Mark 10:17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
(The following letter is inspired by Bereket, the young man being baptized today. When I asked him what calling he felt God laying on his life, he said he was concerned about the world’s poor, that as much as he enjoys doing things like going to Feed My Starving Children, he wants to do more than fill up bags of food to actually help the poor and address poverty. That desire, plus our celebration today of the church’s global solidarity, makes today’s Gospel passage all the more powerful and poignant. It inspired for me the following letter to the man who came to Jesus, and then walked away.)
Dear friend, you have been the target of a lot of sermons, the poster child for hard-heartedness and the love of class and wealth, over love of Jesus and your neighbor. You also strike us as kind of clueless. When you said,, “All these commandments I have kept from my youth.” I wondered, What planet did you say you’re from, that you could keep all of God’s commandments all the time? But great wealth can shelter us from many of the consequences of our sins, making our denial of our sins all the easier. Now, the poor are no less sinners than you or I. But while the powerful and wealthy can often buy their way out of their consequences, or pass them on to others, the consequences of the misdeeds of the poor can be immediate, catastrophic and long-lasting, and unavoidable.
And then I want to ask you, “What’s with this inheritance thing, as in, ‘How might I inherit eternal life?’” What makes you think that eternal life is something you can inherit? Unless inheritance is how you came to be so wealthy in the first place? If so, no surprise there; in your day and ours, inheritance is how most really wealthy people get their great wealth. Nothing wrong with that, either, unless you think that inherited wealth equals inherited worth, unless you think of your inheritance only in terms of rights, rather than in terms of responsibilities.
My friend, you had to have known that, when Jesus told you to give all you have to the poor, you would in effect be joining the poor. That would scare me too. Compared to most of the world’s inhabitants, I’m somewhere in your class of prosperity and privilege. There’s something else we have in common: I too have turned my back and walked away from the poor at least, if not also from Jesus. I get hit up for money out on the streets at least once a week, usually, they say, for bus fare. And I almost always refuse, because I know how close the liquor stores are. Sometimes I can even smell the alcohol on their breath. But is my dependence upon power, appearances, control, prestige and privilege any better?
Its funny how every time I refuse that request for spare change, I can’t stop myself from saying, “I’m sorry….” Now, why am I apologizing when they’re the ones putting me on the spot? Maybe its because I can’t shake the sense that the money in my wallet is not entirely mine, that it belongs to Jesus. So by saying, “Sorry,” I’m really praying, “Please forgive me, Jesus, if I got it wrong this time, and left you hungry and stranded.”
I know that when Jesus said, “Give all you have to the poor,” it sounds like re-distribution. That’s a dirty word this fall. Never mind that poverty is often caused by the powerful re-distributing wealth up and away from the powerless. Given what I know about life under empire and military occupation, I suspect that Jesus wasn’t asking you for redistribution, but for restitution.
Oh, and here’s another reason why the poor are so scary. Deep down, they remind us of our own poverty. What poverty? you might ask. Compared to the majesty and might and wonder and glory and holiness of God, even the wealthiest and most with-it among us are just beggars in rags. Compared to the Most High, the differences between us and the poorest of the poor are negligible, even ridiculous. And if heaven can’t convince us of that, then aging, dying, illness (sudden or chronic), or our own sins and weaknesses should. If we can’t identify with the poor, if we can’t even see them, because our eyes are glued to the next rung up of the social ladder, we’re only fooling ourselves. For join them we shall, at least at the moment of our last heartbeat.
But I have to tell you that when you turned your back on Jesus, and on the poor, here is what you missed: Its on Youtube, and its a Christian adaptation of a Malian and Burkinabe custom, to greet visiting dignitaries, or returning workers, with a song of welcome and thanks. They are singing, in Bambara, “Believers in Jesus, my thanks to you: Peace to you.”
There, in that video, you got a glimpse of the kind of welcome you would have received from Jesus, in “his most distressing guise of the poor.” For the most part, all around the world, such people are still the hands and feet and face and voice of Jesus. The relative poverty that you just saw in the video is the norm, for the world and the church, the rule rather than the exception. Don’t let those beautiful African gowns and dresses fool you; they’re likely their only such good clothes. The dress of the children gives you a truer sense of where they’re at. Or the lack thereof.
Still, should you join them, they will feed you quite well, give you the place of honor to sit and to sleep, and send you off the next day with a chicken. Not that they’d tell you, but those might be their last chickens. You cannot out-give the poor. You may also find a great degree of fun and freedom around them, once you’ve seen their huts and the animals wandering in and out of them. Theirs is the freedom of having no appearances to keep up.
You know what else you missed? You missed having the poor bless you and pray for you. We read the same Bible that says, “The Lord hears the cries of the poor.” When they cry to God on your behalf, you’re covered. Should ever they have to cry out to God against you, run for cover.
I’m not writing this to write you off, my wealthy and well-connected friend. Jesus is the Master of Second Chances. And third and fourth, and however many you need. Should you change your mind and do a 180, you’ll find that the offer still stands to follow Jesus, that he won’t berate you for coming late. Even now, if you’re not ready to sell it all, then do what you can for Jesus and the poor. With your resources and connections, there’s so much you can do to earn and return the blessings of the poor.
Then you’ll have new friends to welcome you, friends like the ones singing and dancing their exuberant welcome in today’s video. Among them you’ll meet the One who made a journey even greater than yours would have been, a journey from unimaginably extravagant wealth and infinite riches toward complete and total poverty, even nakedness and abject abandonment on a cross of execution. That cross, as you know, is a form of torture and shaming meant to keep the poor in their place. As harsh and demanding as “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor” sounds, remember that Jesus never asks anything of us that he hasn’t already done himself. So, when it comes to giving anything to God and to the poor, you won’t have to do it all alone.
Jesus has been there; done that.