The Blessing of Material Things
October 11, 2009
The blessing of material things: You are probably thinking that I am going to talk about how blessed we are to have material things in such abundance. Some still believe that those who have great riches are favored by God but when I say the blessing of material things I am not talking about how material things bless us but how we might bless material things.
Apparently Jesus does not believe that the rich are favored by God. If anything, Jesus seems to think that riches are an obstacle, a great burden that may even keep us from God. When he says to the man of many possessions that he lacks only one thing: go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, THEN follow me, we are not all surprised that he turns away grieving FOR HE HAD MANY POSSESSIONS.
But what if all Jesus were asking of the rich man was to sell what he didn't need for himself and giving that to those who did need it, to make, in short, a personal sacrifice for the good of others. I can't help thinking that the real issue here is not how much the man with many possessions had but how little he was willing to share or even consider that sharing his possessions might be an option. You know it does not say sell ALL of your things and follow me. In fact if he could have imagined sharing those possessions for the benefit of the most people, he could have turned his particular material things from the heavy weight that was dragging him down and causing him grief to the sweet blessing of relief and comfort to others as well as release and freedom for him. He would have learned how to bless material things.
Andrew Warner is a pastor in Milwaukee and he put it this way in the Christian Century commentary on this text this week which I found very helpful and helped me see this passage in a whole new way: "Jesus conversation with the rich young man presents two versions of the material life: the first is the young man's life of wealth and status. This is the kind of material life our culture trains us to long for, whether e are the immigrant hoping for a better life or the uber-wealthy person trying to 'make do' with a 20,000 square foot house.
Jesus called the rich young man to a new kind of material life, a life given to serving the poor . . .
Jesus was not calling the rich young man to an esoteric spirtualism. a gnostic abandonment of the physical world. In stead he ws calling him to move from one kind of materialism, the self-absorbed variety, to one that focuses on others needs, including their material needs." ("Living by the Word" Christian Century 10/03/09)
A different kind of materialism. I like that idea. How do we bless material things? By using them for good. It has always been a danger when reading this word in Mark to believe that Jesus seems to be saying that we don't need material things but only treasure in heaven which sounds very much like a 'gnostic abandonment of the physical world' but what if treasure in heaven was the fulfillment of a human life lived on earth working for justice for all? What if treasure in heaven was the satisfaction of knowing that we used our temporary material life and our temporary material things to bless the world and make it better for others even beyond our temporary existence? That personal sacrifice does make a difference.
John Wesley, I believe was well ahead of his time on this one. He used to say to people that they should earn all they can and then give all they can, to do good with what we have. Wesley had a passion for the poor and disenfranchised. His word to those with material means was not to walk away from materialism but to use it to help the poor.
As always, very sensible, but of course a political bombshell. As we watch our infrastructures and cities and towns, public education and support for the vulnerable members of our society, especially children, dwindle, all we can think about is what it is going to cost us for we have many possessions. And this does not even account for the vast poverty that still exists on earth beyond the comfy confines of our borders which are themselves fast becoming fortresses against the poor who want nothing more than a better life. Perhaps it really is not so much about how much we have but what we spend it on that matters most. Surely there is a cosmic price to pay for all those who are responsible for squandering the great abundance and blessing of God's material things in never-ending warfare.
Jesus' word in Mark is a "two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit" when it confronts us with a different kind of materialism. We have always assumed that materialism is about buying things, accumulating things for ourselves, consuming goods or products, but what if it were a materialism of good works? What if Jesus wants us to look out for each other, to be our brother's keeper after all? Is there not enough material things for all to live in peace and comfort? While there is great danger is thinking it is material things we want it is an undeniable fact that people need material things to live on earth.
When I hear Job's lament in his search for God and for answers in his dilemma I am struck by just how lost he is. "Oh, that I knew where I might find him. If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him."
Are we not lost as well? We are surrounded by material things and we don't know what to do with them. They bring us comfort and grief. Jesus had it right when he said it would be hard for those who have wealth. But then he said "for God all things are possible." And so like Job before us it is God who will show us a way out of our dilemma but we may have to wait, even suffer as Job did, until we are ready to see the truth. Maybe we too will have to learn something about the personal sacrifice inherent in the nature of love.
When Jesus first encountered the rich man today he is reluctant to accept his compliments and praise. Why do you suppose that is so? Perhaps it is as simple as Jesus being the target of many flatterers who wanted something from him but maybe it is a reminder to us all that however we go from here it will be best to be more concerned about doing good rather than being good. Of course, it is in doing good that we are good. Again, we are what we practice but we do not do good in order to be good. We do good because we love God and what God has made which includes other people who suffer from oppression, poverty, injustice. When we love God and what God has made we are moved with compassion especially for those who are most vulnerable and and who do not have material things whose suffering could be relieved by those who do. John Wesley, writing in the general rules (the second of the three simple rules): "By doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all . . . In short, do all the good you can implies that we can do good and that doing only what is possible does not limit our possibilities but affirms what is always possible.
Too bad we can't ask Job about this as he is long gone but the word about him is very clear. He was a good man, the best, and perhaps he thought that was enough, but he had forgotten or never knew that it is not about being a good man but about being a man who does good because he trusts God and not his own goodness for life. It is not incidental that Jesus asked the rich man to follow him for it is in that way where we will find our way, to make a blessing of material things, by doing good with what we have, making personal sacrifice for others, and living together in mutual concern and peace where all enjoy the bounty of God's good and beautiful and blessed material things. Shalom.
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