Where Most of Us Stand – Nick Utphall reflects on finding our place in the struggle to care for the world’s family.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday October 9-15, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
I have a “green letter” edition of the Bible. There’s the more familiar “red letter” versions, where all the words of Jesus appear in a red font (mostly in the Gospels, but also occasionally applied in Revelation or Paul). The green version, however, tries to highlight passages that may be obvious in talking about creation and the environment and our ecological stewardship, verses that tie us in relationships to the world around us.
This week’s Gospel reading not only lacks a green highlighting in this version of the Bible, but seems like it could appear in even a blacker font, reinforcing a lack of connection and emphasizing a separation from nature. “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life,” Jesus boldly but perhaps darkly proclaims (Mark 10:29-30).
I suppose there are many believers and many voices from pulpits who will find in this passage a heavenly removal from Earth. Not only will we escape the terrestrial bonds when we die, but it could seem that in this passage we are told to practice our release already, shunning all we would hold dear or claim is good in life.
Generally, our sense of connection to life on Earth may be most firmly established in exactly the places that Jesus seems to dismiss: familial relationships and agrarian harvest. Thanksgiving and prayers for crops and blessings of weddings are still some of the most common places that our Christian faith is invited into secular culture.
Our bread and butter in creation care has been an easy emphasis on farmers and their dedication to fields that feed; just look at the stewardship section of a hymnal:
“Sing to the Lord of harvest”
“Come, ye thankful people come; raise the song of harvest home”
“Praise and thanksgiving, God, we would offer for…harvest of sown fields, fruits of the orchard, hay from the mown fields, blossom and wood”
“We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”
“For the fruits of all creation, thanks be to God… For the plowing, sowing, reaping, silent growth while we are sleeping”
But we might wonder from this Gospel passage if Jesus is singing a different tune.
Again, for a sense of vocation and purpose of earthly life, our roles and relationships in family have been central. The Lutheran Reformation supported those directly and predominantly, with Luther regularly declaring that somebody as spouse or parent was more clearly doing God’s work than one who withdrew into a monastery, and Luther himself ended up a “family man” exactly to embody the point of changing diapers as more godly than cloistered pious prayers. His Small Catechism’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer says that the petition for daily bread includes “farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, [and] upright members of the household.”
But we might wonder from this Gospel passage if the Lord himself was trying to teach us some other way to pray and be remembered into his kingdom.
So what are creation-caring preachers and believers to do?
What to do with a counsel to forsake all our earthly “goods” (as the term would evaluate our possessions)?
If actually trying to sell everything we own, as Jesus counsels the rich young man, wouldn’t we remove ourselves from the economy?
And wouldn’t that “eco” of the household there also function to remove us from the “eco” of ecology?
Is Jesus suggesting we withdraw from the entire order of this earthly home?
Maybe a first re-entry point is to take Jesus seriously in this reading. A bracket of two phrases may be especially worthwhile in cushioning the shock. To conclude, we can cling to the proclamation that “for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). And to start, we should not miss verse 21: “Jesus, looking at [the rich man], loved him.” From those two gospel words—of possibility and love—then we can also genuinely receive Jesus’ instruction, not just for the man in the ancient account who had many possessions, but for us ourselves to sell what WE own.
But, first, a side trip through the first reading. The prophet Amos has some strong economic condemnation today, about injustice, sins, and transgressions, “because you trample on the poor” (Amos 5:11). Clearly in the view of the prophet and this word of the LORD, “seeking” and “loving” good (Amos 5:14 and 15) is a matter of the distribution of wealth.
These strong words, paired with Jesus’ injunction, may lead us to question which side we’re on. Are we like the grieving man who goes away after his many possessions, or are we like Peter and the disciples who have forsaken much? Are we like Amos’s rich people who have built nice houses and picture ourselves enjoying the wine of pleasant vineyards, or are we like the needy people who have suffered extortions and are pushed aside from the places we seek justice?
One helpful tool for determining our place is the Pew Research Center’s global income calculator. This quick calculator creatively shows that almost all of us as Americans are well-established as the Haves and not as the Have-Nots, the rich and not the poor, the possessed man and not the disciple. I may not be Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or a Rockefeller, but my own clergy salary (not to mention my other benefits and possessions and white privileges and all) puts me among the wealthiest on the planet.
Rather than preemptively dismissing Jesus’ mandate to “sell what I own, and give the money to the poor,” I should allow my shock to stand. I should not pretend to depend on my pious thoughts of obeying the commandments and being a diligent churchgoer since my youth. I certainly should not perceive or call myself “good” (Mark 10:18). But I may then better recognize what it is when Amos calls me to seek and to love goodness.
Indeed, rather than this being a call away from the world toward heaven, this is a calling from Jesus to confront honestly my place—and our places—in this world. As long as I am ignorant of my premier standing among the wealthy, then I will be neglecting the good of the poor and the needy at the gate. With awareness of privileged place, that may begin to lead to practicing living more rightly. Doing that isn’t in order to win favor; after all, even with my ignorant or grieving possessiveness, still Jesus loves me. But maybe it will exemplify the new shock that “for God all things are possible.”
With this engagement in the world, the refrain of the Psalm comes to make more sense, as well. The Psalm concludes with the repetition: “Prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17). Clearly this is not an escapist spiritualized realm where our handiwork is abominable and condemnable, earthy instead of heavenly. But neither is this the mad method of the so-called prosperity gospel, where blessing means that I will have more than others and become richer, that the prospering of my hands will proceed straight into my own pockets.
When we prosper and our hands are doing God’s work, then that won’t be with a closed-tight grip but with an open-handed release for sharing. If we consider wealth a blessing, then it fits the Abrahamic blessing of Genesis 12:2 that we are blessed in order to be a blessing, to extend the good. We have money in order to share it. We have possessions so that we can release and give them away. This is not a reading about separation from earthly possessions, but from the sense of hoarding them and exclusively claiming them. If we’re beginning to be able to consider that, then that seems like a valuable step, rather than pursuing the ultimate end of what will happen if we don’t sell everything, if we keep home or field or some possessions, if we don’t forsake family.
Turning again to Amos, we may discern rightful wisdom in this practice. We need not hear it only as a threat about giving away or redistributing incomes. When the prophet offers the conditional phrase, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5:14), we may understand it not as divine legalism only but as logical economic fact. Our economic order that is built purely on extraction is not sustainable. When we try to claim wealth from other human beings and from mining, clear-cutting, and draining the planet, it not only will cause harm in sweatshops and food deserts amid communities of color, but will come back around to our own downfall. There is only so long we can wall ourselves off from that detriment in gated communities or insulated identities.
In his final Sunday sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. said,
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not made the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood [sic]. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters!]. Or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured” (see A Testament of Hope, p. 269).
Over against the sibling rivalry of our standard economic struggles, these brotherly words may actually serve as a clarification of Jesus’ word about leaving family, that our view of family and sense of relationships and kindness of kinship need to be significantly broadened, to the human family and our siblings in all creation. As Jesus loved a man with too many possessions, we might also love. Anything else lets our neighbor loom too small and our possessions loom too large, precluding our passage through the eye of the needle.
Lest we still fail to hear gracious invitation and the promise of life in that, here is Ted Jennings on the renunciation of kinship structures and the means of sustaining life, reminding us of the experiences we recognize from those who heed this calling:
“This conforms exactly to the experience of mission, that those who enter into solidarity with the poor and afflicted find that they have hundreds of sisters, and brothers, and mothers . . . . We receive the hospitality of the poor, of those who say, ‘my house is your house’ . . . . Just as manna in the desert cannot become my private property to be stored up in barns, so also that which is offered by the poor to the poor is more than enough, yet is never accumulated or hoarded” (The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto, p. 165-166).
And though I may not be Jeff Bezos and I may not feel the ability to renounce what I have and live in solidarity with the poor so ascetically as a Mother Teresa, still, when 388 people own fully half of the world’s wealth (as cited in an article on “The Inequality Industry” in The Nation’s October 8/15, 2018 issue), then it becomes clearer where most of us actually stand and where our place is in the struggle for equality and caring for the world’s family. And it is reverberatingly clear why Jesus would call us into such a mutually beneficial kind of living.
Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2018.