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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Can't buy me Agape (B28O)

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
"Then who can be saved?" (RNAB)
Late again, but I'm going to try to add a few thoughts anyway. In other times, I would have salivated over this gospel, and the opportunity to excoriate the rich and delight over their impending miseries, but I think I see it differently this year. And it's not just that I'm rich, either, part of the tiny number of the world's population that has more of its share of the riches of the world while a huge majority of people barely eke out a living. It's that while I'm pretty sure Jesus meant exactly what he said, that it is impossibly hard for the rich to enter the reign of God, I also think it's less about money itself than about entitlement ("I've been good, God owes me") and signification ("I'm rich,  therefore I'm blessed"). At the heart of all this, the metaphorical camel going through the needle's eye, is the damned assurance that I can stay the way I am, comfortable and unchanged, and come to understand within myself that I can be part of the life of God.

A few things I've picked up about the language of the gospel from sources, particularly "Say to This Mountain" Mark's Story of Discipleship by Ched Myers and others, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine etal, but most of it can be found in other resources as well. 

Like other passages, this event takes place "on the way," "setting out on a journey." A wealthy man does homage to Jesus and asks him, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The verb "inherit" indicates that the man expects that a relationship exists there whereby, due to some vagary of birth, he is owed something by God. If he had asked "how can I earn eternal life?" he would have made a much more common mistake, right, one we all make in our relationships not only with God but with each other. While it is a common disorientation in us that imagines we can "earn" our way into the relationship with God that will deepen our life into God's own, it's a peculiar mistake of the rich and religious that imagines we can get there by bloodlines or creed. Note at the end of the reading that the disciples are incredulous that the rich can't easily enter—or aren't already clearly in—the reign of God. They are spectacularly "blessed" in life, isn't that a sign of God's favor? And looking at that insight from this perspective, that is, that the rich, with all their foibles, cruelties, injustices, and manipulations are somehow "blessed" by God, what does that make people imagine God is like? No  wonder, I think, people were ready to hear the gospel. They knew something was wrong, and finally here was a teacher smart enough and good enough to say it out loud.

He calls Jesus "good teacher," and Jesus calls him out on it, because "only God is good," and so he is about to teach him the Torah, which he purports to know and follow well. Jesus's response is, "You know the Torah," and he lists the second half of the decalogue, but with a notable deviation. Instead of the final commandment about desiring the property of another, Jesus substitutes, "you shall not defraud," which is indeed in the Torah, but from a section of Leviticus about property, rather than from Deuteronomy (and Exodus.) Jesus knows that the man is wealthy; maybe he even knows him and reputation, and that his disciples and others suspect (or know) that, like all of the rich, what they have is not their own, but has been taken by fraud from others. 

"You're just missing one thing," Jesus announces. "Sell it all, give it to the poor. Then come follow me." There it is, that nagging demand that he, and all of us, "turn around and believe in the gospel," that is, turn from the mechanics and economy that we think determine civilization and give our hearts (be-love) to the good news of the other, alternative, kingdom of God. And, by the way, "eternal life" does not mean (only, or primarily) "life after death." The only eternal being is God, so "eternal life" is a figure of speech, a metonymy, that means "share in the fullness of God's life." It means a way of being now, in this world. Jesus is already living there. He's inviting the young man to join him, but his attachment to his own world, the world of money and property and power, is holding him (and us) back. Jesus isn't offering him heaven after he dies. He's offering him freedom and happiness now. But we have to let go of what makes us unhappy first, and what we are clinging onto that makes everyone, the whole world, in fact, unhappy.

We have tried really hard to soften this particular piece of scripture. There was a medieval story about this text that there was a gate in Jerusalem called "the needle's eye" that a camel could only get through "on its knees," and I know that I've heard that story, known to be false for a long time, repeated in homilies. More subtly, some evangelical preaching I've read said that Jesus only meant this particular road for this particular would-be saint, that not everyone is called to "sell everything and give it to the poor," and I really want to believe this, but I think it's another dodge. 

The rich young man, with us, feels that he can barter some of what we have in such a way as to make God pleased with us and give us heaven because we're somehow "owed." But the truth is that God doesn't owe us anything. God has already given us all there is to give. We have to get out of our own way, and tear down the structures we've created to hang onto what is ours, in order to experience the life that God is offering through Christ. Real freedom. Real community. Real joy and security. But we can't live in both worlds. We can't go into any relationship and imagine that the other person owes us love. Love, when it is given, is always just that, a gift, or it is not love. This is what the rich young man doesn't understand. He can't receive it because his hands are full of pictures and gifts of his other girlfriend, who really is no good for him! 

Jesus is offering him love. In fact, Mark says so. "Jesus looked at him and loved him." This is the only time (or one of two, I lost the reference) that the verb agapoi is used in the entire gospel of Mark. Jesus wants the young man to get past his own vision and see with God's eyes, but instead, his vision goes to the ground, "his face fell," and he walked away. 

I can't condemn him, that's for sure. I believe that God loves me, not because of what I have done or might do, not even because of who I am ("God can raise up sons of Abraham (or anybody else) out of the clay"), but because that's what God does. That's what God is. So God's love empowers me to do the same for others, and to try to live in such a way that the lives of others are made better with the same energy by which I try to live well myself. It's not that I can earn my way to God. The path is wide open, waiting for me to walk on it. Every step I take is so tentative, even with all these witnesses, and I take two back for every one toward it.

But the Beatitudes, and the life of Jesus itself, demonstrates that God is already present in the places where we most think God absent: poverty, innocence, meekness, peacemaking, the bottom of the justice food chain. In being bullied and beaten down and killed for thinking that it's all right not to be beautiful, wealthy, straight, Christian, a gun advocate, Republican, Democrat, or have my own lobbyist. All of that entitlement thinking is sin. We have to sell it all, give it away, and hit the road with the Rabbi. It's a journey, that's for damn sure.

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne:

Entrance: Walk in the Reign
Psalm 90: In Every Age (Whitaker)
Presentation of Gifts: These Alone Are Enough (Schutte)
Communion: I Say Yes/Digo Si (Peña)
Sending Forth: We Are Called (Haas)