5 min. to read.
Today continues my series of reflections for Lent. I’m reading through I’m reading through pastor Brian Zahnd‘s Lent devotional The Unvarnished Jesus. As a practice of my own, I’ll be posting daily (or near daily) short reflections on the scriptures chosen.
Today is the 2nd day of Lent, and the scripture is Mark 10:17-31.
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 Kingdom Jesus was offering. Apparently he’d been a good person according to the law. 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, and his attachment to it, kept him from being willing or able to follow Jesus’ suggestion of generosity. 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… that quote forces open a door to reflecting on things that just might turn your whole world upside down.
I’m born and bread in a culture that is capitalistic from top to bottom. Capitalism is considered by most to be an unarguable good and a non-negotiable commitment. Whoever we think of this system we find ourselves in, 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 system has offered humanity, 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.”
Regardless of my views on one economic system or another, it remains 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 finagle 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…” An interesting mental game to play that is also entirely relative. 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, a generator that’s been keeping us in heat during this power outage, and more food than we can eat… all of which puts my family into the top percentages of wealth worldwide.)
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. Part of following Jesus is letting Jesus be the highest guide and principle 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.