Money seems to be everywhere these days.  Whether we’re talking about the net worth of Presidential Candidates, the portion of the BP Settlement that will actually makes it way to the Gulf Coast, reading James in the real-life version of Draughting Theology or studying the lessons for Sunday, it seems like we just can’t get away from money.  In all of these conversations, however, I’ve noticed a theme: rich is always at least one tax bracket above us.

Think about your reaction to the story of the rich, young man from Mark’s Gospel.  Don’t most of us hear Jesus say, “It would be easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” and think, “well thank God I’m not rich”?  Whether we are on a fixed income with Social Security, make minimum wage, or pull in 30, 60, or even 100 thousand dollars a year, the American economy has made it possible for us to always envision ourselves as poor.  I mean, I can’t buy that 70″ 4K TV, so I must be on the south side of rich.  Right?!?

There’s a website called the Global Rich List, where you can enter your income or net worth to see where it ranks on a global scale.  The average Social Security check is about $1,180 a month.  If that was a retiree’s only income, it would put them in the top 10% of wage earners in the world.  A minimum wage job at McDonald’s places you among the top 7%.  A laborer making $15 an hour, is just outside the top 1%.  Me? My $60,000 stipend, not counting health insurance and pension, puts me in the top 0.20% of wage earners.

Rich is a relative term, but to always put it one or more steps above our pay grade is to act in the same way as the rich young man.  In this story, Jesus invites the man (and by extension, I fear, us) to find solidarity with the poor (another relative term) by entering into relationship with them.  He doesn’t ask the man to write a check to his favorite charity, but to get down and dirty with the down and out.  Truth be told, I think he wants the same from us: to roll up our sleeves and enter into the depths of poverty with those who have no choice but to be there.  It seems that’s where the kingdom of God can be found.

Sin, Healing, Amos, and the Rich Young Man

In yesterday’s post, I argued that Mark 10:17-31 is not about stewardship in the contemporary, “keep the institutional church functioning,” sort of way.  Instead, I suspect that the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man is enlightened by the Old Testament Track 2 lesson from the prophet Amos as it is a story about healing and the forgiveness of sins.

Amos’ prophetic ministry took place during a relatively calm period in the life of Israel and Judah.  For many years, two good kings reigned and there was very little threat from the powerful empires of Egypt and Assyria that surrounded them.  As is often the case, an extended time of peace brought with it a time of great prosperity… for a few… built on the backs of many others.  The sin which Amos decries is not richness, per se, but the lack of concern for the poor that often comes with it.

Which brings us to the rich young man’s encounter with Jesus.  Mark tells us that he approaches Jesus and kneels before him.  David Lose, in his 2012 commentary for, notes that everyone who kneels before Jesus in Mark’s gospel has come in search of healing.  It would make sense that this man’s motivation is similar.  He comes to Jesus already following the Way of the Torah.  He’s kept the commandments since his youth, and yet he still feels like something is missing.  There is a sin, a sickness, deep within him that he knows needs to be healed, and so he asks Jesus for forgiveness and healing.

Jesus sees that the man is possessed by wealth.  He is in need of the same sort of admonition that Amos gave the ruling class of Israel – to remember to care for and show hospitality to the poor.  Before doing anything, however, Jesus loves him.  The man is already saved by grace through faith, even though, in the end, he will walk away disappointed because his faith wasn’t strong enough to trust God’s abundant provision.

This is a story about money: a story about how money tends to isolate those who have from those who have not. The call to sell all he has and give it to the poor is a call to renewed relationship, or as the Book of Common Prayer calls is, the restoration of unity with God and each other.  It is a story about healing, about Jesus’ desire to set us free from those things that possess us: wealth, pride, envy, anxiety, victimhood, etc.  Over and over again, Jesus tells those he has healed 1) “your sins have been forgiven” and 2) “your faith has made you well.”  For each of us, part 1 is always true, but it takes part 2 to find abundant life. Which makes this ultimately a story about discipleship, about how Jesus calls us to give up everything that keeps us from trusting him fully.  The young man exemplifies many of us who, though we know we are deeply loved, have a hard time following Jesus because it means we’ll have to give up that one thing that we hold most dear.  It’d be easier to shove a camel through the eye of a needle than to give these things up on our own, but thankfully, God loves us even in our sinfulness, and loves us enough not to leave us there.

Why Mark 10:17-31 isn’t a Stewardship Text

Cartoon by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham

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.

Stop the Copier!

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.

Lacking One Thing

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing…”

What I wouldn’t give to only lack one thing in the eyes of God.  Maybe I’m projecting on you, dear reader, but I’m guessing that most of us aren’t in the enviable position of the rich young man who approached Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel story, lacking only one thing.  Instead, most of us are lacking in several areas.  For instance, I often find it difficult to trust God and so I try to do everything myself.  I also struggle to love my neighbor, especially in car line or at a 4-way stop sign.  I worry about money more than I know I should, and loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength is a whole lot easier said than done.

Even if I only lacked one thing, I would still probably find myself in the position of the rich young man.  That last thing is what he has held most dear, the only thing he is not willing to let go of, even if it means walking away from Jesus’ promise of eternal life sad and alone.

Notice, however, what happens even before Jesus invites him to leave behind that one thing.  Mark tells us that Jesus loved him.  That, dear reader, is what grace looks like.  Even in the face of this man who Jesus knew couldn’t let go of that one thing, Jesus chose love.  This is, of course, great news for me.  Even as I lack many things that would make me perfect in the eyes of God, God loves me.  God loves you too, even in the face of whatever flaws you might have.

This passage is often read as being harsh and judgmental, and in many ways it is.  Perhaps the fact that the man lacked only one thing made the choice to follow Jesus that much harder.  For those of us who lack much, it seems easier to throw up our hands and say, “Save me Lord.”  So maybe this passage really is full of grace.  Even as the man walks way, Jesus loves him.  He doesn’t chase after him because that’s not how grace works, but I imagine there came a day when the man realized that even if it meant giving up everything, he’d walk the way of eternal life with Jesus, and Jesus welcomed him with open arms.  That’s what the love of God is all about, no matter what we lack, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, God is ready to welcome us into relationship.

The Very First Bad Thing

If we learned nothing else in the early 1990s, it is that being left alone to our own devices is not a good thing.  The success of the Home Alone franchise was built on the two-fold reality that kids have always thought it’d be cool to make their family disappear and the imagination of parents thinking about the worst that could happen if a child were left alone.

Of course, this fear of being alone is nothing new.  In fact, the first thing that is ever said to be not good in the Bible is being alone.  This Sunday, Track 2 readers will hear the tail end of the second creation story from Genesis.  Our opening line from verse 18 reads, “The LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…”  And so, in this version of the creation story, which is very different from the first version that makes up Genesis 1, God sets out making all sorts of creatures to serve as man’s partner.  Young’s Literal Translation (1862) translates this Hebrew term which combines the word for “like” and the word for “in front of” or “opposite to” as “counterpart,” which I find fitting for the 21st century reader.

If the goal is to remedy the less than desirable situation that man is alone, it is only fitting then that God would makes a counterpart, that which closely resembles but is not a clone of the original.  Traditionally, this has been the basis for marriage between a man and a woman: women are like but not clones of men; however since the Supreme Court decision of July 26, 2015, this seems equally applicable to marriages of two women or two men.

Beyond marriage, however, the reality of what God is doing here in Genesis 2 is establishing relationships as the norm.  One need not be married to have deep relationships that fulfill God’s desire that one not be alone.  These bonds can be found in one’s family of origin: brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins or in one’s circle of friends.  No matter where these relationships are formed, their end is to rectify the very first back thing – it is not good that the (wo)man should be alone.

What’s my Motivation?

“What’s my motivation” is a well-worn cliché when it comes to actors in less than starring roles.  You’ve no doubt seen a skit in which a background actor, paid only to not be a distraction as the scene takes place in front of them, jumping up, stopping the cameras, and asking, with passionate over-acting, “What’s my motivation?”  In that case, the motivation is to sit down and shut up, but most of the time in life, our motivations are varied and highly nuanced.  While other times, motivation simply doesn’t exist.

This Sunday, we begin a seven week journey through the Letter to the Hebrews (which will be interrupted by the propers for All Saints’ Day) with a convoluted lection dealing with angels and authority that invites us to ask, “What’s my motivation.”  Since today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, it might serve preacher and congregation well to spend some time on the topic of angels, but I’m not preaching, so I’ll skip over the whole “your Aunt Ethel didn’t become an angel when she died” controversy.

Instead, I’d like to look at a line that comes later in the lesson, in which the author lays out a reasonable argument for Jesus’ most unreasonable death.  In an aside that is almost a throw away line, the author writes, “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”  Since it is the foundation of our creedal understanding of God the Father, we can surely understand the latter half of the bold faced text, but that first bit, that all of creation exists for God, invites us to ponder for a bit.

How does your life change if you realize that you exist not just because of God, but for God?  What does it look like to live for God?  What does it feel like when all the other motivations in life fade away and you simply rest on the knowledge that you existence is only and always, for God?

I lack pastoral sensitivity…

… And so did Jesus.  Or at least it seems that way in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

I failed only one section of my General Ordination Exams.  Back in the olden days (2007), there were seven canonical areas.  I’m still amazed that I passed 86% of those areas, but I’ve never been surprised that I failed a pastoral care question in ye olde Theory and Practice of Ministry section.  To quote my reader, “The response suggests little sensitivity.”  I’m a to-the-point, type A personality, and so there are times when my pastoral response lacks sensitivity.  And, on occasion, it could be described in a Miley Cyrus lyric.

Yesterday, in my sermon, I took a playful take on Jesus’ response to his disciples ongoing slump in understanding.  Perhaps Jesus didn’t really have steam coming out of his ears.  Maybe that was a bit of eisegesis on the part of a priest who lacks the patience part of the fruit of the Spirit.  Still, there are moments when it seems clear that Jesus is just fed up with the people around him.

This week, the source of his frustration seems to be the ancient Hebrews (when in doubt, place blame on people long dead).  The Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus into heresy as they ask him about divorce, and Jesus is quick with a to-the-point type answer, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”  Or as the Contemporary English Version puts it, “Moses gave you this law because you are so heartless.”  Or to put it in Steve Pankey pastoral terms, divorce became an option because human beings continuously fail at relationships.  It was true as the Hebrews wandered the Sinai Desert.  It was true throughout Second Temple Judaism.  And, it remains true today.

Jesus offers a pointed answer to a pointed question, and it isn’t easy to hear, especially with a divorce rate hovering just below 50% (but shrinking, at least according to this article).  We all know someone affected by divorce.  We know how difficult it can be, not just on the formerly married couple, but on their children, even adult children, their grandchildren, their parents, their friends, and even their faith communities, and we know that divorce continues to happen because human beings fail.  From time to time, each and everyone of us fails to live fully into God’s dream for us, and sometimes that failure ends in divorce.

While Jesus calls us to live fully into our created image, the grace of God remains steadfast for those who fall short.  His love is not withheld from those who are divorced, nor is it withheld from the rest of us who still fall into sin on a regular basis.  That’s the grace in this teach that lacks pastoral sensitivity.  The love of humans may fall short, but the love of God never fails.