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August 2, 2020

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©Wendell Griffen, 2020

New Millennium Church

Little Rock, Arkansas

August 2, 2020 (Second Sunday of Ordinary Time)



Mark 10:17-31

17As he 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?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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.’” 

20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, 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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus 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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”


Luke 19:8-10

8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


       For the past three Sundays I have preached that the issue of reparations to Black people for harms, losses, and injuries caused by this society, intentionally, persistently, and openly, because of 250 years of legalized chattel slavery, another 100 years of legalized segregation, and ongoing violations of God’s love and justice because of those effects of that injustice.  Beginning with Luke’s account about the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, the rich chief revenue commissioner of Jericho, I’ve emphasized that the divine imperative that we love God with our whole being and love one another as neighbors requires that this society make reparation for the harms, losses, and injuries inflicted by this society upon Black people.  And I’ve argued that followers of Jesus have a moral and ethical duty to lead the call for reparations. 


Today we will ponder another aspect to reparations by looking at Mark’s account about the encounter between an un-named wealthy man and Jesus that is found in the Gospels of Matthew (Mt. 19:16-30) and Luke (Lk. 18:18-30).  People have termed this the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler.”  However, one of the early Christian theologians (Origen of Alexandria) recorded in his commentary on Matthew that two rich men approached Jesus as he traveled. 


The lesson has several remarkable features.  Here a man of wealth and influence (ruler) approached Jesus, humbly knelt before him, and addressed him as “Good Teacher” before asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life.”  The man did not appear discouraged when Jesus rejected his flattery.  When Jesus reminded him about the obligation to honor God in inter-personal relationships (“You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; uou shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother”) the young man declared that he had faithfully kept those requirements from his youth. 


Then we come to Mark 10:21 which reads, 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.”   Before that comment, the man seemed serious about being identified with Jesus.  But when he heard that direction from Jesus, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mk. 10:22).  At that point, Jesus remarked to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”  The disciples were perplexed (the J.B. Phillips translation reads staggered, so Jesus repeated the point and drove it home with the proverb that “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” (Mk. 10:25).

Jesus told the young ruler to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,… then come, follow me.” 


Jesus didn’t welcome the man and “disciple him” to use his wealth to “sow” into his ministry.  Origen of Alexandria wrote in his Commentary on Matthew that Jesus said to the perplexed rich man, “How can you say ‘I have fulfilled the Law and the Prophets’ when it is written in the Law: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, and many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are covered with filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to them?’”


Well, what does this have to do with reparations and following Jesus?


Jesus refused to allow flattery to blind him to the dramatic inequality between the rich ruler and the rest of society.  He directed the man to "push back” from his wealth, to divest himself of it, and become one of the common people.  Jesus directed this man share his wealth with impoverished people and follow him as a commoner.  Instead, the man preferred to hold on to his possessions. 


Like the rich young ruler, white Baptists who founded the Southern Baptist Convention were enthusiastic about “eternal life” and preaching the gospel of Jesus.  But they refused to give up owning enslaved Africans.  They refused to pay Africans for their work.  They refused to treat Africans as neighbors. 


To justify their greed, wage theft, human trafficking, kidnapping, rape, and the other violations of love and justice associated with chattel slavery, “rich rulers” in this society established the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.  That was also the year that slaveholding Bible quoting and preaching white Baptists who claimed to follow Jesus established Baylor University, the oldest and largest continually operating Baptist institution of higher education in the world.  Less than twenty years later, slaveholding, Bible quoting, hymn singing, white Baptists were at the forefront of what would become the most deadly war ever fought by the United States, and the last war waged on US soil because they, like the rich young ruler, would not “push back” from slaveholder religion, slaveholder economics, and slaveholder social relationships. 


Let me speak plainly.  Like the “rich ruler” who approached Jesus and called him “Good Teacher,” church folks stole the lives, labor, and livelihood of millions of their sisters and brothers for centuries. 


Like the “rich ruler,” church folks were saddened about the thought of pushing back from that stolen wealth. 


Like the “rich ruler,” church folks have tried to associate themselves with Jesus without redressing the poverty, sickness, and other results of systemic racism, slavery, and ongoing discrimination. 


Sadly, people who call themselves followers of Jesus court favor from “rich ruler” types to the point that congregations would rather not do what Jesus did and tell people who trust in wealth to divest and share with those who are poor. 


Unlike Jesus, who taught that it is hard for people who trust in wealth “to enter the kingdom of God,” people who claim to follow Jesus in this nation do not tell wealthy people to “push back,” divest their wealth, re-distribute its value to those who are poor, and live in solidarity with those who are not affluent.    


On April 16, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, a law that called for $1 million reparations to be paid for emancipated Africans who had been enslaved in the District of Columbia – but the money was to go to the white people who enslaved them, worked them without pay, and kept the proceeds from their work.


I do not know how many slaveowners received “reparations” from the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.  I have no information that any of the emancipated Africans received a penny.


The District of Columbia Emancipation Act included up to $100,000 to resettle formerly enslaved persons – but the resettlement was to be in Haiti and Liberia, not in the United States. 


Then, as now, church people with “rich ruler” religion weren’t told to “push back” from the stolen wealth this nation and its institutions garnered from enslaved persons.  Whereas Jesus confronted the unnamed “rich ruler” and later confronted the rich tax collector named Zacchaeus, church people who claim they follow Jesus refuse to challenge “rich ruler” religionists who do not “push back.” 


Perhaps that is why church folks are not “stepping up” about reparations.  Perhaps we have people with “rich ruler” religion that pretends to follow Jesus while trusting wealth – even when the wealth has been obtained and is being held because of theft, not thrift. 


And perhaps “rich ruler religion” explains why the religion of Jesus is associated with concern for the wealthy rather than concern for the poor. 


“Rich ruler religion” – religion that does not push back from unjustly obtained and held wealth – should not be associated with Jesus.  And unless followers of Jesus confront “rich ruler religion,” “rich rulers” like the unnamed man in this passage and like Zacchaeus will never become people who embrace the divine imperative of reparations for the stolen lives, stolen labor, and fraud that continue to haunt our society.     


O God, teach us by your Spirit to not trust in wealth nor be flattered by the wealthy.


O God, strengthen us to lovingly confront “rich ruler” religion in our time, and help us when we face opposition and misunderstanding for doing so.


We ask these things in the name of Jesus.  Amen.