5 min. to read.
Today continues my series of reflections for Lent. Today is the 2nd day of Lent, and the scripture I’m reading and reflecting on is Mark 10:17-31, the scene where Jesus interacts with a man we’ve come to call the ”Rich Young Ruler.”
A young man approaches Jesus for advice. He’s privileged and wealthy. Likely influential in his circle. His conversation with Jesus is important because it’s recorded in all three synoptic gospels. This young man wanted to know what he needed to do to fully participate in the new kind of life Jesus was offering. Apparently he’d been a good person. He didn’t break the law. He observed all the religious practices. So, why did he end up leaving his conversation with Jesus disappointed?
Mark’s Gospel says he went away shocked and grieved because “he had many possessions.” What he had—really, his attachment to it—kept him from being willing or able to follow Jesus’ suggestion of generosity. In his commentary on this passage, Pastor Brian Zahnd suggests that the young man’s roadblock was economic self-interest. He cites a strident quote from theologian Ambrose of Milan (240-397): “You are not making a gift of your possessions to a poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.” Wow… reflect on Ambrose’ words for long and it just might turn your whole world upside down.
I’m born and bred in a culture that is capitalistic from top to bottom. Capitalism is considered by most folks around me to be an unarguable good and a non-negotiable commitment. Whether we are defenders or critics of capitalism, I don’t think we can argue that economic self-interest is the driving force of capitalism. Economic self-interest is the motivation that leads many kids to their college major (or even to the decision to go to college.) It’s the motivation that has driven people into massive student loan debt. It’s the motivation that (we think) gets people up in the morning and off to work.
Whatever good this economic system has offered the world, it does seem to be the case that the motivating principle of economic self-interest makes it very difficult for us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Maybe we just don’t want to share our resources. “We worked hard for them! We don’t owe anybody anything!” Or maybe we have some extra and are willing to share, but the same motivation leads to a need or desire to make sure the people who receive our generosity are worthy. We create categories like “the deserving poor.”
It’s pretty hard to make a case from the teaching of Jesus that accumulated wealth is anything other than a spiritual obstruction. Zahnd makes this point: “The truth is that for most of us economic self-interest is the single greatest obstacle to full participation in the kingdom of God. We cannot love our neighbor as our self without being willing to share our wealth.” I feel like I could sit with that quote in reflection for a long time. Is the Spirit saying something? Am I willing to hear it?
Lent asks me to reflect on my attachment to things. What role do they play in my life? Am I willing or able to apply Jesus’ ethic of loving my neighbor as myself to my bank account and the things I own?
My immediate gut reaction is honestly a lot of self-justification. “Well, I’m not rich. I mean, we’re barely middle class…” Of course, that’s an interesting game of relativity. Can we freely spend money whenever we want on anything we want? No, but objectively we have 2 cars, a lovely home, a rental house, more electronic devices than people, and more food than we can eat… all of which puts my family into the top percentages of wealth worldwide. So, I don’t feel rich. But if I asked a single parent working three jobs with no days off, or people sleeping in Portland’s homeless camps, or Ukrainian and Palestinian refugees their opinion, I’d probably get a different answer.
For Americans like me who’ve breathed the air of capitalism since birth and who have had mostly a life of economic stability, it may be important to remember: Jesus’ injunction wasn’t, “accumulate until you’re middle class and then love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul didn’t amplify this by saying, “Fully fund your retirement, your kid’s college fund, and your vacation savings account AND THEN bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Material things, including money, have a way of owning us. They can shape our options and limit the possibilities we can see. Following Jesus means letting Jesus be the highest guide in our lives, which may even mean changing how we relate to what we have.
Lent invites us to give up our attachment to what we own. This way leads to life.