From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
Job 23:1-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
The Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
'The Only Way In'
"How difficult it is for those who have money to enter into God's domain!" The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus said to them again, "Children, how difficult it is to enter God's domain! It is easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye than for a wealthy person to get into God's domain!"
John Shea once shared a story about the powerful instinct within us to possess things. "It happened in Oklahoma City when I was a young man, fresh on the speakers' circuit. I had just finished my talk, and people were coming up to ask me questions or point out things I should have said.
An old native American man - a Cherokee, I suppose - suddenly stood in front of me. He had a large and elaborate belt buckle in his hands. It was a swirl of multi-coloured beads. If they formed a pattern, I could not detect it. 'Please accept this gift,' he said.
I was a little taken aback, but I had a quick response: 'Thank you. It's beautiful. But I can't accept it.'Why not?' he asked with a puzzled look.
I pointed to the expanse beneath my chest. 'Well, would you want to call attention to this stomach with a large, beautiful belt buckle,' I laughed.
The man did not smile. He simply extended the belt buckle again. 'Please accept this,' he said again.
'It's too expensive,' I said. This was probably closer to the truth of why I said no. I was always taught not to take expensive presents from people. The belt buckle was hand-crafted and had a look of elegance about it.
'You know,' said the man, 'you can give it to someone else.'I accepted the belt buckle.
Why does it not occur to us that the things of this earth are not meant to be held onto but to be given away? It is the central point of this week's gospel.
It is one of the most familiar stories of the new testament and one of the most problematic for preachers. It is a story about how the things we possess trick us and how easily we choose to be tricked. Jesus will not oblige us in our self deceit, however, anymore than he obliges a rich and selfish man.
It is the only story Mark tells about somebody who refuses to follow Jesus; and for that reason alone we should sit up and take notice because it means that the reason this man used to excuse himself is likely going to be the same reason that many of us do.The man approaches Jesus with a question,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
It is a question which reveals much and Jesus knows it, which is why he responds the way he does. This is a man who can afford the luxury of asking questions about the good-life-to-come because he doesn't have to worry about the life-he-already-has. His mortgage is paid off. His creditors have been looked after. His stock portfolio is brimming over with only blue chip merchandise. He is secure in the knowledge that he has everything he needs; and he simply wants to know how he can deserve more.
'Inherit' is an interesting word. The root for it in Greek means 'to inherit a piece of land'. This man simply assumes that eternal life is something he can acquire the way he has no doubt acquired his wealth. It is the way we begin to think when we become possessed by the things we possess. "The more I have, I deserve; therefore, I deserve to have even more."Which is where Jesus stops him dead in his tracks.
Jesus reminds him of the short list of the commandments, not the first four which have to do with our relationship to God, but with the last six which have to do with our relationship to our neighbour. At first reading, it strikes as an uncharacteristically conventional thing for Jesus to do. Jesus is quoting the Manual to the man, reminding him of his neighbourly obligations under the law of Moses - with one notable exception.
When you read the story carefully you notice that Jesus changes one of the commandments we all learned in Sunday School. It is right there as plain as day in verse 19. Look it up for yourself. Jesus is quoting that famous formula from the twentieth chapter of Exodus:
Right so far. But, then, instead of adding the next commandment, "You shall not covet," Jesus changes the list and says to the man,
'You shall not defraud; . . ."
Now, why would Jesus want to go and do a thing like that, you ask? Why replace: 'You shall not covet' with 'You shall not defraud'?
Remember the young man's question - "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" This man had no doubt inherited most of what he owned; and, since what made most people rich in those days was owning property, we can assume that when Mark says "he had many possessions" he meant that he had "many properties". And since most wealthy landowners in those days became more wealthy by acquiring the land of their debt-defaulting neighbours, it is reasonable to assume that no one who had "many properties" had not become wealthy except at the expense of other people.
It was no accident, therefore, that Jesus decides to edit the commandments for this man's benefit. Jesus knows why the man is wealthy just the way anyone would have known; and he wants the man to know what he must do to make things right again before God. He must give back what does not belong to him.
And when the man misses Jesus' challenge the first time and claims to have obeyed all these laws, including this new injunction not to defraud, Jesus says, "Fine. Prove it.
There is one thing you lack; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven..
He tells the man to dismantle the system that had made him rich at the expense of others. According to Jesus' logic heaven's treasure is ours only when we take steps to do something about the way the goods of the earth are unequally distributed.
But Jesus' rejoinder to the man proves to be his undoing; and he turns away "for he had many properties."
"How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter God's domain!" Jesus goes on to say, "It is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter God's domain."
It is a statement which means exactly what it seems to mean: the only way in to the place where God rules is through reparation. The only way to be fully and completely human is to let go of what you were not meant to possess.
Like the story of the belt-buckle, the Law of the Closed Hand has a strong hold on many of us. Because we manage to have something, our fingers begin to close around it. We think it is ours. It is self-deception at its most insidious.
Jesus wanted us to see a better way, which may be called the Law of the Open Hand: that there is an abundance of life that cannot be hoarded, but only shared. What we have is not ours to possess but to redistribute so that all will have enough. Those who are rich because they cannot share what they have - by definition - cannot enter the place where God lives. On the other hand, "You can always give it to someone else." Indeed, it is the only way in.
Job 23.1-17 - The Book of Job was an ancient folktale for Israel. It epitomizes the suffering of the innocent and the just. It does not attempt to explain such suffering. Rather it attempts to plumb the depths of what it means to have faith in the midst of suffering. One aspect of this suffering that can be most troubling to people of faith are those experiences when God is silent, when we look for God, but cannot find him. In this week's passage, Job's suffering has reached such a point.1. Of what time or circumstance in your own life (or that of someone close to you) do Job's words remind you?
2. What do you think God's silence/absence meant for Job? What has it meant for you?
Hebrews 4.12-16 - Read in the context of the entire Epistle, it is clear that when the author speaks of the Word of God he is speaking of none other than Jesus, the Word made flesh. It was the experience of those who knew Jesus face to face and of those who came to know him through the testimony of others that he was the one who challenged every human thought and desire. Through him, all excuses and lies are unmasked and we learn what we are and are meant to be. It was and is a gracious judgment; for the one who accomplishes it "understands our every weakness".1. Recall an experience in which your most intimate secrets became known to someone who loved you and whose love for you did not change as a result of that knowledge.
2. How did such an experience change you?
Mark 10.17-30 - A salient fact to keep in mind is that most of us are probably a lot richer than the rich man in this week's gospel ever was or even dreamed of being. So what if Jesus said the same thing to us that he said to him? We like to think of ourselves as virtuous, law-abiding Christians, keepers of the law and observers of the church's rites, but, when it comes right down to it, how attached are we to our present way of life? It is not just the amount of worldly goods we possess that becomes the problem, but the difficulty we have of rising above and looking beyond what we do have enough to be free from them.1. How has the church attempted to water down Jesus' words in this week's gospel?
2. If you were the rich man, how would you have responded to Jesus' challenge?
3. In what ways are you not free because of the things you possess?
4. What can you do about it?
A GIFT IS MEANT TO BE GIVEN AWAY - We do not always get it when someone gives us a gift: a gift is meant to be given away. Choose a gift that someone has given you that you had absolutely no right to receive. Give it away to someone else who has no right to receive it.; "and you will have treasure in heaven." - The Law of the Open HandHYMN 96 Will You Come and See the Light (Voices United)P>
copyright - Barry Robinson 2000, 2003 page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2000, 2003 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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