The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, 14 October 2018

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15


Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17

Hebrews 4:12-16
St. Mark 10:17-31

Background: Christianity and Wealth

All of the readings this morning, in both tracks, seem to revolve around the problems that seem to accrue to the accumulation of wealth. Job has all of what he achieved taken away from him, Amos rails against Israel which seems to value things above God, and finally in the Gospel we are all the man who seeks eternal life, but finds it difficult to give up the things so that he might attain it. If we take our clues from the Gospel writers and their depiction of the teaching of Jesus, most especially Luke, we see that we are on the wrong side of the ticket. It is the poor and the disadvantaged that seem to have God’s eye. If we read through the initial parts of Acts of the Apostles, we see a community that has focused itself on equality by selling possessions and giving to the poor, or by sharing possessions. It all seems to be a matter of degree. Jesus seems to tell the man to give away everything that he has, and yet we wonder if that is too idealistic a goal. Augustine was worthier goals in life than the accumulation of wealth, but Clement of Alexandria saw that property could be used for the good of all. 

In our own time it is good to look at saints who have called us to a new perspective when it comes to wealth and money. I immediately think of Dorothy Day. She saw individuals as being responsible for one another, creating a conduit through which what I might have in abundance being used for the benefit of the other. And in this equation, there should be no pretense of judgment. She said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” That is a notion that many in our own time would have a problem with. She goes on, “We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” Adjusting to such a perspective just might make it possible for us to come to grips with our own wealth in the midst of an impoverished world.

Track 1

First Reading: Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Job said:
"Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
"If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!"

A great deal of the material in the Hebrew Scriptures is envisioned in a courtroom. A great deal of the material that we have from the ancient near east, treaties, contracts, quotidian agreements, give evidence to the importance of the court and in Israel’s case, the city gate. This scene from Job is no different, for Job desires to plead his case with God in the courtroom, “I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.” The locality of this place where God and Job are to meet, however, dissolves in the reality of life. Can God be found? In verses eight and nine Job looks behind, and before, or in some translations looks east and then west, and God is not evident. Job searches for God because he is seeking justice. The final two verses give an emotional picture of the one who seeks God, and is daunted by finding God not, “God has made my heart faint.” I suspect this is not just the situation of Job but also of many who sit with us in church, hoping for some evidence that God is by our side, listening.

Breaking open Job:
  1. If you were having an argument with God, what would your point be?
  2. How have you dealt with this difficulty in the past?
  3. How has God answered you?

Psalm 22:1-15 Deus, Deus meus

1      My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? *
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
2      O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; *
by night as well, but I find no rest.
3      Yet you are the Holy One, *
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
4      Our forefathers put their trust in you; *
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5      They cried out to you and were delivered; *
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
6      But as for me, I am a worm and no man, *
scorned by all and despised by the people.
7      All who see me laugh me to scorn; *
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
8      "He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; *
let him rescue him, if he delights in him."
9      Yet you are he who took me out of the womb, *
and kept me safe upon my mother's breast.
10    I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born; *
you were my God when I was still in my mother's womb.
11    Be not far from me, for trouble is near, *
and there is none to help.
12    Many young bulls encircle me; *
strong bulls of Bashan surround me.
13    They open wide their jaws at me, *
like a ravening and a roaring lion.
14    I am poured out like water;
all my bones are out of joint; *
my heart within my breast is melting wax.
15    My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd;
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; *
and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.

We know this psalm from the liturgies of the Triduum, where the emotional agony of Jesus mirrors, and in fact, quotes the despair of this psalm. Its tones are similar to the concerns of Job as well. The phrases, “so far from my cry”, and “you do not answer,” could come from Job’s mouth as well. Verse three seems to be an inappropriate interjection, and yet it could be a quick note of hope before the psalmist returns to his despair, “Yet you are the Holy One, enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” The question that comes to mind is wondering how were the praises earned? What indeed did God do to stir Israel to joy? The psalmist remembers that God saved Israel, but his seems to be a different fate. In spite of what seems to be God’s presence in life, at his birth, at his mother’s breast, even before his birth, there is disappointment and absence. There is a similar directionality, as in Job. Distress is near, but God is far.

Breaking open Psalm 22
  1. In what ways are you condemned?
  2. In the midst of your troubles how do you yet praise God?
  3. Where and when do you hear God?


Track 2:

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7,10-15

Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!

They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

If we look at the whole pericope, verses 1-17, we realize that our reading comes out of a funerary lament. The final verses leave no doubt, Hear this word which I utter concerning you, this dirge, house of Israel: She is fallen, to rise no more, virgin Israel; She lies abandoned on her land, with no one to raise her up.” It is a difficult judgment, and why does Amos both hear and report it. The failure of Israel to honor YHWH and to provide for justice for everyone, as YHWH does, signals a failure that is death. It is a message for our own time – listen to the complaints: “they abhor the one who speaks the truth,” (they) trample the poor,” “(you) push aside the needy in the gate.” Amos concludes his list with a stark accusation, “it is an evil time.” This makes for a poignant meditation for the people of our time and society. And we would do well to heed Amos’ words. Like John the Baptist, he asks us to repent, to literally turn around and to seek good and justice. Why? So that we might live. We have Christians today who are observing just the opposite. It’s time to raise our voices and become like Amos.

Breaking open Amos:
  1. In what ways do you think our country, our society, has died?
  2. What is the cause of our dying?
  3. How is our time evil?
Psalm 90:12-17 Domine, refugium

12    So teach us to number our days *
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
13    Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry? *
be gracious to your servants.
14    Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; *
so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.
15    Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us *
and the years in which we suffered adversity.
16    Show your servants your works *
and your splendor to their children.
17    May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; *
prosper the work of our hands;
prosper our handiwork.

Why should we “number our days?” Does the psalmist want to us to look back at the time that we have lived and to anticipate the future? Perhaps, but we get a better idea of his intent if we read through the entirety of the psalm. We are like grass, we die, we see our transgressions set before, we “are consumed by your wrath”, and “consume our years like a sigh.”[1]With that view, the psalmist then asks that we “apply our hearts to wisdom,” to a better way. There is a theme in both the Track One and Track Two readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. Here we hear it in the psalmist’s cry, “how long will you tarry?” The hope is that once we attend to God and reestablish the relationship that there will be an accrual of goodness: we will be satisfied with kindness, glad to have survived adversity, will be shown God’s good works. Once we see the evidence of God’s care then that which we accomplish will be of benefit.

Breaking open Psalm 90:
  1. When you look back at all your days, what do you see?
  2. What wisdom have you attained?
  3. What do you look forward to in the days to come?

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16

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.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The way the lectionary has laid out the reading, that encompasses the closing verses of one pericope (“The Sabbath Rest, 4:1-13) and concludes with the opening verses of the next (“Jesus the Great High Priest, 4:14-5:10), we have a condition in the first paragraph and a solution to the condition in the second paragraph. The first outlines our situation before God, cut to the quick and examined, found wanting. The answer, of course, is the intercession of the Great High Priest, Jesus who waits for us at the Throne of Grace. What is stunning in this reading, which tends to focus on our own needs so closely as to tempt us to think that it is all about us, is that in last sentence we are called outside of ourselves. “And find grace to help in time of need.” Rescued from our weaknesses, no we are the ones called to rescue and to lift up. It is so subtle that we may miss it, this invitation to be Christ-like.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. How is God’s word like a sword? How does it cut you?
  2. What is laid bare that you would rather not see?
  3. How does Jesus heal that wound?

The Gospel: St. Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and 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 murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

We have three segments here: The conversation between Jesus and a wealthy man (10:17-22), Teaching for the disciples (10:23-27), and finally Peter’s observation about “leaving everything,” (10:28-31). Each offers its own points of engagement. We approach the first scene with a great deal of familiarity – we know that the young man is wealthy. It is a foreknowledge the almost removes the power of the encounter. The man comes with a reasonable request, “how do I inherit eternal life?”And we are right there with him, for it is our question as well. What might stand in the way of that laudable goal? Jesus reviews the law, and the man does not see this as a deterent, “I have kept all these.” Jesus, however, knows what will keep the man from following him – it is his wealth, his possessions. And that is the final observation of the scene. The man goes away grieving. Does he grieve the loss of eternal life or does he grieve the potential loss of his wealth? Most of us, no, all of us, are wealthy when seen against the poverty of the world. Does it hinder our salvation? Do we approach our Christianity having left unobserved this caveat?

Jesus sees the opportunity to take the man’s misfortune and to teach a lesson on discipleship, and so addresses the disciples on the problem of wealth. In doing so he takes and individual situation, and broadens it to include his followers, and the general public as well. Jesus moves from difficulty to impossibility and underscores the problem of wealth and faith, or rather wealth and following him. The disciples are amazed, and we should be troubled as well, as we assay the importance of the things that we have accumulated in our lives. The traditions around wealth as a sign of God’s blessing and favor, are frequent in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they are known to us in our Calvinistic culture. It is this perceived “favor” that has denigrated the poor, and has separated many of us from the miseries of those who live with and around us. 

A quick note – “the eye of the needle”  may have been a rhetorical device, designed to highlight the difficulty of the task. One explanation may help us to appropriate the device, and that is that the saying uses kamelon (camel) in most manuscripts, but a few use kamilon (rope) in the text. 

Finally Peter explores what the disciples have experienced for they have left behind families, and livelyhoods. We need to be aware of the time when this tradition was kept and these scenes were formed. Households were divided over Jesus. Some early Christians did leave behind relationships and community for the sake of following Jesus. When Jesus responds to Peter about the endless supply of relationships in the community to come he gives witness to the hopes of the early Christian community, a family broader than the household most lived in. Jesus’ comment seems to have an eschatological accent to it, but do we really need to wait. Might that community already be with us?

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. How are you like the rich man?
  2. Be like Peter – describe what you have given up?
  3. What does Jesus teach you about following him?

Central Point:             Appropriating the Gospel

Question One:            What do you seek in your spiritual life?
Question Two:            What is keeping you from spiritual fulfillment?
Question Three:        Has what you have left behind still get in the way?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Alter, R. (2009), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Location 1216.


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