Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“…most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.”
-David Bentley Hart
“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jeremiah 8:22)
In a 2016 essay in Commonweal, Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, described how translating the New Testament drove him to the distressing conclusion that Jesus and his early followers meant – and lived – what they said about the dangers of wealth. As one would expect, defenders of wealth as an intrinsic good, unhappy with Hart’s essay, wrote strongly-worded rebuttals Hart, well known for his erudition and verbal cantankerousness, leaves few readers neutral about his message or person. His work typically includes something to make everyone unhappy, but while other theologians may reject his arguments and interpretations, they rarely dismiss him as uninteresting. He’s not the sort whose work is readily neutered into comforting pablum.
His point in the essay is that’s precisely what Christianity has done to texts like this Sunday gospel reading, turning the demanding communal practice of material poverty into a spiritualized individual attitude, a change of thought rather than a way of life. Hart, like me, knows this sin from the inside. Indeed, most Christians in the global North who write against making this gospel demand safe for the modern consumer stand convicted by their own words. What I call voluntary simplicity looks unimaginably opulent to the roughly one billion fellow humans currently living on less than $2.00 per person per day.
As grace would have it, Mark’s gospel presents a Jesus prompted to speak on divorce and riches in short succession (chapter 10). These passages, plus the interpolated invitation to the children, have served as lectionary readings the past two weeks. An obvious continuity is the challenge of right relationship, though subsequent church reflection has treated divorce and wealth differently. Remarriage after divorce has periodically emerged a matter of contention in and among the splintered denominations of Christendom, resolved, if at all, with pastoral sensitivity and an evolving set of prudential distinctions. In contrast, squaring the gospel with material wealth was, as Peter Brown demonstrates*, of grave concern for Christians in late antiquity, a quandary subsequent generations learned to downplay or ignore.
It’s not that rigorists on voluntary poverty completely disappeared. They even reassert themselves at times, as in the desert monastics, the early Franciscans, and strains of radical Protestantism. Today, there are house churches and intentional communities with a common purse, monasteries and convents where all is held in common, and other experiments in taking Jesus at his word, such as the Catholic Worker. Like the earliest members of the Body of Christ, they prize gospel fidelity over respectability. Compared to the Earth’s “Bottom Billion,” that life still looks rather comfortable, but they’re trying. Some of you who read this already know that life firsthand. I, however, have chosen otherwise, and I know I’m not alone.
For those tempted to think rigorists, even reluctant ones like David Bentley Hart, are being overly scrupulous about an isolated scripture passage, Hart lists a few supportive New Testament texts I’ll let you chase down on your own time. You can probably recall many more citations from both Testaments, but consider the point made that today’s gospel reading isn’t a one-off obscurity to be explained away. It’s part of a consistent theme, a call to judgment. As today’s second reading tells us:
…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
I rarely let Jesus’s call to “…sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and…then come, follow me,” haunt me as it should. Even if we have a high priest ready and able “…to sympathize with our weaknesses… (and)who in every respect has been tested as we are,” Jesus remained without sin. He was a first century Jewish peasant living under the boot of Imperial Rome. I am a twenty-first century bourgeois liberal living in the axis of privilege, and like David Bentley Hart, I’m unlikely to surrender that privilege voluntarily this side of the grave. That would require unlearning many old habits and might lead to embracing elements of the early Christian ethos bourgeois moderns like me find rather dodgy. Aware of my capacity to sin while clinging to any old rationalization in the storm, I tremble to think the Lord is just, no matter how sympathetic.
I like to imagine the disciples had people like me in mind when they asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” I cling to hope in Jesus’s response, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” When we’re talking sin and salvation, however, questions arise – like “how?” and “for whom?”– that quickly devolve into theological controversies I’d rather avoid.
Greek New Testament words for sin include hamartia, meaning “missing the mark,”hustereo, “falling behind,” and paraptoma,“ falling away or wandering from the path.” All three carry a sense of misdirection in need of metanoia – literally “a change of mind,” though broadened by context and connotation to indicate a fundamental change of mind, heart, and habit.
The majority view in Western Christianity sees sin as a debt to be paid, a crime against God expiated through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. A minority alternative, rather more conspicuous in Eastern Christianity, understands sin as sickness, an inherited disease that only Christ, the physician, can heal. Complex subtleties abound here, but the former prioritizes God’s justice, the latter, Divine mercy. There is a place where “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet (and) righteousness and peace will kiss,” (Psalm 85:10), but we humans haven’t found it on our own.
The seventh century desert theologian, Isaac of Syria, whose Ascetical Homilies alternately convict and console me, writes:
As a handful of sand in the boundless ocean, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with God’s providence and mercy. As a copious spring could not be stopped up with a handful of dust, so the Creator’s compassion cannot be conquered by the wickedness of creatures.(Ascetical Homilies, 51)
Am I fooling myself in thinking my attachment to material luxuries a sickness unto death that will be undone by mercy? Perhaps. Do I adhere to the therapy I should take while there’s time – disposing of the nonessentials and embracing true simplicity – with the same intermittent and short-lived fervor as my exercise regimen? Certainly.
Yet even this may be an occasion of mercy, an invitation to withhold rendering judgment on my neighbor, an opportunity to surrender my resentments toward those whose conduct and opinions so offend me. As with the epidemic of chronic disease among the world’s materially fortunate – stemming from the confluence of hereditary disposition and unhealthy habits – we may, for now, be capable of little more than harm reduction and symptomatic relief, while partaking as we can of the Divine medicine. True healing awaits on the grave’s far side, but there’s much to be done – and undone – until then.
* See Peter Brown, The Ransom of the Soul and Through the Eye of a Needle
Image: Heinrich Hoffman, Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, 1889