Herb Montgomery | October 8, 2021
“Christians have always come up with ways around stories like these in the gospels, but imagine with me this week, a community didn’t try to get around them. What if we allowed ourselves to be confronted by stories like these?”
Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:17-31)
Our passage this week includes a criticism on wealth and there’s a long history of those benefiting from systems that create or maintain wealth disparity and inequity trying to soften it. It will be helpful this week to hold in mind the reality that the early Jesus movement consisted almost primarily of poor peasants. In addition, multiple narratives in our sacred text indicate that wealth redistribution was a central characteristic of early Jesus communities. Consider these from the book of Acts:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, italics added)
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35, italics added.)
The Torah regulated debt in ways intended to eliminate poverty in the community. I see these narratives in Acts as having the same spirit of war against poverty, with the authors realizing that poverty is a human-made reality and not something that must always exist.
“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’S time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-4, italics added.)
Whatever humans create can also be changed by human choices. Poverty is not a universal “way-it-has-to-be.” It presents a critique against the systems that create it, and the greater the wealth disparities within economic systems, the stronger the critique for those who have the heart to listen and understand.
The book of Acts includes another narrative that illustrates the wealth-redistributing nature of the early Jesus community.
“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.” (Acts 5:1-6)
Whoever included this story in the early narratives of Acts wanted the movement’s ethics of wealth redistribution, resource sharing, and war on poverty to be taken seriously—deadly seriously!
In our narrative in Mark, Jesus recites the phrase “You shall not defraud,” and Ched Myers makes a strong case that this phrase is intended to teach the listener something:
“This is our first indication that much more is being discussed in this story than the personal failures of this one man: judgement is being passed upon the wealthy class.” (p. 273)
We read this story too individualistically in our culture today. The story is not about eliminating wealthy individuals or individual net worth, but rather eliminating an entire wealthy class. It’s a critique of the system that creates such wealth disparity, not a hate narrative against wealthy individuals.
Consider that the story even mentions that “Jesus looked at [the man] and loved him.” Rather than expressing hate against the rich, I want to try and understand them. Societal, systemic change begins with understanding.
I do believe that massive amounts of wealth (billionaire status especially) does something negative to the soul of its possessors when they are an exception in their society—when so many around them have so much less. It must be damaging to have to tranquilize one’s conscience in these cases.
Wealth exercises a stronghold on its possessor, one rooted in fear. Our society is a system of manufactured scarcity: a reality has been created where there is not enough for everyone. This leads to anxiety and a fear of going without, and this fear drives endless efforts of accumulation, too often at someone else’s expense. That drive to accumulate in turn leads to holding more than we need for fear that at some time in the future we may go without. Eventually, wealth-hoarding must be protected against others who have much less, typically through violence. This whole system is violent.
Within such a system of manufactured scarcity, too many people solve the scarcity problem, but only for themselves: to hell with everyone else. Jesus offered an alternative in his own society that I believe we should consider today. He called people to form communities where members pooled resources and all worked to ensure everyone in the community was taken care of. From his very first call to disciples to leave their fishing nets and follow him, Jesus called people away from individualistic solutions to scarcity—whether that scarcity was natural or manipulated—toward communal solutions.
Yet it’s not easy to get free of the fear of going without that drives the hoarding of wealth. In our story, Jesus talks about camels having an easier time getting through the eyes of needles. The camel/needle illustration has a long history of being softened. Greek scribes or copyists exchanged the word camel (kamelon in the Greek) for the word rope, implying that the task wasn’t impossible if one trimmed a rope just a bit. They and the communities that followed them also created the fiction that the “needle” Jesus referenced was a narrow gate or pass in Jerusalem that was hard, but not impossible, for camels to go through. This was completely untrue, but softened the illustration.
Jesus’ point is that just as a camel can’t go through the eye of a needle, so the wealthy cannot enter the reign of God because a society under the reign of God has no wealthy class. That class has been eliminated. This is why the gospels repeatedly say one cannot serve both God and money.
But our goal isn’t universal poverty either. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14)
Jesus offered a community structured so that there was enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greeds. Our passage in Mark bears this out. Those who had the courage to divest from individualist wealth in favor of a genuine commonwealth would risk persecution from those benefiting from the inequities of the status quo, but they would also receive “100 times as much in this present age.” They would not receive that individually as prosperity gospel preachers teach, but communally. Under this model, no matter what the future brought, we wouldn’t face it alone. We would have each other and we could face whatever the future holds with our combined resources.
This is a community where those the present system makes last are first and those the present system makes first are last, because there is no more first or last. We are all simply humans deserving of human dignity, survival, and thriving. Jesus’ vision for human community offered a path for thriving.
But the economic teachings of the gospels are so little understood by most Christians today. Consider Christian attitudes to the Occupy Movement years ago, Christian responses to AOC’s dress with the slogan “tax the rich” a couple of weeks ago, or Christian responses to the present movement opposing an economy of billionaires. For wealthy North American Christians who prize their individual wealth and liberties over what is best for society and our collective thriving, this week’s reading offers so much to consider. Christians have always come up with ways around stories like these in the gospels, but imagine with me this week, a community didn’t try to get around them. What if we allowed ourselves to be confronted by stories like these? What would it look like if we set our security and hope, not on wealth accumulation, but on creating the kind of communities that made wealth obsolete?
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17)
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. What could a community that makes wealth obsolete look like? Would this community have to be religious, or could it be secular, as well? What safeguards would have to be in place for both? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
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