Being in Discipleship I note the feelings and thoughts within as I begin to blog on Mark 10: 17-31 where the story of the rich man seeks from Jesus the answer to eternal life. I experience discomfort at having to address Jesus’ encounter with the rich man and his famous words about rich people, heaven, and the eye of the needle. Jesus continues on the road which is a key phrase for Mark. Being on the road is not just about the destination of Jerusalem and its tumultuous events. Being on the road for us is about an internal journey. A journey towards a transformation within each one of us, leading to the state of being in discipleship. Being in discipleship, rather than the normal expression of being a disciple, better describes for me the experience of trying to open myself to this transformed state. This is an experience of the continuous present, i.e. being in – rather than a state of arrival being a -.
Mark wants us to scoff a little at the obtuse way Jesus’ disciples continually miss the point. We have been merrily scoffing away since the early part of September when the lectionary started to focus our attention on Mark’s picture of Jesus starting-out on the road. Yet, being on the road with Jesus – the process of being in discipleship, is also for me a struggle to take-in and make room for a particular world view, which shocks me to our core.
Our World View My world view is the way my individual life experience conditions me to experience myself in the flow of life around me. Being on the road with Jesus turns my world view upside down. There isn’t a part of me that remains untouched by this upheaval. Like the proverbial Martini, we are all shaken and not merely stirred. This starts with Jesus’ instruction to anyone of us who wants to be his disciple to deny self, take up our cross, and start-out on the road. For further thoughts on this, I refer readers back to my blog Follow Me for the 16th September.
Illusions What do I need to do – to inherit eternal life? This is the rich man’s question. Isn’t also our deepest question? The rich man tells Jesus that he has done all things necessary for salvation and yet there is something that continues to evade him. So, please good teacher Jesus, he says, tell me what I need to do? Jesus gives him what he seeks: go sell everything that is stopping you starting out on the road with me. My discomfort with this text tells me that it is not only the rich man whose heart falls at these words. Unlike the rich man I don’t even have houses, money in the bank, stocks and shares to dispossess myself of. My discomfort lies in Jesus’ call to me to give up another secretly guarded illusion.
Money is the single-most powerful illusion of happiness. Or if happiness is too much to expect, then at least money provides the illusion of security. Jesus is telling us that this illusion endangers our inheritance of eternal life. Yet, what is eternal life? I have long ago jettisoned the notion of eternal life as pie in the sky when you die. I am interpreting eternal life to mean the here-and-now experience of being on the road, i.e. to being in discipleship with Jesus. At Mark 10:17-31 we arrive at a signpost on the road that says in bold letters: LOOK AT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MONEY.
The Myths of Scarcity and Abundance Currently, there is a lot being written about our relationship with money and setting this issue within the larger context of how our collective and individual world views are shaped by the fear of scarcity which fuels our obsession with the need for more and more- the illusion that what we have is never enough! For those of you who live in Arizona, if you have a chance to attend one of Canon Timothy Dombek’s STEW-U’s (stewardship university) I recommend you do so. With conviction he explores the myth of scarcity and our obsession with over abundance, and how this distorts the lives of our Christian Communities. I also refer readers to Lynne Twist’s book Unleashing the Soul of Money. For those of us who can’t bear the thought of reading one more book, Twist’s book comes in audio format and makes for compelling listening. You can also refer back to my reflections on illusion and the illusions of scarcity and more is better in my blog Passing Through The Veil of Illusion.
The Comfort of Self-Assertion I want to take us back to look at the construction of the rich man’s question. The construction presupposes that there is something we need to do. In my experience we tend to ask the question – so what do I need to do, or how do I do that? – when we seek to quieten the anxiety we feel at having arrived at a significant insight so disturbing in its life changing implications that we need to run from it as fast as we can. We run from the possibility of being changed by our arrival at an insight. We take refuge in the futility of our own inability to see how we can act. This is part of our universal human experience – we long to change with such a desperate intensity, while at the same time, fearing with an equal intensity the prospect of changing. If I let go this source of grievance, if I puncture this illusion of safety and security – what would happen and/or who then would I become?
Following the Commandments is code for how we confuse self-assertion with living as if we are on the road to being in discipleship. The rich man in Mark’s Gospel follows the Commandments because he easily has the material and spiritual resources to do so. Following the commandments is, in other words, the action of self-assertion and self-sufficiency, masquerading as spiritual faithfulness.
How do I know this? I know this because the rich man is me and he is you. I know this from the rich man’s reaction to Jesus asking him to sell his possessions and give the money not just away, but to the poor i.e. those who are in need, and enter onto the road. This I can easily identify with, but because it is about him, I can also take the moral high ground and judge him at the same time. He could not do it because this would require him moving beyond controlling his relationship with God. Through selling his possessions he is being called back into relationship. Not a private relationship with God in which he is always in control of his own feel good factors and personal security. He is being confronted by the need to enter into a public relationship with a God who is present to him through his relationships with others, commonly called community. What is the rich man’s response? He goes away with a heavy heart .Here is the litmus test that we all face within the context of our own relationship with money and possessions. It matters not, how much or how little of these we feel we have.
Going for the Jugular I heard some funny quips this last week about Episcopalians and money. Did you know that Episcopalians give until it hurts? It’s just that we have such a low pain threshold. Episcopalians when faced with the invitation to pledge will stop at nothing! Think about it. Alas there is an uncomfortable truth in these parodies. Episcopalians are unstinting in their service of one another and the wider world. Ask them to do something, to get involved with a mission and they are right there. Ask them, are you on the road to being in discipleship with Jesus and you usually draw a puzzled look and may evoke a response, oh I am not one of those – those being Evangelicals. Ask Episcopalians, would you like your name published as a supporter of the Opera, or the Ballet, or NPR?. They will gladly go public with their generosity. Ask them to go onto a list of those who are pledging, and heaven forbid, tithing members of Trinity Cathedral and the look of horror has to be seen to be believed. No! The good Episcopalian says. That’s private between me and God – and the cute among us might even quote scripture, parade not your faith in public and go into your closet and let not the right hand know what the left had is doing. Well, we usually avoid the going into your closet, bit, – but you get the drift.
Last week I coined the snappy phrase: open your wallets as wide as you long to open your hearts. This week’s Gospel confronts us with our willingness to publicly open our hearts and yet, to keep the open or closed state of our wallets, our secret. As a priest, I avoid becoming categorically prescriptive on issues. However, on the issue of money I have to state, our money is not our money, and our relationship with it is not a private concern. God calls us to account publicly for our relationship to money. Because – God’s dream for us is, that the use of our money becomes a source of blessing and spiritual transformation for us.
Money, Being Transformed, Becoming Sources for Transformation The rich man’s question for assurance that he would inherit eternal life represents all our narcissistic anxieties. Jesus’s response offers a possibility of transformation – turning the question into: are you willing to use your resources to make a difference in the world? The rich man is afraid of such a transformation and goes away sad. He would rather rely on his own self-sufficiency.
Don’t we all want to make a difference in a world where we mostly feel so ineffectual? Our use of our money becomes a blessing and a fulfillment towards our spiritual longings when we allow it to become an instrument for making a difference. It makes a difference through the way it brings us into a transformed and transforming relationship with others – and together, we build strong community.