Over the past few weeks, the Sunday Gospel readings have taken a turn. The late Summer’s general theme of opening up our hearts and minds to others has transitioned to the challenging specifics of what that looks like in practice. So far we’ve had warnings not to trip other people up and to take responsibility for our own reactions to others, hard teachings about divorce and questions about how hard or soft our hearts are. Today we have another challenging application of all this — perhaps in our own culture, the most challenging application of all this: money.
It’s a story anyone familiar with the Bible will recognize. A man runs up to Jesus asking him how he might inherit eternal life. After some back and forth, in which the man claims to obey all of the commandments, Jesus finally tells him, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” (Mark 10.21). The man’s response says it all, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Jesus is left shaking his head: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
On the surface, this looks to be one of Jesus’ teachings about non-attachment, which are, I believe, an extension of the Law, which itself can be read as a playbook for non-attachment. And I think that’s a helpful approach to it: How can we position ourselves for life in God’s Kingdom? By getting rid of anything of ‘this world’ that might come between us and our relationship with God. And there are few things that can get in the way of living faithfully more easily than wealth and attachment to it.
But both from the vocabulary Mark uses here and what we know of how wealth worked at the time, it is most likely that there is something else going on here, beyond this good, simple, and true teaching of non-attachment. The man in question here is is not a ‘self-made-man’. His many possessions or properties are inherited wealth (ktemata, ‘property’, ‘heirlooms’, ‘estates’). Even in his approach to Jesus, he frames the Kingdom of God in terms of ‘inheritance’. In light of this, Jesus’ request of him takes on a sense beyond personal charity toward something closer to what we might call ‘reparations’ or ‘redistributive justice.’ As Brian McLaren notes in his book Everything Must Change, this “is not simply about a problem with materialism in the privacy of ‘his heart’ that might keep him out of heaven, as is so often preached. Instead, it’s an electrifying call to defect from the imperial narrative and join Jesus in serving those who suffer under it.” This isn’t a huge conceptual leap, and if we look at it in this way, Jesus hasn’t actually changed course at all, but is simply continuing to go through the Law of Moses. He is zeroing in on the idea of the Jubilee, the part of the Law that would do away with generational wealth and generational poverty by resetting the distribution of land and eliminating debts every fifty years. As far as we know, this part of the Law was never actually enacted in either of the biblical kingdoms — but it was also never excised from the Law and remained and remains as a witness to God’s concern for economic justice. The man claims to obey the Law, so now Jesus prods him to obey it in its fullness: to divest himself of his earthly inheritance for the sake of the poor, in order to receive a divine inheritance alongside the poor in the here and now. To put it another way, if he is really a citizen of God’s Kingdom — if he has truly received and welcomed the grace of God in his life — this will manifest in his life in actions that promote the values of God’s Kingdom, including economic equity.
These two streams — non-attachment and redistributive justice — are really just two currents within the same river. Attachment to our wealth and privilege makes it harder for us to spread them to others, and conversely, caring that everyone has food on their table and a roof over their head makes it impossible to hold our wealth with a clenched fist.
This isn’t easy. We are all bombarded with messages of scarcity and fears for the future. In so many ways, it’s natural to hold on to what we have as tightly as possible. And yet, God calls us to a different attitude and orientation: to trust and faith in God’s providence, and its corresponding faithfulness and justice to others. It isn’t easy. But, as our Lord reminds us, “For God, all things are possible.”