At Thanksgiving, we acknowledge that God is the source of life, the earth and all living beings. At Thanksgiving, we open ourselves to others with God’s own generosity.
It may seem strange to have the gospel lesson about Jesus and a rich man seeking eternal life as our Thanksgiving scripture reading. If truth be told, it’s the gospel reading for the Sunday between October 9th and October 15th , not specifically designated as a “Thanksgiving” reading at all; but to me, it is a curiously helpful guide into the heart of Thanksgiving.
A quick reminder of the sequence of this story: a wealthy and devout man – described as “young” in Matthew 19:20 and as a “ruler” in Luke 18: 18 – approaches Jesus, with a request: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus queries whether he has been faithful to assorted commandments and yes, he has. Jesus then raises the bar substantially, directing this very wealthy person to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor. Unable to bring himself to do so, the young man goes away with sadness and Jesus speaks further with his disciples, using the image of a camel attempting to pass through the eye of a needle to describe the difficulty of seeking both riches and a redeemed relationship with God.
Throughout my life, I have embraced this scripture as both extremely helpful in resetting my worldview, and not helpful at all. Helpful, because it makes clear that Christ’s connection to the needs of the poor is central rather than peripheral. In answering a question about heaven by describing justice-oriented actions on earth, Jesus does not allow this person, or anyone since then, to imagine a disconnect between our willingness to perpetuate systems that create and encourage extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and our relationship with God.
And yet, as much as this is crystal clear, it also comes off as unreasonably extreme. Sell everything? Give everything? There was already within Judaism, as with most world religions, a strong tradition of providing for the needs of the poor, and some of the disciples were said to have left their livelihoods behind to follow Jesus, but Pastor Brian Stoffregen points out that this is the only place in the gospels where Jesus demands that everything be sold in order to put oneself right with God. If given that same directive I can guarantee that I, too, would hang my head and go away with sadness.
So, given the extreme nature of what Jesus says to this person, how can it draw us forward into this Thanksgiving holiday and our October focus on gratitude and generosity? Well, let’s come back to that opening statement: at Thanksgiving, we acknowledge that God is the source of life, the earth and all living beings. At Thanksgiving, we open ourselves to others with God’s own generosity.
Jesus – from his own wisdom, from his groundedness in the Divine, and from his knowledge of prior spiritual writings – understood a LOT about human nature. And, face to face with this person who was both very earnest and very wealthy, Jesus would have heard the subtext of what he was being asked: “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
As we were reminded a couple of weeks ago when we celebrated the sacrament of baptism, our relationship with God, is founded in our base-line belovedness, not in works righteousness. We don’t earn our way into heaven, we don’t “do” our way into God’s favour. So in shaping his question as he does, the wealthy man signals to Jesus that his worldview is based on commodities. He also indicates that his concern is for himself; it’s HIS salvation he’s after, not something broader.
Rather than challenging that paradigm, and immediately saying to the man, “dude, you’re asking the wrong question,” Jesus perceives that this man likes his stuff, and follows this telling question with a hard-edged answer. As leaders of all the great world religions have done in some way or other, Jesus calls this person to renounce his attachments to these things, to de-clutter his life in order to enter intimate, unburdened, holy space with God. In the same way that a camel laden with goods could only go through the Jerusalem gate known as “the eye of the needle” by giving up its goods, kneeling, and shuffling through the gate that way, this wealthy man would only come face to face with God if he let go of his stuff.
Anthony de Mello, the author of the guided meditation that opened our Worship service today, wrote extensively about attachment and non-attachment. “Attachment” wrote de Mello, “is a state of clinging to something or someone that you believe is necessary for your happiness. Thus, attachments have you thinking, ‘Unless or until I get or can keep [fill in the blank], I cannot be happy’….Almost every negative emotion you experience is the direct outcome of an attachment, [and] there is only one way to win the battle of attachments: Drop them.” By inviting him away from attachment to his possessions, and by a sidelong suggestion that he nix the idea that eternal life could be earned as yet another commodity, Jesus lures the devout yet heavily-laden man into a place of Thanksgiving: a mindset and posture that would allow him to acknowledge that God – not possessions – is the actual source and destination of his life.
By calling him away from his material attachments, and perhaps other attachments as well, Jesus gives the man the opportunity for an unobstructed view of God, and God’s divine grace. Everything between him and God, the possessions and the pridefulness, goes away when the spiritual practice of non-attachment starts to take its place in life.
So there’s the first part of our Thanksgiving festival: clearing the clutter, to really see and celebrate God, the author of life. And then there’s that second part: opening ourselves to others with God’s own generosity.
Jesus doesn’t just call the rich man to relinquish his stuff, to destroy it or dump it in a pile at the feet of Jesus. The call, is to redistribute the wealth amongst the poor; it is a call toward establishing equity.
In this, Jesus is pushing the person in front of him and anyone else who is listening, to a whole new worldview, in which the needs of the world are truly noticed and embraced. And not from a distance, not by remaining removed from those needs, but by fully entering into the human condition.
So many of us surround ourselves with safety and sameness – folks of the same background, the same level of education, the same quality of housing and possessions, perhaps the same ethnicity and religion. We do this in our neighbourhoods and, yes, we do it in our Churches. By calling this person to let go of all those things that kept him in his silo of safety, Jesus opens him to actually live in the world with all its joys and sorrows and diversity. Jesus calls him to release his advantages and privileges, and to be resourceful. Jesus calls him from self-reliance to a more organic connection with other people and with his surroundings. And in these days when we are so aware of carbon footprints and such, I believe that Jesus calls us in our affluence to a more “earthy” way of being, a way in which the interdependence of all living beings with one another and with their surroundings is the key.
Does Jesus call this man, and us, away from our possessions? Yes. But he is also realistic enough to see that in the possessions of the wealthy are resources that could really make a difference to the daily grind of the impoverished. It matters, that we not be attached to our stuff, but it also matters that some people and nations are at present profoundly disadvantaged while others live with ease. It matters, that clean water is at present available only to some. It matters, that while parts of our world are at present struggling to find first doses of COVID vaccine, others are lining up third jabs. It matters, that the life expectancy of entire nations is, at present, lowered because their meagre economies are geared to serving the luxury of other nations. As much as Jesus is pushing the man to let go of his attachments, he is also pushing for a radical upheaval, economic and attitudinal –in each of us, and in all of us.
The call to non-attachment removes barriers between this man and God. Unlocking the power of his possessions for the greater benefit of all, opens the man to God’s own generous spirit and perhaps even to broader goals of social reform. And fully entering into the broad realities of life, by becoming poor himself, this person will begin to see just how much we must rely on one another and actually love one another, if we are ever to be healthy all-together.
And with all of this… We pause, and take a deep breath, and hear once again: at Thanksgiving, we acknowledge that God is the source of life, the earth and all living beings. At Thanksgiving, we open ourselves to others with God’s own generosity. May these things truly sink in, and transform us as individuals, as a Church, as communities, as an interconnected web of humanity and as common dwellers on this beautiful planet, for the good of all and to the true glory of God. Amen.
DeMello, Anthony. Wellsprings. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986.
DeMello Spirituality Centre. “Getting Rid of Attachments.” https://www.demellospirituality.com/get-rid-of-your-attachments/
Stoffregen, Brian. “Mark 10: 17-31”. https://mailchi.mp/520a820dbc39/gospel-notes-mark-1017-31?e=ac0c055952
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.