Possessions or goods?

11 October 2015
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23B (RCL)
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

As I write this blog this morning, I am desperate for news out of South Sudan. We have just learned from a friend on the ground that a war plane has bombed the Amadi Junction, five or so miles from Lui village. People were hiding in the bush near the junction. We have an unconfirmed report that Lui village has been burned, and there are bodies lying in the road. Nyamilepedia several weeks ago reported that the SPLA had attacked Lanyi (in the Lui Diocese along the “good road”) on their way from Juba to Mundri (which would take them through Lui). The reading from Job, and the passage of Psalm 22, certainly fit my mood this morning.

Reading the Gospel passage on this particular occasion makes me wonder what counts as wealth. I live in stunning affluence compared to the people I know in Lui, and I live in mind boggling security by comparison. I have never know what it is to live in the bush, except when I’ve gone camping for fun. How is it possible for me, with my spectacular wealth, to enter the kingdom of God? Must I sell everything I have and give it to the poor to have an treasure in heaven?

The passage begins with Jesus setting out “on the road” — a phrase Mark uses to indicated the path of discipleship. The man approaches and nearly worships Jesus and calls him good (agathe). Jesus deflects the reverence and says that no one is good but God alone. I think Mark is suggesting that the man was looking for Jesus to affirm him in his pursuit of inheriting eternal life, confirming that he was on the right road. Jesus hints that no such affirmation is forthcoming from him. When the man says that he has kept all the commandments since his youth, Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him. He’s almost got it. Jesus picks the one thing he lacks, and tells him to sell what he has and give it to the poor.

The man’s mistake was to treat both his keeping of the commandments and his many possessions as his own. In fact, the piety of the time would have suggested that his many possessions spoke well of his righteousness — God rewarded the righteous. He wanted Jesus to pat him on the back and tell him he was doing a good job. Instead, Jesus directed him to the purposes for which God had blessed him with much. Origen quotes a similar story from the Gospel of the Nazoreans, in which Jesus says to the man that he could not possibly have understood the law and the prophets, because they would direct him to share with the poor, and many of his brothers, sons of Abraham, were naked and living in filth.

I think Peter makes the same mistake as the rich man. He brags to Jesus — look, we have left everything to follow you — expecting Jesus to pat him on the back as well. Instead, Jesus points out that again the good of this heavenly treasure is to flow to others. Everyone who has left anything will receive it back a hundredfold in this lifetime — houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, land — with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life. Our giving of what we have to one another is to create a new economy in which we have new relationships in abundance, even in the midst of the persecutions of this age.

I can testify that this is not an easy thing. I am desperate for news of people I know in Lui, not because I have shared much with them, but because they have shared much with me. I left the relative security of my comfortable, suburban life, and for a total of five weeks, lived among people who supplied my every need, and now I know there names and wonder how many of them are wounded, or dead, or living in the bush. I have heard from a few who are living in Uganda, and am grateful for their safety. If this is what the kingdom is like, no wonder it is so hard to enter.

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