Monday, October 15, 2012


Mk. 10:17-31;  Amos 5:11-15[1]
In 1990, I had the opportunity to participate in a mission trip to Western Romania.  I was living near Stuttgart, Germany and studying at a local university on a Fulbright Grant.  Just a few months before, the Berlin wall had come down, and with it, most of the “iron curtain” that kept Eastern Europe under Soviet domination and isolated from the rest of the world.   Just a few weeks before our trip, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been overthrown by a grass-roots revolution.  In the aftermath, as it became apparent how desperate the Romanian people were, humanitarian aid poured in from all over Western Europe.  So the church I attended decided to send several of us with a trailer full of food to distribute to families in the churches of Western Romania.
I learned a lot of lessons on that trip.  One of them was how easy it is for a Westerner to spend the equivalent of a month’s professional wage in Eastern European terms on a souvenir for his wife!  I think I should have thought that one through a little more carefully!  But more importantly, I learned that the church in Eastern Europe, contrary to all expectations, was actually thriving under their various authoritarian governments.  The deprivations they had to endure seemed to make their faith deeper, stronger, and more central to their daily lives.  By contrast, the churches in Western Europe languished.  Though there were some free churches that were holding their own, huge cathedrals all over Europe sat mostly empty week after week.  One mission leader suggested that the deprivations of life in Eastern Europe seemed to make their faith thrive, while the prosperity of the West seemed to choke the very life out of faith.[2]
The Scriptures and the Christian tradition have been consistent from the start: there is something about wealth that has a way of taking over your heart and life. [3]  It is unavoidable.  Jesus said it this way: “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24).  He wasn’t the first to say it.  Prophets like Amos repeatedly warned against the dangers of wealth.  In the Gospels Jesus echoed that warning again and again. For example, In the parable of the Sower he said that the seed in the thorny ground didn’t bear fruit because “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mk 4:19).  The challenge is clear—one can either embrace wealth or one can embrace faith.[4]
The man in our Gospel lesson for today faced that challenge.  I think we should take seriously his claim that he had kept the commandments since his youth.  Jesus doesn’t dispute it, and he doesn’t even dispute that a life of obedience to God’s is the way to eternal life.  Nevertheless, I think there was a serious disconnect between Jesus’ definition of “obedience” and this man’s definition.  His view may have been more in line with the theology found in the book of Deuteronomy, which encouraged the idea that those who are godly are blessed with wealth, and those who are not blessed with wealth must not be godly. [5]  Jesus challenged this simplistic equation by calling the man to sell all his possessions, which in his mind represented God’s blessings for his obedience, and give the money to the poor, who deserved their poverty due to a lack of obedience. But it was more than he could accept.  He simply could not do it.  Jesus called him to a higher level of obedience, and instead of rising to the challenge, he walked away grieving.[6]
It’s incredibly easy to justify our love of wealth.  What once was a luxury only the few could afford has now become a “necessity” that everybody has to have. Think about it—what is the “normal” size TV now?  I would say it’s 42 inches, but when I bought my 42 inch TV a few years back, it was a “luxury.”  Now the “luxury” models are 52 to 70 inches! We live in a society where the accumulation of wealth is not only encouraged, it is positively necessary if one wants to avoid being destitute in retirement!  So how can we possibly hear Jesus’ challenge to choose either faith or wealth?[7]   I’m not sure many of us ever do. We get incredibly attached to our stuff.  We’re proud of our possessions.  It’s next to impossible to let our favorite things go.  And in all of this, we can be positively blind to what our wealth does to us—and what it does to the way we treat those we view as “beneath” us.[8]
So how do we avoid making the mistake the man in our Gospel lesson made?  First and foremost, we must recognize that “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” means caring about poverty and the suffering it spawns in our world.  Throughout the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, the heart and soul of what God wants from us is to practice mercy, compassion, and generosity to others.[9]  I think we must also recognize that the prophet’s call to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15) means working to eradicate poverty in our world.  Not as a token pretense, but really and truly working to eradicate poverty.  And I think we must recognize our own attachment to the wealth we cherish.  They say that admitting the problem is the first step to recovery!  When we can admit our attachment to our wealth, then we can remember that the saints and heroes of our faith have consistently taught us that the only way to free ourselves from our wealth is to give as much of it away as we possibly can!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/14/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] A similar phenomenon has been observed in the comparison between Latin
America and North America.  In fact, some speak of a “reverse mission” on the part of the poor in Latin America to convert their wealthy brothers and sister s in the North!  Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 58-59; and Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7 et passim.
[3] R. Schnackenburg, Jesus in the Gospels, 194-95.   See also Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 40-43; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 196.  See further, John Sheila Galligan, “The Tension between Poverty and Possessions in the Gospel of Luke,” Spirituality Today  37 (Spring 1985): 4-12.  She warns against “the seductive lure of the power, pleasure, and security that are the by-products of being wealthy.” Cf. also Joel Green, Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 148: “Wealth becomes a master if it is not mastered.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2.548: “Jesus’ call to discipleship challenges and indeed cuts right across the self-evident attachment to that which we possess.”
[5] Cf. A. Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 483.
[6] Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 100, 103.
[7] Cf. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 188: “After we have done our best to make this text say something less upsetting to our system of values, Jesus looks intently at us and continues quietly to affirm that life is to be had not by accumulating things, but by disencumbering ourselves.”
[8]J. Moltmann, “Political Theology” Theology Today, 21.: “Only the poor really know the oppression of wealth’s exclusiveness. Only the hated know the misery which hate causes. The rich, the oppressor, the hater are always a bit oblivious to the misery they cause, even if they are well-intentioned.”  See also J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 330; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 268-69; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 175; Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 194; Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 177-78; Küng, On Being a Christian, 597.
[9] See Isa. 1:17; Mic. 6:8; Jas. 1:26–27.  Time and again Israel was commanded to care for the poor and destitute (cf. Exod. 22:22; 23:11; Lev. 25:25; Deut. 14:29; 15:7; 24:12, 17; 26:12) because this emulates God’s care for the poor (cf. Deut. 10:18–19; cf. 1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 10:14; 12:5; 35:10; 140:12; Eccl. 5:8; Isa. 11:4; 25:4; Jer. 20:13; Lk. 16:22). 

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