This is Water 10/14/2018
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Sojourn Sermon – Mark 10:17-31 – This is Water
Author David Foster Wallace, in his commencement address at Kenyon College, begins his speech with the following parable.
Two young fish are swimming in the ocean when an older fish swims past and says, “Good morning boys. How’s the water? The two young fish smile and nod and continue swimming. Eventually, one of the young fish turns to the other and asks, “What the heck is water?”
The point of the parable, he says, is that the most obvious and important realities are often the ones that hardest to see and talk about.
And that’s true isn’t it? There are aspects of our lives, our world, of our experience that are so basic, so automatic that we are hardly ever aware of them. We often live our lives in these waters without realizing it.
In Wallace’s speech, his point is that a Liberal Arts education provides the pretext for the realization that “this is water.” Or a way of becoming aware of those realities that are the most difficult to see and talk about. For our purposes here, I think Jesus provides a similar pretext.
Let me give you an example of the waters I swim in, often without realizing it.
I live in a time and place where my identity provides me with a significant amount of opportunity and security. I am a white, cisgender, straight man, and despite what anyone says it is not a scary time to be a boy. The opposite is true in fact; there has perhaps never been a better time to inhabit my body. If the events of recent days and weeks tell us anything it’s that society will do whatever it takes to protect me and people like me.
There is a temptation that comes with this identity to accept this comfort and just go along with it, and if I am honest with you, it’s a temptation I struggle with often. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not tempted to pick up a Tiki Torch or anything like that. But it would be easy and automatic for me to keep swimming and remain safe in my bubble of comfort and security that this identity affords me.
I own a house. I’m fairly well educated. I’m next in line to manage the trust fund my grandparents set up when they sold the family farm. The temptation for me would be to concern myself with French wine, which I love, particularly from the northern Rhone Valley. And gourmet food. When left to my own devices, that what I do. Just ask Megan. I’ve watch a lot of TV shows about food and wine.
I could go to church, donate to NPR, volunteer at a soup kitchen, vote for progressive candidates, and my life would be fine. Some would even call me commendable and admirable. The kind of person who should serve on church boards or other non-profit boards. Or become a pastor.
That’s what I do. That’s who I am. It’s a good life, let me tell you.
But the truth is, the water I swim in if you will, is that it’s also not a life I earned so much as a life I was born into, and it’s not a life everyone has access to.
The obvious most automatic response is live this life unthinkingly and go along. It’s basically what my family and culture have told me to do. And in large part it is what I do, and I accept it every day without ever realizing that this is water.
This, I think is essentially true for the man in our story, who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life.
And Jesus responds as any good rabbi should. “You know the commandments,” Jesus says. “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”
The Rich Man responds, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
In other words, the Rich Man has done all the right things. He’s upheld his religious and civic duty. He’s treated people fairly. He hasn’t killed anyone, so that’s good. He listened to his parents.
This man has lived a life according to the customs of his people. He’s led a good life, and if he’s anything like me, he’s probably coming to Jesus looking for an affirmation, as if he expects this teacher to respond, “you’ve done everything that’s required of you.”
That’s not what he gets. What happens next is much more akin to what happened to the young fish when the older fish swam by. The very nature of his social reality is called into question.
This is why the disciples are astounded when they hear Jesus’ talk about how difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. In the ancient worldview, wealth signified blessing and piety, not unlike the way we often view wealth today. If those who have found favor with God, as signified by their wealth can’t be saved, then who can, the disciples ask.
Jesus’ response to this man, however, suggests that’s not necessarily the case. The Rich man inhabits a world filled with widespread poverty and suffering and his wealth, at best, has done little to alleviate this poverty and suffering, and at worst, has been accumulated because of it.
“Sell everything you have,” Jesus says, “and give the proceeds to the poor.” And the man goes away grieving because he has many possessions.
The fourth century theologian St. Basil the Great, commenting on the Matthean version of this story, suggests that when Jesus says to this man that he “lacks one thing,” that one thing he lacks is love of neighbor. Basil tells us that Jesus perceives in this man an inability to share what he has with his poor neighbors.
Basil says this, “Had you clothed the naked, had you given your bread to the hungry, had your door been open to every stranger, had you been a parent to the orphan, had you made the suffering of every helpless person your own, what money would you have left, the loss of which to grieve? Had you determined long ago to give to those in need, how would it be unbearable now to distribute whatever was left?”
This is water.
My initial inclination to put parameters on Jesus’ admonition to the Rich Man. Perhaps, Jesus’ words here aren’t universal. Perhaps they’re just meant for this man. Or perhaps Jesus is speaking hyperbolically again like he was when he told his disciples to cut off their hands. Or perhaps Jesus is talking more about an orientation toward generosity rather than actually giving everything away.
But the text doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. As if to preempt these interpretations, Mark immediately follows the story of the Rich Man with Peter’s interjection.
“Look,” Peter says to Jesus later in the story, “we’ve left everything to follow you.” We’ve left everything to follow you.
In effect, Jesus’ response acknowledges that what Peter says is true. There are, in fact those who have left their homes and siblings and parents and land in order to follow him, namely the disciples. And to those people, will be given this great reward, a hundred fold return on their investment and some persecution.
It can be tempting to skip over this list of all the things the disciples have left behind as an arbitrary sequence of nouns that really just amounts to the fact that the disciples have left a physical location to go with Jesus on a journey. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
This exchange provides us an intimate picture of the social cost of following Jesus. As twenty-first century westerners, whose economic and social structures have granted us a significant amount of mobility relative to historical standards, there can be a cognitive disconnect between our own social setting and that of first century Palestine. Our economic and social systems are such that many, if not most people, have left home and family for an extended period of time at one point or another in their lives.
That’s not the case for Peter and the disciples. For first century Jewish men, family and land where the most important threads in their social fabric. Family and land constituted your entire identity and provided for your future. Together, they were your safety net, without them people were prone to become destitute. Think about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. When the younger son leaves and throws away his money, he’s left without anyone to help him and he resorts to eating pig slop to survive. This is the kind of thing that happened to people who left their family or worse. If you look back to Deuteronomy 21:18-21 you’ll find that the law says stubborn or rebellious sons should be stoned to death by the entire town.
That’s how important family and land where to the ancient Jews. It meant everything. Jewish literature confirms this fact. If you look closely, a primary preoccupation in the Jewish canon is a concern for familial, ethnic, and religious survival. Stay home, work the land, have children and ensure that the family and the ethnic and religious identity continue in the next generation, that was the role of young Jewish men.
So when Peter says, we’ve left everything to follow you. He means it. We’ve left our families and our land. Our social order. We’ve left our very identities. If this thing doesn’t pan out, we’ve got nowhere to go. We might even be killed if we try to go home.
Jesus says there will be a reward for those who have done like wise. Most commentators believe that what Jesus is talking about here is a new kind of family and a new kind of social order, one that’s not based on blood relation and ethnic identity but in mutuality and equality between the have’s and the have not’s.
But in this new kind of social order, our default settings and automatic responses simply won’t do. The Rich Man has lived a good life. There is no reason for us to label him as a bad man per se. Unlike Peter and the disciples, he hasn’t left everything behind in order to follow Jesus. As Basil points out, he hasn’t played his part in the formation of this new kind of family and social order of mutual aid. The fact is, despite whatever kind of charity he might have offered throughout his life, he has continued to love his wealth more than his neighbors.
This is water.
At the end of the day, I am more like the Rich Man than I am like Peter and the disciples, and that means Jesus’ words to him are also for me.
“You lack one thing, go sell what I own, give the money to the poor, then come follow me.”
I come away from this text grieving, but I too have many possessions.
Here’s what I can tell you. The odds are that probably none of us are going to walk out of this room sell everything we have, and give the proceeds to the poor, myself included. But if I’m being honest, I don’t really have a good reason why that is the case, at least from a theological stand point. I know that we probably aren’t going to take Jesus’ words here literally, but this text isn’t going to let us off the hook. We could try all kinds of exegetical gymnastics to help us feel better, like maybe there’s an easier way. But the fact of the matter is Jesus is pretty clear.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
That’s a pretty disturbing thought. That’s the point. The most obvious and important realities, the ones that are hardest to see and talk about are often pretty repulsive. By all accounts the wealth and privilege of north Americans and Europeans will continue, while millions of the world people will lack the basic needs for survival. Policies will continue to be enacted that benefit the wealthy and abuse the poor. And we’re a part of that.
This is water.
Jesus looked at the Rich Man and loved him, and it is precisely because of this love that Jesus says what he does. It takes great love to disturb and to speak the hard truth we’d rather not hear. If you’re upset and uncomfortable, I’m glad. I am too. But this is water, and I need to be reminded of that as often as possible.