TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Mark 10:21-22.
Here is where the strictest biblical literalists falter. While there are still plenty of folks who insist that the words of Jesus in last week’s gospel seeming to equate remarriage after divorce with adultery must be taken at face value with simple and unquestioning faith, these same people become surprisingly sophisticated (or perhaps “sophistic” is the better term) when it comes to interpreting this Sunday’s gospel. Some insist that this admonition is for the rich and not for common working, mortgage paying, over taxed citizens like us. But just a few lines later we learn that the twelve disciples had already left everything to follow Jesus. Thus, the command to relinquish one’s possessions is not only for the 1%, but for all of us. It is just that the rich have more to lose. Others spiritualize this text, claiming it only means that we should be willing and ready to relinquish our worldly goods if and when Jesus ever calls us to do so. The problem is, Jesus is calling us to that renunciation now. All of these hermeneutical maneuvers call to mind the stern admonition of my homiletics professor, the late Rev. Sheldon Tostengaard: “Don’t ever let me catch you trying to explain what Jesus meant. Jesus meant what he said and if you can’t handle it, get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who can.”
Of course, none of this is to say that a text has no context or that we can simply import biblical passages from the First Century into the Twenty-first as though nothing has changed since then. I believe that a cursory look at how property rights were viewed in the biblical world is helpful to understanding what Jesus is telling us. But I am afraid it won’t make his words any easier for us to digest. We start with the basic proposition that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” Psalm 24:1. Thus, we don’t own anything in the absolute sense, not even ourselves. As the old hymn has it, “We give thee but thine own, what ‘er the gift may be./All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 686 (text by William W. How, 1823-1897).
Even God’s gift of the Promised Land to Israel was not an outright grant. Possession of the land came with conditions: Labor laws ensuring that all people, animals and the land itself were given ample rest from the burdens of work Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Leviticus 25:1-7); just and impartial courts of law (Deuteronomy 16:18-20); requirements for equal rights for all inhabitants of the land-including widows, orphans and resident aliens (Deuteronomy 10:18-20); unconditional release of all indebtedness every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) and a safety net ensuring sustenance for the poor, both citizen and non-citizen (Leviticus 19:9-10). Of particular importance was the Jubilee to be celebrated every forty-nine years during which encumbered land and indentured servants were automatically returned to their families. Leviticus 25:8-12. Clearly, the wellbeing of Israel’s people, particularly the most vulnerable among them, trumped commercial interests and property rights.
Though the Ten Commandments are publicly displayed everywhere from courthouse lawns to refrigerator magnets, the all important preamble is nearly always omitted. Before any command is given, these words are uttered: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:1-2; Deuteronomy 5:6. The God who addresses Israel is the God of slaves who abhors slavery and bondage. This God will not have God’s chosen people devolve into yet another Egypt in which the value of persons is determined by their place in a societal hierarchy. God will not have God’s people enslaving the resident aliens within their borders as they were enslaved under Pharaoh. God wills for Israel to be a free people and freedom is secured by adherence to laws impartially enforced that ensure protection from economic oppression, poverty and discrimination. This is done by regulating the economy so that it serves the wellbeing of all Israelites.
Oddly, a great many persons who identify as Christian these days define freedom in precisely opposite terms. Freedom, they claim, is liberation from government regulation of all kinds, particularly from those that would “redistribute wealth.” In their view, there is something insidious about taking money or property away from one who earned it and distributing it among those who did not earn or deserve it. While they might grudgingly allow that otherwise blameless people who fall on hard luck through no fault of their own should be given a hand up from the public purse, no such benefits should ever fall into the hands of those whose own poor judgment, folly and lack of work ethic put them in dire situations.
Rather than seeking an economy that serves people, our system appears designed to produce workers capable of serving the economy. Nothing illustrates this trend better than the so called “Common Core Initiative.” According to its website:
“State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.”
It is important to add that, despite any flowery policy language to the contrary, the two or four year college programs are likewise designed to integrate their graduates into the workforce, albeit at a higher level. Education is increasingly market driven. Advertisements for colleges and universities focus less on forming character through a well rounded course of learning and more on their records for placing their graduates in well paying jobs and prestigious positions. It is hardly surprising, then, that programs in art, music, dance and the humanities are first to hit the cutting room floor when public school revenue drops. After all, multinational corporations can hardly expect to turn a profit through municipal orchestras or community theater. Unless you are a child prodigy, you might as well not bother pursuing an education in the fine arts. There is no market for that sort of thing.
Value has but one measure anymore. Our day to day speech is filled with language illustrating our reduction of human worth to dollars and cents. “What is your net worth?” the financial advisor asks her client. “This course will provide you with the skills you need to increase your value.” “Bottom line,” says the CEO, “we can’t afford to keep these people on.” Everything that really matters is in the balance sheet, income statement and statement of change in financial position. And that is as it should be. The market decides which communities thrive and grow as well as which ones implode when their supporting industries suffer obsolescence, inability to generate profits and closure. That the closure of a factory might have ripple effects destroying surrounding businesses, ripping the very fabric of neighborhoods, families, civic organizations and religious communities is of no concern to an economy designed to increase profits with maximum efficiency.
I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with market economies or free enterprise. I am not an economist and thus hardly an expert on the subject, but I happen to think that markets are an inevitable development in any human community. They make it possible for us to share our various skills, talents and possessions for the common good. It is not markets that trouble me, but rather the Market. It seems to me that capitalist ideology elevates the Market to near godhood. Reverence for the Market and its ability to solve our most pressing social ills, if only left unmolested, requires no less than ardent faith. Capitalism has come to operate as this nation’s civil religion. Even questioning the unfettered reign of the market over commerce, education, urban planning and every other aspect of our lives amounts to heresy. In the eyes of too many, an attack on the Market is an attack on the United States and our whole way of life. But I do not accept the dubious proposition that any regulation of the economy amounts to “socialism.” Neither do I believe that we are stuck with a binary choice between ruthless economic exploitation that leaves millions in poverty while enriching the upper one percent of the population on the one hand or some kind of Stalinist tyranny on the other.
I believe that Jesus meant what he said in Sunday’s gospel and more pointedly in Luke’s gospel, namely, that no one can be a disciple of Jesus without renouncing all that one has. Luke 14:33. Consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus reminds us that nothing in our possession is truly our own. We are but stewards who must one day give an accounting for the way in which we have acquired what we possess and the use to which we have put it. Matthew 25 gives us a pretty clear picture of what that accounting looks like. At the last judgment no one is asked about who they loved, their religious affiliation, their marital status, their politics or, evangelicals please take note, whether they have accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior. The nations of the world and their members are asked only how they treated the most vulnerable among them: the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned. Matthew 25:32-41. Late stage capitalism, under which human beings are made subject to the needs of a profit driven economy and property rights are enforced at the expense of human wellbeing, is not biblical and, I would add, unamerican. If the sabbath was made for the wellbeing of human beings and not human beings for the sabbath (Mark 2:27), how much more the economy.
In sum, I don’t think it is too much to ask those of us who made a comfortable living using the roads, driving the cars, utilizing the technology of communication so abundently available to us to contribute to the wellbeing of those who built that infrastructure by seeing to it that they earn a living wage, have affordable housing, enjoy access to adequate healthcare and have the peace of mind that comes with a secure retirement. I don’t think it is too much to ask that we who have never known hunger in our lives pay a little more at the checkout counter to ensure that those who plant, grow, harvest, process and transport our food to the supermarket for our convenience receive adequate salaries and benefits. I don’t think it is too much to ask that corporations which are able to operate their businesses because citizens like us pay for the police protection, fire protection, legal infrastructure and transpiration systems pay their fair share in maintaining and improving these benefits. I don’t think it is too much to ask that a company around which its workers built their town and community and supplied it with labor for generations compensate that community upon its departure with the resources required to sustain it until it is able to transition to a new economic base. And finally, I don’t think it is too much to ask those of us who possess more of the world’s goods than we need to thrive (and that includes most of us white Christians) to invest the surplus (which is more than a token) in caring for those deemed “least” among us, particularly those at whose expense our success has come to us. Yes, I am talking about redistribution of wealth. I don’t know whether that is socialism, but I do know it is biblical.
Here is a poem by Marilyn Nelson describing in stark terms capitalism’s ultimate monetization of humanity, namely, slavery.
Today in America people were bought and sold:
five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”
If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? By ounce?
If I owned an unimaginable quantity of wealth,
could I buy an iota of myself?
How would I know which part belonged to me?
If I owned part, could I set my part free?
It must be worth something—maybe a lot—
that my great-grandfather, they say, killed a lion.
They say he was black, with muscles as hard as iron,
that he wore a necklace of the claws of the lion he’d fought.
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
I auction myself. And I make the highest bid.
Source: Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011. (c. 2012 by Marilyn Nelson; pub. by Louisiana State University Press). Marilyn Nelson (b. 1946) is an American poet, translator and author of several children’s books. She is also the daughter of one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen. Nelson is a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and a former poet laureate of Connecticut. She is a winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature and the Frost Medal. Nelson is also the author of five books of poetry for adults and children. You can read more about Marilyn Nelson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.