to follow Jesus, but their relationships, like all of ours, will be transformed in the process.
That sounds like a lot to take on, and it is. But the Good News is that, as Jesus said, nothing is impossible with God. It might take some deep shocks to jolt us out of our old perspectives. If we find ourselves sometimes looking at the magnitude of transformation to which Jesus' Way calls us and our world and saying, "How is this possible? Who on earth can be saved?" that's probably a good sign. It can mean that we're ready to make some different choices with potentially radical consequences, to throw ourselves -- all we have and all we are -- on God's mercy. And the Good News is that God's mercy is beyond human reckoning, deeper and taller and broader than even the brokenness of the world that God is healing and reconciling.
Thanks be to God!
And here I thought I was going to avoid all of that.
Posted by: Tripp | Oct 13, 2006 2:52:42 PM
As a fellow reader of the Context Group of scholars, you must also note the cultural assumptions made about the "rich" in the first century. They had a "limited good" concept of the world's resources (unlike our probably more mistaken view of unlimited production). For someone to be rich or gain wealth was to assume that someone else lost.
In essense, to be called rich was to be called a "greedy thief." Therefore, Jesus command about the rich man getting through the eye of the needle would have been because the goods they had were considered theft from more innocent victims.
In our economics, that is not so openly true. (One could argue that in many ways it is invisibly true in the sense that we "rob" third world peoples by making them work in horrible conditions and poverty wages in order to supply our desire for "cheap goods.") Yet, the conditions are not exactly the same and this is an analogy. For us, getting well paid (your $36,000 "rich" designation) does not always imply that level of PERSONAL greed.
Just some thoughts to put a complexity on the passage.
P.S. I absolutely love your writing and am ALWAYS challenged.
Posted by: Caine | Oct 18, 2006 12:08:38 PM
Having had a pilgrimage to Jerusalem I can assure you that the, Eye of the Needle is in fact real.
Not a gate to the Old City, but an opening next to the gate, the reference in the Gospel illustrates colourfully the futility of gathering material possessions as a measure of happiness.
Wealth can be measured in the depth of relationships.
Posted by: David | Oct 5, 2009 4:55:09 AM