Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"Word from Winkler", November 3, 2009, by Jim Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) of the United Methodist Church

Posted here with permission of Mr. Winkler:

Word from Winkler

A difficult text
By Jim Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church & Society

How many times have we heard it pointed out that Jesus said the poor will always be with us. How many time has this statement been used to permit us to shrug our shoulders about persistent poverty or to rationalize opposition to programs to aid the poor? After all, our very own Lord and Savior seems to acknowledge the intractability of poverty.

In the story of the rich man in Mark 10:17-31, we run the risk of further sentimentalizing Jesus and his teachings. It’s possible to hear this story and conclude that while it might be admirable for the rich to sell all they have, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus, it’s not crucial to do so.

What if we read the story in a different tone of voice?

Mark tells us that Jesus loved this wealthy man and doesn’t appear to condemn him. But, what if we read the story in a different tone of voice?

This rich man kneels before Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus tells him, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.’”

But the rich man persists, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” The rich man knows there’s something deeper, though. What’s the secret formula, he asks. Tell how to make sure I get to heaven.

A sharp, stern answer

Have you ever spoken sternly to one you love? Verse 21 in The Good News translation says Jesus looked straight at him with love. Many may not like to imagine Jesus having a temper, but he might have been a bit perturbed with this rich, young man.

I can hear Jesus responding with a bit of exasperation to the rich man. What if he answered sharply: “YOU LACK ONE THING: GO, SELL WHAT YOU OWN, AND GIVE THE MONEY TO THE POOR, AND YOU WILL HAVE TREASURE IN HEAVEN; THEN, COME FOLLOW ME.” Go, sell, give, come, follow.

Go, sell, give, come, follow.

At that moment, the rich man has a shock of recognition. I think he knows Jesus is right. He went away grieving. Why such intense feelings? Because he had many possessions and couldn’t bear to part with them.

The disciples left everything they had to follow Jesus. To spread the Good News, an urgent message in a difficult time, there was no time to manage your fishing or carpentry business. If you’re serious about God’s work, give it up.

Methodist circuit riders

There was a day when Methodist preachers were circuit riders. They traveled from station to station to preach, teach and organize. Wesley knew if they were settled down in one church, they would grow too comfortable. For many years, we didn’t erect local church buildings because we knew we would become devoted to them and spend our time and money on their upkeep.

The rich, young man was willing to forgo eternal life to remain rich. Rarely, if ever, have I heard it suggested that we ought to confiscate the wealth of the rich to facilitate their entrance into the kingdom of heaven. After all, if all they need to do to achieve eternal life is sell what they own and give their money to the poor, why not help them do so?

The rich, young man was willing to forgo eternal life to remain rich.

Many people believe Jesus simply used this formula as a rhetorical device to challenge the rich man. Many times I’ve heard people say our entire economy would collapse if the rich gave away what they possessed. The rich, I am told, are the ones who provide us with benefits such as consumer products, manufacturing, oil, mining, tourism, timber, and the countless other industries that make our daily life so convenient. Many contend we can’t live good lives without the rich.

But Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”

A difficult scripture

It’s not easy being a committed follower of Jesus. This scripture is not difficult to understand, it is direct. It is difficult to accept. It strikes at the very heart of what Jesus demands of us and few of us are able to deliver. We don’t want to. So we have created many rationales over the centuries to look at this text differently than it is intended.

It’s not easy being a committed follower of Jesus.

Who among us wants to be first to sell and give away everything? Wealth, you see, was seen as a sign of the blessing of God. TV preachers regularly tell us that God blesses believers with riches. But Jesus turns this around: Wealth is an obstacle to eternal life.

That’s uncomfortable to hear. Surely, Jesus didn’t literally mean that, did he? It’s easy for many of us to tell ourselves that we’re not really rich.

This is not an easy scripture. It’s disturbing. It forces us to think about our faith, our possessions and our very salvation. Jesus looks the rich man in the eye and he looks at each of us in the eye to tell us life is not about accumulating things, but about freeing ourselves from our wealth.

Unless you are desperately poor or you are living a simple life that few have committed to, you know we live in a culture that pushes us to desire more things. Our lives are marked by excess consumption. Whether we like it or not, our relative wealth in contrast to our poor sisters and brothers in places like Nigeria, Zimbabwe and the Philippines is directly linked to their poverty.

I pray that we will be able to heed Jesus’ teaching about wealth. I pray that we will become dissatisfied with worldly possessions, and accept Jesus’ challenge to become more committed to the truth that one or two who love God can change the world — indeed that is all that ever have.

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