Wealth, Justice, and the Kingdom of God
For the second week in a row, I neglected to address in my sermon the elephant stomping around the Sunday Scripture readings. Last week I did not speak about marriage and divorce – which were central themes in both the Genesis and Mark texts. This week I was all but silent on the issue of money, wealth, and justice even as those featured prominently in our readings from Amos and Mark.
Perhaps this makes me a negligent preacher. Perhaps. But in every text a myriad of possibilities and promises lay. My job, as pastor, is not simply to pick up the biggest nugget in the text and run with it, but to pick up the nugget which – in this moment in our congregation and community – stirs my spirit with Gospel promise for you and for this world God so loves. When I read a Scripture and cannot let go of a word or phrase or image, I take that as a sign of what the Spirit is calling me to proclaim.
But when this happens – when I leave elephants unaddressed and pages of notes on the proverbial cutting room floor – I feel a similar call to say more. The elephant in Sunday’s readings was wealth and its relationship to faithfulness.
Scripture is, at best, cautious when it comes to wealth. In parts of the Bible’s story wealth is described as a sign of God’s blessing. Yet more often we read Scripture’s wariness of wealth and its repeated examples of wealth’s corrupting influence. The Bible tells stories of the misdeeds of the wealthy and powerful, of God’s condemnation of their oppression of the poor, and of Jesus’ own heart for those who suffer and have been cast out.
Scripture is, at best, cautious when it comes to wealth.
On Sunday we heard the prophet Amos rail against the unjust economic schemes of the powerful. The LORD speaks with anger and judgment against a society that “pushed aside the needy” and embraced evil. The LORD denounces an elite class that afflicted the righteous and crushed the weak. “Seek the LORD and live,” the prophet proclaims. “Hate evil and love good; establish justice at the gate.”
What’s particularly notable about this text from Amos – and about the prophets, more broadly – is that the LORD’s concern is not with the sins of one individual. The word “you” in this text is plural in the original Hebrew. The LORD condemns an entire class of people and denounces the unjust economic and legal systems they control. Systemic injustice is real – the LORD calls it out right here. In English we don’t have an easy pronoun to delineate between “you” singular and “you” plural, leading us to sometimes misunderstand when Scripture is describing individuals or groups of people. This linguistic quirk contributes to our culture’s incorrect yet widespread assumption that sin is mostly an individual affair, rather than something that can and does infect entire systems and structures.
In Sunday’s Gospel from Mark 10 Jesus loves a rich man who sincerely wants to live in the promised Kingdom of God. When Jesus invites him to sell everything he has and give to the poor, the man balks. Jesus responds by doubling down to proclaim that it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God (in fact, it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter eternal life!). Certainly, Jesus speaks in hyperbole at times, but the lesson cannot be more clear: wealth is a stumbling block to faithfulness. The Roman Catholic Church has rightly spoken of God’s preferential option for the poor. The first will be last, and the last will be first, after all (Mark 10:31).
So how do we understand our relationship with wealth, and discern a faithful way forward in a society governed by flawed economic and social schemes?
Acknowledge the problem with money. Wealth is not benign. Scripture is clear about the corrupting influence of wealth, and the abuses of the wealthy against the poor. Let us take this warning seriously.
Seek justice. The LORD speaks to us through the prophet Amos: “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the city gate.” We should hesitate to assess the structures at work in society and ensure that our shared systems serve the common good.
Give to the poor. Jesus invites the rich man not just to divest of his wealth, but to give his wealth to the poor. Jesus calls the rich man – and each of us – to participate in the reversals of God’s Kingdom, including the reversals of wealth and power.
Examine our relationship with money. None of us will enter eternal life with a bank account. We are temporary stewards of assets that ultimately belong to God and are designed for God’s purposes.
In his interaction with the rich man Jesus invites us to participate in the re-ordering of society, and to reap the rewards of eternal life. Amos calls us to seek justice and restoration for the poor. Truly, it is in giving that we receive, in dying that we live, and in serving that we see the face of God in the faces of the poor. This reality is the Kingdom of God, where the first are last and everyone in between are swept up in the grace of a God whose love for the world knows no end.