18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother.’ ” 21 He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard this, he became sad, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Leviticus passage (Leviticus 25:1-17—which I encourage you to read on your own— presents a theological understanding of ownership in the form of the year of Jubilee. Described as an edict from God directed to the wandering Jews before they entered the promised land, the people are directed to forgive debts, free indentured servants and return land to its original owners. The principle, not the actual practice, has been celebrated for years. There are a couple of big ideas I want to point out. First, the land, the earth, is not ours to possess. The land is provided to feed people. It is not a means to generate wealth. Second, the land and the people need to rest in order to be fruitful. Failure to rest may yield short term gains but will ultimately lead to depletion. Third, community good takes priority over personal gain. Anyone who had acquired land could not keep it indefinitely. The whole system was designed to reset every fifty years. Finally, following the regulations of the year of Jubilee, requires deference to something greater than ourselves. The Jewish identity rested with God’s saving act in the Exodus and with that gift comes gratitude and responsibility. The year of the Jubilee is a concrete expression of the belief that we should share our wealth and our position because they are gifts given—not something we are entitled to.
Unfortunately these lessons were not applied to the people the Jews dispossessed. It was God’s will that the Jews entered the promised land. As far as I know, the year of the Jubilee did not extend to the owners of the land before the Jews. Even as the Jews were espousing humility and gratitude as the basis for the year of the Jubilee, such restorations did not extend to the indignous peoples of the promised land.
We should not be surprised. The same applies to our promised land. No one I know would be willing to return land acquired and cultivated to an indiginous claimant. Once we ‘own’ something, it is really hard to give it up. It is almost humanely impossible not to feel entitled. The ungirding value of the year of jubilee is that we are stewards not owners. These values swim upstream against the currents of self sufficiency and control. As we discussed last week, the rationales for keeping what we have acquired are endless. Most of us who ‘have’ look for reasons to justify keeping what we have—but, as soon as we acknowledge advantages of color, gender, national origin etc., we can no longer claim exclusive self sufficiency nor entitlement. The question then shifts to how will use what we have?
Theologically we are stewards of the earth and we are stewards of the gifts we have been given. When we change our frame from ownership to stewardship, we share power. If we imagine that what we have is ours and ours alone, we can do whatever we want with what we have. But that is not an option if we are stewards. It is a dramatically different way to view our place in the world and it quite obviously runs contrary to the secular concepts of self sufficiency and ownership. The owner and the gift giver is God and we are expected to develop and share those gifts.
In real life, this concept is hard to implement. Like many of the biblical injunctions, it is a direction for life. The year of Jubilee was never fully implemented. It was, and is, an ideal that bumps into way too many practical obstacles. The year of Jubilee spells out a plan which promises a harvest bountiful enough to tide the people over for three years. But in real life, good harvest years and droughts are not that predictable. In real life, many people would end up starving. The concept that the Lord will provide is a way to lean into God but it still requires discernment. Most of us are trying to plan for our retirement years by accumulating money in our IRAs. How much do we need to feel safe?
This was the dilemma of the rich young ruler. His initial question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” makes the implicit assumption that it is up to him and what he does. Jesus’ challenge to him was “Sell all that you have and give to the poor.” In the context of today’s Old Testament scripture, the rich young ruler was told to declare a personal Jubilee year. Give back everything you think is yours to keep. It was too much. We read: “when he heard this, he became sad, for he was very rich.”
Following is a challenge to us all— “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The rich young ruler’s treasure was what he had acquired (or inherited). It was his. It could not grasp the idea that the real treasure is a shared life of mindfulness, regard and sharing. To the degree we insist upon ownership and imagine what we have is ours we fail to acknowledge that God gave to us in the first place. Our entitlement will keep us from the life that Jesus promises will give life.
Two more points. Wealth itself is not the issue. It is our relationship to our wealth that is the problem. It is seductively easy to give ourselves primary credit for what we have achieved or acquired. When we do so, we are likely to judge others who do not have wealth and are less likely to share. Both fly in the face of God’s call. If we can maintain humility, the same wealth can be used generously.
While I have used wealth as the primary example, the same is true of sharing any gift—-our wisdom, experience, expertise, advice or our power. There is a big difference between sharing something we feel is valuable and insisting we are right. Sharing power, money, knowledge and even our faith must always include respect for the other. Otherwise we are really condescendingly puffing ourselves up. We expect to be received and validated and often get upset when that does not happen.
It is helpful to remember the way Jesus shared his power and wisdom. We usually think of power in terms of influence or control but Jesus did not seek control. He offered a new way of life but he did not insist on his own way. He presented his truth—and he waited. There was always room to say no and ultimately there was room for rejection. (There was nothing that he did that was so convincing that all who saw believed). There was always a congruence between what he taught and the way he taught. To share power as Jesus shared power is to identify what we stand for and live that way. That is a very high standard but it is the life that gives life.
The best sharing of power emerges from humility, mindfulness and regard. But ultimately it emerges from integrity.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.