Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
[Proper 28], rcl yr b, 2021
Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Mark 10:17-31
It’s the second of our Stewardship Sundays, and I will turn to that in a moment. But I intentionally chose the Job lectionary readings, not for stewardship reasons—but because I’m quite sure that Job will speak to some of us, especially those of us who feel desolated in this moment.
So today we read the following, about God’s absence, and the resulting desire to “vanish into darkness”: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”
All I’d say about this for now is this: often when we feel God’s absence, we drift away from common worship and community. This is precisely the wrong thing to do. When you feel God’s absence, hold onto, or return to the fold of the church. But not because you will find God here; that is not necessarily promised. You will though find others in the same place of desolation, and others to share the journey through the darkness. And after a time, if you wait upon God, God will find you again.
Ok, so let’s get down to the business of the day. Stewardship. A bit of a challenge today, because today’s reading—as we hope to reflect on generosity and thanksgiving—is something of a doozy. The gospel tells the story that is not, at all, a story of someone responding with generosity, or of giving of their earnings to God’s work; instead, it tells a story of a man who, when he is asked to give, gives nothing at all and walks away.
Neither does the gospel tell a story about tithing, or about giving a percentage or a portion of one’s wealth or earnings to God’s work; instead, it tells the story of Jesus demanding no portion, but everything of someone.
Maybe it would be helpful to say what this reading is actually about, and what it’s not about, before we get to thanksgiving and generosity. This passage is, most certainly, about wealth. But more than that, it’s meant as an illustration of the parable of the sower and how the gospel can fail.
You might remember the parable, the one about a sower sowing seed, where the seed falls in different places and the seed suffers different fates. Some seed lands on the path, and the birds eat it up; some seed falls on rocky ground, where it springs up quickly but is scorched by the sun; other seed falls among thorns, and is choked by those thorns and yields no grain; only some of the seed falls on good soil, where it is able to grow healthily.
When it comes time for Jesus to explain this parable, he describes the different fates of those seeds as analogies for the failure of the gospel, the failure of the word of God, to take root in a person. Jesus says this about the word that falls among the thorns: “these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.”
Jesus, here, is far more interested in the failure of the good news than he is in its success. Jesus, here, is answering a hard question: why does the gospel sometimes take root in a person’s life, but after a time,fail? And Jesus answers this question by saying that sometimes “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.”
That rich man who comes to Jesus begins as a disciple. He seeks Jesus out, he kneels before Jesus, he asks for a word from Jesus. And Jesus gives him a word, reminding him of commandments, but adding to them “you shall not defraud.” (“You shall not defraud” is not in the 10 commandments.) So Jesus is not giving the commandments by rote here, instead he’s describing what it means to live out the summary of the law, and how to love your neighbour as yourself: “you shall not defraud” your neighbour. You shall not gain wealth by taking unfair advantage of other people, especially the poor. And when Jesus asks this rich man to sell all he owns and to give it to the poor, the rich man can can only go away grieving, “for he had many possessions.”
This story of this rich man, who begins as a disciple but ultimately walks away from Jesus, is an an illustration of the seed that falls among the thorns, the seed that gets choked and yields nothing; it is an illustration of the word of God taking root in a person, but ultimately failing. And the word of God fails in this disciple because “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things [came] in and [choked] the word, and so it [yielded] nothing.”
St Anthony, and St Francis, both of them (as their stories go) upon hearing the passage where Jesus asks that rich man to give away all his possessions—they did exactly that, and immediately gave away all they owned. The story of St Francis even includes him stripping off all his clothes. And it might very well be that this is what is demanded of us, too, to do what St. Anthony did, to do what St Francis did: to immediately give away all our possessions, and give them to the poor.
But the story of the rich man who walks way from Jesus tells more about wealth than that. Jesus is keen for the man, and for us, to hear that wealth that is gained by defrauding others is counter to the love of neighbour. And that wealth, especially if it is gained by taking advantage of others—as common as it might be in our world—is more than spiritually dangerous to us as individual people. It is also simply counter to the way of God’s Kingdom.
While we really do need to be very conscious about how “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things” can “come in and choke the word” that God has planted in us, the story isn’t just about a single person, and the way the word of God is choked out in a single person. It’s about the politics of a world where wealth is built through fiscal and economic practices that creates inequality, and comparing that to the politics of the Kingdom of God, where inequalities such as that do not exist. So it’s a challenge to Christians to build communities where that kind inequality does not exist either.
But I’d also like to come back around to stewardship, and generosity, and thanksgiving. This is the last thing I’ll say this morning. The wealthy man who walks away from Jesus makes a mistake that we most certainly don’t need to make. And that’s to assume that all that we have is ours in the first place.
That man walked away from Jesus because “he had many possessions.” But if we believe in a God who has made all the world from nothing, then all we have is a gift that’s been given to us already. And we give it all back in the end anyway, don’t we. We all pass from this world with empty pockets; even our bodies are given back to the ground. We possess nothing. All we have is already a gift given to us from God; and all of it is eventually given away again.
It’s something captured in the old prayer book, when the priest, upon receiving the offering of the people, addresses God, saying: “All that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.” The old prayer book gets at something foundational about what we give back to the church for the church’s work when we talk of stewardship, and generosity, and thanksgiving: that nothing that we have began as ours, but has rather come from the hand of God; and what we offer back for God’s work in the church is already God’s own, not ours to possess, but gifts entrusted to us for the time being.
And so if this is true, what else would we do, but to give back some of what God has entrusted to us with thanksgiving, with thanksgiving for all that God has already done and accomplished for us, according to his gift, and by his grace.