With tongues wagging and mouths watering, preachers are attacking this Sunday’s Gospel lesson while pledge cards are flying off the copier and every member canvas schedules are being ironed out. It is October, which means that it is Stewardship Season in the Church. Preachers everywhere are looking for preaching material, and here we have a text that is about money that we can allegorize to be about so much more than money, but in the end really is about money.
This text really is about money, but I’m afraid it really isn’t about stewardship, at least not in the common usage of that word. After a short back and forth, Jesus looked at the man and, loving him, said, “Take all your possessions and sell them.” Note what Jesus did not say next. Jesus did not say, “Take the proceeds and hand them over to Judas, our Treasurer, who will use them to facilitate this very important ministry we’re doing.” Jesus did not invite the man to give generously to his movement or to the institution or even to the disciples personally. Instead, Jesus told the man to take the proceeds of selling everything and to give them to the poor.
Unless our pledge cards have a line that allows people to indicate that they will give a certain percentage of their income directly to the poor, this text is not about stewardship. It is tempting to force it into the mold we need, after all, most preachers would be poor if it weren’t for the generosity of their parishioners, but the reality is that this encounter between Jesus and the rich young man is about the cost of discipleship.
If it is true that in the Kingdom of God the first will be last and the last will be first, then it follows that the rich will be compelled by their faith in God to give extravagantly so that the poor might be lifted up (see James 1:9-11). At its best, the Church can facilitate that redistribution of income, but the reality is that most of our congregations are spending upwards of 70, 80, even 90% of their budgets keeping the lights on, the roof from leaking, and paying professional ministers to teach, preach, and administrate. My own congregation is very much included in that list. In some cases, and again I count Saint Paul’s as an example, it is true that those professional ministers spend time reaching out to the poor (spiritually and financially) and the outcast, but when the average Episcopal Priest with a spouse and two kids costs upwards of $100,000, one has to wonder how Jesus might react, which is why, I think, trying to make this text be about giving money to the church is dicey. Instead, I think our way into Mark 10:17-31 is through Amos, but we’ll have to deal with that tomorrow.