Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Then Come and Follow Me, by The Rev. Deacon Sandra Jones

This particular story from Mark is found in three of the Gospels, there are slight variations—the “wealthy man” in Mark (although we don’t know he is wealthy when the story begins), is identified as a “young man” in Matthew and later as a “ certain ruler” in Luke. This character, this “wealthy, young ruler”, represents the upper crust of society, he is part of the ruling elite, and whether he is an actual ruler or not, he benefits from the way the social system is set up.

The people living in Judea, in the time of Jesus, lived under a two-tiered domination system; one was local and centered in the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was subjugated by the other, Imperial Rome.

According to Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the “domination system” “is shorthand for the most common form of social system—a way of organizing a society—in ancient and premodern times, that is, in preindustrial agrarian societies.”1 Three major features--political oppression, economic exploitation and religious legitimation, mark these systems.

As a conquered nation, the people of Judea were ruled by a few wealthy elites put into place by their Roman overlords. The economic exploitation was in the form of the “high percentage of the society’s wealth, which came primarily from agricultural production [in preindustrial societies,] went into the coffers of the wealthy and powerful.”2 This accumulation of wealth was enabled by the laws concerning land ownership, taxation, and the indentured labor of the lower classes due to incurred debt.

This system was fostered through religious legitimation, rule over the populace was justified through their religious language, the social order reflected the will of God, which gives support to the idea that those who are godly are blessed and those who suffer and do not appear to be blessed are ungodly as noted in the language of Deuteronomy where obeying God’s covenant leads to blessings of wealth and success in one’s undertakings (a concept which was a distortion, much as we see with the Prosperity Gospel)—but to sum it up, those who were in power, were there because God ordained it.

This is the elite caste system the “wealthy, young ruler” is a member of. In the gospel of Mark, when the man approaches Jesus, he kneels down—whenever someone approaches Jesus and kneels he or she is seeking healing, either for himself or herself or for someone they love, so what healing is this man seeking? With his question it seems this man wants to know and reconcile with, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” For us as Christians we hear him asking about heaven, but the “Greek phrase used by Mark renders the Jewish notion of ‘the life of the age to come’—a transformed earth, or the kingdom of God. Not heaven, but God’s kingdom on earth.”3 This is a deep question because it not only presents the idea of action, “what must I do”, but also considers relationship because to inherit means there is a belonging, what is received is bequeathed not earned.

Jesus’ response is to query the man about his practices, his adherence to the commandments. The specific commandments Jesus seeks response to, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud”, come from the 2nd table of the commandments, the last six of the ten that deal with how we are to conduct our human interactions, our relationships.

Along with the wealth the man possesses and the power that comes with it, there was status, social standing, sought through association with those of similar or higher rank and privilege, who do you know and who do you engage with? This man’s established sense of societal order, how it works and its expectations is going to be turned upside down. As Andrew Warren notes, “The kind of materialism Jesus calls us to requires not the accumulation of goods, but an engagement with people, particularly people in need.” There is not a lot of social status in “engaging” with society’s marginalized and this man is being invited to not only engage the marginalized but to become one.

Jesus listens to him as the man says “I have been faithful” and then as Mark writes, Jesus, looking at him, loved him—Jesus wants him to follow, to become a disciple. Jesus is seeing this man not only as he truly is, “but in a way that the young man is not yet capable of seeing himself.”4 So to consider the question asked in a previous paragraph, what healing is this man seeking—an answer could be spiritual healing, he feels, he senses there is something deeper, something more that will bring him closer to God and to God’s kingdom and it isn’t what he has studied or he practices, he is asking Jesus for directions on how to give his life meaning and create relationship.

Jesus says to him “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor”, he is to distribute his wealth to the poor, not given as charity, it goes beyond giving a percentage or a portion which might soothe the conscience of the giver, and also does little to change the system that creates the poor and marginalized. Jesus is inviting him “to join the inner circle of his family and as a challenge to do the difficult thing that will restore his relationship with those on the margins of his life, those most in need of justice and generosity.”5 It is not only recognizing the marginalized in his society it is being in relationship with them.

So was it just the wealth, the social status, or was it the giving up of living in a system of hierarchies that he is a part of that stops him from becoming a disciple? When Peter begins to say, “Look, we have left everything and followed you”, Jesus tells his disciples what their new life will look like, he says that those who have left their “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers, children and fields, with persecutions…” sometimes the responsibilities of being a Christian can be a tribulation, “and in the age to come eternal life”, again not “heaven”, but God’s kingdom on earth.

And we will belong to a new family, one in which you will note that Jesus leaves out the word “fathers”, not because there will be no fathers but because the father image reinforces the patriarchal/ hierarchical system and there will be no hierarchy of any sort, except for God. The kingdom of God that will be inherited is inclusive and as we heard in the gospel lesson a couple of weeks ago, and again today those “who are first will be last, and the last will be first”, and we shall all be “servants of all”.

So when Jesus says to us, “Then come and follow me”—what preface has Jesus used in his invitation to each of us to “come and follow” that may cause us to go “away grieving”? What can cause us to miss out on becoming a disciple of a radical prophet who says, “for God all things are possible”? For the “wealthy young ruler”, was the thought “Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?” too much? Wealth creates independence from others and the kingdom of God is relational, we are servants of each other and meaning for him came through those he was associated with, his new associates would be the marginalized of his society. Was the answer for his spiritual healing too scary, too intimidating to partake?

In the words of the hymn, “Will You Come and Follow Me?” when I am asked, “Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same”, I find that is a bit intimidating, going where I don’t know, where I might not have the answer or even an idea of what is happening. While the thought of being able to “set the prisoner free”, of kissing “the leper clean”, of caring “for the cruel and kind” sounds doable and even meaningful, then I hear the scariest statement of all “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide”, and I realize that I must bring all of me, even the scared, uncertain and well, I won’t go into the other “hidden ‘me’s” at this time, but they are all invited into this discipleship—although from what I know of the original twelve I will be in great company—still …

So what do we need to let go of, sell, get rid of, accept before we are able to see the look of love Jesus gives as he sees the true us in ways we are incapable, thus allowing us to truly say “yes” to his invitation to “come and follow me!”

1. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, pg. 7.
2. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, pg. 7-8.
3. Marcus Borg, Conversations with Scripture: the Gospel of Mark, pg 82.
4. Paul Waddell, Heroic Ambition, The Christian Century, 10/6/2009
5. Kathryn Matthews

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