But his face fell at this saying, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples: “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God.” But his disciples were amazed at his words.
Mark 10: 22-4
In their commentary on Mark’s gospel, John R. Donohue and Daniel J. Harrington write of the amazement of the disciples at the teaching of Jesus concerning riches as an obstacle to entering the kingdom of God. “The disciples’ amazement apparently stems from the common assumption that riches are a sign of God’s favor and blessing (see Deut 18:1-14).” (The Gospel of Mark, p. 304) If not in theory or word but definitely in practice almost all of us suffer from the same delusion as the disciples. In yesterday’s gospel from Matthew we heard Jesus declare that “You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Mt. 6:24) In truth, however, perhaps many of us who are believers work very hard to offer some level of service to God at the same time as we serve our more proximate goals of wealth, power, status, and privilege.
Every human encounter contains within it an appeal. In today’s gospel story of the encounter between Jesus and the rich man, Mark tells us that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Yet, so powerful on him is the hold of his wealth that the rich man walks away sad. As in addiction, the rich man must have and hold on to this wealth even though to do so makes him sad. In a scene from the Oscar winning film Moonlight, Chiron’s mother Paula violently demands of her adolescent son that he give her the money she needs to sustain her drug habit. Entering into this brilliantly played scene, one sees the horror, the terror, and the violence that is visited even on a loved one by the demands of the addiction that controls Paula’s life. In what has been the prevailing and sustaining addiction to wealth, success, and power in our culture, we have visited similar violence on each other and on our children throughout the world.
The rich man in today’s gospel must, at least as he experiences the choice, say no to the life and love that Jesus offers due to the way that his possessions have control over him. This is the experience that leads Jesus to comment that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) Jesus is not stating a Divine command but is describing a truth of human psychology.
One reads this morning that in the United States the Administration will propose a budget that drastically increases spending for defense while at the same time cutting funds for food stamps and other social services as well as for the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. When as a matter of policy we blind ourselves to the needs of the most marginalized and suffering among us and to the future of our planet for our progeny, who and what exactly are we defending? The rich man in today’s gospel says “no” to Jesus in defense of his wealth and possessions. He sees an appeal to love in the very flesh of Jesus and yet refuses it. It is not unlike Chiron’s mother Paula who demands of her son that he give her his hard earned money and cannot see the grief and pain in his face.
There seems to be universal agreement that a Western culture that has dominated much of the world is at a moment of crisis. On the one hand there is a “call to arms” to defend “us” from the perceived attack that we are under from those who are not European in origin. This clash is experienced in most western countries as well as in the Roman Church itself. In the United States the crisis is economic to be sure, but it is also, as it has always been, a crisis of race. Somehow in its very foundations, the life and culture of the United States has been permeated by the experience of making African peoples the possessions of others. Thus, somehow everything and everyone can become a possession. There is no such thing, be it a human person or the very air we breathe and water we drink, that cannot become a possession to be bought and sold. The fear of “the other” is quite understandable when we consider that we may well unconsciously fear that those we have bought and sold will treat us in the same way. As James Baldwin wrote: ” For, if trouble don’t last always:, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend.” Racial and cultural hegemony (in countries and in the Church) is coming to an end. No walls, no increase in arms, no banning of certain peoples and races, no ecclesial restorationism can change that.
Throughout the gospel Jesus challenges, time and again, our human propensity to make God in our image and likeness. We would like a god that serves and ratifies our particular ways of living, our comfort, and our power. A teacher of ours used to ask us: “What kind of creature is it that needs to keep repeating to itself that the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours?” As James Baldwin pointed out many years ago, no trouble and no power lasts forever.
To the degree we live by the false primacy of our power over others and the world, we shall be brought to judgment. As we enter into today’s gospel story, we are invited to recognize the possibility of a judgment in which we are looked at with love. That love, however is not sentimental or romantic. It asks us to sell whatever we have and to give it to the poor. We who have been raised as good consumers and capitalists will have no easy time with this appeal to change our entire way of thinking and being. We are to change our priorities from defending our possessions to caring for others. We are called to recognize that the world in its human and non-human reality is not our possession. We are to own that our status and power has, from our very national and cultural origins, been used to subjugate other peoples and that what we fear is that they will now do the same to us.
“But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands.” (Ps 115:4) The human idols are wealth and power. There is one thing left to do, Jesus tells the rich man who has kept the law from his youth. One does not enter the kingdom of God by keeping the law but by confronting the reality of our poor and common humanity. As long as we try to buy security and wealth at the expense of others, as long as we make possessions of all but ourselves, we shall never live in the love that Jesus offers. It is both our cultures and our brands of Christianity that find themselves in a moment of crisis. The will of God is not that we make all others like us or that we build our kingdom on the backs of others. It is rather that we serve each other in our shared inherent poverty. St. Francis discovered that spiritual poverty is the only way to freedom. When we need not defend our surplus from those who lack, we may be able to cross into that kingdom where we are all God’s children.
I have said that the Civilized have never been able to honor, recognize, or describe the Savage. Once they had decided that he was savage, there was nothing to honor, recognize or describe. But the savages describe the Europeans, who were not yet, when they landed in the New (!) World, White, as “the people from heaven.” Neither did the savages in Africa have any way of foreseeing the anguished diaspora to which they were about to be condemned. Even the chiefs who sold Africans into slavery could not have had any idea that this slavery was meant to endure forever or for at least a thousand years. Nothing in the savage experience could have prepared them for such an idea, anymore than they could conceive of the land as something to be bought and sold. (As I cannot believe that people are actually buying and selling air space above the towers of Manhattan.)
. . . The unadmitted panic of which I spoke above is created by the terror that the Savage can, now, describe the Civilized: the only way to prevent this is to obliterate humanity. This panic proves that neither a person nor a people can do anything without knowing what they are doing. Neither can anyone avoid paying for the choices he or she has made. It is savagely, if one may say so, ironical that the only proof the world—mankind—has ever had of White supremacy is in the Black face and voice: that face never scrutinized, that voice never heard. The eyes in that face prove the unforgivable and unimaginable horror of being a captive in the promised land, but also prove that trouble don’t last always: and the voice, once filled with a rage and pain that corroborated the reality of the jailer, is addressing another reality, in other tongues. The people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.
Or—as they are, indeed, already, in all but actual fact: obsolete. For, if trouble don’t last always:, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend.
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, Preface to the 1984 Edition, pp. xiv-xv