23B, Scripture appointed (track 2)
Growing up poor meant growing up with the constant awareness of who had what.
More or less, fair or unfair, needs and wants—all carefully weighed and measured by my parents and ultimately, us.
My parents did their best to insulate us from financial uncertainty, but the message that I internalized was that whatever I had, came at the expense of another.
If had more milk, my sister had less. If I got new clothes, my father went without new shoes.
My mom’s IRA was cashed in so that we could have a computer for school. My brother’s heart surgery came at the expense of my parents’ pride as they begged a wealthy relative for the money to get him to the hospital thousands of miles away.
Ultimately, I was indoctrinated into my maternal family’s narrative of how wealth had been lost through my ancestors’ foolishness and greed. The question of who had more milk was connected to the question of who owned the dairy my father worked for. The question of how we were going to afford the extravagances of things like computers and heart surgery emphasized the lines between the relatives who had and we, who had not.
My mom had a narrative of “if onlys” that shaped our collective understanding of our family’s place in the economy of this world--if only the money had not been squandered, if only that side of the family hadn’t cheated us out of the inheritance, if only my grandfather had invested better, if only my grandmother had married better, if only my great aunt had not died, if only her son had not been mentally ill…if only.
I don’t think that my parents intended to teach us that wealth was a by-product of exploitation, but ultimately, that was the message that took shape.
And, in encountering the texts we heard proclaimed today, I am both amused and troubled by the reality that my parent’s unintended message was biblical in scope.
Because, within the biblical world there was a shared understanding that goods are limited and that the only way to get ahead was to take advantage of others. From Pharaoh’s reliance upon slave labor to Jacob cheating his brother of his birth right—there is an oft repeated theme in scripture that, for better or for worse, resources are finite and advancement comes at the cost of another.
For those of us who occupy the space of the haves, the implications of this biblical understanding are uncomfortable at best. And, so today, many of us are going to feel uncomfortable…
Because, if we are to take these scriptures seriously within our own context we need to grapple with the impact of contemporary theories of limitless economic growth, personal hoarding of wealth, and exploitation of this planet’s resources, and hear the truth in the prophet Amos’ 8th century warning to the wealthy, “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.”
Amos is not simply castigating, he is issuing a caution to those whose wealth comes at the expense of others—making it clear to his audience that the short-term benefit, gained through the exploitation of the poor, will ultimately fail to protect them and their descendents from the fall out of their excesses.
This isn’t about haves or have nots—it’s about all of us who have to wrestle with the real cost of our lifestyles and livelihoods on others. Because, while it is true that in the short term our wealth can protect us from suffering, in the long term, our failure to act on behalf of others will cost us and our descendants the very security we have strived for—our own metaphorical houses of hewn stone and our vineyards, abandoned.
Let me pause for a moment to offer that I wrote these words and speak them now out of the fear and anxiety instilled in me by reading portions of the UN Climate Report—a report that is, in its own way prophetic.
Prophets in Israelite society served as a means of criticism and opposition to abuses--both political and religious. Prophets pointed out the injustices in society when warranted, and gave warning and challenge to the powers that be. Amos, specifically, is seeking to address the social, political and religious abuses of the people as a whole as opposed to the excesses of a single king or religious authority. So, to understand the UN Climate Report as prophetic is to understand that it is offering us a collective warning that our individual and societal injustices have both immediate and future consequences.
In this, I see climate scientists serving as modern day prophets and urging us to action, both individual and collective, so that we might begin to mitigate the impact of our excesses on this fragile earth, our island home. They are not without hope…but hope demands action and the prophets are shining a light so that we might use our resources wisely and liberate ourselves from the pursuit of wealth at this planet’s expense.
Both the prophet Amos and this prophetic climate report are giving us an opportunity to pursue the kind of intense engagement and self-critique that can lead to true repentance. In Hebrew, the word to repent is a word that means to return to God, shuv. And, as I bring the contemporary prophets challenges into the context of biblical prophecy, I am challenged to explore how we are being called to return to God—to re-align ourselves, our lives and our livelihoods with God’s intention for the good of all creation.
For the good of all.
Not some, all.
Repentance is not easy, returning is not easy, none of this is easy. But, it IS essential. For our good and the good of all creation, we must (as the prophet says), “seek good and not evil, so that we may live”.
So that we may live--this brings us to the Gospel and a rich man’s question, “ Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
For all of his wealth, the rich young man is still seeking something—he does not know what or how or why, but his wealth has proven insufficient. And so, having heard of a teacher who may have some answers to this pervasive sense that all is not well, he approaches Jesus and his followers. What must I do to “inherit eternal life”, to enter the kingdom of God, for myself?
It’s a self-centered question, and it’s met with a response that pushes the rich man to consider those apart from himself. One of the key themes of this week’s passages is the importance of moving from isolation to connection. As I heard the Gospel proclaimed I imagined the scene—a young man walking alone, approaches Jesus and his followers. He’s heard that Jesus’ teachings are enlightening and he is seeking what they seem to have found. But, when Jesus tells him that he needs to relinquish his wealth for the good of others, the man is disappointed and walks away, alone.
To live the commandments, yes, but to further the commandments by relinquishing his wealth in service to others—that’s much harder. Wealth has, arguably, made his life and the lives of those he loves easier. But, in a world of limited goods, the enrichment of self, beyond any sense of enough, means the impoverishment of others. We may not want to think about it, I know I don’t, but the scripture is not letting us off the hook. And, so we need to take our discomfort seriously.
If our enrichment of self comes at the expense of others, we will, like the rich man in today’s Gospel find ourselves, ultimately, bereft. Because, while our wealth and our resources may protect us from suffering in the short term, they can also blind us to the suffering of others. This begs the question, what kind of sacrifices are we willing to make in order to reduce suffering for others? Or, to put it another way, are we willing to suffer so that others might suffer less?
I know these were hard words and my heart hurts, and so as you move from this space and into the next, do not go comfortless and let us hold the words of the prophet as our prayer, our calling, and our hope,
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.