Impossible for Humans but Possible by God’s Grace – Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus calling people to relinquish wealth for others and on behalf of all creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday October 9-15, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Wealth and its problems, not to say evils, are never far from center stage in the drama of human affairs, whether the focus be the life of an individual or conditions of a society. The 2012 presidential campaign with its debate about the justice of contemporary American economic policy and practice will very likely provide these readings an attentive and politically charged audience, with wealth creation and accumulation emphasized by the one side, redistribution for the sake of just opportunities by the other. And as with the issues of marriage and family the previous Sunday, concern and care for creation should be an integral part of the discussion. This Sunday’s texts provide an excellent opportunity to turn the conversation in that direction.
That this linkage is not traditionally part of the church’s teaching is indicated, no doubt, by the fact that the verses appointed for the first reading from Amos chapter 5 are precisely those that make the connection absolutely clear. Reading the text straight through from v. 6 to v. 15, and perhaps explicitly calling attention to the change, will therefore serve as a good entry to the argument at hand. The elided verses, Amos 5:8-9, do not equivocate on the matter: The Lord whom we seek in order to live, the prophet insists, is the God of creation. The passage is one of several in the book of Amos, Terry Fretheim notes, in which a creation theme is part of “strong oracles of indictment and judgment” (Amos 4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6, cf 8:7-10). Fretheim comments specifically on these verses as follows:
“The doxology in 5:8-9 seems interruptive in its context, but that is less the case if creational themes are seen as integral to talk about judgment. The doxology is preceded by a lament for the death of the nation (5:12) and a call to ‘seek the Lord and live’ or suffer the consequences of God ‘breaking out’ and ‘devouring’ (5:3-7); the doxology is followed by more indictments, oracles of judgment, and exhortations (5:10-17). God the Creator, who acts in creation to turn ‘deep darkness into the morning’ and ‘darkens the day into night’ (5:8) has created the world in such a way as to make ‘destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress’ (5:9). As certainly as Pleiades and Orion (probably related to weather patterns), darkness and light, day and night work according to their created ordering, so also will God mediate adverse effects upon those who ‘trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain’ (5:11; cf. Job 5:8-16; 9:5-10) (Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, pp 169-70).
Justice is thus understood here as encompassing both relationships between humans and between humans and creation: “the absence of justice in Israel disrupts not only the social order but also the cosmic order. The people have polluted the land through their lack of care and concern for the needy and disadvantaged (cf Jer 3:1-5, which links human wickedness with adverse cosmic effects; Joel 2:10)” (Fretheim, p. 170).
Equally significant, however, is the prophet’s expectation that restoration of creation will follow upon the reversal of this injustice. The “description of the new creation at the end of Amos (9:11-15),” Fretheim notes:
“is bracketed by the ill effects of human sinfulness on the environment in Amos 1:2. In the new world to come, on the other hand, the natural order will be rid of the adverse effects of human sinfulness. Even more, the creation will function in ways that outstep God’s original creational intentions. The vineyards will be so productive that human efforts will not be able to keep up with the abundance. There is no return to Eden here, no myth of the eternal return. The prophets move beyond Eden in their vision of the future” (Fretheim, pp. 17-71).
This is truth for our times, in Fretheim’s view: “Those of us who live in this environmentally troubled time should have no difficulty seeing the truth of this remarkably rich interrelatedness of social and cosmic orders.”
Turning to the Gospel for the day, however, this linkage of social and cosmic orders might seem to be irrelevant to Jesus’s exchange with the rich ruler. Hearers of the Gospel reading will be quickly drawn to the question of social justice. The rich man can be presumed to be a landholder, according to Ched Myers; “many possessions” would mean ownership of landed property of any kind . . . “a farm or a field (Acts 5:1), and in the plural lands or estates” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, p. 274. The quotation is from Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark. New York; St. Martin’s, 1963, p. 430). The man’s apparently sincere desire for “eternal life” founders on Jesus’ command to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Myers thinks that from what we know about the class structure of Mark’s Palestine, his claim of obedience is merely pretense; with the disclosure of his landowner status, we should understand him to belong to “the most politically powerful social stratum.” With this revelation, Myers suggests, “the story of the man abruptly finishes, as if the point is obvious. As far as Mark is concerned, the man’s wealth has been gained by “defrauding” the poor – he was not “blameless” at all—for which he must make restitution.” Jesus’ rather remarkable amendment to the commandments of Moses, in his original response to the man, to include ‘You shall not defraud” (Mark 10:19), flags this particular concern with economic exploitation (Myers, p. 272).
With the unjust relationship between rich and poor the central issue, where does the cosmic order come into play, as the reading from Amos suggests it should? A slightly different reading of the narrative is needed to bring it to the surface. The exchange between Jesus and the rich ruler is not in the first instance about social injustice, it may be argued, but rather the man’s relationship to God. Indeed, this is the leading theme of the exchange from beginning to end. The man seeks “eternal life;” loving him, Jesus promises him “treasure in heaven;” at stake is his entry into the “kingdom of God,” and the ensuing exchange between Jesus and his disciples remains clearly focused on that entry. If obedience to the law sufficient to bring a man great wealth does not qualify for entry into the kingdom, the disciples’ reasoning goes, then what does? What does, indeed? What exactly is it that is so impossible for humans, but possible for God?
The disciples’ reasoning, of course, reflects the dominant ideology of the established socio-religious order of the temple-state, which “dictated that wealth = blessing from God.“ And although Mark puts the question in the mouth of the disciples. “that ideology is precisely the point of Jesus’ attack on that order.” As Myers points out,
“It is this that Jesus repudiates, contending instead that the only way to salvation for the rich is by the redistribution of their wealth—that is, the eradication of class oppression. The way in which this ideology legitimates the symbolic order will later (12:41-44) come under direct attack, in a temple episode that similarly juxtaposes the rich (e plousian, 10:25) with the poor (ptochois, 10:21)” (Myers, p. 275).
The episode uses the exchange to bring into focus the issue that will dominate the conflict between Jesus and his opponents and ultimately lead to his death.
What Jesus intended with respect to the temple-state establishment was not in Mark’s view simply reform, but replacement. Henceforth, not the temple, but Jesus, is where human beings encounter God. This as the theme of the Gospel which we introduced and discussed already in our comments on the lectionary for the Sundays in Advent. Our concern throughout this year has been to show that in as much as the temple was the locus which also provided cultic and narrative orientation to God’s creation and the well-being that it offers, Mark’s Jesus accordingly also appropriates the role of the temple as site of cosmic orientation, both in his teaching and in his actions. As the reading of the lesson from Amos reminds us, the God of Jesus “Kingdom of God” is the God not only of Israel, but of all creation, and the salvation he brings encompasses all creation.
In this interpretation, the encounter with the rich ruler brings relationship to God and relationship to creation together. To give up his possessions is precisely what would put him in right relationship with God or, as expressed here, provide for his entry into the kingdom of God. But in as much as the ownership of land and fraudulent practices attending to it are an indication of his relationship to the created order, it is also that which places his life in opposition to the right ordering of humans to creation. His refusal to give up his possessions is precisely to the point: he regards them as his own, not as gifts of the Creator for which he has responsibility but not control. Indeed, he loves them so much that he would rather keep them under his control, than have a right relationship with the God who created them. His love for his possessions stands in sharp contrast to the love Jesus has for him, and prohibits him from receiving and dwelling in that love (Mark 10:21).
It is significant to note that giving up his possessions would not in fact leave him without access to land and the other things necessary for his life. On the contrary, when Jesus’ disciple Peter enthusiastically expresses his appreciation for Jesus teaching, saying “Look ,we have left everything and followed you,” Jesus assures Peter that in the Kingdom those who have left everything to follow Jesus will receive “houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields,” albeit with persecutions and only in the age to come, “eternal life”—all that the man or any other resident of Palestine in the day could hope for. This is the startling conclusion of the entire exchange: all these good things will be recovered a hundredfold, and, as Myers notes, “in this time! No signs from heaven, but the Kingdom on earth. The miracle of multiplication through sharing implied in the wilderness feedings is thus enacted in the new economic practice of the community” (Myers, p. 276). Amos’ expectation for the future is recast in terms of the community around Jesus. For the rich man, the irony is that he could indeed enjoy all that he had and a hundred times more, in the community of faith, only without ownership.
Nevertheless, the difficulty remains: that which is impossible for humans, but possible for God: what exactly does Jesus have in mind here? What does God do to effect this salvation? As the narrative of Mark moves forward toward Jesus’ own giving up of himself on the cross, we come to understand that Jesus recapitulates God’s original giving of Godself in order that all creation might be. God ‘s eternal nature and action is to be unreservedly gracious. As David Bentley Hart writes,
“God gives and forgives; he fore-gives and gives again. There is no calculable economy in this trinitarian discourse of love, to which creation is graciously admitted. There is only the gift and the restoration of the gift, the love that the gift declares, the motion of a giving that is infinite, which comprehends every sacrifice made according to love, and which overcomes every sacrifice made for the sake of power” (The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co ., p.351).
Giving up one’s possession and following Jesus is, in Amos’ phrase, to seek the Lord and live (Amos 5:6). Another version of this narrative of giving up of self is close at hand, of course, in the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, of special interest to us in view of Mark’s insistence that Jesus displaces the temple: Jesus is seen as the high priest of the cosmos, who passed through the heavens in order to be tested in every way that we are, “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15)—without, that is, reservation of self for the sake of self. Participating now in his life, we can therefore “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). What was impossible for the rich man, clinging to his possessions, becomes possible for us, in the same moment that our relationship to creation is restored, dwelling in it, as we do, by God’s grace alone.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.