A Dangerous Obsession
A Sermon on James 4:11-5:6 and Mark 10:17-31
James, you sound like the Old Testament prophets: weep and wail, rich people, your riches are rotted? The cries of your workers have reached God’s ears? James, you sound like Amos in Israel, seven hundred years before Jesus who thundered: “For three transgressions of Israel and for four I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7a). How terrible it will be for you who have such an easy life in Zion, and for those who feel secure in Samaria, you notables…how terrible for those who stretch out on your luxurious couches, feasting on veal and lamb!…You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest perfumes, but you do not mourn over the ruin of Israel. You shall be the first to go into exile! This party will be over!” (Amos 6:1-6).
Yes, James joins a long line of prophets who speak harshly to the rich and the comfortable. Imagine how he might deliver that critique now, in the twenty-first century: Woe to you big businesses that don’t pay your workers a living wage. Woe, you CEOs that pull in hundreds, thousands of times what you pay your workers. Woe, you wealthy that buy influence in Washington, and woe to you officials that coddle the wealthy and leave the poor and the sick out in the cold. Woe to you affluent who luxuriate in homes of many thousands of square feet while some have to work long hours at multiple jobs in order to rent a basic one bedroom apartment, and while others call the streets home. Woe to you who live to buy and consume and accumulate and throw things away.
Now imagine the “amens!” Amens from people like the former workers at Enron and other companies who lost their retirements due to the shenanigans of the higher ups. Amens from people who live paycheck to paycheck. Amens from workers stuck in sweatshops producing cheap goods. Yes, James’ tough preaching does draw Amens from the oppressed.
But it won’t win him too many friends elsewhere. In her study of this passage from James, Frances Taylor Gench points to a report coming from Latin American Christian writer José Míguez Bonino. He writes that during the Pinochet regime, this text was read from the pulpit of a wealthy congregation in Chile, and half the congregation got up and walked out! They walked out during the scripture reading! The preacher hadn’t even said anything yet! (Frances Gench, James, Horizons Bible Study, Louisville, KY: 1992, p. 60). There are countries in Central and South America, the Middle East and in other places where fabulous wealth is concentrated in the hands of just a few elite families. There are large numbers of impoverished people and almost no middle class. It certainly doesn’t put us at ease to hear reports that the middle class in the United States is shrinking, and vast amounts of wealth are becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
James isn’t looking to be liked. He’s looking to speak the truth. He is out to show how the worldly wisdom that says money makes the world go round is not true wisdom at all. It’s foolishness. He remembers what Jesus said. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Don’t store up treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal. Store up treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. You can’t serve God and wealth.”
James puts it even more sharply: weep and wail, you well off. Your riches are already rotted. Your couture clothes are already moth-eaten and shabby. Your silver and gold have rusted into dust. In other words, James says that hoarding possessions for one’s self is the same as letting them rot. Storing up silver and gold and letting it sit is the same thing as letting it rust.
Listen to me, you folks that think money makes the world go round, James exclaims. You excitedly lay your plans for how tomorrow you’re going to such and such a town and go into business and make a lot of money. How arrogant! You don’t know if there will even be a tomorrow! Instead, humble yourself and say, “Lord willing.” Humble yourself and recognize that only God is in control. God is the only sure thing.
Worldly wisdom that says you can find life and security in things is no wisdom at all. It’s the height of foolishness. But you don’t have to be wealthy to buy into the world’s wisdom. Anybody at any economic level can focus their life on things: getting, having, keeping. Anybody can celebrate wealth, look to it for security.
I doubt that the man in today’s gospel lesson was corrupt in the same way as certain executives and government officials that have been in the news the last few years. In fact, when he first comes on the scene we wouldn’t know he’s affluent. Mark doesn’t tell us that until the end of the encounter. So pretend you don’t know his economic status yet. The first thing that strikes Mark about this man—and you can really see this if you also look at the way Matthew and Luke tell the story—what strikes Mark is how eager the man is to talk with Jesus. He runs to meet Jesus. He kneels. His countenance is up; he’s excited and expectant.
Soon we learn that he has carefully kept the commandments of God, and let’s assume he has a genuine concern to keep the law. The Old Testament law strongly emphasizes caring for the poor, the weak, the sick, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. It would be hard to miss for a sincere student of the commandments. Whatever wealth the man has I’m thinking he probably came by honestly. Maybe his family left him a legacy.
Something prompts the man to want to see Jesus. Did he watch Jesus bless the children, and sense that he needs a blessing, too? Or maybe he vaguely senses something amiss, like a family I told you about in another sermon recently. This at least outwardly affluent family visited a particular church for several Sundays running, and on the first Sunday, the pastor asked them how they chose to come to his church. “We’re looking for the icing on the cake” to make life complete, they said. Maybe the man thinks of eternal life as being like icing on the cake. What else does he need to do to make sure he receives eternal life?
Jesus looks intently at the man, right into his very soul. Now Jesus could tell the truth in a tirade like James. Indeed, in Luke Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who hoards his possessions, and God calls the man a fool. But that’s not what Jesus does here. Mark wants us to know Jesus sees the man through eyes of love. Jesus looks at him, and he loves him. He is like a doctor full of compassion for the patient.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus answers. “Sell what you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” Jesus invites the man to invest his assets in others, and to invest his life in what Jesus is doing. “Do this, and you’ll have treasure in heaven,” Jesus adds.
The man’s face fell, and he turned and walked away, because he had many possessions. He heard this as a call he couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. Apparently he didn’t feel that he could part with any of what he had. The sad and deadly truth was clear: the man’s possessions meant more to him than Jesus, more than people in need, more than God’s kingdom. His heart was focused on what he claimed was his. It’s dangerous to set one’s heart on things. It’s dangerous. It can make you walk away from Jesus.
Jesus watched the man go. James would call the man a fool. But Jesus turned and stared intently at his disciples. “How hard it will be for rich people to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were shocked. Like most folks then, and even now, they regarded wealth as a sign of divine favor.
“I repeat: children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”
“Then who can be saved? Can anybody be saved!” the disciples exclaimed. “Only God can accomplish it,” Jesus answered. Let God do the saving. Let God do the securing. What’s not possible with us is possible for God. Didn’t Jesus just get through teaching them that the way to enter the kingdom is to come as a child, empty-handed?
To receive what God has to give us, our hands can’t be preoccupied with reaching for and grasping and hoarding other things. To receive the life God gives, our hearts can’t be preoccupied with other treasures.
All these other things are just that: things, to be held lightly and to be let go and used at the Lord’s direction.
Jesus looks at all who say they want to be his disciples today. He sees deep into our souls. He sees the truth, for better and for worse, and he loves us. With his piercing eyes he asks, “Where is your treasure? Where is your heart?”
Jesus wants to know: are the things that have been entrusted to us being invested in what he is doing? Or have they become an obsession, an obstruction to following Jesus? Are they being used in service, or are they being hoarded: mine, mine, mine like the chorus of the greedy birds in the movie Finding Nemo: mine, mine, mine, over and over. If that’s the case, then, as James put it, our treasure is rusting and rotting.
Jesus is looking at Morton Church intently as a congregation. This has always been an extraordinarily gifted congregation, and in recent years, the silver and gold in the treasury has also increased. Recently we received a very large bequest, and now that particular silver and gold is earning interest in a bank CD while we pray and discern God’s will for it. What a sheer, unexpected gift it is. If we trust God with it, this gift could help sustain a Christian witness here for years to come. Jesus is watching.
How he loves us! If he asks us, and I’m sensing he probably will ask us, to let go of some of it to care for others, to do something that is not for our own benefit, but because we love others as he loves us, will we trust him? Or will we tighten our hands like the man in the story and walk away. It’s ours, ours, ours. James would scowl.
I think Jesus’ eyes would fill with tears.
Jesus leaves his disciples then and now unsettled when it comes to possessions. We can’t ever rest completely easy while we have, and others do not. What we do with money and things really matters. Maybe that’s yet another way in which God’s wisdom is not like the world’s wisdom. The world wants everything in black and white, and hence easier to handle. But God leaves some things fluid and unsettled, so that we keep having to consult him, and depend on him. We keep having to ask, “What must we do, Lord?”
Yes, God’s wisdom shakes things up. Many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first.