Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
“Generosity – Share Power”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2022
Leviticus 25:1-4,8-13,23-24; Luke 18:18-30
Our theme for this week is Sharing Power.
Sharing Power is the last in this month-long series on Generosity. Generosity, closely tied to stewardship, relates to the daily decisions we make about the time, talent, and treasure entrusted to us.
These daily decisions arise from competing ideals. We desire time for rest and relaxation, for entertainments, and yet we also desire to give of our precious time to help others in some way. We feel called to use our best talents and gifts to provide a good life for ourselves and for our families, and yet we also feel called to use our talents and gifts for the sake of the community.
We feel the need to save for the future, to gain some sense of financial security, and yet we also feel the need to give generously to the mission of the Church and other efforts. These are competing realities, every day, as we decide how we will steward that which is entrusted to us. Just as there are conflicting narratives within our own hearts and minds, there are conflicting narratives within the Old Testament Scriptures.
The Bible is not simply one story, but many stories, sometimes in tension with one another. Within the Old Testament, we find significant references to the “if then” theology – If you obey my commandments, God says, it will go well with you in the land I have given you. If you disobey my commandments, says God, you will be spewed out of the land you have received.
We also find numerous references to a competing theology, the Davidic theology, which is a bit more gray in its treatment of those who go astray. I hold out my hands all day long to a rebellious and contrite people. How can I let you go, O Israel? Like a mother who cannot forsake her nursing child, so I cannot let you go, O Israel.
We also find references to extremely nationalistic theology in the Old Testament. Israel is the chosen one and her enemies will be rooted out and defeated, even to utter destruction. And yet, we also find in the scripture the City on a Hill theology as well – that Israel has been blessed to be a blessing, that the peoples of all nations will stream to Zion to find welcome, healing, refreshment.
Today’s passage from Leviticus conflicts, perhaps, with other ideals we have learned in scripture. The word “jubilee”, repeated some 14 times in Leviticus 25, originates in the Hebrew word related to the ram’s horn. The ram’s horn was often used as a call to prayer. In this case, the year of jubilee, the 50th year, begins on the Day of Atonement, the day of humility and repentance before God.
According to Robert North, Old Testament scholar, the jubilee year, the 50th year, “was intended to prevent the accumulation of all the wealth of the nation in the hands of a few. Under the jubilee law, every Israelites’ freedom and legal right to family land were guaranteed. Once in the lifetime of every generation (every 50 years), what might have been lost through debts could be recovered in the jubilee year.
The jubilee law would prevent any long term monopolies over agricultural land, monopolies that could strangle the abilities of the common people to thrive. John Bright summarizes the jubilee theology with these words: “The land is God’s and we live on this earth as aliens and sojourners, holding all that we have as if it were on loan from God, conducting our affairs in the fear of the Lord and dealing graciously with the less fortunate, recognizing that we have all been recipients of grace.”
(Kaiser, Walter C., New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I, pages 1174-1175)
Hear the Word of God from Leviticus 25:1-4,8-13,23-24
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard…
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month— on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines.
For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces. In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property… The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.
Though the Jubilee year, the 50th year of forgiving debts, the year for indigenous people to return to live upon their homelands, may never have been fully practiced with any sort of regularity, nevertheless it was held up as an ideal.
What if the Jubilee had been practiced every 50 years? What if the wealth of the world was not monopolized by the few, but redistributed every 50 years and shared by many? Imagine how much less the economic disparities would be. Imagine how many fewer people would be drowning in indebtedness. Imagine how few people would be living in poverty.
Imagine the alleviation of suffering if the wealth of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and Warren Buffet was distributed among the poorest of the world. Or perhaps more difficult, imagine if the wealth of the United States, any wealth you and I have accumulated, was distributed more evenly among the nations of the world.
As Vernon Gramling wrote in his blog this week, “the year of the Jubilee was meant to be a concrete expression of the belief that the land is a gift given by God and the fruit of the land is meant to be shared for the good of all. 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. Theologically, we are stewards of the earth and stewards of the gifts we have been given. When our minds are changed from “ownership” to “stewardship”, then we more readily share power… Of course, 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 we use what we have?”
This question brings us to our New Testament passage from Luke about a rich young man. Before reading from Luke, have you heard about the “eye of the needle”? According to some, the “Eye of the Needle” has been claimed to be a gate in Jerusalem, actually more of a door within a larger gate.
After the main gate was closed at night, a smaller door, or “eye of the needle” was opened. A camel could not pass through this smaller gate unless it first had all its baggage removed and then the camel would have to stoop down low to fit through the entry. I remember a similar, even smaller, door in the church in Bethlehem. Local children still go every Christmas Eve to spend the night there in sleeping bags, waking together early on Christmas morning at the place where Jesus was born.
A child can walk right through this small entry door into the church in Bethlehem, but an adult, even an adult of my height, has to remove even a small backpack and stoop down low to enter this holy place of worship.
Hear the Word of God from Luke 18:18-30
A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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.” ’
He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ 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.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
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.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’
Then Peter said, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
How hard it is for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven – It is like a camel having to have all of its baggage removed and then stooping over in humility to make its way through the opening. Now, some will say this interpretation of the “eye of the needle” is false, and that the better interpretation is to stick with the utter impossibility of a camel going through the actual eye of a sewing needle.
This is impossible for mortals, Jesus said, but it is possible for God. Whichever interpretation Jesus meant to communicate, it is clear that to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must dispossess ourselves of that which keeps us from following Jesus.
Take note – Jesus did not tell every person he met to sell everything that they owned. This was not an instruction given to everyone across the board. This was a particular instruction given to one particular rich young man who needed to hear it. The righteous young man went away sad. He went away grieving, for he had chosen to follow God’s commandments all his life.
He had chosen to be good, but he held many possessions. When push came to shove, the young man would choose possessions over Jesus. He would choose worldly treasures over the opportunity to follow God’s will.
How many sad and grieving individuals have done the same thing over the course of history? I wonder what life may have been like for this rich and righteous young man if he had not walked away from Jesus, but followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to the cross?
With power comes responsibility. The more power one possesses, the greater one’s responsibilities. In our daily lives, we each exercise power every day, in the decisions we make, in the policies we promote, in how we spend our dollars, in the investments we make, in the votes that we cast.
As much as we may criticize those who run for public office and their lust for power, it may be helpful to remember how great are their responsibilities. John Calvin called public office the highest of all forms of service. The question to be asked of all public officials is: what will you do with your power?
With whom will you share your power? With whom will you share the microphone? With whom will you share access and opportunity and decision-making? It is far easier to see the importance of how power is shared in a public office than it is to recognize our own challenges in sharing power.
In giving us free will, God gave each of us immense power for good or for ill. Every day we choose how we will live. Every day we choose how our life affects the lives of those around us. None of us exists as an island. Our daily decisions – how we use our resources, how we use our time – impact the lives of our neighbors, for good or ill. I will always remember a fellow seminarian’s bumper sticker on the back of her Toyota:
“Live simply so that others may simply live.”
Will we share power so that others may have some measure of power to survive and even thrive? Will we be generous with our time, our talent, and our treasure so that others will be able to discover their talents and grow their treasure? Will we ensure that laws are just for everyone, that educational resources are distributed fairly, that access to opportunities is open to everyone who may be qualified?
We each have conflicting ideals, differing theologies, even, as we face daily decisions. Rest and relaxation versus giving time to help others… Saving and investing for financial security versus giving generously… Building up and caring for our own little kingdoms or building up and nurturing the kingdom of God… these questions are not necessarily either/or, but how much and to what extent?
Jesus offered a model of servant leadership by washing the disciples feet. He emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. He gave fully of himself for the sake of the world. While none of us will come close to the sacrifices Jesus made, perhaps we can be instructed by his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane – Not my will, O God, but thy will be done.
Today Lord, in my use of time, in my use of resources and talents, not my will, O God, but thy will be done.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church – Decatur, Georgia