This week’s Gospel lection brings to mind at least a couple questions:
#1. If money can’t buy happiness, why does its absence so frequently lead to such unhappiness?
#2. If so many people regard the Bible as a straightforward “book of instruction,” how do they explain the presence of so many obvious absurdities, specifically in this case as we talk about camels passing through the eye of a needle?
This may come as a surprise to so many North American Christians fixated on social issues, which politicians are wont to do during our ever-lengthening election seasons here in the USA. But Jesus never said a word specifically about abortion, contraception, or same-sex relationships. Of course, lots of folks have interpreted his words–and Apostle Paul’s–to bolster their own viewpoints. But that’s a whole different thing. However, Jesus did have a lot to say about money. Case in point: Mark 10:17-31.
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?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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; Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 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!” 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! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father 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, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (NRSV)
It’s easy to interpret this passage as a condemnation of rich people. It would be just as easy to say Jesus wants us all to turn our backs on our families–ignore them, reject them, forget all about them–and focus all our energies on God’s kingdom. As I referenced in question #2 above, we can quickly go astray and get in a lot of trouble if we regard the Bible as that simple, straightforward instruction book: Do this, don’t do that. Keep the blinders securely in place.
I find there are fewer and fewer clearly black-or-white issues the older I get. As for how many shades of grey in between–oops, that could lead to a whole other discussion.
This weekend my wife and I will make our annual trek to Harrisonville, Missouri, for the Western Missouri Mennonite Relief Auction and Sale. We’ve been doing this for at least a dozen years; it’s always held on the second Saturday in October. We go primarily because my wife is an avid quilter, and she likes to see the quilts put up for auction.
It’s also a chance to witness up close a cultural event unlike what we normally see every day here in our suburban hometown. The Mennonites who put on and support this sale do so primarily to support the worldwide Mennonite Relief Fund, which provides vital and personal help on several continents. The rural setting for the sale is appropriate, as most of the folks are farmers or from small towns. In addition to the quilts, lots of handmade items are auctioned off–everything from home-canned dill pickles and apple butter to cords of split wood. I don’t know how much money is raised, but it’s easily in the thousands of dollars.
I’m always amazed every year when the auctioneers bring out little buckets of salted peanuts, probably about two pounds each. I’ve never seen one of those buckets go for less than $30 and there have been times when the amount is well in excess of $100. Obviously, these folks aren’t just buying peanuts; they’re helping people they don’t know and will never meet who are halfway around the world get a chance for a better life.
Their generosity arises in response to God’s grace and a recognition of their own good fortune–blessings, if you prefer the term. For all I know there could be some very wealthy people in the sale crowd, but you’d never know it by looking at them or the vehicles parked outside on the lawn. Yet they’re also people who obviously value family and friendships, and consider that part of their “wealth.”
Given the choice between having money and not having money, I’ll go for the former. And I think others would, too. Money is necessary but when it becomes the driver of all we do, then it’s time to turn to the words of Jesus and adapt them to our life.