“Who won the game last night?” -a common first question of the day, in my baseball-obsessed household. “Did you win?” -I ask my voice student coming into her lesson red-cheeked from exertion on the volleyball court. “Who picked the winners on the stock market this year?” asks the headline from Money magazine. We live in a winner’s world. At least it appears so. This country has worshipped the Horatio Alger self-made man idea since its inception. Indeed we are now enduring the bitter spectacle that apparently millions of our fellow citizens need a strong man, no matter how straw-filled, ignorant or unfit for leadership he may be. We seem to have a neurotic need for heroes. We use this word so indiscriminately now it means almost nothing. We have so little buy-in for service as a common practice that we need hero-worship and winner-worship. We are fascinated by the antics of the rich-all you have to do is to turn on regular tv to realize this. I often wonder what rage and despair is being perpetuated by the media normalization of images of “middle class” wealth on tv in a country where the top 20% of the people own 80% of the wealth.
But hero and winner worship has been around a long time. Ancient Israel too, throughout her history which is our history, was always looking out for the winner, the hero, the great king, soldier, powerful deliverer. The Messiah was looked for who would take back power, deliver the society from bondage, make pure again what had been sullied by occupation and collaboration with various invading powers. It seems as though Ancient Israel had its problems with winner worship too, as our reading from Amos shows. The prophets were always trying to recall the Jewish people back to rightful living, to allegiance to their own gods, instead of going off whoring after the Winner Gods of other tribes. Amos is pretty clear that the prostitution of their own highest values has made the elite, the winners of his world, into dead-end people. The forceful condemnation of those who oppress the poor, who hate and silence truth-tellers, who live wastefully while the needy go hungry…this could be right out of our current political conversation. The prophetic call to more just social arrangements could not be more direct. I don’t think we need a lot of hi-falutin biblical interpretation to get the message of Amos for our times. And there is no question in my mind that when we elected a man who claims the title “Winner” and enjoys calling people losers, we put ourselves under Amos’s condemnation. One of the most disgraceful things to come out of our president’s mouth was when he said of John McCain, “I prefer people who don’t get captured.” Moral bankruptcy has never had a more human face than this so-called winner in the White House.
But in one respect this passage from Amos lets me down, I confess. And I’ll harp on it because it makes quite a contrast with the Gospel lesson. When Amos says, “Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time” That just makes me want to scream no, no, no at this otherwise forceful prophet. Was this a moment of exhaustion for poor Amos, maybe? Prudence and Silence in the face of injustice? Not a good option-and not even one that Amos himself believes in, you gotta think. We need our truth-tellers. We need our prophets, imprudent though they may be.
But Amos doesn’t really question the whole category of winner vs. loser. He may think that people have betrayed the values of the tribe, but he doesn’t really question the whole value-system itself. It takes Jesus to do this.
And question it he does, in the story of the rich young ruler in Mark’s gospel. And one of the first things to know about this story is that it appears in three out of four of the canonic gospels, with only minor variations. So you can pretty much bet on authenticity.
It’s a compelling story. A wealthy young man, a winner, a good Jew-probably a model citizen, comes to Jesus to ask him what he must do to gain eternal life. He sure doesn’t get an answer he was expecting.
‘Wait a minute, Jesus, you mean, sell….everything???? You want me to do what? You mean everything that I’ve managed to put aside for a rainy day, to stick in the bank, to save for retirement? Impoverish my spouse and my children? That wouldn’t be very responsible, Jesus. I can’t imagine you mean that. That would be scarey, that would not be prudent, and it would definitely not keep the economy running. I’ve got a reputation to maintain. I’ve been a winner all my life, and you’re asking me to give it all up? No, no you can’t mean that.”
Well, there is every indication that Jesus meant exactly what he said. After all, the apostles standing around listening to this young man had all left their homes, wives, jobs to follow Jesus. Why shouldn’t this guy? But there is also every indication that Jesus also knew that this young man who had done everything right in his life wasn’t going to follow through on his teaching.
And I’ll make the confession right here – neither am I. I’ve got to get Sasha through college. And I’ll hazard a guess that you won’t either. You’ve got mortgages to pay and children to support. Does this make us lousy disciples? -Yes and no.
There is absolutely no denying that Jesus’s followers did live at least somewhat communally at least in the 1rst century. The Acts of Apostles reports within a short time of Jesus’s death, hundreds of people had renounced their riches and pooled resources to live communally. And of course, Western monastic tradition is still quite uncompromising on this issue. When you enter a monastic order, you renounce your possessions, no ifs ands or buts. Jesus challenges his disciples then and now with changing their economic relationships in order to become the beloved community. It is clear that some disciples however did own property, and were from various socioeconomic backgrounds, but there is no denying that the writer of Acts reports on a sharing of goods and hospitality way beyond the current model of church stewardship, charity and mission work that is common in our church lives.
Indeed the great Christian martyr and dare I say, hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis killed near the end of WW2, used this story to illustrate what he calls “cheap grace,” if we try to weasel out of what Jesus is really challenging us to, which is what Bonhoeffer calls a costly discipleship. How does Jesus call us to costly discipleship?
I find myself haunted by the way Jesus both resists and challenges this young man. First off, he seems to respond quite negatively to the young man’s greeting, “Good Teacher,” and He deflects this title forcefully. ‘Don’t call me that, he says. No one but God is good.’ In other words, ‘ Stop trying to put me on some other ethical plane than the one that you stand on too, young man. I know what’s behind this hero worship-you’re gonna try to let yourself off the hook.‘ I think Jesus knows that there is a bit of flattery and hero worship coming at him. Jesus completely refuses to accept this hero status. Instead he challenges him flat out – if you want to gain eternal life, you gotta get rid of your stuff and come follow me on the Way.
And that little phrase, “and Jesus, loving him” also haunts me. Our Lord and Saviour knows that this young man probably doesn’t have it in him to rise to this challenge, but he loves him anyway. He pities the young man, who after all will probably not gain eternal life because he thinks that wealth will save and protect him.
The other thing that haunts me about this passage is how amazed and astounded the apostles are as they listen to Jesus respond to the young man. When they hear Jesus say that it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich man to get into heaven, they are totally confused. It makes you realize what Jesus must have realized, and that is, that a lot of his apostles still didn’t get his message at all. They thought that they had found their hero, their winner, -that he would at least deliver them from Rome, from bondage, from all the bad stuff. And they’d live happily ever after.
Listening to Jesus, his followers have their world turned upside down – ‘you mean, the Master is saying that it isn’t wealth and power that gets you into Heaven? That’s crazy. We’ve been waiting and waiting for the powerful deliverer, and we thought it was you, Jesus, after all, that’s why we’re here. And you’re saying that this is it?, no powerful deliverer here?, no rescue from Rome, no militant hero savior King?’
And that was indeed what Jesus was saying, at least according to Mark, because in the very next verse, he tells his followers of the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. He will die the ultimate loser’s death. It’s not just your stuff you have to get rid of. It might be your very life.
But in so dying, he will offer to the world not prudence, not silence in the face of injustice, but a different way of being. Later in the same chapter he offers them a different idea of a society not based on winners and losers but on service. Winners aren’t winners in the Kingdom of Heaven he says. You’ve got the wrong model in your head.
“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of man also came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 2000 years later, we are still struggling to take him at his word.
So, there is a call to service. There is a call to getting rid of things, so that there is more room to love and serve our neighbors. There is a call to costly discipleship. I honestly don’t know how we can take up that call seriously, unless Jesus himself comes to us in our hearts to make room there first. The promise of Easter tells us that this is possible. And it does seem as though Jesus and some of his followers knew we would fail, and love us anyway. For As the reading from Hebrews today says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are.” I’m not trying to let us off the hook. The more Jesus comes into our hearts, the more demanding the response is going to have to be. I do fear that the way our world is headed, we are going to be losing much in the not too distant future, and we will need to embrace that loss, in order to save our planetary life together. But just maybe in that embrace, we will find the Kingdom of Heaven, which has been here all along. Through the centuries since Jesus died his loser’s death, there have been some who have passed that test, and showed us that this way of poverty and spiritual fulfillment is possible. St. Francis is one of them, so I’ll close by praying the prayer attributed to him:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love. Amen.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.