Sun, Oct 14, 2018

Disillusionment and discipleship


I was six when it happened.

As the school year drew to a close...

another kid in my grade two class--

whose name I can't remember...

but who was sitting next to me at the time--

boldly announced, "You know that Father Christmas isn't real".

Following an angry outburst--

in which the teacher had to intervene--

I remember crying all the way home from school...

before my parents sat me down and admitted that it was true--

that Father Christmas didn't exist;

that the whole story was made up.

I was shattered!

My whole world seemed to have come crashing down around me.



at some time in our life we all experience it...

and it's a very powerful experience.

Suddenly realising that things that you have been told-

things that you have believed...

things that you have taken for granted--

are not true.

But, more than that...

it's the feeling that you have been deceived or lied to.

And it's normal to respond with anger and outrage...

but also denial...

as you begin to realise that, if this isn't true--

if you have been duped over this-- 

then what else?

Your world can, quite literally, begin to unravel-- 

like a dropped ball of wool.


That probably would have been the experience of the man in our story from Mark's Gospel...

who came running up to Jesus with a question:

"what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

He wasn't asking because he didn't know--

as if he lay awake at night mulling it over and worrying about it.

Rather, he already knew the answer--

as did the rest of the onlookers--

because he had lived an exemplary life:

he had never committed a crime;

he had never taken another life;

he had never taken anything to which he wasn't entitled;

he had never lied under oath in court;

he had never cheated on his wife;

he had always looked after his parents and family.

He had done everything that his culture and religious tradition said that he needed to.

He had been a responsible, upright citizen... 

a good, dutiful son...

and a devout, pious worshipper.

He was simply coming to Jesus to have that affirmed;

to have that publicly acknowledged.


Now, within the worldview of the first century...

the accumulation of goods was seen as robbery...

because all goods were thought to be in fixed supply.

If someone got a bigger piece of the pie...

then someone else's piece had to get smaller.

A person only became rich at someone else's expense--

lending them money in difficult times...

demanding a significant percentage of their crop in repayment...

which, in reality, they couldn't afford--

especially if there were successive years of drought...

which was common in Palestine--

then confiscating their land when they defaulted.

In a world where land was the only commodity that counted...

that's how people accumulated wealth.

All of which means that the rich were seen as nothing but thieves-- 

they were only held in regard when they gave some of it back;

they were only respected if they were generous benefactors.

But there was a catch.

When the rich gave someone a handout, it wasn't given with "no strings attached".

Quite the opposite!

All such 'donations' created a dependency relationship.

In exchange for a handout or assistance, the recipient became indebted--

something that their wealthy benefactor could call upon... 

whenever and however he wanted.

In the end, that's what it was all about.

The elite accumulated wealth and possessions...

not as an end in themselves, but as a means--

so that they could use them to give away...

to gain power and control over others.

This man must have given significant amounts of his profits back to the community...

so that he was held in high esteem.

And yet, Jesus said to him... 

"Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor... then come, follow me".

Jesus turns all of his expectations on their head...

telling him, literally, not to give because of what he could get out of it;

rather, to sell all that he has accumulated...

to give the proceeds to the poor--

in other words, to give it to those from whom he has taken it--

and not to expect them to give him anything in return.

In the first century, that meant he was to treat the poor as if they were family.

Is it any wonder that he went away shocked...



or even angry-- 

not sad or grieving as our English translations usually suggest?

Even the disciples were shocked... 

when Jesus concluded how hard it was for someone who was rich...

to enter the Kingdom of God. 


Of course it's tempting, today, to read this story and to try to spiritualise it;

it's tempting to interpret it as a challenge to us... 

to consider what stands in the way of our relationship with God.

But that would be a mistake.

This story is about wealth--

about how we get it and how we use it--

and we can't dismiss that or dodge it.

As soon as we start to think that it doesn't apply to us...

then it surely does.

And yet, few of us are as wealthy or powerful as this man would have been--

compared to the rest of his society.

And, in the end, we're not personally responsible for the huge wealth disparities of our world.

It's not our fault--

not directly.

And there's not much that we can do personally to change it.

Most of us probably give to charities and to aid agencies.

And, while it may be something of a sacrifice...

it doesn't involve an essential change;

it doesn't fundamentally alter our way of life.

We don't expect to have to roll up our sleeves...

to get alongside the dirty, the smelly, the homeless, the outcast, and the poor...

let alone to treat them as if they were our family--

which is what Jesus' instructions to this rich man amount to.


Perhaps, then, that's the real challenge here.


After all, one of the real problems of wealth and comfort is its isolating effect.

It insulates us from the suffering that others experience.

And, if we're honest, aren't we all a bit too comfortable and isolated?

Don't we see that in our continued exploitation of the Third World--

workers in electronic factories in China...

garment workers in Bangladesh... 

the child labour used in the cocoa and coffee industries in Africa--

all of whom get a pittance to produce the goods that we consume?

We all turn a blind eye.

We all avoid asking hard questions about the goods and products that we buy--

about where they come from and how are they made.

We're all complicit--

even if we go out of our way to support FairTrade.


So, perhaps the warning of this story for us...

is that our isolation and comfort--

our inability to hear the pain of others--

is, ultimately, an inability to experience God:

the God of the incarnation;

the God who revealed God's self through the poor, harassed, crucified Jesus;

and the God who continues to reveals God's self through the poor of our world today?

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