The Bible is a funny thing. Though we receive it in our contemporary context as one volume that can easily be accessed, carried around, handled like any other book, we often overlook the fact that rather than it being one book, it is a library of texts. A collection of over 70 history books, letters, gospels, wisdom sayings, songs, poems, law references and stories written by as many or more authors, not to mention editors, redactors, translators, and the number of hands that adjusted, corrected and enhanced the words delivered to us, collected and formatted into one cozy little volume.
In other words, the writings that we listen to, the words we remind ourselves of, the saying and stories that we hear when we gather as a community to learn together, have come a long way to get into our hands, and to be heard by our ears.
William Tyndale, a determined protestant reformer and minister of the 16th Century made it the focus of his life to ensure that English speaking Christians gained access to the privilege of hearing scripture spoken in their language. His work to directly translate the Old and New Testaments from their Hebrew and Greek written forms were directly opposed by authorities of Roman Catholicism and the Royal Court. His commitment to this cause allowed him to be responsible for writing almost 90% of the King James Version of the Bible. Tyndale is attributed with coining the phrases: “let there be light,” “my brother’s keeper,” “salt of the earth,” and “fight the good fight” to name a few. This week we remembered William Tyndale on October 6, the anniversary of his death nearly 500 years ago.
There is no record of why Tyndale was so committed to translating scripture – but it is clear from his life’s story that he would not rest, and did not allow the danger of this business to keep him from accomplishing this task, even though it cost him his life. Perhaps he was a poetic writer and enjoyed the challenge. Perhaps he was a lover of the church and of the Word, and recognized the challenge and the promise that lay within the texts he devoted his life to. Perhaps he simply believed that the message found in scripture again and again that the law of love is truly the greatest commandment should be spoken to men and women on the street in their own language, so that those who needed to hear that message most could do so and understand immediately.
Regardless of his motivations, William Tyndale’s work grants us access to the wisdom and the challenge that lies in our scripture readings each week. And it is our duty as faithful bearers of this library to take on the challenging task of wrestling with scripture – in our own lives and in our life as a community.
In seminary I had the opportunity to take a scripture course titled: Texts of Terror, named for a book of the same title that explores some of the hardest passages of the Bible. Stories of misogyny, of unjustifiable violence, of wrathful vengeance, and of Biblical teachings that may be difficult to consider, all that exist within the canon of the texts we hold sacred. So sacred in fact, that at the ordination of deacons, priests and the consecration of bishops, ordinands not only vow to devote themselves to the study of scripture, but also sign a commitment that states that we believe all things necessary for salvation are contained in holy scripture. When it came time for me to preach in that class, today’s Gospel was my chosen “text of terror.”
As a person who has benefitted from privileges being a middle class Caucasian raised in the Western world, I have had good reason to fear and disparage at the hearing of this text. After all, like the rich man, I have followed the commandments, I have committed myself to a faith life and practice that is devoted to proclaiming Jesus as my savior, and I too, have many possessions. Isn’t my faith enough? Isn’t my desire to follow enough? Isn’t it my right that I should enjoy the earnings that I have worked hard for, that I have given time and talent to produce, and thus collect my rightful compensation, and enjoy life in the here and now? Does the question sound familiar?
And yet here we have a Gospel text that says, not so fast.
You may lead a life that is good and righteous. You may not waste your sins on murder and slander. But if your own piety is solely devoted to the perfection of your own soul, if your desire to fulfill your own need to be faultless allows you ignore the obvious needs of those around you, then you have missed the point completely.
The rich man seeks to possess something he cannot buy – eternal life. Jesus looks with compassion upon the rich man. But he also speaks a hard truth to him. Those commandments that you live by, you do with ease. For you are in a position that allows you rise above those challenges. Your wealth allows a freedom and a privilege in the way you live your life that is only known to a small fraction of the community in which you live. And yet, that wealth is not a means of grace. It is not a means of receiving the immeasurable gift of the assurance of God’s love for you for all time. In fact, if that material wealth is what provides your only sense of self-value and your only means of judging your position in the world, then it will actually hinder you from the ability to receive the grace of God. If you wish to follow me, if you wish to uphold my teaching, then you should not allow yourself to be bound by your belongings. To be possessed by your possessions. Let them go, and let yourself understand what it is to live like those who live only by the grace of God and by the kindness of their community. When you are ready to do this, you will be in a position to understand and receive eternal life.
The rich man was discouraged by this, and rightfully so. After all, sacrifice is not about giving offerings that mean nothing to you. There is no challenge in that. The challenge for the wealthy is the opportunity to let go of some privilege, some of the freedom that wealth provides, so that others might benefit from it – those who would have no way of experiencing certain freedoms, like the living without fear of the next medical bill that will arrive in the mail, or the inability to cover the cost to educate your child so that they might have opportunities that you did not. I wonder if the rich young man was being challenged to experience the world in a new way, so that he might gain a deeper understanding of the capacity of kindness he could offer his community as a result of his position of wealth.
I wonder if he didn’t leave Jesus’ side and consider how he might change the way he used his riches in the world around him. I wonder if he allowed Jesus’ words to enter in – or if it was similar to the difficulty of allowing a camel through the eye of a needle.
It’s a funny thing scripture, there is not just one mention of a rich young man. There are other stories in the old and new testament of rich men using their wealth unjustly – to seek power over others, to allow their privilege to supersede that of poor men under their care – to take unfair advantage of the position of power that their wealth granted them in the here and now. And there are wisdom sayings and psalms, warning the rich man to make right choices with their treasure, for despite their power and privilege today, they will perish and those riches will not travel with them. This is not a new message, but it is a challenge that scripture poses to us today. In our contemporary context, most of us live in relative comfort, some more than others, but generally speaking, we live with the security of income, comfortable housing, and access to discretionary spending – that is, income that does not go to providing food, shelter and basic necessities. How we, as wielders of discretionary spending choose to use our wealth – where we choose to live and the lifestyle we choose to pursue all play into this challenge posed by Jesus.
How will you allow these words of scripture, this challenging story of Jesus and the rich young man to enter in as you consider the wealth, and its power and privilege that is at your fingertips? Does this story pose itself as a text of terror for you? Do you find yourself wondering how a camel makes its way through the eye of a needle? As we give thanks for the access that we have for scripture in our lives, we must also take up the challenges it poses. We must also accept the responsibility that we have received as hearers of the word – as ones who wish to follow, but must do so with the burden of wealth and privilege that our contemporary society provides.
When last I preached on this text I was weighed down by many possessions. Things that surrounded me, but had little purpose, nor provided insight into the life I was being called to lead. Many things have changed for me, and though many of those possessions are gone, there are new ones that have found their way into my life and my home. With each return to this piece of scripture I must take up for myself the question that Jesus has for the rich young man. Upon hearing it today, I am reminded that Jesus loved the man, and then challenged him again. I call on you to know that Jesus loves you, and challenges you to consider these things today as well. For 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…” Amen.