October 14, 2018, Rev. Karen J. Bowles
Psalm 90:12-17, Mark 10:17-27, scroll down for readings
Context is important. And without it, we often misinterpret a situation, draw ill informed conclusions.
A bit of true story to illustrate and this story will be told in two parts – here is part one. A woman pulls over at the side of the highway. Her clothes are soaking wet – the rear view mirror in her car is dangling from the windshield held in place by a wire and there are tears running down her face. A police car pulls up behind her and the officer gets out and knocks on the passenger window (thank God as the car was not pulled far enough off the road to accommodate his girth on the driver side. He raps his knuckles politely on the window – the woman rolls (and of course I say this metaphorically as we have not rolled car windows down in many years ) it down and turns her tear stained face to the officer who wrinkles his nose up at the smell of gasoline that wafts out and asks clearly concerned and a bit alarmed: ‘You appear to be in some distress ma’am. How can I help you?’ End of part one
Consider also the biblical story of Bathsheba – interpreted for years by many in the pulpit to blame Bathsheba for the relationship between David and Bathsheba. Much of the contextual misunderstanding was based on bathing habits – where you do it and when you do it – the cultural and geographical context around bathing in different cultures. Bathsheba was bathing on the roof at night. interpreted as ‘flagrantly in the open in the dark under the cover of night when all good women are obviously safely tucked in bed.’ But – in ancient Israel women bathed on the roof. And everyone bathed at night when it was cooler out of the hot sun specifically when it was difficult to be seen. But she was the temptress, the enticer, the fallen woman, his Eve in the garden. David was the poor sot who ended up in her web. It was not his fault, he who was to be king!
Now – times have changed and continue to change – but these stories are insidious and leave their mark on our societies. Witness Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter or the depiction of Joyce Maynard as a predator for revealing her relationship at 18 with JD Salinger who was then 53. Careful historical, cultural, contextual reading of any work especially works like the Bible – that carry much so weight for so many – is essential and without it, can and have and continue to lead to messed up versions of ‘truth’ and do great damage to society that can take decades or even centuries to unravel and reknit.
And it is no different with our passage today. Let’s work through it together. There is lots here that requires context – and some that requires none. And at the risk of repeating myself – each time I delve into the words of Jesus I come away shaken and made hopeful by their power and by their wisdom.
Understood in context this passage is consistent with the teachings of this Jesus and is liberating for all and not condemning of some.
This passage is referred to in most of the commentaries as that of the The Rich Young Ruler.
It’s traditional reading is that in order to inherit eternal life or the kingdom of God as it is put – the wealthy young man who has followed the commandments all his life – he has not murdered anyone, he has been faithful to his partner, he has not stolen or borne false witness, he has not defrauded another and has always honoured his parents – despite all this good and righteous behaviour Jesus tells him he now must give up all his possessions – sell all he has – and follow, literally follow Jesus. In fact Jesus does not even couch his language – at all – what you hear is what you get. How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
What! exclaim the disciples. What! And Jesus gets more graphic in his response. ‘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.” And into the reader’s imagination comes a word picture of a full grown camel straining to force itself into one of those insanely small openings on the business end of a sewing needle. Clearly that ‘ain’t’ happening.
‘Then who,’ they ask, ‘then who may enter the kingdom of God?’ And Jesus takes refuge in God. ‘For mortals it is impossible but not for God. With God all things are possible.’
On it’s surface and without context this passage this teaching of Jesus seems to be saying that those with wealth will never find eternal life will not partake of the kingdom unless they give it all away.
But here’s the rub. Jesus is not saying this at all. A lesson in the contemporary understanding of Yahweh, of God for the ancient Jew. God’s favour is evidenced by good fortune. Good fortune is defined as large herds of goats, good health, abundant harvests, many wives with fertile wombs, wealth and land and standing and position. And misfortune – bad harvests, lack of children or wives or land, sickness, blindness, lack or loss of wealth, are all signs of God’s disfavour. And more than this – this disfavour or favour is directly attributable to the actions of the one afflicted or rewarded or the actions of their parents or grandparents. And on a grander scale – exile and Roman rule are directly the result of the behaviour of the entire Jewish people.
And the disciples are clearly confused. How can this rich, right behaved man not be guaranteed eternal life?
One of the oft used statements I hear spoken by folks when they hear of the misfortune of another is “There but for the grace of God go I.” As if somehow they had God’s good graces but this other obviously did not. As if somehow like the 3 fates of roman mythology – God was pulling the strings of each individual and deciding each persons fate like a punitive parent.
And have we not heard this in our time? Those who call themselves men or women of God blaming those who have AIDS for the disease, blaming those who are killed in natural disasters like Tsunamis or earthquakes for causing the disfavour of God?
And Jesus turns this notion, this conception of the God of ancient Israel on its head. Your wealth young man, your status, your fields, and your flocks matter not a bit. Your having them or not having them is not at all the point. The point is what you do with them. And what you do with them will be determined by the character of your faith, by the wisdom you garner, by the quality of your loving.
The snippet of the psalm we heard this morning begins with “so teach us to count our days so that we may garner a wise heart.”
Jesus looked at him, loved him and said ‘Sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me.’ Jesus sees wealth not as favour here but as a barrier in giving it all up to God – recognizing choice is ours but control is not. Perhaps this young man’s possessions were more possessing than possessed – if the things we have hold us back from the work of making our days count of garnering a wise heart, then we would be better without them.
And what makes our days count – how do we garner a wise heart? That is up to you. That is your choice – whether rich or not, young or not, male or not.
To simply BE is awe inspiring. I believe this. Just as I believe it’s pointless to waste time chasing after fame and wealth and status. They may come or not but they are not the goal. Better to spend time creating – good words, good feelings, good relationships, good memories, good works – better to frame each decision with the question: Is what I am choosing to think or do or say, moving farther away or closer to Creator, to God?
The last line of the Psalm is “Prosper the work of our hands.” In the context of these words today perhaps you may change the way you define the word ‘prosper.’
And to further aid us in deciding what prospering the work of our own hands might mean in our own lives as Christians as followers of the ways of Jesus, I invite us to together speak the words in your bulletin from a creed of our church.
We are each given particular gifts of the Spirit.
For the sake of the world,
God calls all followers of Jesus to Christian ministry.
In the church,
some are called to specific ministries of leadership,
both lay and ordered;
some witness to the good news;
some uphold the art of worship;
some comfort the grieving and guide the wandering;
some build up the community of wisdom;
some stand with the oppressed and work for justice.
In grateful response to God’s abundant love,
we bear in mind our integral connection
to the earth and one another;
we participate in God’s work of healing and mending creation.
Part 2 of the story I began at the outset:
I am sure that poor policemen thought I was either drunk, had had an accident, or was preparing to have one. But the truth is, as I was leaving late for an rendezvous out of town, I noticed the gas tank was on empty. Filling the tank I spilled gas all over the front of my clothes. Too late to go home and change, I got on the highway hoping to make up some time and it was backed up of course. Reaching up to adjust the rear view mirror it came away in my hands. Incredulous I pulled my hand back hitting my coffee cup and spilling the contents in my lap. I pulled over, cancelled my appointment spent some time feeling sorry for myself, close to tears, frustrated at the best laid plans gone awry. And then I had a glorious moment of giving it all up to God – I began to laugh and I was still laughing so hard I was crying when I rolled down the window.
Context is important in all stories.
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.'”
10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.”
10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
10:25 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.”
10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
90:12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
90:13 Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants!
90:14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
90:15 Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.
90:16 Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
90:17 Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands– O prosper the work of our hands!