WORSHIP SERVICE October 10, 2021 “People Before Possessions”
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Mark 10:17-31 “People Before Possessions”
Ebenezer Scrooge is probably one of the best-known characters in literature, or at least when it comes to stories about Christmas. Written in 1843, the book A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens tells how Scrooge has become a mean and miserly old man who squeezes pennies from his poor clients as well as his poor clerk Bob Crachet. When asked to give a donation to help those in need, he refuses and says they can go to the poorhouses and the prisons. Scrooge seems completely unsympathetic to others and lives alone in a cold, dark mansion.
Then, one Christmas Eve he is visited by three ghosts who confront him on the consequences of his actions. The visits are introduced to Scrooge by the ghost of Jacob Marley who was a business partner to Scrooge but who died a few years earlier. Marley’s ghost comes wearing chains with money boxes and mortgages tied to them. When Scrooge asks why he has the chains the ghost replies, “I wear the chains I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?‘”
The Ghost, cried out, and clanked its chain hideously in the dead silence of the night. “Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, ” Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
Scrooge responds and says trembling, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,”
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Humankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
This conversation between Scrooge and the ghost of his old partner Marley came to my mind as I was thinking about Jesus talking to the rich young man in today’s Gospel from the book of Mark. With the advice that Jesus gives the young man, it is as if he is crying out to him, ‘Humankind is your business! Humankind is your business!”
The young man has come to Jesus asking about what he can do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks if he knows the commandments and them lists them off. The young man replies that he is aware of the commandments and has followed them since his youth. It is as if he already knows what a good person he is and he just wants Jesus to affirm him.
But Jesus can see beyond the outward appearance of the man’s actions to a deeper spiritual issue that is at play. The young man may be following the letter of the law, but where does his heart really lie? If he is so confident that he has followed the commandments, then why is he so worried about the afterlife? Jesus recognizes that if the young man is genuinely concerned about the state of his soul, then he needs to hear a word that challenges his current perception. He needs to hear something that will dramatically shift his priorities. So Jesus tells him to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor. After hearing this, the man walks away saddened because he had many possessions.
Part of the spiritual ailment of the young man seems to be that he is putting possessions before people. Jesus wants him to flip the script and put people before possessions. There is something within the man that has brought him to Jesus. There is some kind of internal restlessness or unease that has led him to ask his question about eternal life. Jesus knows if the man is to have the kind of inner peace he appears to be looking for, then he needs to jolt the man out his current state being and re-orient him towards his true God-given purpose which is nurturing relationships and helping humankind.
In the story A Christmas Carol, Jacob’s Marley’s ghost does not come to condemn Scrooge or make his life miserable. He does not come to punish Scrooge. Rather, he is trying to give him a serious warning. He does not want Scrooge to end up like him, wandering the earth in chains forever. Marley wants to give his old friend a second chance to change things before it’s too late.
The challenge Jesus gives the young man in today’s Gospel is not because Jesus wants to punish him, condemn him, or judge him. Quite the opposite. It is because he cares for the young man and wants him to be free of the captivity of his possessions. The Bible makes this quite clear. We often do not get the motivation of Jesus explicitly revealed in many of the Gospel accounts. But in today’s text it tells us quite plainly what was motivating Jesus. It says he looked at the young man and loved him. Jesus was addressing the young man out of his love for him. He is trying to give the young man a wakeup call because he cares about him. Jesus is not just giving the young man another commandment to follow. Rather, he is giving him a tangible way to address the deeper spiritual issue of how his identity and purpose are tied to his possessions rather than his relationship with God and other people.
Tammy Lally is someone who wanted to challenge her brother out of sense of love for him. It might have ended up being tough love, but it was from a place of good intention, nonetheless. She had said yes again to her brother when he asked to borrow $7,500 from her. It wasn’t the first time. He had asked before and had asked her parents as well. This time, however, she told herself things were going to be different. This time she was not just going to loan the money with no strings attached or no questions asked. This time she was going to demand that her brother and his wife sit down with her and go over their finances. She was going to get to the root of the problem and hold them accountable for making changes.
They arranged a meeting at a coffee shop and Tammy began to go over things with them. She showed them where their shortfalls were and where they needed to make cuts. She scolded them for bad decisions and demanded that they take a hard look at selling their house and other items and downsizing to something they could afford. They needed to get rid of the extra cars, jet skis and other expensive toys they didn’t really need.
Tammy thought she was finally helping her brother get back on the right track. It seems however, that her brother felt more shame from her rather than support. Things didn’t really change that much. A few months after their conversation at the coffee shop Tammy’s brother ended his own life. It seems that things were worse than Tammy had imagined. When she was going through her brother’s things in his office she discovered just how far behind in house payments they really were, and that the bank was going to foreclose on their home. Her brother had apparently felt so trapped and defeated that he could see no other way out and he left his wife and kids to pick up the pieces.
Devastated by the loss of her brother, Tammy started her own inner journey in regard to her relationship with money and possessions. She talks about this in her book “Money Detox: Your invitation to liberation.” What she discovered was that there was a spiritual issue at play that went deeper than her brother’s inability to keep a budget.
It was more about how his self-perception had gotten wrapped up in the amount of his possessions. She came to realize as well that her and her brother were more alike than she had thought. They had both learned from their mother that their self-worth was tied to their net worth, which put them into a cycle of enough was never enough.
This especially hit Tammy when shortly after her brother died, her mortgage business collapsed in the Great Recession of 2008. She says she went from driving a Mercedes and living in an oceanfront house to filing for bankruptcy. The level of pain and sadness that she experienced blew her away. She didn’t tell anybody. Instead, she pretended like nothing was going on.
She eventually realized she was experiencing shame, which was what her brother had probably felt as well. It was a deep sense that she was fundamentally flawed and unworthy because of her financial problems. When she switched careers to become a financial advisor, she began to notice how pervasive those feelings were in society. Some clients were ashamed of their debts. Some were ashamed of their wealth. Others lived beyond their means or “played the big shot,” picking up the tab at restaurants or constantly rescuing others. She says she saw almost every one of her clients having shame around their money because we live in a culture where our money is our worth. It has become her mission now to free people from this false perception.
When we hear today about Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man and how he talks to his disciples about the dangers of wealth, I think he is saying something to us about this false perception as well. I think he is giving us a warning not to get caught up in allowing our self-image to be based on our possessions. I think he is giving us a caution that we can easily get caught up in the cycle of enough is never enough, and rather than leading to spiritual fulfillment, this can lead us down a path of shame. Jesus is lifting up the good news that in God’s eyes, people come before possessions and that even though the temptation is great to see our self-worth in our net worth, we can be set free to see our true worth is found in the gift of God’s grace. Because with God, all things are possible.
-Pastor Erik Goehner