Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Overloaded Backpacks

Mark 10:17-31

Having grown up in a small school, there was never a time when I could not get to my locker, switch books, and still make it to my next class in time. I was never compelled, by the sheer size of the school or by any other reason, to carry everything I own and every text book I had with me everywhere I went. Watching my own children progress through school while the backpacks became necessarily stronger and bigger, and then being inside the school as a substitute teacher, I have seen young people with backpacks stuffed to the gills with such a load that absent weapons, ammo, and body armor, might actually make a grunt sweat! Some kids don’t even bother with lockers because the lockers are not always conveniently located according to their class schedules and limited time between classes. And given that children seem to come home with more homework than I can recall having in my day, they might as well carry all the books since they will likely need them anyway.

The difference between these contemporary school children and the faithful to whom Jesus is directing His comments in Mark’s text is that the school children need the weight of their burdens in order to see to their daily task. We, on the other hand, seem to freely make a choice to burden ourselves with unnecessary baggage, effectively distracting ourselves from what should be, at least for the faithful, not merely “first things” but, rather, “only things”.

More than being distracted, we are also conflicted because, first, Jesus does not define “wealth” and secondly, Jesus says to “sell what you own” (Mark 10:21), inferring “all”, “everything”, keeping nothing. So when we consider what is being said, we can easily see ourselves walking away “grieving” as the rich man did because while we may not consider ourselves wealthy, at least not materially, we must surely recognize how well off we are compared to many others. How we have acquired our material wealth and how hard and fast we hold onto it must also be evaluated according to Jesus’ words.

Maybe I have spent too much time over-thinking this passage, but I have always struggled through what Jesus is trying to convey. It does not seem to make sense that everyone who has anything should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor because this would leave us not only destitute and merely redistribute the wealth, but would also simply shift the burden. Those who were once a burden on society would suddenly find themselves enriched, but a social burden would still exist. Little seems to be accomplished by such an oversimplification of charitable giving because the problem of poverty, for instance, has not been eradicated. It hasn’t even been seriously addressed.

On the other hand, there is a profound point Jesus is making in that our wealth, whether great or small, does more to separate us from the Kingdom of Heaven than anything else. Pride and vanity, two of the so-called ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, both require extraordinary financing. And so does fear. And without our conscious knowledge, we become imprisoned, as St. Augustine believed. The Bible points out on more than one occasion that we will serve one – and only one – master. Whether that master is the Lord or our possessions or any other thing or person is a matter of conscious, and even sometimes unconscious, choice and will determine whether we are freed or enslaved.

“Radical discipleship” is what is being proposed in this passage; this is not about poverty or charitable giving. Jesus has not only suggested that we be willing to part with our possessions but, that we actually part with our possessions. This is a concept that is as difficult to comprehend as the disciples wondering who, then, can be saved since perhaps even they and everyone they knew had some stuff, stuff that is not only pleasing but also useful! Boats! Think boats and fishermen!

I think what the disciples are missing is that when Jesus is talking about “wealth”, He may be referring to anything that is not absolutely necessary for living in the day, right in the moment. In other words, if we are hoarding anything, perhaps especially money, for a “rainy day” when we can easily see it raining cats and dogs on the poor, we are not living in the moment or in faith - but are living, instead, in fear. Fear of tomorrow … or in fear of any other unknown factor. We have been conditioned and programmed to think such hoarding to be “responsible”. Jesus is challenging His followers to completely, totally, unequivocally, and without reservation or hesitation, trust in Divine Providence and not in our own devices. For the sake of practical living and in the world of commerce in which we all live, it will not get to be more radical than this.

There is also another twist to what Jesus offers that may be easily overlooked but must also be evaluated within the story as a whole. The rich man asks what must be done so that he can inherit eternal life, and there is no apparent reason to think him to be less than sincere when he claims to be mindful and conscious of the requirements of the Law. But did he have more on his mind than simply asking a theological question? Did he understand, really understand, who he was talking to? Did the rich man simply want his own sense of self-righteousness publicly affirmed for the sake of all who were within earshot? Or was he just testing the waters, looking for an “out” or an easier way?

The rich man did not address “the Lord”; he addressed a “teacher”, albeit a “good” teacher, but a teacher nonetheless. And the heart of his question concerned only himself, with no regard for anyone else. In essence, he was being selfish. He wanted to “have his cake and eat it, too”. As a man of means, it is reasonable to assume this man to be one who plans, who takes notes, who does not suffer surprises, especially financial ones. He has amassed great wealth not by living in faith but by living according to rules … and not necessarily the rules of Torah. More likely, he knew the rules of commerce; he knew how to acquire and sustain wealth. Following rules, for this man, was not a problem nor a challenge … certainly not a sacrifice.

The “twist”? The unexpected “twist”? Was Jesus telling him that he could not follow Him unless or until he got rid of his worldly possessions? Christian theology makes clear that Jesus, as expressed by John, is “the Way”. The way to live, the way to worship, the way to love, and certainly the way to eternal life. And if it is that the rich man’s possessions or concern merely for himself would keep him, on any level, from fully committing himself to Christ, he had no other choice but to turn back. And so he made his choice. And he “grieved” because he could not be a disciple AND keep his wealth. He perhaps liked the idea of following Jesus, but clearly he loved his “stuff” more and was unwilling to part with it. He may also have been “grieved” to discover that faith in Christ to the point of being willing to follow Him was much bigger than just getting oneself “saved”.
Important? Absolutely. It is equally important, however, to recognize what the apostles were called to. Jesus did not say, “Come follow me, and I will save your spiritual skin”. Or, “Come follow me and get yours”.

Even though the disciples reminded Jesus that they had given up hearth and home, safety and security, to follow Him, it should be easy to see that they were also a little “grieved” by the teaching. Maybe they intended more for themselves later. Maybe they were still thinking of the “riches” of the Kingdom of heaven in more worldly terms and still did not get what Jesus was talking about.

Something was obviously bothering them because Jesus made it sound like salvation for man would be utterly hopeless because we all have “stuff” in our backpacks we would just as soon not be forced to part with. But how heavy is that “stuff”? And at what point does the weight of that “stuff” become a cumbersome burden, an obstacle to everlasting life? At what point does it begin to do more harm than good? We should all take a good, hard look at the children who carry these enormous backpacks and what the weight of these burdens is doing to their posture, because it is our spiritual posture that is at stake!

One of the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, expressed the question this way: “Let this teach the prosperous that they are not to neglect their own salvation, as if they had been already foredoomed, nor, on the other hand, to cast wealth into the sea, or condemn it as a traitor and an enemy to life, but learn in what way and how to use wealth and obtain life.”

Clement comes dangerously close to suggesting that heavenly favor may actually be purchased in some way by inferring that wealth can be “used … to obtain life” in such a way, but I don’t think this is where he is going. Rather, he is reflecting what Jesus said regarding wealth and entering into the Kingdom of heaven: it is “hard” but not “impossible”. It is simply a matter of what, or whom, we ultimately love and which one we would go out of our way for.

In the end, we must be mindful of whether we are trapped and enslaved in our prosperity or freed in our poverty. Regardless of how much or how little we have, we must always be mindful that the people of faith are stewards entrusted with a mission, and we are granted the means by which our missions are to be accomplished. Above all else, we must commit to the cause of Christ. And in that commitment, we must determine whether or how we can continue the journey with our overloaded backpacks … or just set them down and carry the Cross instead.

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