October 14, 2018

Homily for the XXI Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 23 – October 14, 2018

Amos 5: 6-7; 10-15

Hebrews 4: 12-13

Mark 10: 17-31

In the Gospels, Jesus condemns the accumulation of riches, the concentration of power and wealth, more than anything else. Jesus stood clearly in the prophetic tradition, of which the prophet Amos is one of the greatest examples. And, as we just heard, the prophet Amos had some very clear words about what he was witnessing in his day. Those who live in huge mansions can do so because they trample on the poor, Amos says. They cheat in their dealings, they take bribes, and they mistreat the common people. In a word: they don't care about fairness and justice; all they care is their own interest. Sounds familiar?

Yet it is interesting that our Gospel passage presents Jesus not as condemning, but as loving. This is the only place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is said to love one specific person. The story presents a man who is pretty anxious. He jumps in front of Jesus when Jesus is ready to take off with his disciples, and he asks a question that shows all his anxiety but also his earnest desire. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17). He is not asking his question for tricking Jesus, like other Gospel characters often do. But he calls Jesus “good teacher”. Jesus rejects the appellative, and while in the course of two-thousands years, interpreters have given many different explanations for such rejection, it might be simply the case that Jesus intends to calm down the situation and focus the encounter correctly. The compliment “good teacher” should not be in the way, should not influence Jesus and his answer, and should not make the conversation focus on Jesus himself, or on any special teachings by Jesus. And Jesus, in fact, does not say anything special at all, he simply repeats the main commandments. The man at this point is lost: “Teacher, I have kept all of these commandments since my youth!” We have no reason to doubt that he did, to the extent of his capacity and his understanding. But clearly he wants something more. His desire, betrayed by his anxiety, is burning. It is at this point that Jesus loves him, perhaps why Jesus loves him. Jesus can see the turmoil, and the good intentions. He can probably perceive the years of doubt and search that this man has been through. He looks at him with a gaze of love. And he says: “You need only one thing then: go, sell all your properties and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me” (Mk. 10: 21). Whatever else you may think, this is a biting sentence, even if delivered with love. It is the incision of the divine surgeon on a sick soul. When the man heard the suggestion “his face dropped” (Mk. 10: 22). A very colourful expression for describing a gloomy face. His desire crashed and we don’t hear about him anymore.

Throughout the ages, people such as St. Anthony of Egypt in the 3rd century, called the father of Christian monasticism, or St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, who turned medieval Christianity upside down with their insistence of evangelical poverty, they all said that the turning point of their lives coincided with their hearing this verse read aloud in church: “Sell all your properties and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me” (Mk. 10: 21). Our Gospel story is indeed about being a follower of Jesus. It is about all those who have burnt and burn with the desire of something more meaningful in their lives than simply following the rules. And it is about the risk of failing in such attempt, the tragedy of the desire being quenched not from outside forces, but from the inside. “His face dropped”.

In our story, we also get the positive example. After a moment of shock and disarray - “Who can be saved?” the disciples ask frantically – we find again much love in Jesus’ words when he talks about those who have become his followers. They receive “a hundredfold in this age, together with persecutions” and they will receive “in the age to come, eternal life”. To understand this expressions correctly we need to remember that those who left their families and their possessions to follow Jesus, did something that was incredible and crazy in the ancient world. They turned themselves into beggars, essentially. But we need also to understand that, by doing so, they also left behind “cultural religion”, religion as something that you do because you are raised that way. They discovered that the way of life, the spirituality that Jesus taught, was very different than the ideological structure underpinning the status quo often called “religion”. In fact, when Jesus apparently repeats the same list, first to state what the disciples have left behind, then to declare what they are already receiving in this age as recompense, the repetition misses a central piece. “Houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields” (Mk. 10:30). The word “father” is missing. Did you notice? By their letting go of all that hindered their becoming disciples, they are already getting back many mothers, sisters, brothers, and children in the new community and they are hosted in their homes and on their properties. So they do not lack anything, they actually have plenty of everything and plenty of love especially, but they do not get back any earthly father. They have broken off with the patriarchal system. They only have one Father in heaven, which means that the regular system of domination is now coming to an end.

Was then the preaching of Jesus about social justice, about the sharing of wealth and resources, with the intent of bringing heaven on earth, or was it a spiritual preaching about inner transformation? It was actually a welding of those two things, a welding so strong that the two elements cannot be separated. The preaching of Jesus was about turning the world upside down, yes, and it was about helping people resetting their inner priorities. It was about teaching people to let go of the things to which they were attached, whether material or immaterial, which prevented them from sharing and being joyful. Even today, it is an adventure to follow this Jesus, and it is a loss to remain attached to those forms of Christianity which miss one of the two sides, the spiritual or the political, or try to put them side to side without ever reaching their fusion point.

The Letter to the Jewish-Christian communities speaks about the word of God as a double-edged sword cutting into us. If we have been pierced by the words of Christ “See all your properties”, if we have been made uncomfortable by this verse, the place to start today is our own letting go. What is that one thing that, at present, is keeping us from following our deep desire for love and for the spreading of love? What is that we are afraid to lose? What is the blockage? Something that we never even considered being a problem, just as the rich man did not think that wealth was going to be a problem for him... and yet something that, if we look carefully, is a stone on our heart. The story of the rich man who, in the end, did not follow Jesus teaches us that often that one thing is what separates us from the ocean of love that is waiting for us at our door. Material possessions are the first place where to look because, then as now, the excess of wealth either creates many worries or blinds people and makes them incapable of empathy. But it might not be anything material. There are manifold other things, or relationships, or even parts of ourselves, that we think we “own” or we think we can control. This possessive behaviour is, sadly, our greatest hindrance to the full and joyous life that is promised to the disciples of Jesus. Let us reflects on this issue today and in the days to come. Let us learn that it is not the amount of actions that we put into practice which will help the dawn of the new era, but it is rather how much we are able to let go of our anxieties and attachments, thus becoming truly free, more available to joy, and ultimately real agents of God's kingdom. Inner freedom and joy are God's gift to us, and only once we let go of our resistance to receive them, we become able to spread them. Amen.