February 18 | First Encounter: Wealth and Letting Go



First Encounter: Wealth and Letting Go | 18 February 2024 | Lent 1
Mark 10:17-31
Speaker: Joel Miller

On February 24, in the year 1208, a young man sat in a chapel listening to a sermon.  It was based on Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sent them out to spread his message:  “Take no gold, nor silver, nor money in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff…whatever town you enter, find someone in it who is worthy, and stay with them till you depart.” 

The young man was the son of a wealthy cloth dealer.  He had already begun to question the smooth, comfortable path he had inherited.  As his earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano tells it, that day, in that chapel, was the decisive moment.  Hearing Jesus’ words as a direct personal calling, he discarded his shoes and walking staff.  He began wandering the countryside and villages, preaching Jesus’ message to anyone who would listen.  We know him now as St. Francis, or Francis of Assisi - the peace-loving proto-Anabaptist, lover of birds and brother sun/sister moon, to whom is attributed the much-used prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”      

It’s almost as if the story of Francis is the story of the biblical rich young man - with an alternative ending.  In Mark’s gospel, it’s the only story where Jesus invites someone to follow him, and they choose not to - a discipleship rejection story.  Rather than “your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells him something like “your wealth has made you ill.”  For the wealthy young Francis, it was a resounding Yes to the discipleship way, which had ripple effects across medieval Christianity, still felt in our time. 

When we hear stories like this, my hunch is we have a tendency to react in one of two ways. 

One is to see this as a unique calling to a select few.  Jesus, the great physician, diagnoses this young man as being possessed by his possessions; offers an extreme prescription for an extreme condition: Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor.  It’s a different ask than, say, Zacchaeus, who volunteered to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four times anyone he had defrauded.  Or the many female disciples who, we are told, financed Jesus’ ministry out of their own resources.  Someone, after all, has to own and maintain those houses the wandering disciples are going to stay in when they enter the village.  And Saint Francis was, well, a saint with a special calling to revive the church.  

So one way to react to this story is to see it as just not applying to the majority of people - people like us.

The other primary way to respond, I’m imagining, is to see this as the truest form of Christianity that we simply don’t live up to.  Mennonites might have an added tendency to feel this way since we humbly pride ourselves on taking Jesus’ words seriously.  Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “turn the other cheek,” and even “love your enemies.”  We don’t always know how to do this, but rather than try to explain it away we understand him as talking directly to us, his followers.  So when Jesus says, “sell all you have, and give it to the poor, and then come, follow me,” he’s sure talking to us.  But we’re just not quite willing to go all in.  We want to follow Jesus, but we also want – and need - our cars and clothes, our jobs and Roth IRAs.  So, in our minds, at least, we’re sort of second class disciples, feeling a slight nagging tinge of guilt, but not near enough to sign the deed of our house over to an impoverished person and just see where this discipleship adventure will take us. 

Either way – it’s a unique calling not for us; or, it’s a calling for us, just not, you know, for us - it keeps this story at arm’s length.  Either way, it’s not really for us.

Well, that’s no fun.  Of course it’s for us.  Maybe or maybe not in a Francis of Assisi kind of way, but it’s part of the gospel, and it’s for us.  And not just us as individuals, but as Mark is want to do, this story has something to say more broadly and symbolically about wealth and privilege, about how the kin-dom of God as a present this-moment reality is just very, very different than societal norms.

As Mark introduces it, this encounter happens as Jesus is setting out on a journey.  Soon we’ll learn this journey is headed to Jerusalem, where Jesus will confront the unjust collusion of power between the religious and political authorities, which will result in his execution by the state.  This year we’re sticking with Mark’s gospel all the way through Easter.  Our Lent theme highlights this journey Jesus makes and the encounters he has along the way. We are invited to find ourselves in each encounter. 

This is the first encounter of these encounters.

Mark 10:17 “As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It’s that last phrase, “eternal life” that likely grabs our attention.  But Jesus doesn’t get past the first word: good.  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks back.  “No one is good but God alone.”  Well, this is an awkward way to kick off a conversation, especially for theologians trying to explain why Jesus doesn’t want to be called good or God. 

More contextually, this man is offering Jesus deference, a gift of public honor to someone who can perhaps give him something back – an answer to his question.  Whether it was intended as flattery or genuine respect, Jesus introduces tension by refusing the gift.  Now Jesus doesn’t owe him anything.  And when Jesus does proceed to answer his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he gives him nothing new to work with, reciting the basic commandments that informed Jewish life – You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or defraud.  Honor your father and mother.  Synagogue school 101.

In the marketplace of dialogue exchange, the man had offered Jesus a million-dollar honorary title, and asked for an answer to a million-dollar question.  Jesus takes the million-dollar bill, writes the ten commandments on it, and hands it back to him. 

But this man – again, out of a genuine quest for truth or a wish to maintain his own honor – we don’t know which one – persists. He says “I have kept all these since my youth.”

And do you know how Jesus responded to that? 

When this very wealthy man wondering how he can inherit eternal life says that he has kept all the commandments since his youth, Mark says Jesus looked at him….. and loved him.   Wow.

Yes, Jesus loves everybody, but this is only place in Mark’s gospel, besides when Jesus says you should love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself – this is the only other time when love, that word agape, is even mentioned – in all of Mark.  This non-disciple is the only person Mark feels compelled to tell us, Jesus loved. 

And that’s when Jesus says the really hard thing – the thing we still can’t wrap our heads around.  Tells him to liquidate all his assets – land, animals, houses, Roth IRAs - everything, redistribute it to the poor, and come join his band of social misfits on their way to Jerusalem for God-knows-why.  We can take Mark at his word that, upon hearing this, the man was shocked and went away grieving.  That’s straight out of the NRSV. “He was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  And the disciples who witness this are shocked.  And we should be shocked too. 

I’ve had an evolving relationship with this story over the years.  As a youth who took the Bible very seriously, I was pretty sure it meant my life needed to head in the direction of becoming St. Francis 2.0.  Falling in love and getting married re-arranged some priorities, and then the year I turned 28 I became fully entrenched in a very non-Francis path.  Within the span of that one year I got my first full time job -  a pastor, opened my first retirement account, bought a first house and acquired a mortgage, and welcomed our first child.  Ironically, the year I became a professional Christian, which is kind of a pastor-joke, was the year my life took a decided turn away from that particular path of Christian discipleship described in Mark chapter 10. 

As I’ve embraced this householder stage of life, I’ve wondered how this story might sound different as an older adult.  If you are an older adult – you can self-identify, or not - you are living more closely with these questions of when and how to sell or give away your possessions.  Call it downsizing for Jesus.  Ironically again, it’s when one may feel that their best contributions to the world are behind them, at least professionally, that one can be more easily freed up to live a life closer to this form of discipleship - less encumbered by possessions, less restricted by every day obligations, more free to wander and engage in whatever encounters this brings about.  There’s a whole dense body of tradition in Asian Indian culture that celebrates these latter stages of life which are for everyone: the forest walkers and, finally, the renunciants.  The final two stages of life, and there’s only four.  The first two are the student and the householder.  And then the forest walker and the renunciant.     

Beyond all this, the part of the story I find most intriguing these days as a first world person who has had a pretty smooth path, all things considered, is the part of that man’s initial question that can get missed all together.  What must I do to inherit eternal life? 

Inherit is a word that has to do with the circumstances we’re born into not of our choosing.  In the ancient world, people weren’t wealthy because they had a brilliant idea for a tech start up.  This man, especially if he was a young man as Matthew says, would have inherited his wealth.  He was born into a family that controlled resources like land and labor, able to increase their holdings, typically on other’s misfortune - in a pre-industrial world where the pie stayed the same size, such that the more one had, the less others had. Now he wants to know how to inherit eternal life.  Which isn’t a great question, but it’s good enough to drive him to run up to Jesus and ask it.   

What if this is a story especially for those of us who have been born into circumstances of relative wealth, or with plenty of opportunities to accumulate wealth?  It’s a different world now, where the wealth pie can theoretically grow for all, but we know well the series of historical injustices that we’ve inherited.  What if we, like this young man, like Francis of Assisi, are invited to become dissatisfied with merely walking merrily along this smooth, comfortable road we have inherited?  

Jesus looks at us, and loves us, despite how hard it is for us to love ourselves.  Loves us so much, that he gives us a lifetime of work all in one helping.  Let go of everything.  We’ll all get there eventually.  But Jesus’ words are inescapably urgent for our current reality, and the possibility he calls the kingdom of God.  The present, now, kingdom of God in which we are all kin, the people and the nonhuman world on which we depend.  The kin-dom of God is defined not by an economics of accumulation, but an economics of justice. 

And we’re not there.  But if you want to follow Jesus, that’s where he’s headed, so we either follow or we don’t.  .

The young man doesn’t.  He goes away grieving because he has many possessions.  But I’m not willing to give up on him as a potential disciple.  Grief is a powerful force.  Grief takes time.  Grief, well grieved, matures into increasing clarity of what must be done now.  Grief, well grieved, can even empower us to live more fully into this new life that has opened up in front of us. 

This is the first encounter of Lent, and it’s quite a mix: the commandments, eternal life, wealth redistribution, inheritance, love and grief.  We walk this road with one another.  We walk this road with Jesus.