Reflection for Sunday, October 10, 2021
There’s an awful lot going on in the gospel this morning, this reading from the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark. Let me pull out the highlights of what I’d like you to consider for today:
We see a rich man run up to Jesus, kneel, and ask a question. In the back and forth between them, we see Jesus list out all of what we know he considers to be the more minor of the ten commandments – missing out on the ones he summarizes elsewhere in the idea of love God, love neighbor, love self. The rich man says he’s checked all those boxes, and Jesus says – and he says this with kindness, this wasn’t a harsh moment for Jesus – ‘you’re missing just one thing. Sell everything. Give the money to the poor; don’t worry you’ll have treasure enough in heaven. Then follow me.
This was the line the rich man couldn’t cross, and he went away grieving, but even more interesting than that, is Jesus’ students’ reactions when he makes his casual, explanatory remark, ‘The rich have got it tough when it comes to being close to God!’
This clarified nothing, and when Jesus tries again, his students are even more upset. He pacifies them, throws out a cryptic promise, and the reading ends. But why were his students so upset?
In the ancient world in which Jesus lived, the important thing to remember today is that personal and familial wealth was a sign of God’s favor and love for you. And the inverse was also true: poverty, hardship, difficulty, illness, tragedy, disaster – these were all a sign that the person had committed some public or secret sin, hadn’t repented, and so all the pain and suffering in their life was caused by an angry God who would only relent in their suffering once they owned up to their wrongdoings. They believed this on the personal level, and they believed it on the national level – they were a small nation constantly conquered and made refugees by other, stronger nations, and each and every time the prophets made it clear that God allowed it to happen because the nation had sinned egregiously, outrageously, terribly. We see that in our first reading this morning from the Prophet Amos.
And even today, while we might intellectually agree that this is a totally bizarre and preposterous notion, sometimes our gut reaction is shockingly similar.
And this is why when Jesus said that the wealthy were gonna have a tough time getting close to God again, his students were shocked – because the wealthy were supposed to be God’s favorites! And if they were going to have a tough time, how was anybody else supposed to succeed?!?
But we can see the scene from a slightly different place in space and time, from a slightly different culture, and it’s maybe easier for us to see what Jesus was talking about: that rich man had a lot of stuff and in the end he loved it more than he loved the idea of inheriting eternal life, which was the reason he came to consult Jesus to begin with.
Just like Jesus’ students got confused about this interaction, we can also become confused – Jesus sometimes gives us blanket advice, generalizable to all people in all time, but that’s not what this is here. We don’t need to take from this that we must sell all our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, and then ‘follow Jesus’ – whatever that means to us today. That was his advice to one specific person who had a difficulty with attachment to things. But what we can learn from this complex teaching moment is that it is totally possible for a person to love stuff more than God, and for stuff to get in the way of becoming the beautiful person we’re meant to be, loving ourselves, loving our neighbors, and loving God.
And sure, it’s easy to see how, say, addiction, or mental illness can get in the way of being kind and loving to ourselves and others, of making good and healthy decisions in our lives. But that’s just the low-hanging fruit, the stuff that’s easy to reach. Other things can get in the way, too: Too much ambition, but also too much humility. Too much planning, too much complacency. Too much status, too much money, and yes, too many things. In fact, there isn’t anything that exists in this world that we humans can’t hide behind, and the fact that we might think of it as a good thing, that just puts us right back in the company of Jesus’ students.
But as Paul points out years later on in a moment of profound wisdom and understanding – we can run from God, we can hide from God, but there’s nothing that exists in the Universe that can truly separate us from God. We’re like a little child playing hide and seek, and God is the parent that can hear us very clearly rummaging around in the lower kitchen cabinets, looking for a place to hide, with a sauce pot on our head. And the fact that we want to hide in a lower kitchen cabinet (with a sauce pot on our head) doesn’t faze God in the least. He loves us the same, sauce pot or no sauce pot.