A few years ago, I helped with childcare for a program that helped parents in homeless families receive financial literacy and job training while being placed in temporary housing. While the parents were taking classes on budgeting and interview readiness, their kids got to hang out with my sister and me.
One time, we decided to employ the age-old babysitting method of letting the kids watch a movie. The movie we chose was Nanny McPhee. Part of the story involves two wealthy kids from the city going to spend a summer on the farm of their much poorer cousins.
One of the children watching was confused about what was happening in the movie and asked me about it. As so often with children, the conversation quickly turned bizarrely philosophical. I don’t remember how we got to this point, but I found myself explaining to her that the wealthy cousins needed to learn that you don’t need money to be happy.
The little girl looked at me and said sharply, “Yes, you do.”
I started to argue with her, but I suddenly realized this conversation was all wrong. Here I was, a middle-class college student whose education, room, and board was being paid for by someone else, lecturing a child whose family had been recently homeless about why she didn’t need money to be happy.
As I looked at this little girl, I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. She knew that to have no money meant to have no clothes, no food, and no home. And I know now that childhood hunger is rampant in this nation and in this very county. It affects kids’ social and educational development, usually with the result that the cycle of poverty follows them into adulthood. Poverty is not romantic. Poverty destroys lives and communities. Poverty kills.
So what are we to do when Jesus seems to tell a would-be follower that he must become poor?
This passage from Mark 10 has been a huge headache for preachers and for Christians in general for over 2,000 years. Jesus tells this young man that he must sell all he has and give the money to the poor. Biblical literalists so intent on following the letter of the law in other places suddenly find room for interpretation when faced with this passage.
Jesus doesn’t really mean that we have to sell all we have and give it to the poor, we tell ourselves. What he means is that we should give money to good causes. We should donate our out-of-style sweaters to a clothing closet. We should take that almost-expired can of green beans to a food pantry. What he means is that we need to be willing to give up our possessions should he ever ask that of us—though of course Jesus never would!
But once in a while in Christian history, someone reads this passage and thinks that Jesus actually meant what he said. Saint Francis was one of those people. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, but he heard a call to holy poverty. He renounced his father’s riches, even going so far as to strip naked in the town square so that the bishop was compelled to cover his naked body with his own cloak. Anyone who talks about taking the Bible literally has to admit that in this case, Francis is one of the very few who is willing to take Jesus at his word.
These days, it seems there is always some conversation happening about wealth in this country. There are those who have too much of it, those who don’t have enough, those who lost their whole livelihoods in the financial collapse, the unemployed, the underemployed, those saddled with staggering student loans, and the fabled one percent controlling most of the wealth. When we try to wrap our minds around all of this, we may, like the young man Jesus called to follow him, simply go away grieving.
Some of us may want to go away grieving when we hear a sermon about money. I know people hate this—but here’s the thing: Jesus talks about money a lot. Wealth and spirituality are connected. God cares deeply about our relationship to our earthly possessions.
In preparation for tonight, I read a sermon on this passage by Bishop Ken Carder. In it, he points out that we know well the dangers of poverty, from hunger to illness to exposure to loss of dignity and hope. But he points out that riches have their perils, too.
The young man in Mark 10 is a textbook example. He comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do?” Bishop Carder points out that this man is accustomed to either buying or achieving everything he wants. He thinks that eternal life, like everything else, is something he can acquire. He wants a to-do list for getting into heaven. And on the surface, it seems like Jesus is giving him that, and it’s just not the answer the young man was looking for.
But Jesus is calling this young man, and each of us, to something deeper. Jesus doesn’t say, “Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and voila! You will inherit eternal life.” Jesus says, “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.”
“Follow me.” Jesus calls us to a relationship of trust and dependence. And this is why he says it is hard for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Wealth creates a sense of self-sufficiency and independence, but a relationship with God requires a posture of surrender and dependence. We are saved not by our good works but by God’s grace, and God’s grace is not something we can earn by being productive members of society.
Bishop Carder says this: “self-sufficiency and self-produced security cut us off from grace. Life becomes an achievement earned or a commodity purchased rather than a gift gratefully received and shared. God becomes unnecessary, or becomes simply another commodity to be used for personal ends. Resources become intertwined with identity. We become what we own, know or produce. Riches become gods, and the foundation of our identity and security.”
We continue to fall into this trap even though it is proven wrong again and again. Riches cannot save us, and they can never give us true identity and security. Riches could not release Robin Williams from the grips of depression. Riches cannot calm racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. Riches cannot stop the fighting in Iraq or Libya or Ukraine or Gaza. Riches cannot convince any person that he or she is a child of God worthy of life and dignity.
My favorite part of the story in Mark 10 is a tiny little phrase that we sometimes skip right over, but if we notice it, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Before Jesus tells this young man the one things he must do, Mark says that Jesus, “looking at him, loved him.”
Notice that Jesus does not wait for the man to rise to his challenge before offering his love. God’s love is not something to be bought or earned. As The Beatles once put it so eloquently, “Can’t buy me love.”
The song we’re about to hear asks us to do one of the hardest things in the world: “Let somebody love you.” If it can be hard to love, it is harder yet to allow yourself to be loved. We may feel like we need to earn another person’s affection with gifts or financial support, by maintaining an appealing lifestyle or becoming what we own, know or produce. But being loved is not something we can create or control. It is something we can only accept.
God looks at each of us and loves us—not for what we do or accomplish, but for who he created us to be. God breaks the bonds and looses the chains of the systems that create us in the image of our wealth and our poverty. God calls us to keep looking for him so that we might be recreated in the image of God as we were originally intended to be. God calls us to see that image in every single person, and for rich and poor to be reconciled in God’s grace. It is impossible for any of us to be saved—but for God, all things are possible. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell