Posts Tagged ‘Wealth’

Who is sitting at your gate? And what are you doing about it?

September 28, 2019

Pentecost 16 – 2019

Luke 16:19-31 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who protects the widows, the orphans and the strangers in the land and asks us to do the same. Amen.

In his book The Nazareth Manifesto, Sam Wells argues there are many different explanations and theories of poverty. He quotes Jeffrey Sachs who points out “that the very poor countries are unable to reach even the “bottom rung” of the ladder of development and that a major problem is that the populations of such countries is often growing faster than capital can be accumulated which means that such countries are continually going backwards. The same argument could be applies to families who live in poverty. Lacking the resources to equip their children with good education, good health care and other things that we take for granted, they spiral downwards becoming more deeply impoverished with each generation unable to break the spell that has them in its grip.” Loans from wealthier countries have only limited benefit because they have, at some time to be paid back. Meantime, nations and individuals who do have resources are able to improve their relative place in the economic system with the end result that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer .

Poverty is by no means a new phenomenon. Luke is very aware of the disparity between rich and poor and, more than any other gospel writer, points out the futility of building up wealth for oneself (Luke 12:13f, the Barn Builder); encourages his followers to make shrewd choices about their possessions (Luke 16:1f, enduring short-term pain for long-term gain ); exposes the thoughtlessness (or complacency of the rich) (Luke 16:19f, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; and describes a community that holds all things in common such that no one is in need (Acts 4:32ff). Further, in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells would-be followers that they must give up all their possessions and let the dead bury the dead (Luke 14:25f) and he refuses to enter into debate with the man who asks a question about inheritance (Luke 12:13f). The third gospel focuses on the reversal of fortunes that Jesus’ birth heralds. Mary sings: “God has brought down the lofty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52).

When we read Luke we are forced to consider our attitude towards our possessions and to ask ourselves whether we use our wealth wisely or simply for our own benefit or enrichment.

The story of Lazarus and the rich man is one of Jesus’ more confronting parables, not least because it has nothing to do with piety or goodness. There is no evidence that the rich man was a bad or selfish person nor that Lazarus was a victim of circumstances. Goodness (or the absence of goodness) is not at issue here. The rich man may have fulfilled his religious obligations and Lazarus may never have performed a good deed in his life. At the centre of this narrative is the rich man’s wealth and his failure to see the chasm between himself and Lazarus that his wealth created.

In today’s context the parable challenges us to think of our place in the world relative to others and to consider whether our need for security and comfort is bought at the expense of those are (and who remain) less well off. It forces us to examine about our attitudes to poverty and towards those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Do we assume that those who are poor have brought it upon themselves or do we believe that if they made an affront they could pull themselves out of their present situation? Perhaps most importantly, the parable forces to identify the social, cultural and political conditions that create such huge disparities between the rich and the poor and the systemic failures that mean that for some poverty is a trap from which they cannot escape.

The world will not change unless we change.

Who is sitting at our gate and what are we doing to make a difference that is meaningful and lasting?

Wealth’s capacity to destroy relationships

August 3, 2019

Pentecost 8 – 2019
Luke 12:13-21
Marian Free

In the name of God, who pours out love and mercy in abundance and who, in the end is the final arbiter. Amen.

Some of you may know the author and illustrator Pamela Allen. She has authored a number of children’s books including Who sank the boat?One of my favourites is Herbert and Harry[1]. Herbert and Harry are two brothers who get along famously until one day, when they are fishing together, they haul up a treasure chest. In the ensuing battle over the chest, Harry is pushed into the sea and Herbert rows the boat and the treasure to a lonely stretch. Fortunately, Harry is a strong swimmer and manages to swim home. Herbert, having wrested the chest from his brother, feels desperately anxious that Harry might find him and steal the treasure.  He hauls the chest into the forest, but still does not feel safe. He hides the treasure among some tree roots, but still he cannot rest. He takes the treasure further and further from Harry, the land gets emptier and emptier and the hills higher and higher.

At last he reaches the highest mountain in the land, but still he cannot sleep for fear that someone has followed him. So Herbert digs a tunnel deep into the mountain, pushes the chest in and covers the entry with a huge boulder, but even that is not enough. He decides that he needs guns, lots of them. Guns are not enough; Herbert builds a fort.

In the end, Herbert has gained no pleasure at all from the treasure. His life has been consumed by keeping it to himself and protecting it from anyone who might wish to steal it. In the process, he has cut himself off – not only from Harry, but from all possible human contact and perhaps from his own humanity. The final illustration shows him completely isolated atop his mountain holding a gun, surrounded by walls from which protrude multiple cannons. Harry, on the other hand is pictured surrounded by grandchildren. Allen concludes: “Today, Herbert and Harry are very old men. Herbert still guards the treasure in his fort on top of the highest mountain in the land. But still, he cannot sleep. While Harry, who had no treasure, has always been able to sleep soundly.

In today’s gospel, someone from the crowd approaches Jesus and says: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” In response Jesus warns that: “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” and he tells the parable about the rich man, who, instead of sharing his good fortune, plans to store it all up for himself. On a superficial level the meaning of the parable is quite clear: “it doesn’t matter how much you have; you can’t take it with you”. At a deeper level much more is going on here.

As Dennis Hamm (SJ) points out today’s brief parable is “a brilliant cartoon illustrating how greed destroys all the covenant relationships”[2]“with the earth, with the community, with one’s self and with God.

In order to see how Hamm comes to this conclusion, we have to examine the parable bit by bit. The parable begins: “The landof a rich man produced abundantly.” It is the land, not the rich man that has produced the abundance. This is consistent with the Jewish perspective that the earthis the source of food and that a successful harvest, like the land itself, is a gift from God. The rich man has lost touch with his relationship with the land and with his dependence on the Creator.

We read on: “And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” I have no place to store my crops. Not only has our farmer lost sight of the fact that the land and the harvest are gifts from God, but he has forgotten the wisdom that flows from this understanding – that divine gifts are not intended for one individual but that the produce of the land is intended to meet the needs of all. He has forgotten, or is choosing to ignore, his responsibility to the wider community. From his perspective the abundance is for him alone.

The farmer’s self-centredness is even more obvious in his interior monologue: “Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul [psyche], ‘Soul [psyche], you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” There is no mention of ‘we’ or ‘our’ here. It is all about me “my grain and my goods.” The comedic element of this section is heightened when we understand that “psyche” or “soul” is just as easily translated as “self”. In which case we read: “I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have ample goods – etc”.

Then God interrupts the selfish man’s thoughts. “But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life [psyche- self] is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”In the final analysis, the farmer is not the arbiter of his destiny, God is. Life itself is a gift from the Creator.

Like Hebert, the rich man gains no benefit from his wealth. In holding his harvest to himself, he cuts himself off from the land, the community, his own humanity and eventually from God.

Jesus’ point is that while wealth in itself may not be the problem, what we do with our wealth, or perhaps more importantly, what we let our wealth do to us can be problematic. In the worst-case scenario, Jesus’ implies, if we allow our possessions to control us they will separate us from the earth, from our family and our community, from our sense of self and even from God.

[1]Allen, Pamela. Herbert and Harry. Australia: Puffin Books, 1986.
[2]http://liturgy.slu.edu/18OrdC080419/theword_hamm.html

Under the influence

October 22, 2016

Pentecost 23 – 2016

Luke 18:15-30

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks that we place our trust in God alone. Amen.

“Under the influence” is an apt description of someone who is an alcoholic. It reflects the reality that their lives are determined by something external to themselves, that they have ceded power over their lives to another. Addiction is like that. It can completely take over a person, often making them utterly unable to think of anything other than the next hit, the next drink, the next bet. Sometimes they are so focused on whatever the perceived benefit of the addiction is, that they are unable to see the effect that their behaviour is having on those around them.

It is only possible an addict to escape the hold of addiction if they recognise it to be a problem. Breaking a habit, giving up substance abuse, takes an enormous act of the will. It means learning to depend on/place one’s trust in someone or something else. “Recovery” will involve will power, grit and determination and the support of others. Some people will never break the habit, they will continue to engage in the destructive behaviour even if it threatens to cost them their jobs, their families and their lives. Nothing else exerts the same power and influence over their lives and in the end, many of them give everything away, because they cannot stop themselves having one more drink, one more bet.

There are of course success stories. Some addicts do realise that they have a problem. They enter rehab programmes, join A.A. and other support groups and they follow the advice that they are given. With appropriate support systems they are able to sever their relationship with their addiction and replace it with relationships that are less destructive and disempowering.

If you have ever known anyone in the grip of addiction, you will know that it is a terrible thing that overcomes all rational thought and decision-making. Whether it be gambling, drugs or alcohol, the addiction takes such a firm grasp that the sufferer can find it almost impossible to break free. They are seemingly able to tolerate their ability to hold a job decline, their health deteriorate and their family fall apart rather than give up whatever it is that has them in its thrall.

Addiction is fairly easily recognised and most of us can feel smug that we have never allowed ourselves to be caught in its grip. In reality though many of us allow all kinds of things to control our lives, some are physical and relatively easy to identify, others are emotional and can disguise themselves in a variety of ways. We can be bound by a need to be in control or by a need for security. It is possible to allow anger, fear, resentment or bitterness to take over our lives, to determine how we live, how we interact with others.

Dependence on anything – drugs, relationships, gambling, wealth – can be limiting and life destroying, (metaphorically and physically). It means ceding control of one’s life to a substance or habit, rather than taking control and making decisions that are life-giving, liberating and empowering. What is more, dependence on substances, activities, possessions or even on our emotional needs for security are a clear sign that our relationship with God is superficial and dependent on much as outward show as it is on a deep and abiding trust in God’s love and care for us.

A first reading of today’s gospel can lead us to think that the story about the ruler is all about money. After all, don’t those who enter the religious life give everything away, didn’t the disciples leave everything to follow Jesus, doesn’t Jesus command the ruler to sell his possessions and to follow him?

It is easy to believe that Jesus’ words to the ruler apply to all of us, but that would be to miss the point. Luke is reporting a conversation between Jesus and one other person. The ruler has come to Jesus with a specific question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

On examination Jesus discovers that the ruler already keeps the commandments – the most obvious way to attain eternal life. Despite this however, the ruler appears to be aware that something is missing from his life and his faith. That is why he has come to Jesus – not to boast in what he is doing, but to discover what it is that he is not doing. Jesus’ reply is specific to the ruler. He has in effect asked what is lacking in his faith and in his life, and Jesus recognises that it is his dependence on his possessions that is keeping him from feeling secure in God’s love, that is filling him with doubts about his worthiness to inherit eternal life. Jesus discerns that the ruler will only be truly free to accept God’s love, if he is to stop trusting in his possessions and to trust in God instead. If in the present he is not sure of God’s love, how will he be able to trust God with eternity?

The problem for the ruler was not so much that he was rich but that he couldn’t imagine life without his wealth, and without his possessions. They had such a hold on him that he could not let go. His desire for eternal life was not so strong that he was able to let that desire determine how he lived. He was so dependent on his possessions that he could not and would not exchange them for dependence on God.

When Jesus orders the ruler “to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and to come follow him”, Jesus is helping the ruler to identify his dependence on his possessions that prevents him placing his dependence in God.

In response to the gospel there are questions that we can ask ourselves: “Where do we place our trust?” “What are we unwilling to let go?” “What habit, emotion or fear has us in its thrall? And would we give it up for the surpassing power of knowing the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?”

 

 

Having enough – not more than enough

July 30, 2016

Pentecost 11 – 2016

Luke 12:13-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who has blessed us with all things good. Amen.

To save or not to save? To store up or not? We live in a nation that has a reasonable system of social welfare, but which also places an emphasis on the importance of taking care of oneself. Those of us who can afford the luxury are encouraged to take out medical insurance rather than place a burden on the public health system and to put sufficient aside so that we can live comfortably in what may be an increasingly long period of retirement. Our desire to ensure a basic standard of living for the less fortunate is balanced by a strong streak of independence and unwillingness to rely on the state.

In the last few decades, Superannuation has become big business and retirement has become, not simply an end to our working life and a time to relax, but an opportunity to do all those things that we haven’t yet done, a time for travel and adventure. As a result, our expectations of what we can or should expect to do when we retire, has increased exponentially. Our super schemes fill our in-boxes with information about how much we need to have set aside to ensure a comfortable retirement and our government gives us tax incentives to encourage us to top up our super funds.

What all of this means is that it is difficult for us to read the parable of the rich fool without some sense of gloom or even guilt. We ask ourselves: “Are we doing the wrong thing by setting aside funds for our future?” “Is it wrong to store up “treasure” against a “rainy day?”” “Will we be judged as those who have been more concerned about this life than the next?”

I have said on previous occasions that one of the concerns of the author of Luke is wealth. Luke has more to say about money than any of the other gospel writers. It is only in Luke that we find today’s parable and the account of the rich man and Lazarus. Only Luke records the story of Zacchaeus – the tax collector who gave away half of his fortune to the poor. Only Luke records disputes about inheritance – today’s gospel and the parable of the Prodigal Son. In his second volume, Luke records the fact that the early Christians held all things in common (Acts 2:43, 4:32) and tells the startling story of Ananias and Sapphira whose deceit in such matters resulted in their immediate death.

However, before we give everything away and place ourselves at the mercy of the state, or of our families, it is important that we understand what is going on here. The parable of the rich fool is Jesus’ response to a request to mediate on a matter of inheritance. We cannot be sure what lies behind the request. of the person in the crowd. In Jewish law a distant family member or a third-party was engaged to sort out inheritance disputes. Here, however, the fact that the petitioner is a member of crowd and the language that he uses which is similar to that found in the prodigal son suggests that the he is seeking his portion of inheritance before time – in effect wishing his father already dead so that he can have now what is due him in the future.

Jesus’ response to the person is to caution against greed – hence the parable.

The rich man is a landowner who almost certainly did not grow the crops himself. No peasant farmer would have had sufficient land to produce enough for his family, let alone a surplus. Nor would a peasant farmer have had sufficient land on which to build a barn, let alone barns. The rich fool is already rich – he has barns and they are already full but apparently he cannot imagine sharing his good fortune with anyone else, he will keep on building and keep on hoarding even though he has no need. His inner dialogue tells us that he is thinking only of himself: ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” “I, I, I, me, me, me.” He does not spare a thought for those whose back-breaking labour produced the surplus. He doesn’t think for a moment of his tenant farmers who struggle every day to earn enough to feed their families and who, being deprived of their land, have nothing to lay aside for themselves and no future to give their children.

The rich man is already in a position to eat, drink and be merry. He has no reason to store up his crops except to further enrich himself at the expense of others – that is by selling it at exorbitant prices when the crops fail. In thinking only of himself the rich man of our parable is blind to the fact that he is emotionally impoverished. And even though he is addressing his soul, he is giving no thought as to what might enhance his spiritual life, nor is he giving any real thought as to what might bring him contentment and peace both now and in the future. Instead, he seems to believe that shoring up and increasing his wealth is the key to true happiness.

Researchers tell us that while having enough to live on is important for a degree of contentment, once a person earns over a certain amount their happiness does not increase and is some cases it decreases. It should be self-evident to anyone that money alone does not bring happiness. In fact recently an economist reflected on the “shocking fact” that people in the West have become no happier in the last 50 years, despite being healthier, wealthier and better travelled.

True happiness, as most of us know, lies in our relationships with our families, our friends and ultimately with God. We cannot be truly at peace if we are always striving for something more, if we are competing with others or if we are living in an imaginary “better” future rather than being satisfied with the present.

If we are not content with what we have in the present, will we know when we actually do have enough or will our lives be a constant struggle to have more and more? Jesus does not buy into the question about inheritance. He knows that greed eats away at the soul, isolates us from the community around us, and reflects a belief that we are better than God at looking after ourselves. Instead of entering the dispute Jesus tells a parable and concludes by reminding us that the source of all things is God and that it is in our relationship with and our trust in God that true contentment is to be found.

 

How much is too much?

October 10, 2015

Pentecost 20

Mark 10:17-31 (St Francis)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who has given us all things. Amen.

If we are honest many of us find today’s gospel challenging. “Sell all you own and give to the poor.” “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” We wonder if these words applies to us. We ask ourselves: What is too rich? Is it a person or a company whose yearly income could pay the debt of a third world country and more? Is it being rich enough able to spend millions of dollars on a home when many are homeless? Is it worrying about whether to send our children to a state school or a private school when millions of children do not have the opportunity go to school at all?

I don’t have the answer to these questions. On the one hand I support the initiative and enterprise that leads to the creation of jobs. On the other hand it does worry me that 85% of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of the world’s population. I would like every person in the world to have the same advantages that I have, but at the same time, I am very grateful that I do not have live hand-to-mouth like so many millions of people do and not entirely sure how much I am willing to give up in order to make the world a more equitable place.

St Francis thought that today’s gospel applied directly to him. As the story goes, Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant. It was expected that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, join the business, finally taking and charge of it himself in turn passing the business and any accumulated wealth to his own children. Francis’ experience of Jesus altered all that. He changed from a wild, hedonistic young man into a fervent follower of Jesus Christ. He understood that his call was to renounce all worldly possessions and to live a simple life entirely dependent on God.

Francis embraced poverty, not because he had some romantic notion about it, but because it freed him from the responsibilities and concerns that wealth, possessions and status can bring with them. Poverty for Francis’ signified reliance not on material, but on spiritual things. He did not want anything to have a hold on him or to stand between himself and God.

It is clear that Francis’ view is not the dominant Christian view, even though we find the story unsettling, very few Christians have taken the text as literally as did Francis. That doesn’t mean that we are off the hook or mean that we shouldn’t attempt to understand what Jesus is saying here.

Today’s gospel begins with an interaction between Jesus and a young man who “has many possessions”. The young man interrupts Jesus’ journey and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. He has, by his own account, has lived a blameless life. Despite this he seems to sense that something is missing, he recognises that despite all that he has his life is empty and without meaning. Though he observes the commandments and presumably has all that he needs, he is not satisfied. He recognises that even though (according to the thought of the day) his wealth is a reward for righteousness his relationship with God could be so much richer.

Jesus looks at the young and loves him. He sees (we must assume) that the young man is bound by his possessions – they own him, not he them. Jesus knows that the young man will not be at peace, he will not be entirely happy until his possessions no longer have a hold on him, until there are no longer a measure of his righteousness or of his place in the world. Jesus’ advice? – sell it all, get rid of everything, free yourself from all worry and concern. Do what you really want to do – give yourself to God. It is too much. Unlike Francis, this young man’s passion and desire has not been kindled to the point that he can fully let go. He departs from Jesus in a state of sorrow. Jesus has given the answer for which he was seeking, but now that he hears it, he cannot do it. For the moment at least his wealth has too great a hold on him.

Jesus’ advice to the young man leads Jesus to reflect on wealth in general. It is not that wealth is necessarily bad. The problem is that, for some, wealth can become an obsession that needs to be guarded and maintained. A person can become so focused on what they have and what they want that they becomes self centred and inward-looking, absorbed by their own needs and desires and careless with the needs of others.

Jesus’ advice to the young man may not be Jesus’ advice to us all, but it would be a mistake to think that the reading doesn’t not apply to us. Wealth is not the only thing that binds us or causes us to focus on ourself us or that prevents us from seeing the needs of others. Greed and selfishness are only two things that make us look inwards and not outwards, that create a barrier between ourselves and God. Pride, anger, bitterness, self-righteousness are all signs of self-absorption that lead us to concentrate on our own wants and needs and that, as a result, separate us from our fellow human beings, from God and ultimately from our eternal inheritance.

The bible does warn us against allowing wealth to have control of us rather than our controlling our wealth but to make that the only focus of today’s gospel might be to miss the point. The young man has the courage to ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Are we brave enough to ask the same question and if we do will we, like the young man, walk away or will we have the courage to respond to Jesus’ love, recognise what it is we lack and make the changes necessary to remove the barriers between ourselves and God and between ourselves and others?

Wealth management

September 21, 2013

Pentecost 18. 2013

Luke 16:1-8

Marian  Free

“Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’  3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’  5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’  7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’  8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

In the name of God whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Amen.

If you were to write a novel, or an essay, or a scientific report, there would be certain steps that you would take and particular methodologies that you would employ. Writing a psychological report is quite different from writing a history essay. Writing a novel is quite different from writing a poem. Writing a sonnet is quite different from writing a haiku poem. Every style of writing has its own rules which serve to make the intention of the author clearer. A novelist wants to engage the reader and to maintain their attention, a scientific writer wants to ensure that the results of their research are presented in a clear and convincing manner. Students of English literature would be able to examine a poem or novel in great detail to determine the different techniques used by an author.

We should not be surprised to learn that New Testament writings also follow established modes of writing and story-telling. Like some novels the gospels, which are essentially biographies, contain a variety of styles – parables, sayings, miracle stories and more. Each of these have their own particular patterns. Furthermore, it is important to note that in the first century, there were no printing presses and few people who could read or write. Stories were heard, not read. For that reason, techniques were developed, consciously, or otherwise to make the stories memorable. One of the methods was that of repetition, another was to create a pattern or to tell a story that would make people sit up and listen.

Jesus appears to have been a good story teller and the gospel writers likewise re-told the stories in ways which would ensure that the listeners would hear and remember the point that was being made. I mention all this because the parable recorded in today’s gospel has a very specific pattern which provides an example of one form of story-telling in the first century.

Crossan identifies the following three acts and the patterns within those acts.

Scene 1 (16:1-2) Master and Steward

(a)  16:1a (relationship given: steward)               16:2a (accusation repeated: “I hear”

(b) 16:1b (accusation made: charges)                16:2b (relationship broken: “no  longer”)

Scene 2 (16:3-4) Steward and Self

(a)  16:3a = 16:4a (“What shall I do?”/”I have decided what to do”)

(b) 16:3b = 16:4b (“stewardship” “stewardship”)

(c)   16:3c = 16:4c (problem/solution)

Scene 3 (16:5-7) Steward and Debtors

(a)  16:5a = 16:7a (“he said to the first”, “he said to another”)

(b) 16:5b = 16:7b (“how much do you owe?” x2)

(c)   16:6a =16:7c (He said: a hundred x2)

(d)  16:6b = 16:7d (“Take your bill and write” x2)[1]

It is evident that that even in these few verses, a number of the ideas are repeated. In scene one the relationship is reversed by use of repetition. In scenes two and three repeated themes emphasise the points that are being made. Because we are not used to listening to these stories and because, unlike Crossan and others, we are unskilled in literary criticism, we do not recognise these patterns without help. However, in Jesus’ day, it would have been patterns and structures like these which will have earned and kept the listener’s attention.

Of all Jesus’ parables, the parable of the master and his steward is probably the most difficult to understand. In it Jesus appears to be condoning dishonesty- something which seems completely contradictory to all that Jesus stands for. Jesus might eat with tax collectors and sinners, but he doesn’t condone bad behaviour – just the opposite. In order to understand this parable then we need to understand a few things – the role of steward, the accusations laid against him and the reason Jesus commends his action. As is the case today, a steward (manager) might have almost full responsibility for the concerns of his employer. The manager would make the day-to-day decisions about the business and be responsible for ensuring that it made a profit. In this instance, the manger would have determined how much to charge for the various products and, so long as the master was making money could determine how much he kept for himself. In reducing the amounts owed he may well be reducing the margin that he kept for himself, rather than defrauding his employer. Another point to note is that the manager is being dismissed for incompetence – not for dishonesty – so to assume he begins by being dishonest, is to draw the wrong conclusion.

In reducing his share of the profits the manager is assuring himself of a welcome in the homes of those whose debts he reduces. This is what Jesus is commending – not dishonesty, but the manager’s willingness to give up his worldly comforts (wealth) in the present for the sake of potential benefits in the future. “He has not clung to his wealth, but used it to earn goodwill that will serve him in his hour of need.”[2] In the same way, Jesus’ hearers should give their wealth to the poor so that those who will inherit the kingdom will welcome them into the eternal dwellings.

The author of Luke’s gospel does not condemn wealth, but he is very clear that wealth or our desire for it, should not come between ourselves and our relationship God. The desire for security and comfort in this life, should not distract us from developing those things which will provide us with security and comfort in the life to come. Further, the author of Luke is clear that those who possess wealth have an obligation to share it with those who do not (if for no other reason than that of today’s parable – to ensure a welcome from the poor (who as we are told in the Beatitudes) will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Lk 6:20). In the kingdom everything is reversed – it is just as well to get used to that now. In the final analysis, none of us can take our wealth with us. It is more important to build up those things/those values and characteristics that will be of value in the life to come, than to waste our time building up and protecting possessions that will be of no use in our heavenly existence. It will do us little good to be wealthy if greed, selfishness and egocentricism exclude us from the life to come. It will be of little value to have secured a fortune if we have not at the same time secured the peace, joy, love, patience and generosity that will be treasured in heaven.

Where does your security lie? What are you doing to ensure that your relationship with God comes first and not last?


[1] Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. California: Polebridge Press, 1992, 107,8.

[2] Byrne, Brendan S.J. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Minnesota: St Paul’s Press, 2006, 134.

What do you need to give up?

October 13, 2012

Pentecost 20

Mark 10:17-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who gives us all that we need. Amen.

Years ago I bought a book titled Poor in Spirit. It is filled with stories written by people living and working among the poor – both in the United States and in the Third World. The stories are varied – one tells how powerful it is to hear the mullah call the faithful to prayer before dawn and to greet and be greeted by everyone saying “God be with you.”  Another writes of the presence of God in the barrenness of the desert. Yet another tells of a baptism in the cow shed to demonstrate to others that one can be a Christian and not abandon one’s culture.

Today I’d like to share the story called “My Mother’s Blessing”. It tells the story of a young African who is brought up by his mother after the death of his Father. Mother and son become very close – she buys and sells fish and he prepares their dinner while he waits for her to come home at night. There are other children – daughters who have left home – but in this culture it is the son who is expected to care for the mother as she ages. It is difficult therefore for the son to confide to his mother that he has felt a call to become a member of a religious community and hard for his mother to accept his sense of vocation. She tries to dissuade him from this course of action but eventually resigns herself to the situation and does not mention it again.

The day comes for the son to leave home. His mother is old and frail; she knows that they may never see each other again. “Come,” she says, “Let us make our last offering to God.” She suggests that they say The Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed and ten Hail Marys. Then, in a strong and confident voice she blesses her son: “All belongs to God and returns to God. Who am I to oppose your calling? Go! The greatest riches are not on earth. And thanks be to God for having chosen you.”[1]

Another title for the book could have been: “The greatest riches are not on earth.” A common theme of the stories is a deep trust in and a dependence on God that is not determined by the storyteller’s physical, material or emotional situation.

In today’s gospel we have three stories that are ostensibly about wealth – the rich man, the eye of the needle and the benefits that result from giving up everything to follow Jesus. It is easy to draw the conclusion from these that Jesus is demanding those who follow him to give up all their possessions and abandon everything to follow him. This section of the gospel can have a way of making us feel uncomfortable – none of us has taken the radical step of abandoning everything in order to be a disciple of Jesus.

I can’t speak for you, but I know that compared to those who live on one dollar a day I know that I am among the rich. Jesus’ encounter with the rich man leaves me wondering whether I too should sell all that I have and give it to the poor. The saying about the camel and the needle forces me to ask: how rich do I have to be to be unable to fit through the eye of a needle. Peter’s question brings me back to the rich man – how much does Jesus expect me to give up in order to be a disciple?

The gospels have a great deal to say about how we should use our resources. Jesus’ example and teaching urge us to care for the poor and the outcast. The beatitudes make it clear that the values of the Kingdom are not the values of the world: “blessed are the poor” we are told. There have been thousands if not thousands of thousands of Christians who have abandoned comfort and wealth to serve Jesus or to serve others. That said, it is important that we understand today’s gospel in its context. Is Jesus saying that the only way to follow him is to abandon everything?

I have found a small commentary by Paul Achtemeier[2] helpful. The wider context  of the gospel makes it clear that it is our attitude to our relative wealth, rather than wealth itself that is a problem.

Over the course of the last few weeks this has been a constant theme. We have been reminded not to compete but to be as a child, we have been exhorted not to hurt one of these little ones and told that unless we welcome the Kingdom as a child we will not enter it. Throughout this section of the gospel, Jesus has been trying to help his disciples to understand that the Kingdom is a gift, a gift to those who do not and cannot deserve it. Dependence on God and on God’s goodness is the primary criterion for entering the Kingdom of God.

It is within this context that we have to understand today’s gospel which, as I have said, consists of three distinct parts. First of all, the rich man comes to Jesus with a problem. He already keeps the commandments but he knows that something is missing – he knows that simply following the rules is not enough. Jesus’ response is radical and disturbing. He instructs the man to sell everything and to follow him. The man is a good person but he his wealth is more important to him than his relationship with God. He will have to give away his self-reliance if he is to achieve the relationship with God that he seeks. For the time being at least, this is more than the rich man is prepared to do.

Jesus’ conversation with the rich man does not establish a criterion for all people for all time – that would be to introduce a new rule, a goal to be reached. It would have the opposite effect and make us dependent on ourselves not God. Jesus’ conversation with the rich man establshes a general principle – nothing (wealth, achievement) should come between ourselves and God. Our confidence and hope should be in God alone.

Jesus continues this reflection – inheritance of the kingdom is not something that relies on any kind of achievement including wealth. Just as we cannot earn our way into heaven so we cannot buy our way into heaven. Inheritance of the kingdom, entry into eternal life is God’s gift to us and unless we can accept it as a gift, we like the rich man exclude ourselves from its benefits. The disciple’s question, “Then who can be saved?”, demonstrates just how difficult it is for human beings to give up their striving and rely on God. We find it so hard to accept that attaining the kingdom does not depend on our own efforts but on the free gift of God. Like the rich man we want to know what we can do, what rules we should obey in order to be saved. Like the disciples, we want to achieve it on our own merits, we like measurable goals, benchmarks that can be reached. Trusting in God’s love for us, does not provide enough certainty. We like to think that there is a certain standard against which we can measure ourselves. Giving up our need for certainty, trusting in God is both the hardest and easiest aspect of our faith.

Yet as Jesus goes on to say, if we can let go of our need for certainty and security the reward will be a hundred times more than anything we can imagine in this life or in the life to come.

What do you rely on more than God and how hard would it be to give it up?


[1] Lepetit, Charles. Poor in Spirit: Modern Parables of the Reign of God. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1989, 61.

[2] Achtemeier, Paul. Invitation to Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark with Complete Text from the Jerusalem Bible. New York: Image Books, 1978.


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