In early 21st-century America money and material possessions are often taken as signs not only of intelligence and goodness but also of divine favor. They are regarded as the key to happiness. Despite all kinds of evidence to the contrary, most of us still assume that money can and does buy happiness. In capitalist America many people seem to have no other goal in life than to make money and amass possessions.
To his contemporaries Jesus looked much like a Jewish wisdom teacher. One of the topics that especially concerned Jewish wisdom teachers in Jesus’ time was money and material possessions. These teachers generally counseled moderation and being “comfortable” and warned against making the accumulation of wealth into one’s obsession in life.
Today’s Old Testament selection from the Book of Wisdom is typical. Here a first-century B.C. Alexandrian Jewish wisdom teacher adopts the persona of King Solomon and describes his prayer for wisdom. In that prayer he identifies wisdom as the greatest possession of all and contrasts it with material possessions. He claims that he “deemed riches as nothing in comparison with” wisdom, and dismisses gold as “a little sand.”
As a Jewish wisdom teacher, Jesus dealt with the topics of money and possessions. Today’s reading from Mark 10 treats these matters in three sections: a narrative about Jesus’ encounter with a rich man, his sayings about wealth as a possible obstacle to following Jesus and his promise of reward for those who forgo material possessions in the present. As on many other topics, Jesus’ teaching here is full of surprises.
The first surprise concerns the challenge that Jesus puts to the rich man. He challenges him to sell what he has, give the proceeds to the poor and then follow him. In biblical times a rich man (like Job) was regarded as blessed by God and was expected to hold onto his money and to distribute it to the poor as need arose. The ideal was to be a benefactor. But Jesus challenges the rich man to give up his source of security and the honor of being a benefactor. Once the rich man dispersed his money and property, they were gone. Then he is no longer rich and cannot be a benefactor. That challenge was so surprising and difficult that the rich man could not accept it and so “went away sad.”
The second surprise is Jesus’ assertion that wealth can be an obstacle to discipleship and salvation. This teaching contradicts what most people held true in antiquity and still hold true today. Jesus teaches that material possessions are not necessarily a sign of divine favor and can even be a curse to those who have them. The bizarre image of a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle challenges our tendencies to make possessions into false gods, to trust in our material assets rather than in God and to seek happiness in things only.
The third surprise comes with Jesus’ promise that his followers will find happiness without lots of money and material possessions. He promises them 100 times as many houses, brothers and sisters, mothers, children and land in this life and everlasting life in the age to come. In the midst of this list of prospective benefits for disciples, the Markan Jesus adds the phrase “with persecutions.” Jesus does not guarantee that his followers will live totally without problems and sufferings. Nevertheless, he promises that in the midst of them, there will be hope and help from those who constitute the new family of Jesus.
These surprising and challenging teachings of Jesus about money and material possessions are good examples of the characterization of the word of God as “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword” in today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. In addressing a confused and weary congregation, the author of Hebrews appeals frequently to the Old Testament Scriptures out of his conviction that they reach their full meaning in the person of Jesus and in the community formed by and around him. In that sense, the Scriptures are living and effective. They are not merely of antiquarian interest. They are sharper than any two-edged sword in that they penetrate the most difficult matters. Before God, whose word the Scriptures are, all is laid bare and can become clear.
The wise teachings of Jesus concerning wealth show us in 21st-century America how living and effective the word of God can be. They are as challenging to us as they were to people in first-century Palestine. Moreover, they expose the shallowness of our own easy assumptions about wealth and raise questions about the objects of our security and hopes.