This summer the unthinkable happened. My family decided to go vegan for a month. Well, ok, it wasn’t quite like that. My family didn’t simply decide to go vegan. No, my children didn’t just one day broach the subject with me – “Daddy, we think it would be perfectly delightful if we only ate vegetables for one month.” Nor did I, wise and morally upright man that I am, think to myself one day – “For the good of our health and the good of the planet, I and my family shall refrain from eating of all the animals that go about hither and yon on the earth, and above the earth, and that swim in the sea.” No, as with most good ideas that come to our family, my wife Erin suggested one evening, as we sat digesting yet another sumptuous, lovingly prepared, and very omnivorous meal, laden with with all kinds of meats and cheeses, that perhaps, for our health, and the health of our children, and the good of the planet, perhaps, just as an experiment, we ought to try living without meat and dairy for one month. We should do this, she suggested, to see if it didn’t make a change to our bodies and minds. As you might imagine, I responded to this suggestion with maturity and grace, as if it were just what it was, a reasonable and thoughtful idea born of a desire to see the best for our family and the world in which we live….I’m lying. I was immediately and irrationally defensive. Wasn’t I the primary cook of the family? Didn’t she know that I prized eating well already, that I strove to cook nutritious and delicious food for our family already? Wasn’t it common knowledge in our house and in our circle of family and friends, that I take food very very very seriously, to the point of obsessive? How in the world could I enjoy cooking when all the “good stuff” was simply taken from me? For an instant, as this suggestion washed over me and I considered it, all I could think, was about me, about what I would sacrifice, my love of meats and cheeses, my joy in cooking, my food!
Perhaps it will seem like a stretch to you to connect my personal story of food and change to the story of the man who comes to Jesus today in the gospel of Mark. But, if you will bear with me, I believe they have a lot in common. In other versions of this story, he is the rich young man or the rich young ruler, and he comes to Jesus seeking to know what it will take for him to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him of the commandments, the laws that a good Jew would have had to keep to be declared righteous, and the man insists he has kept all of these, “from his youth”. And then Jesus offers up one of the most challenging and vexing admonitions in all of the gospels “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The intensity of this exhortation, the impossibility of this request, has caused, as theologian Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson says, a desire to “manage” this text. We want to manage it because, it is problematic to us on so many levels. On a religious level, if we take this teaching literally, then none of us but the very devout few are living in such a way as to be able to inherit eternal life. On spiritual level, none of us in the wealthy West are going to feel very comfortable with what this teaching seems to say about wealth. And, on a theological level, it would seem that Jesus is contradicting a theology of grace – here Jesus seems to infer that quite apart from the unmerited grace and mercy of God, there is in fact something one can do to inherit eternal life. And so, we have attempted to manage this passage in our minds, in the theology and practice of the church, in this day and over the centuries. And then, as if to further cement his thoughts on wealth and further problematize the gospel for those of us trying to hang onto our money and possessions (that would be all of us), Jesus follows this teaching with another challenging little nugget – “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!… 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.” Now, I rode a camel this summer in India for the first time in my life, and I can attest that it would be difficult for a camel to fit through my garage door, never mind the physics defying feat of squeezing through the eye of a needle – but, we already knew that. And, so, we attempt to manage this one too. We have invented doors in the walls of Jerusalem called “The Eye of the Needle” that required merchants to strip everything off their camels in order to fit through the gate – and satisfying as this little piece of history is to hear, it turns out, we don’t have historical proof it ever existed. We’ve spiritualized these teachings, noting that greed was this one young man’s sin, so in order to be cured of it, he needed to let go of his possessions…what do YOU need to let go of? And, then there’s the problematic view of the afterlife that we’ve imported into Christianity, that believes in some spiritual, disembodied, heaven and eternal life. Jews and eaerly Christians did not believe in such a thing. And, the eternal life spoken of here, is more accurately – the “age to come”, a time when embodied, created, flesh and blood existence will be perfected, and we will enter, in a very real way, into a peaceable kingdom, God’s kingdom, where we are reconciled, in the flesh with one another, and a God who is always in our midst. We’ve ignored, glossed over, wrestled with, and ultimately managed this teaching and in so doing, we’ve lost some of our faith.
As such, I am reluctant this morning to manage or explain this teaching in a way that will make any of us, myself included, feel a bit more at ease about our wealth and possessions. Jesus tells the young man that in order to inherit eternal life he must sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come and follow him. And, Mark tells us, the man was shocked “and went away grieving.” I can relate. When Erin described that we might spend a month as vegans, my mind, as I have already shared, went to my food, my recipes, my love of meat and cheese, my cooking, and my joy in these things.
And then, sage that she is, Erin suggested something that truly helped – “Why not, instead of thinking about what we’d be giving up, think about the things we’ll get to try, the new foods we’ll discover, the skills in cooking we’ll develop.” In short, stop thinking about what you must lose, and instead think of what you will gain.
Loss and gain. Jesus tells the young man, you lack one thing. What is it? He doesn’t really say in so many word. But, I believe that what he lacked was a fundamental recognition of the world as God’s and his place in it as a contingent creature of God. Scholars tell us that one of the reasons that first Jews and later Christians had such a problematic view of wealth, came from their understanding of God, the Creation, and their place within it. God made us and all that is. God supplies what we need. Thus, wealth was the accumulation of more than we need, quite apart from God’s providential care. Jesus’ disciples and those hearing his preaching would have believed or at least been taught that wealth only comes through theft, extortion, and fraud, thus throwing Jesus’ reminder to the rich young man of the laws prohibiting these things, into stark and poignant relief. If God gives you enough, you can only have more by taking it. What God gives the world by grace can only become “mine” by a work of dishonest translation. I must first take, and then rename as mine what was once a gift for all. So the exhortation to sell all, give the money to the poor, and follow, is not a call to penitence, or redistribution, it is a call to see the world as it is, or as it ought to be, as God’s creation. Sharing wealth here is not about the powerful stooping down to help the powerless, but, rather the thieves being asked to return what was never theirs to begin with.
And, I am deeply uncomfortable all over again. For, like so many in this room and in this country, it would be easy to hear this teaching about the wealthy and to imagine only those who have more than me. To see wealth by comparison to my own position on the spectrum of money and possessions. But, by that comparison, most of us in this room and a very large portion of our nation and the west sit in the position of “wealthy”, measured against the poverty of the majority of the world. By the standard of the Law and the gospels, our wealth is not something we made – it is ill-gotten, defrauded, stolen, taken off of the backs of slaves, extorted out of the poor, ripped from the land – it is not ours. All that is, all that will be, we and all who inhabit the earth, are created by God, existing by grace.
So, where does that leave us? I’m not so sure. I can tell you that this past month of living vegan has been wonderful. Erin was right. By not focusing on what we were giving up, but instead, focusing on what we were taking on, this whole month has been truly transformative. I’ve noticed changes in myself, I’ve taken a new appreciation for the food I cook, and the difficulty of coaxing flavor and depth from a more humble set of ingredients. I’ve taken joy in food in a new way, the adventure of trying something new, and the way my body has returned to me, how I feel after a meal, and how my body responds throughout the day, running, working, parenting, and even sleeping. Oddly, I seem even more keenly aware of who and whose I am.
Potlatch story…(see Audio)
I cannot, as one who has not taken this teaching to heart as a personal practice in my life advise you how to practice this troubling teaching from Jesus. I can say that as in small increments I return my money to God, as I let go of my gifts in service to the poor and the needy, I am finding my life slowly transformed as I am reminded who and whose I am. The text seems to imply that the young man never followed Jesus’ teaching, yet, I am left to wonder what might have happened if he did. What would happen if I were to follow this teaching, not to give up everything, but to put it all in its rightful place, in service to God and the people of God, what might happen to me. As I practice giving even in part out of what I have, I am beginning to get a taste of what I might gain if I truly followed Jesus, that I might come to know, truly and profoundly who and whose I am. You lack one thing. I wonder what we could gain if we sought to find it.