Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Ponzi Gospel

Mark 10:13-31
by Daniel Harrell

One of the recurrent problems for modern-day Christians in America is figuring out what losing your life for Jesus’ sake looks like. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ reddest letters have to do with his announcing his own demise and then inviting us to come along and do likewise. For the earliest disciples, taking up a cross for Jesus left little to the imagination. In a time when Roman rule demanded worship of the emperor, losing your life for Jesus meant losing your life. Going to church was hazardous to your health. However these days, with actual martyrdom being fairly uncommon, losing your life is easy since you know it ain’t going to kill you. But what if by losing your life Jesus also meant losing your lifestyle?

Tonight’s passage is a chronically discomfiting one. A man runs up to Jesus and falls to his knees. “Good teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Many presume the man to be seeking some prescribed formula for salvation, an accomplishable to-do-list for getting into heaven. Perhaps. However, by asking in terms of inheritance, he seems to get that eternal life was not something he could earn or purchase. Jesus characteristically responds by changing the subject. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This may have been Jesus’ indirect admission of his own secret identity, but it also seems to emphasize that “goodness” is very hard to reach. Jesus asks about the Ten Commandments, which the man insists he had kept since his youth. Loving the guy for his enthusiasm, Jesus nevertheless lets the air out of his self-delusion. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell however much you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.”

At this point in the story, everything the man had could have been a small amount. It’s not until afterwards we learn that the man was wealthy, and apparently it was his wealth that he worshipped (so much for his keeping Commandments One and Ten). The man went away sad, leading Jesus to remark how hard it is for rich people to get into heaven―harder than it is to thread a needle with a camel. The disciples were shocked by this since for them wealth was a sign of God’s favor. If this purportedly pious rich guy couldn’t squeeze through, what chance did poor sinners have? Who the heck could be saved? Jesus assured them that God could do anything, but whether that meant saving this particular rich man is anyone’s guess. We never hear from him again.

Jesus had said back in verse 14 that the Kingdom of God belonged to little children—which is why the Bible always refers to believers as children of God rather than adults of God. Interpreters traditionally highlight childlike qualities of simplicity, innocence and trust as those intended by Jesus, but these characteristics were likely foreign to most first century people. Simplicity, innocence and trust, while admirable, ran a distant second to a whole set of other childlike characteristics such as ignorance, frailty, immaturity, puerility and foolishness. It was customary to view children as insignificant little weaklings who, if anything, needed their inherent weaknesses beat out of them so that they could become contributing members of society. If it was status you were after, better to cultivate relationships with people whose power, money, influence and connections could raise you up a rung or two. Becoming like a little child would be like, well, like selling all of your possessions, giving the money to the poor and running after Jesus.

Now it’s not that prosperity is a Biblical vice. Diligence at work, good stewardship, education and faithful relationships—these are all Christian virtues that can result in financial gain. Yet with gain always comes the expectation of generosity. “From everyone to whom much is given, much will be required,” Jesus said. The issue is never that God’s people sometimes prosper, but that in their prosperity they adopt the attitudes of their newly acquired socio-economic status and afterward ignore or even despise those still clinging to the ladder’s lower rungs. Instead, Jesus insists that we receive the children, do unto the least and love the loser in his name―but not because the child and the least and the loser are weak, least and lost. To love is not to look down and have pity on those less fortunate but to recognize your own true identity among the weak and the lost. The best way to love the needy is to recognize yourself as needy too—receiving a child requires becoming like one.

It might help to understand what the Bible often means by prosperity. The Proverbs speak of prosperity as the “reward of the righteous,” which is why, like the disciples, many tend to equate financial gain with divine favor. But the word actually denotes a kind of contentedness independent of one’s bank balance—good news given the state of most people’s bank balances these days. Biblical prosperity typically manifests itself ironically. The most prosperous people in the Bible are often the most monetarily impoverished. As the apostle Paul expressed it to the Philippians, “I have learned the secret of being content whatever the circumstances, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man to sell whatever he had was not a call to poverty, but a call to genuine faith and trust in him.

Worried, perhaps, that his own salvation was at stake (if not his reputation), Peter pipes up in verse 28 to remind Jesus, “Lord, you know we have left everything to follow you!” Jesus assures Peter that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age―along with persecutions―and in the age to come, eternal life.” What puzzles most people about Jesus’ promise here is not that persecutions get included as a return on our investment (we all know we would suffer more for our faith if ever we really behaved what we believe). No, what puzzles most people is the hundredfold return Jesus promises “in this present age?” “Eternal life in the age to come” we get, but what’s with multiple homes and family and fields here and now? Who’s ever got that? Is this some kind of Ponzi scheme?

I don’t know if you happened to watch the PBS piece on Bernie Madoff this past week. He’s the swindler who somehow managed to dupe hundreds of otherwise responsible charities, pensions, foundations and friends to the tune of 50 billion dollars. In a classic Ponzi scheme, Madoff paid returns to investors from money paid by subsequent investors rather than from any actual profit earned. As soon as the economy tanked and everybody needed to cash out, Madoff’s jig was up. People bothered by Jesus’ insinuations about rich people and hell have no trouble sending Madoff there. Some accuse Christian health and wealth preachers of pulling off the same stunt. They promise believers that God will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams if they give generously and just believe they will receive back a hundred times over, citing Jesus’ own words as guarantee. At least when Bernie Madoff promised big returns he actually delivered (if only for a moment). Health and wealth preachers don’t even do that.

Now it may be that the reason you haven’t personally reaped the kind of return Jesus promised is because you really haven’t given up anything to follow Jesus. On the other hand, Peter and the rest of the disciples gave up everything, and nowhere do we ever see them raking it in. Biblical prosperity is not about the money. There is a contentedness and confidence that comes with Christ that money cannot buy. Moreover, there is a community too. Jesus promises not only a hundredfold return in homes and land (code words for contentment—think “a house and a yard”), but brothers and sisters and mothers as well. Who are these people? If you remember back to chapter 3, you’ll recall Jesus was preaching to a packed house when his family rolled into town. Unable to squeeze through the door, his mother and brothers got a message to Jesus saying that they were looking for him. Jesus responded by asking, “Who is my mother?” ―which must have made Mary faint right on the spot. And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus then turned to the motley crew packed around him―poor fishermen and prostitutes, despised tax-collecting losers and outcast sinners―and said “Behold my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God, that’s my brother and sister and mother.”

What’s Jesus saying? Look around. We are each other’s hundredfold return. We are each other’s reward. (Let me give you a minute to process that one.) … I can imagine the disciples thinking the same thing. They took a look at each other and thought, “I left all I had for this?” It must have been a little disappointing―and that’s before tacking on the persecutions. Ask almost anybody to describe a Christian and the adjectives typically include words like hypocritical, self-righteous, judgmental, selfish and downright spiteful sometimes. There’s the running joke that churches would be great places if it weren’t for the people. If only we could have Christ without Christians.

Turns out that maybe you can. A bunch of us from the ministerial staff traveled to a seminar a couple weeks back where a sales rep was brought in to promote a product called Monvee (from the Latin meaning one life, or something like that). Monvee is a web-based spiritual assessment tool that allows you to customize your own personal walk with Jesus. You answer a few questions, click a few buttons, and boom, Monvee will do the rest, designing a personal walk with Jesus based on the way God has wired you to walk. Persecutions not your thing? No problem, Monvee will map out a less painful path. Prefer to keep your possessions for yourself? OK, Monvee will steer you clear from those guilt-inducing commands in the Bible. Monvee’s designer described it as “the eHarmony for your spiritual life, but instead of finding a mate, monvee helps you know how you’re wired and how you best connect with God.” The best part is that monvee lets you find G-Harmony all by yourself! No more hypocritical Christians. No more boring church services. No more messy small groups. No more needy people. Just a few clicks and you’re on your way to righteousness. (I should mention that Park Street Church declined the opportunity to become a Beta site for the Monvee launch.)

OK, so maybe I am just a cynical old man who wouldn’t know a life-transforming technological advance if it hit him in his Blackberry. Maybe a programmed relationship with God is better than having to wait and pray and trust and accept all the ambiguity. Just like Facebook, Twitter and other social networks can beat awkward or time-consuming face-to-face conversations with friends that could end up, you know, with having to help them move or drive them to the airport or listen to them go on and on about all of their problems.

This month’s Atlantic ran a cover article on the famous Grant Study, a 72-year longitudinal study of a group of men at Harvard, along with another group from inner-city Boston and a group of women from California. Typical psychology studies look at a single moment in life and can be terribly misleading―a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may in fact be gestating toward amazing maturity. Longitudinal studies take in the entire life span and see how everything fits (however they’re very expensive and obviously time-consuming). The goal of the Grant Study was to determine the key to “a successful life.” You can read the article online for all the details, but suffice to say, when asked this past March what he learned from watching the lives of over 300 people across seven decades, the project’s chief researcher, George Vaillant reposnded: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Look around. We are each other’s reward.

And yet, Professor Vaillant tells the story of one “prize” subject, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came one hundred single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. His wife put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Maybe this helps explain our addiction to Facebook kinds of friends. They require little more than coming up with clever status updates. The problem with actual love is not only what it demands you give to people in need, but also that it exposes you as needy too. But that’s not a bad thing. Again, the best way to love the needy is to recognize yourself as needy.

One of the people in my Thursday night small group (that hangs out with homeless folks on the Common) was complaining about having to listen to one of the guys go on and on about this same problem he’s been having for months. An older member of our church heard the complaint and replied how that is the tough thing about friendship: being there to listen to a friend when he’s in a crisis. And it can be frustrating. But the great thing about friendship is that there will be times in your life when things aren’t going so well for you either. And then you’ll have someone there to listen to you.

“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields―and with them, persecutions.” What if Jesus’ words are not merely some idealistic declaration, but an actual invitation, or even a provocation to us to become each other’s hundredfold return. What if we are each other’s reward, each other’s brother and sister and mother and child? You would have hundreds. What if his mention of persecution is a further invitation, or even a provocation, to step into the harder, more difficult aspects of these relationships, sharing one another’s troubles in ways that cost us something—if not a loss of life, at least a loss of lifestyle or some loss of time? I think if we consistently made that kind of investment, it’d be hard for anybody to use adjectives like hypocritical or selfish to describe Christians anymore. The only adjective that would fit would be rich.

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