Sunday, October 10, 2021

Sermon: The Rich Young Ruler and The Use of Money

Sermon preached October 10, 2021 at the Anglican Church in Ljubljana; Slovenia.  

Preaching Text: Mark 10:17-31 

Photo of coins
Photo by Pratikxox
This week’s lectionary Gospel reading contains Mark’s version of the Rich Young Ruler text. Preachers and theologians have struggled throughout the ages to figure out how to interpret this story without concluding that disciples of Christ are required to sell everything we own and give away all our money to the poor. Countless arguments have been constructed, ranging from “Jesus’ instructions were for that specific man; not us” to “the eye of the needle comment was hyperbole.” Then there are the economic justifications—if everyone gave away everything they owned, who would plow the fields, catch the fish, construct houses or weave clothes? And yet, many a devote believer—one the most famous being Saint Nicholas—has been inspired by the story to take a vow of poverty, give their possessions to those in need, and live the rest of their days in an intentional community of fellow disciples. Their journal writings that have survived until today paint a picture of persons who, while still acutely aware of the sorrow and struggles of human existence, viewed what they gained by their decision as infinitely more valuable than what they gave up.          

Perhaps now more than ever, we live in a materialistic world. Those of us gathered today all come from societies that have so engorged their homes with possessions that t.v. shows and products about how to organize and/or liberate ourselves from all this stuff have become big business. And yet, we still tend to be so caught up in morally justifying why it is ok for Christians to own these homes filled with shiny things—so caught up in seeking a formula for how much we can keep and how much we must put in the offering plate—that we miss other dimensions of today’s Gospel reading—A story so important that it is found not only in Mark, but in Matthew and Luke as well.

Who is the man in these accounts? In Mark, we are told that he has many possessions. In Matthew, we learn that he is young, and in Luke he is referred to as a ruler. He is someone who has strived since his childhood to live a life pleasing to God, yet he remains anxious about whether he has done enough to inherit eternal life. So how would a young man who frets about being a good enough man have become wealthy and powerful?  There’s no mention in the texts of a miraculous rags to riches backstory, so I’m fairly confident in concluding that he obtained his socio-economic status the normal way—he inherited it. 

So here, imagine if you will, we have a young man—odds are high that he’s the firstborn son—who grew up in an opulent home in a politically powerful household. It would have been a big household too—full of both relatives and servants—and presumably a lot of land. And remember this is the first century in a region under Roman occupation. You couldn’t be a ruler unless you were in Rome’s pocket. In my imagination, I see an anxious perfectionistic teenager on the cusp of adulthood who is under a ton of performance pressure. He is profoundly worried about his status in the eyes of others and, while he refuses to admit it to himself, recognizes that what is required of him to please his family is at odds with what is pleasing to God. In Mark’s telling, the young man kneels down when he comes to Jesus. Scholar David Lose points out that everywhere else in Mark where someone kneels down, they are requesting healing for themselves or a loved one.  So when the man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, the great physician, sees the man’s true ailment and offers him the way to become healed. 

You see, the man’s mind is fixated on and fretting about his inheritance. This isn’t surprising; his maternal and paternal figures would have told him since his birth that who he is—and who he must be—is the heir, and that there are rules one must closely follow or risk losing one’s inheritance and becoming a nobody. The family expects him to maintain their high status in society, but he—and everyone else for that matter—knows exactly how their wealth and power were acquired and maintained. Scholar Luis Menédez-Antuña notes that the man’s household would have held many enslaved persons.   Selling all he owned would have included losing them and the fruits of their labor as well. And following Jesus’ order to then give all his money to the poor would mean that the enslaved, marginalized, and exploited in his household and community would suddenly rank higher than him in terms of their socio-economic position. 

Sisters and brothers, I think this was more than your average “quit your lucrative job, sell everything, and join the Peace Corps” conversation. This was an invitation to collaborate with Jesus in a political movement—flipping the tables on an unjust social order. Not simply refusing to lead the family business, but liquidating the assets and distributing them to those the family had oppressed. Think of the disruption—a community where the poor now have money, assets, and options! A ruler who leverages his power to implode the system from the inside, makes financial amends with those his family has abused, and then follows Jesus to cross! 

Jesus understands that this is what it would take to heal the brokenness, to liberate the young man from the burdens he carries, and allow him to experience the kingdom of heaven in the here and now. But the price of this healing—of this inheritance—was more than he was willing to give up, and he went away grieving.                   

What can this story teach us? Again, that’s an uncomfortable question with many possible answers. I don’t think that the moral is that middle-class folks need to have giant yard sales and move into tiny homes or communes, although buying less stuff and having a smaller carbon footprint is an act of creation care and environmental justice.  The way I see it, the story invites us to reflect deeply on the privileges we inherited at birth—from our skin tone to our citizenship—to acknowledge the advantages we have been granted in a socio-economic pyramid system that depends on trapping much of humanity at the bottom so that we enjoy the comforts of the middle levels. We can’t as individuals escape the system, but we do have the power to punch holes in it. 

The Anglican priest John Wesley did a lot of system disrupting in his day, creating a religious movement known as Methodism, which required of its members to confess their complicity in unjust systems and to actively break down socio-economic barriers. Wesley recognized that love and economic justice were at the heart of Jesus’ teachings, and thus they were at the center of his teachings and work as well. One of Wesley’s most famous sermons was titled “The Use of Money.”   Its main points are usually summed up as “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can” and cited in sermons affirming entrepreneurship, frugality, and especially giving generous tithes and offerings to the church. 

But what Wesley actually emphasized was something else. Yes, he believed that it is good for Christians to be engaged in income-producing activities, and he insisted on living below one’s personal means—living modestly so that money is a tool you use to do good, not a temptation that leads to vanity and greed. And, yes, Wesley affirmed giving away one’s money in those in need, but he did not view this as the primary way for Christians to use money to address the problems of society. In fact, he assumed that once one took care of one’s personal needs and the needs of family and friends, there wouldn’t be much if anything left to give away. Why? Because instead of focusing on giving away one’s money, Wesley wanted to talk about the ethics of making it. No forced labor. No fraud. No dangerous or miserable working conditions. No excessive working hours. No poverty wages. No pawn-broking. No undermining a neighbor’s business. No profiting from or enabling sinful behavior. The list goes on and on. In short, Wesley believed that Christians are called to disrupt business-as-usual by practicing Kingdom values.

Siblings in Christ, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be wonderful to sell [well, almost] everything and join a monastic community—one that welcomed couples and kids, of course. Intentional living where neighbor looks after the needs of neighbor, where we work side-by-side and break bread together—that sounds a lot like heaven to me. But just as there are many parts of the body, there is more than one gift of the Holy Spirit, and thus more than one way to faithfully serve Christ. And so, my challenge to you this month is, as your family studies and reflects upon the saints we honor, talk about what their stories inspire you to change in your life, and then take a leap of faith and do it. 


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