Updated: Jul 31, 2022
20th Sunday After Pentecost, October 10, 2021
Proper 23B: Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Ps 90:12-17
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Years ago, while I was in the ordination process, I went to hear a friend preach in her field education parish. As I recall, her sermon was on Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6 20-23). “Blessed are you poor,” she emphasized in contrast to Matthew’s version that reads “the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are you who hunger now,” not Matthew’s “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Lk 6: 20-21; Mt 5:3-4). And then she continued with Luke’s “woes,” unparalleled in Matthew, “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” and “you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Lk 6:24-25). Jesus’ words were challenging for anyone who was not anxious about money, food, clothing or housing – for anyone with any kind of wealth, even if they would never have described themselves as “rich.” Resist the urge to spiritualize this message and avoid the challenge of Jesus’ message, she continued. Jesus was calling us to fundamentally changing the conditions in which we live, so that no one might hunger or thirst, or be without clothing or housing, so that the last might be first. I remember listening to her and feeling both inspired and challenged, even uncomfortable. Because however anxious I was about various unsettled qualities of my life at that time, I had the fundamental security of housing, food, and clothing. I had, and have, privilege. Many did not, I knew. Jesus had something to say about the deeply stratified, unequal, unjust state of our world, about our call to take part in repairing and restoring it, about the eternal dimensions of our participation in that work. He had something to say to me, to my friend, to all of us gathered that Sunday morning. I listened intently but I also felt overwhelmed.
I imagine many of us may feeI similarly about this morning’s gospel reading from Mark, the story known as “the Rich Young Man” (Mk 10:17-31). Jesus is just setting out on a journey when a man runs up to him and asks him a huge question: “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17). As if to suggest, you can answer this quickly, right Jesus? You know, as you step out into the road? What’s the last box I need to check before I can sigh with relief and know I’ve covered all my bases? As it turns out, the answer is not extensive. But first there are some significant preliminaries. The ingratiating referral of Jesus as a “good teacher” needed to go—God alone is good (Mk 10:18). Jesus then briefly rehearses the commandments (Mk 10:19). Intriguingly, he leaves out those about honoring God (perhaps the exchange about who is “good” evoked them well enough). He also adds to the command about not bearing false witness a charge not to defraud—a kind of bearing of false witness in the process of lending. In Matthew’s version of this story, but not in ours, Jesus concludes his commandment list with “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 19:19). The man, perhaps relieved, says, “I have kept these since my youth” (Mk 10:20). This is where the love comes into our version of the story: uniquely in Mark’s version, before replying to the man, we hear that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mk 10:21a). Here is an example of what the Letter to thee Hebrews names as Christ “sympathizing with our weakness” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus sees this man deeply and with compassion, and Mark wants us to know that. Then Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing. Matthew’s version adds, “if you would be perfect” (Mt 19:21), before lowering the boom: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21b). It’s an incredibly broad statement: not simply your extra goods or any cushion you may have, but “what you own.” Take the proceeds from that sale and give it to those without means. And then, crucially, “come, follow me.” This was not the last box the man had wanted to check. He asks no more questions. Utterly shocked, he goes away, grieving. He had, we hear, “many possessions” (Mk 10:22). The man’s departure represents the only time in the gospels that someone had refused a call from Jesus to follow him.
The man’s reaction of shock and grief at this exchange reverberates loudly. Something very significant has taken place, and the disciples—perhaps shocked themselves—want to understand it. It will be hard for wealthy, possession-laden people to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus comments. The perplexity of the disciples as they continue to try to understand what had just happened then draws out one of Jesus’ most memorable statements: “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” (Mk 10:25). It is quite an image. So striking is it, and so threatening is the basic message about the hindrance of wealth, that for millennia Christians have been trying to reinterpret it. If you change one letter of the word for camel in Greek, it becomes “rope,” one line of thought entertained. And hey, it may be hard to find a needle that a rope could be threaded through, but at least we wouldn’t be talking about a large, potentially two-humped animal. Another argument I’ve encountered is that there was a narrow side gate into Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle” that only a person could walk through—a camel couldn’t fit, especially with side-baggage. My understanding is that this possible gate has not been archaeologically identified. But however plausible or implausible any of these readings may be, they blunt the edge of Jesus’ challenge. And the fact that so many Christians have wanted to weaken it over the years points to how broadly it applies. The disciples’ own astounded question, “then who can be saved?” underscores this truth (Mk 10:26). You do not have to identify as “wealthy” for this text to be deeply challenging. As the biblical scholar and organizer Ched Meyers has observed, we should hear this as “North American Christians, who can only be defined as rich relative to the global distribution of wealth and power.” We can amplify that further as Californians, as residents of San Francisco and indeed of the Bay area more broadly, with our massive economic stratification and country-leading housing shortage. Indeed in such contexts, Meyers feels this passage should be received as a “‘text of terror’ for Christians who are the ‘inheritors’ of the rich man’s legacy.”
As I sit with text, and particularly with its challenge to any and all of us, variously economically situated though we may be, what feels most important is to stay connected to its message, its call. Not to duck out of it or turn away from it as the rich young man did, but to ask how it is speaking to us, and how we might respond. Now, are we 21st century versions of the desert ascetic St. Antony who heard this text as a wealthy young man six months after his parents’ death and summarily gave away his possessions, having already begun pondering the collectivism in the Acts of the Apostles, how they shared all things in common? I imagine not likely. Are we modern day St. Francises or St. Clares whom Margaret wonderfully preached about last week, who also gave up their wealth and took up a life of poverty? My sense is that their calls resonate strongly, including those among us whose lives are ordered by their communal rules. I was struck this week by how the fourth century theologian and bishop Basil of Caesarea responded to this text and the witness of the earliest followers of Jesus. He came to a point in his life when he gave up seeking to succeed in the field of rhetoric in which he was highly trained and began a years-long process of transforming the wealth of his family to a form of shared communal living that was open to anyone, married or not. He declared, “When all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor.” His vision was communitarian. So too was that of the community in Solentiname, Nicaragua served by Ernesto Cardinale, who in the mid 1970s published the community’s collective reflections on various gospel passages including the Lukan version of ours. The rich young man missed the most important point of the commandments, a community member declared: “sharing.” Later, another added, “we have to create a system in which wealth is shared, so that in all of society we can fulfill what Jesus asks here of the rich young man.”The point was not to hold onto, to grasp, financial security at all costs. The point was to share resources, which many, from Antony, to Basil, to Francis and Clare, to the people of Solentiname, to Ched Meyers, have seen as an expression of the call to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Many, if not most of us may not identify as ascetics, but I think we can be inspired by and can respond to the powerful challenge in this text to deeply examine what relative privilege we may have, and to step further into the call to repair, indeed, to redistribute resources in our world. Because that is what these ascetics and communities were doing in response to this and other key sayings and stories of Jesus. They saw how Jesus stood with those most marginalized in our world and went about the work of healing and restoration. And Jesus did not simply do this work himself. He invited those around him to follow him into it, to become disciples, to do the work he was about in this world as agents of a healing so deep it participated in the world’s ultimate re-creation. Jesus’ invitation is offered with an unsettling clarity. But as our Markan passage reflects, it is also offered with loving compassion. Discipleship was and is not for the faint of heart. But it does not represent diminishment of possibility. It signals fullness of life. It comes with transformation. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “there is no one who has left house or siblings or parents or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, siblings, parents and children, and fields.” There is newness of family that comes with this life, with this sharing. Discipleship is a form of solidarity that extends us and changes us. It reforges us. We are given to one another and to people we do not yet know in deep ways that will sustain us through all manner of ups and downs. And we need that sense of collective belonging in this life of discipleship, because it comes with deep difficulty.
“Transformed together, we rise and thrive,” reads our Stewardship theme for this year. We did not have today’s gospel text in mind as we came up with it, but it feels apt. This is a time of invitation to deeper engagement and transformation—an invitation to each of us and to all of us as the community of St. Aidan’s discerning together how God is calling is to share what we have. It is a time to stay with Jesus’ call to profound discipleship, even as it challenges us deeply. It is a time to renew our collective discernment of how we are called to engage the deep work of repair in this world in which we are situated, to ask what we can do together, prayerfully and in community, that we could not do alone. It is a time to truly embrace the truth that nothing is impossible with God.
 Ched Meyers, “The Call of the Rich Man As a Text of Terror.” https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2021/10/08/the-call-of-the-rich-man-as-a-text-of-terror/  John R. Donahue, “Mark” in The Harper Collins Bible Commentary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), 913.  Elizabeth Clark, Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 96. William C. Placher, Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 146: "There was no such gate, and the first reference to this way out of the problem does not appear until the ninth century."  Meyers, https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2021/10/08/the-call-of-the-rich-man-as-a-text-of-terror/  Meyers, https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2021/10/08/the-call-of-the-rich-man-as-a-text-of-terror/  Athanasius of Alexandria, The Life of Antony (Toronto: Paulist Press, 1980), 31.  Basil of Caesarea, “To the Rich” in On Social Justice (Crestwood, New Jersey: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 43.  Ernesto Cardinale, The Gospel in Solentiname (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1976, 2010), 495, 499.