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The Rich Young Man and “More of a comment than a question, really.”

This sermon was first preached on October 10, 2021 at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church before a book event of #BaptizedinTearGas.

Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.

I have been to a lot of racial justice events in my role in the church. Typically after a panel or presentation or training, there is time for like, question and answer or discussion. And inevitably a white person from the audience will raise their hand to get on the mic. And instead of taking the opportunity to listen to the wisdom in the room and ask genuine questions from the leaders or experts who are there, they use their time to offer, “more of a comment than a question, really.”  Oftentimes they will list off their racial justice resume, naming all of the great things they are doing or their church is doing to end white supremacy, naming protests they have attended or community events they are a part of like badges on a proverbial Anti-Racism Scout Vest.

Maybe you have been to events or conversations and noticed this. Maybe you have even done it. I definitely have done versions of this sort of thing. It is born from a sense of inner conflict. When we as white people show up to discussions about white supremacy we often feel uncomfortable. Hearing about racism makes us itchy inside, anxious to defend ourselves. We feel guilt about the ways we have benefited from or participated in white supremacy. We want to distance ourselves from it, to prove our goodness, to prove we aren’t like those other white people. You can tell, because we have Black friends, or we read White Fragility or we took anti-racism training. We are the good ones.

Jesus has spent the last several chapters of Mark pushing back against systems of economic exploitation and disrupting the status quo of his day by healing people in his traveling free pop-up community health clinics. It has gotten him enough attention that the religious aristocracy – who has secured their place in no small part by cozying up to the Roman Empire – that the religious aristocracy has started to notice and has begun to plot ways to shut Jesus down and “keep the peace”. The tension between the powers that be and Jesus is mounting every day, but he is not turning back. He is not laying low. He is marching on towards Jerusalem, gaining notoriety every day, knowing exactly what awaits rabble-rousers like him: a cross.

As Jesus’ movement gains moments, he is constantly turning to his comrades and warning them, saying over and over, “Listen. Listen. I need you to understand where we are going, what we are doing. I am not going to stop. They are going to kill me.”

As Jesus and his comrades pack up their suitcases, to move on to the next stop along their way to Jerusalem, they are interrupted by a wealthy young man. This young man, no doubt, heard Jesus preach about economic exploitation. He knew about Jesus’ unwavering solidarity with the poor. And he approaches Jesus to ask, “How do I inherit eternal life?”

Jesus lists several of the commandments: don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother… and even adds a bonus commandment specifically about economic injustice. Do not defraud – language that is not found in the original 10 commandments, but Jesus must have known that the young man needed to hear.

And in response to Jesus the man says, “Yes yes, I have done all of those things ever since I was little.”

Instead of reflecting on the ways that, perhaps at times, he has fallen short of living into these commandments, the rich young man uses this conversation to justify himself. He went to the mic with really more of a comment than a question. He asked a question he thought he already knew the answer to, not in order to get more information, but to justify himself. My guess is that, like many of us who sit through racial justice events, he was feeling that inner conflict because Jesus’ teachings were hitting a little close to home. And he wanted to be reassured that he was one of the good ones. He wanted a pat on the back, some absolution.

Jesus doesn’t do that, though. Jesus says, “Sell all of your possessions and give to the poor and come follow me.” 

The rich young man was shocked to hear that. I think he really was still expecting a pat on the back. He was probably used to kudos and praise. Even now, in our own culture, we often believe the lie that people’s bank accounts are a reflection of God’s favor.

We look at the poor and think that they must have done something to deserve their plight…that they didn’t work hard enough, that they weren’t disciplined enough or didnt sacrifice enough. That they made mistakes financially or were bad with money instead of realizing that the system has been rigged against the poor from the start. The rich young man probably internalized the idea that he was rich because of his own goodness, that he earned his wealth by doing the right thing. It was shocking for him to hear that his wealth didn’t equate to worthiness. He walked away from this conversation with Jesus full of grief.

This is a hard teaching. But Jesus’ difficult words were in line with much of the Hebrew Bible including the prophet, Amos we read today, who said, “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”

In other words, Amos says, “Your wealth is stolen. You hord money that belongs to the poor. And one day? ALL of that will be taken from you.”

To white people in the United States the prophet Amos might say, “Your economy? Your social structures? Were built by the stolen labor of stolen people. You live on stolen land, drenched with blood. And one day? ALL of that will be taken from you.”

Instead of doing away with stone houses or pleasant vineyards, Amos would say to us something like, “The land will be returned, the prisoners of this system set free, reparations will be made, wealth will be redistributed, Black lives will matter. A day of reckoning is on its way.”

Depending on who you are and your own social location, verses like this can sound like either Really Good News or Really Really Bad News. For those of us who are on the undersides of systems of oppression, for those of us who are profiled and targeted and shaken down and locked up…For those of us who are denied housing, denied voting rights, denied education, denied healthcare…For those of us who have whispered desperate prayers that our children would make it home safe after interactions with the police… we might hear this prophecy in Amos and think, “Finally,” after years of lamenting, “How long O Lord?”

But for those of us who benefit from systems of oppression like white supremacy, who uphold these systems either consciously or unconsciously…these messages from Amos and Jesus can feel more like a threat than a promise.

Yet, in Mark’s Gospel, it tells us that when Jesus told the young man, “Go sell everything you own and give it to the poor,” he first looked at the young man and he loved him. Scripture says, “Jesus looking at him, loved him, and told him,” to give up all of his possessions. This is the only time that Jesus is explicitly said to love a person in all of the Gospel of Mark. 

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said….sell what you own and give money to the poor.”

Jesus isn’t stripping the young man of his wealth because he hates him.

He loves him.

He loves him enough to set him free. 

Jesus has come to liberate the oppressed. To end exploitation. To lift up those who society has trampled on.

But Jesus has also come to liberate the oppressor, too. Because systems of oppression harm everyone. White supremacy hurts Black people and other people of color through violent repression, through deprivation of resources, through state violence. But white supremacy harms white people too, albeit in different ways and to a different degree. White supremacy limits our relationships. It deadens our own souls. It obscures our view of God who made all people in God’s image.

Jesus came to liberate captives and let the oppressed go free. And part of that is liberating some of us from the role of captor. Because as Maya Angelou said, “Not one of us can be free until everybody is free.”  Being liberated from the role of the oppressor is destabilizing and unsettling. Especially at first, as privilege is stripped away and power is subverted, it might not feel like very Good News. In the story in Mark, Jesus wanted to free the rich young man from his role in an economic system that harmed his neighbors and harmed him too. Jesus knew the man needed to radically redistribute his wealth, his privilege, because it was preventing him from being free.

Jesus is calling all of us into a new world, a world where we are free beyond our wildest dreams. A world without poverty or corporate greed. A world without state violence or white supremacy. A world where everyone has everything that they need to thrive. As systems of oppression are dismantled and privilege is stripped away it can feel shocking. Liberation is often both exhilarating and terrifying. The transformation that is coming is bigger than we can even imagine, and as things fall away around us, as the low places are brought up and those on high are cast down, depending on our vantage point, we might feel joy or we might feel grief in the midst of it. No matter how we feel, when things are uncertain or confusing, when it is hard to believe that something better is possible, we can trust that Jesus leads us into this new world together in love and cling to the knowledge that nothing – absolutely nothing – is impossible for God.

Amen.

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