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11th October 2015

Date Given: 
9 October 2015

Readings

Job 23: 1-9

This reading from Job is part of the discussion with his friends who point out that God is all seeing and all knowing and the reason Job is suffering is that he has done something wrong that he isn’t admitting.  According to his friends if he returns to God, agrees with God and is at peace with God, then God will restore good fortune.  The advice of Job’s friends is solid ‘prosperity gospel’ complete with the unfortunate implications for the poor.  If you are faithful to God then you will receive health, wealth and happiness and the dark side of that assumption is that if you are suffering or poor then you must have done something to deserve it, God is displeased with you.  Under the prosperity gospel it is evil to have social welfare and universal health care because the poor and the sick deserve their plight and if only they followed God’s law and worked hard, they too would be prosperous.

Job’s answer in this passage is to plead that if that is true then he wants to meet with God and put his case, to hear the charge against him in the heavenly court because he is wrongly accused and as God is just Job is sure he can sort it out.  Job’s friends want him to accept a plea bargain so he can get on with his life but Job is insistent on a hearing to prove his innocence.  This conflict between Job’s friends and the presence of an unapproachable God also makes the point that, admitting guilt is unlikely to help because as Job is not guilty, there must be another reason for his suffering and although understanding may not prevent his suffering it may bring peace of mind.

Mark 10: 17-31

Marcus Borg is absolutely brilliant in his comments on this passage and particularly helpful to financially cautious Presbyterians and middle class Methodists.  He begins by saying of the rich young man:

It is natural for us to imagine that this man is asking Jesus what he must do to get to heaven, for that is what the phrase ‘eternal life’ has come to mean to many Christians.  But the Greek phrase used by Mark renders the Jewish notion of ‘life of the age to come’—a transformed earth, or the kingdom of God.  Not heaven, but God’s kingdom on earth.[1]

Jesus’ alternative was the kingdom of God and those two alternatives are much the same today.  It certainly appears at present that even here in New Zealand we are working very hard to increase the gap between the wealthy ruling elite and the productive and poorer majority. 

Sermon

According to the United Church of Christ in the US Christians measure the economy against one fundamental truth that the earth and all that is in it belongs to God.  The text they use to back up that claim is the first verse of Psalm 24: ‘The earth is the LORD’S and all that is in it. The world, and those who live in it’.  (Psalm. 24:1).

In an article on their website they further suggest that the divine instruction on gathering the manna in the desert supports this faith based view of the economy.  This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents. (Exodus 16: 16-18) [2]

If what these texts suggest is true God provides enough for everybody.  Therefore it is the human exploitation of the world’s resources that corrupts the divine order and creates the situation where the rich get richer and the poor not only get poorer but also become more numerous. 

Job’s friends have suggested that his suffering is caused by his sin and he replies to that suggestion in today’s reading by proclaiming his innocence.  Furthermore he demands a hearing in the divine court but in so doing Job accepts his friend’s cause and effect logic. 

We can also see a cause and effect logic in the process where people exploit the world’s resources for profit rather than their personal needs. 

The Exodus command was to gather as much as each person needs, each for their own tent.  In other words each person is given permission to gather enough for their own family or household.  However when the motive is profit rather than need future generations are at risk.  Profit becomes wealth that is stored, reinvested, spent on a bigger house or more significantly gives power over other people.  It can therefore be argued that such excessive use of natural resources is against the divine plan and therefore in religious terms—sinful.

However although sin might be seen to cause suffering it is not the exploiter who sufferers for their sins but the people who have been exploited.  All across the globe in our world today people find themselves in solidarity with Job in demanding justice.  As they find it impossible to gain a hearing in the heavenly court they increasingly look to armed aggression and a hopeless self-destruction in the hope of also destroying those who exploit them.  In such a court of hopelessness and thrust for revenge everyone is likely to suffer.

This vision of hopelessness connects with our Gospel reading with the rich young man who seeks to be part of the divine realm but can’t leave his wealth behind. 

It is easy to see this passage as divine legislation that proclaims socialism and certainly people like Francis of Assisi saw it that way and sought a godly life by rejecting wealth.  Ironically the organisation that grew from his example became extremely wealthy.  However it can be argued that wealth was held in common for doing good in the world and the members of the order had no personal wealth. 

Likewise Mother Teresa chose to live in poverty and provided a witness of caring for the uncared for to the world.  Renouncing wealth is of course not limited to Christianity and is a tradition in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.  Gandhi, who was most likely touched by all three of those traditions but embraced none, changed the history of India though self-inflicted poverty and nonviolent protest.

Marcus Borg, writing as a middle class Christian scholar, puts this passage into a perspective that can be indorsed by comfortable Methodists and Presbyterians. 

As we considered in the introduction Borg suggests that we would imagine the rich man is asking Jesus what he must do to get to heaven.  But he goes on to say that the Greek phrase translated as ‘eternal life’ in Jesus’ time was understood as the ‘life of the age to come’—a transformed earth, or the kingdom of God. 

So the man is asking about God’s realm on earth.[3]

Borg further adds that Jesus’ comment that no one can serve two masters was initially a comment about the wealthy in the historical world of Jesus and then Borg goes on to say:

Wealth and indifference to suffering caused by it went together.  And of course, the same is true in our world.  In the first century wealth could easily become a preoccupation, a snare, a cage.  The wealthy were part of the ruling elite at the top of the domination system—the wealthiest one to two percent of the population who set the system up so that one-half to two-thirds of the production of wealth from the peasant class flowed to them.  In that world, if you were wealthy, you were a collaborator with the domination system or at least complicit with it.[4]

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) the gap between the rich and the poor in our world today keeps on widening.  The OECD reports that in its 34 member states, the richest 10% of the population earn 9.6 times the income of the poorest 10%.[5]

Even more startling anti-poverty charity Oxfam claims that the wealthiest 1% will soon own more than the rest of the world's population.[6]

So our world is not terribly different to the world of Jesus.  Certainly we live in a democracy, at least in the Western World, but that wealthy one percent has a tremendous influence on the democratic process and on those seeking to be elected.  Furthermore those who feel left out of the good things of life feel so marginalized that they don’t vote, although if the did they would have a profound influence.   

New Zealand, which once saw itself as an egalitarian society, is just as much part of this growing gap and the consequences are certainly becoming apparent. 

I am sure we have all been hassled by people wanting to clean our windscreens while we are stopped at traffic lights and last Thursday’s press carried an article about retailers complaining about the effect that beggars are having on their businesses. 

Writing the forward to the latest study booklet produced by the Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian Support the Rt Rev Andrew Norton notes that the two most enduring problems in our communities are family violence and child poverty

According to Wikipedia the consequences of child poverty in New Zealand include: poor health, such as lower rates of immunisation, higher rates of avoidable child mortality, infant mortality, low birth weight, and child injury.  There is also reduced participation in early childhood education, and young people leaving school with no or low qualifications; as well as higher rates of youth suicide, teenage imprisonment, and the victimisation of children.[7]

In the first week of the school holidays my son Craig attended a teacher’s conference where one of the speakers suggested that as more and more families become unable to buy a home their reliance on rental accommodation will mean constant moving and therefore children will be constantly changing schools.  That will affect their education therefore their future employment opportunities and control over their own lives.   

However the one percent that is gaining more and more of the world wealth do not necessarily recognise these problems and many, like Job’s friends, see the marginalised causing their own suffering. 

Of course many wealthy people are in fact quite generous like Bill Gates and Gareth Morgan who, like the rich young man, want to be part of making the world a better place.  But Jesus’ challenge to the wealthy man was the same challenge to the world’s wealthy today.  Firstly the Christ commitment to establish a divine realm must be a total commitment.  The man’s wealth prevented him from making that total commitment but more importantly it shut him off from understanding the struggles the ordinary people had.  Furthermore as a symbol of all the wealthy people throughout history the wealthy man in the gospel’s extra share of the worlds resources did not take into account that the earth and all that is in it belong to God.  Therefore when one percent of the world’s population has more wealth than the other 99% of humanity they are gathering more of the world’s resources than each of them needs.  When people and corporations gather what God provides for profit rather than for need they become the rich man who cannot be part of the divine realm.  Job’s friends blamed his suffering on sin. We learn from scripture, from Jesus’ world and from our world, that those who exploit the world’s resources sin but it is the exploited and marginalised that do the suffering.

However we should not feel guilty if our life has turned out well financially but these passages do call us to recognise that, as Charlie Brown points out ‘Although Money isn’t everything, poverty sucks.’  Reflecting on both these passages should encourage us to seek justice for all and a transformed world that can be recognised as a divine realm. 

Our calling, as followers of Christ, is to be passionate about bringing a transformed world into reality. 



[1] Marcus Borg The Gospel of Mark (Harrisburg-New York: Morehouse Publishing ,2009),p.82.

[3] Marcus Borg The Gospel of Mark (Harrisburg-New York: Morehouse Publishing ,2009),p.82.

[4] ibid., 84.

 

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