The Call to Remember the Poor

Mark describes Jesus as packing up for a journey, when a man walks up to him. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus questions his use of good, trying to push on what the man meant by it. “Only God can truly be considered good,” he tells the man before getting down to the answer of his question. Jesus picks out six of the ten commandments, the ones dealing with a person’s interactions with other human beings—don’t steal or murder or defraud. You can almost see the man begin to smile.  “Well,” he says, delighted, “I’ve taken care to obey them even from my youth.”  That’s when Jesus looks on this man who has come looking for the affirmation that he has figured it all out, that he has taken care of everything and is now riding high until the end of his life, and has compassion on him.  Mark writes that Jesus loved him.

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“You lack one thing,” Jesus says softly to the man who has everything, which is clearly an ironic turn that the man didn’t see coming.  As theologian Karoline Lewis puts it, “We can likely assume that given his wealth, his many possessions, the rich man lacks nothing. What could he possibly be without? What wouldn’t he be able to purchase, to acquire, to make happen in his life given what he clearly has? After all, wealth provides you with everything you could possibly imagine, right?”

He reminds me of Will Freeman—or perhaps I should say, “Free Man”—played exquisitely by Hugh Grant in the film “About A Boy.”  Will is a free man since he’s independently wealthy, and he lives a narcissistic life intentionally separated from others. He thinks he has the perfect existence since he’s able to cater to his every whim.  What does he lack? Not a thing, thank you very much. Except, we come to find out, real relationships. He happily partakes in what he calls “island living,” doing what he pleases.  The people he encounters only appear to cater to his wants.  They are merely bit players in the drama of his life.

That’s when our man—so certain of his entrance in to eternal life, so firm in his belief that he’s done everything right—hears Jesus’ description of what he lacks, or perhaps what he’s been lax in doing.  “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  The man can’t believe Jesus’ words.  Slowly, he turns away crestfallen, now less certain about everything in his life. We watch as he wanders to that island home he’s set up for himself.  He despondently walks away.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus proclaims to the ones who’ve just witnessed this drama.  The disciples stare back at Jesus dumbfounded, so he continues.  “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.”  There was an audible gasp. “Well, then who can be saved?” they ask, for—just as it is now—wealth was viewed as a sign of God’s favor. If the wealthy ones can’t get to heaven easily, then who among them has a fighting chance?

Jesus, looking on them with compassion, responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for with God all things are possible.”

What’s most striking to me in this encounter is the commandments Jesus asks about.  They all have to do with his relationships with others.  Each one focuser on our engagement with our neighbors.

People live in excessive poverty in our world; you know this.  We speak about the statistics about this as a way to try to comprehend it. Like the truth that 80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day—not even $4000 a year—and about half of the people on our planet,  about 3.5 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day.  Then there’s this: the poorest 40% of our world’s population make about 5% of global income while the richest 20% account for 75% of all income. 

But the truly stunning statistics come when we consider the costs of things and do comparisons.  For example in 2016, the US market spent more than $62 billion on cosmetics, which is a lot of make-up, hair gel, and perfume.  A recent study estimated that to provide basic education for each child in the 46 poorest countries would cost only $54 billion—$8 billion less.  Here’s another: we Americans spend about $230 billion on alcohol each year, and for people living in Europe it’s about $338 billion.  Yet in order to provide clean drinking water and sanitation to every person on our planet, it would cost only $150 billion.  Just a quarter of what the Western World spends on booze. A recent World Bank report explains the importance of these things, “The risk of diarrheal diseases and malnutrition caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation is creating a ‘silent emergency.’ with stunted growth affecting more than 40 percent of children under five in countries including Guatemala, Niger, Yemen and Bangladesh.”  I could go on, but you get the idea.  And it’s overwhelming, and easy to tune out.  

“You lack one thing,” Jesus said.

What that rich man lacked wasn’t guilt—the thing many of us may be now feeling this morning—rather, he lacked relationships.  He created a life for himself where he didn’t need to interact with those who lived on so much less than he did, and as such he could easily ignore their need.  Professor Karoline Lewis writes, “So, as it turns out, what the rich man lacks is his everything. How his wealth has worked against connection. How he has revered his riches over relationships. How he has rejected community for the sake of acquiring more. What Jesus offers the rich man is, perhaps, a relationship perceivably out of his reach or that he has eschewed and then used his riches so as to fill the void. Jesus doesn’t stop at, ‘sell all of your possessions,’ but ‘sell what you own and give the money to the poor.’ [It’s] a mandate to look outside of himself. A command to imagine that life’s worth can never be met by the self alone.”

So we have to ask the question this morning since we live in one of the wealthiest areas in our state, are we using our wealth to shield ourselves from the poor? Are we lacking in our relationships with those who live on so much less?  And, most importantly, what’s the cost of that on our souls?

There aren’t easy answers, but let me say this: while it may be hard for rich people like us to get into the kingdom of heaven, it’s not impossible. Because with God—the one who looks on us and has compassion—nothing is impossible.  What we need to do as a community of those who are well off is deepen our connections with others, especially those who live on less.  We can begin by watching the words we use to describe others in this world.  Do we negate their existence with how we describe them? Words like illegals, or lazy, or stupid, or so much worse. As followers of Christ we promise to respect the dignity of every human being no matter who they are or how much they make, and we do so with how we describe others.

Second, let us look for big and small ways to build relationships with others, because I firmly believe that’s the key to our passage this morning. This is hard because we now not only live in islands of our forming, we also surround ourselves in communities of people just like ourselves.  Take 10 minutes and share a cup of coffee with a person asking you for money. Ask their name.  Find commonalities and listen to their story. Or decide to make a micro-loan online with an organization like Kiva to help people around the globe.  Perhaps you’ll fund Nisreen in Palestine who’s hoping to afford a new sewing machine. With as little as $25, you can change someone’s life.  Or give to others in unexpected ways. Author Philip Yancey describes how he and his wife would slide sums of money under a friend’s door because that person needed a helping hand. Just random acts of kindness to share wealth.

Finally, don’t become insulated.  Don’t leave this place today downtrodden thinking it’s impossible to break down barriers, but look for new ways to make connections with others different from yourself.  Give generously from your wealth, your time, and your presence.  That’s the work we’re called to do, and the work we invite those being baptized today—Maxine, Claire and Teddy—into as well.  Don’t allow your wealth to keep you from the kingdom. Share it with others, help the poor, build relationships.  Allow Jesus’ love for you, and for others, to enable you to make a significant difference.  Because God wants nothing more than for you and me—for the wealthy ones in this world—to enter into the kingdom of heaven even if that is a herculean task.  May it be so.  Amen.