If this teaching about economic justice and what following Jesus requires doesn’t leave us squirming in our seats, it probably should.
That said, in the interest of perhaps making us feel just a little bit better—at least better enough to relax our hearts open to what the Spirit might be saying—I can assure you that this will not be a stewardship sermon.
Not that a stewardship sermon is the most challenging thing I could throw at you. Stewardship, after all, is about discovering the joy of generosity by giving some of what we have received to God through the church. Discipleship, on the other hand, following Jesus on the way to the realm of God, is more encompassing that that; among other things, it invites us to move beyond personal piety and comfortable generosity to the kind of love for God and neighbor that translates into justice. And not only racial justice or immigration justice or climate justice, but also—and maybe even especially—economic justice.
But first: a story. And then: a consideration of the question of what we need to do. And then: We’ll circle back around to this question of wealth and how to live in such a way as to build beloved community and the realm of God in which all people have enough and know themselves to be liberated, healed, and lifted up by God’s love.
The story: Almost 37 years ago now, I moved across the country to Washington, D.C. to work for Sojourners Magazine and become part of Sojourners Community. At the time Sojourners was what is known as an intentional community, meaning that its members chose to live together in certain ways. The most concrete—and radical—aspects of community life had to do with economics. The founders and members of Sojourners Community had made a commitment to living out a foundational element of Christian life in the early church: that by their very social structure and economic practices, they would create a culture counter to the prevailing economy of empire, power, and individual or family wealth.
In the early church this meant sharing resources and holding things in common. At Sojourners, this meant that community members pooled whatever personal wealth they brought into the community and then shared it according to need. The community owned a few houses in a rundown neighborhood in DC; community members shared the use of a few old and not-terribly-reliable cars. Salaries for magazine employees—even those who, like me, were not yet members of the community—were based on need.
When I started working at the magazine, I sat down with the publisher, who asked me for a full accounting of my personal expenses—everything from rent, food, transportation, and clothing to student loans and charitable contributions. Based on my expenses, the publisher calculated the amount of my living wage.
I’m telling you all this because, even though I lament how the modern church has almost entirely abandoned any serious commitment to being not just a religion but also an alternative way of life, I have some sense of how hard it is to do that. While the Sojourners model of community economics grew out of a sincere desire to live faithfully, it failed to anticipate how difficult community economics would become as people had children and worked to raise families.
An even bigger problem with the Sojourners model—to my mind, anyway—was the lack of a clear purpose for this kind of communal lifestyle. It did provide some common resources when individuals were hit with high medical bills and support for their refusal to pay war taxes, but it didn’t in and of itself contribute to broader economic justice. The community ran a neighborhood center that oversaw food distribution and other support of its working class neighbors, but no one outside the community was interested in pursuing downward mobility for the sake of being—or staying—poor.
More than that, instead of creating a sense of economic security, the system created for most of its members a sense of scarcity. We even made up a joke about it:
How can you tell which people at a party are part of Sojourners?
They’re the ones holding a fistful of toothpicks from all the hors-d-oeuvres they’ve eaten (because they don’t know when they’ll see that much food again).
Which brings us back to the man who has fallen at Jesus’ feet to ask what he needs to do to win salvation for himself. Before we consider Jesus’ answer, let’s be clear here: This is the wrong question.
There is nothing we have to do to enter the realm of God, nothing we could do to earn life abundant; all of it is gift. Still, Jesus saw the man’s fervor, and so he responded.
The conversation that followed revealed the man to be the earnest sort: a rule follower and probably a people pleaser. Was there something else he needed to do, he wanted to know, one more thing he could check off his list to finally experience the approval, self-worth, and peace he longed for?
In all of that, he was not so different from us. In all that, most of us are not so different from him.
Which is why I take great comfort in the next line of the story: Jesus looked at him and loved him.
And then, filled with compassion, Jesus leveled with him, saying, “You lack one thing,” and then telling him to sell what he owned and give the money to the poor.
Bible scholars, preachers, and theologians have written and spoken volumes trying to pinpoint the one thing lacking in the rich man’s religion. Was it trust in God? Was it generosity? Maybe it was the humility to consider how his privilege harmed others, or compassion for the poor. Maybe it was the capacity to care about someone other than himself. Maybe it was the willingness to get rid of anything and everything that separated him from God and other people. Maybe it was love. Maybe it was the understanding—made pretty clear in the Jewish law and the prophets—that God desires justice and compassion more than religious ritual or personal piety.
With that understanding, maybe the wealthy man—the term “possessions” in that context is believed to have referred to significant landholdings—might have been able to hear Jesus’ directive to sell what he had as an invitation to liberation rather than a prerequisite or a holy obligation.
Instead, he went away sorrowful because this was one commandment he was unwilling to keep, one box he couldn’t check off his salvation to-do list.
Which brings us to the same question the disciples had for Jesus: In a culture that equated wealth with God’s blessing, they wanted to know how anyone could enter God’s realm if not the rich.
And that brings me back to the question of community and wealth, which I think has less to do with personal deprivation or downward mobility than with discerning our role—both individually and together, as a church—in using what we have to promote economic justice.
Episcopal Canon Stephanie Spellers suggests that when it comes to racial justice and reparations, for example, we must be honest about how our institutions have contributed to and benefited from past racism, consider current racial injustice, and then “pray and discern” what actions to take. She suggests asking what most breaks our heart and considering how our church could participate in repairing the hurt and correcting the wrongs that have been done.
One key question for that discernment process, which she warns will likely take quite a bit of time, is what sacrifice God might be calling us to make.
That question—what is God calling us to do to participate in the healing of wounds and the building of the realm of God?—is very different from “what must I do to win salvation for myself?”
Beloveds, there is nothing we must do to win God’s love or life abundant. It is all Spirit’s doing. But we can participate with open and joyful hearts, trusting that God is looking upon us and loving us all the while.