A sermon reflection for Proper 23, Year B, given at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, WA, October 14.
Today’s readings make me sweat a little under the collar, they always have (perhaps they always should). The way I tend to read them is that either you give away the farm to those who are in greater need than you, or you’re selfish for holding onto any material gain—and God knows when I’m being selfish! Where is the grace in that? Today we are faced with two renditions of the ‘woe to the wealthy’ literary formulae. The passages from Amos and Mark are squarely aligned with a long prophetic tradition that culminates in Jesus’ teachings on the upside-down kingdom of God, where the last are first and the first, last. I take some relief—and I hope you do, too—knowing that the disciples were exceedingly perplexed by these teachings.
The other challenge with these texts is that they are riddled with a number of familiar phrases that stand out from years of hearing and reading scripture. Who here has heard a sermon or two on the ‘rich young ruler’? Or, how about cherry-picked phrases like, “for God all things are possible.” Lesser in popularity–though a personal favorite of mine–comes from the letter to the Hebrews. Certain Protestant traditions are not terribly keen on the priestly language, but who can forget the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword…able to judge thoughts and intentions of the heart.” There’s nothing quite like the image of getting spliced open by the Holy Spirit to spur on fervent prayer.
And then the saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” That one has kept me awake from time to time (especially when I find myself preaching on it). In fact, on my bookshelf at home sits one of Peter Brown’s formidable tomes with that very title: Through the Eye of a Needle: wealth, the fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. In a mere 500+ pages, he charts out a 200 year history of the early church’s relationship with money and a falling empire. It is a history of soul searching and mixed responses. Throughout the church’s history, there have been times when Lady Poverty was (or continues to be) honored to great effect, and other times when she has been neglected in the corner. As we heard last week, Saint Francis was one who elevated her to renewed status. And to this day, the subsequent monastic tradition of the Franciscans continues to instruct us on the way of self-denial. Their approach remains one among many. We may not come to conclusive agreement on notions like “wealth” and “stewardship”—or even who is wealthy, or who is responsible for stewarding resources—this is one needle that will continue to prick us, the church, for a very long time.
Wealth and justice are fully intertwined in today’s texts. In Amos, we learn that the Israelites who have accrued wealth have also neglected justice. In the gospel reading, Jesus lovingly suggests to a potential disciple that he exercise radical generosity. In the Hebrews text, wealth and justice are addressed through discernment of thoughts and intentions, and we are reminded (echoing Amos) that there will come a day when we open our books to none other than God in Christ.
I want to invite us to listen closely to these hard teachings, together. And, following the letter to the Hebrews, let’s invite the Spirit to bring discernment, to illuminate our way, as we move toward the seat of grace. (Come, Holy Spirit.)
As I was sitting with these passages, allowing them to be both familiar and yet alien, a phrase in Amos stood out in its repetition: “in the gate.” It shows up three times. The first instance states, “they hate the one who reproves in the gate.” The second instance shifts from ‘they’ to ‘you,’ meaning Amos’ listeners, the Israelites, “and push aside the needy in the gate.” Finally, the third changes verb tense to a directive, “establish justice in the gate.” In the repetition of this one phrase Amos spells out a fairly clear picture of what is wrong within the nation of Israel at that moment, and the remedy for what needs to happen to correct.
But why a gate? What is important about the gate? In the ancient world, they were the thresholds into a city where people gathered daily. Vendors occupied market stalls, elders adjudicated cases, gossip percolated. Imagine something like a city plaza—an open area between two passageways—and that comes close to how gates in ancient cities functioned. The heart of a city could be discerned by noticing what activities occurred at the gate. Do widows and the poor receive food? Are the cases of less wealthy citizens heard with the same sobriety as those with status and influence? How do vendors price their goods, and how are they treated by authorities? In other words, how wealth and justice are performed, how they interact, in the gate defines an urban culture, and is a primary concern for God.
At the first mention of the gate, an undefined ‘they’ has targeted ‘one who speaks truth’ as an enemy. Amos being a prophet, happens to be one who speaks truth—it’s his job description, you could say. Given the nature of the prophetic message, the ‘they’ here is likely to point to those in positions of power and authority who may or may not be among the prophet’s listeners, but they are certainly perturbed by the message. In the second instance, what should be a visual cue in the form of vulnerable persons is, quite literally, pushed aside altogether. The prophetic voice has been silenced, and now visible need is not only ignored, but forcibly moved. The third instance offers an opportunity to turn things around. Seeking good, loving good, looks like (re)establishing justice in the gate/out in public—sharing bread and beverage with those who do not own fields or have the ability to make their own food, listening to wisdom from those who know and follow the way of the Lord, dealing honorably with one another (and not taking bribes or using privilege for gain). If only the people would seek God and live.
At this point in our journey through the texts, we could go down the path of constructing a political agenda that would be faithful to scripture. Or we could come up with all kinds of social commitments that would keep us busy, for the sake of the kingdom. I certainly have my biases in this department; perhaps you have one or two. In Mark’s gospel, too, it seems pretty clear that economic justice here on the earth has something to do with the kingdom of heaven. Yet, I believe we would miss something important if we only read this to further a cause. So, what might we find in the particulars of this encounter?
A rich man runs up to Jesus, kneels down, calls him “Good Teacher,” and asks what can he do to inherit eternal life. He does this, not when Jesus is teaching somewhere publicly already, where he would have to angle his way through a crowd, but when Jesus and the disciples are on the way (to Jerusalem). Presumably, Jesus had already been teaching in that area—had the rich man gone to hear him and been impressed? Or had he heard about this man, Jesus, and decided to catch him on his way out of town (kind of like getting a back stage pass)? Why would the man call him “Good Teacher” instead of “Rabbi,” which was more common? The scene Mark paints illustrates an aggrandized display of deference on the part of the rich man—who perhaps thinks very highly of himself to make such a showing. Jesus doesn’t exactly respond accordingly. (He never does.) Notice that when he recites the commandments, an extra one is thrown in. Recognizable are, no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness, and honoring one’s father and mother. To these Jesus specifically inserts “no defrauding.” Naturally, the man says he’s followed the rules since his youth, but it would seem he doesn’t quite catch that extra one. Jesus addresses those commandments that deal with how we treat one another, then includes another term that explicitly points to economic and power differentials. When that passes the rich man by, he reiterates by saying, “you lack one thing; go [get up], sell what you own [land, property], and give [the proceeds] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus looks at this man, loves him, and attempts to redirect his gaze from eternal life, to seek good exactly where he is.
Perhaps this form of redistribution sounds familiar; remember the command concerning the year of jubilee, when the land and all people are to have a sabbath year? Early on, the Israelites are instructed, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants…In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another.” (Lev. 25.10,13-14) This command had social, economic, political implications (and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, was never practiced), and in the moment between Jesus and the rich man, the reverberations of jubilee are intended to strike a chord within the rich man, calling him to turn away from material status, to follow Jesus (the Messiah) into a new way, into life. The story of the rich man is just as much about the larger socioeconomic systems of disenfranchisement as it is an invitation to an individual to seek out and to love justice.
As we see in today’s readings, seeking good is locational. In Amos, it happens in the very public place of the city gate. In Mark’s gospel, it happens on the road, along the way, as Jesus himself is facing the gates of Jerusalem.
Recently, I watched a documentary film that offers an example of (re)establishing justice in a place, and in such a way that brought disparate communities together. The Return of the River is a film, released in 2014, that follows the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, over on the Olympic Peninsula. It follows the flow of the river itself, from the mountains out to the Strait, then back again as salmon swim upstream to return for spawning. And it follows the dream of one man to bring electricity and industry to this furthermost corner of the United States, which he did. At the time the dams were built, timber was a vital industry. It employed and fed families in the Port Angeles area, and the dams provided affordable power to a great many people. Yet, for the good they did, they also cut off entirely an essential conduit of salmon and trout from the sea to the inland portions of the river. The priorities of one community superseded the local indigenous communities, as was the case more often than not at that time. Until the mid-1990s when the timber industry was in transition, and environmentalists started to petition for the removal of the dams—an unprecedented proposal. It took nearly two decades for a plan to come to fruition, but eventually, these engineering feats were blasted back to rubble, the river flowed, and the fish returned. (I cried, through the whole thing.) This is not everyone’s definition of justice, however, it is one example of what it can look like to honor those who have been economically, politically, even religiously pushed aside.
Loving good is particular to the individual heart/soul just as it is locational. We are all invited to follow the way of Jesus, each according to the way Jesus calls us. This does not mean that we may remain naïve to the systems of oppression and privilege at work in the world. Yet, we may approach the throne of grace boldly, knowing that Jesus will ask some very difficult things of us and that God will provide a Spirit of grace, creativity and truth in order to do what is asked of us.
May you receive exactly what you need for this day, and every day. Amen.