Proper 23(28) B
21st Sunday after Pentecost
By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
This week’s Gospel from Mark is a familiar one, in which a rich man comes to Jesus seeking the path to inheriting “eternal life.” As Ched Myers noted three decades ago now (!), the key to the story is the “ringer” command Jesus adds to the familiar ones from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 6: “You shall not defraud [Gk, apostereō].”
It is an unusual word, rarely used in the Greek Scriptures outside the New Testament, and only in this place in Mark in the gospels (cf. Matt 19.18; Lk 18.20, where it is omitted). Perhaps Mark’s Jesus had this prophetic Word from Malachi 3.5 in mind as he addressed the rich man:
Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress [Gk, aposterountas] the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
Listen to how the apostle James (5.1-8) uses the word in a very similar context:
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud [Gk, apesterēmenos], cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
In both Malachi and James, the word connotes what today is called wage theft, an all-too-common fate for undocumented field and other workers. A recent study by Good Jobs First and the Jobs with Justice Education Fund documented the staggering penalties paid by the largest corporations for such behavior (https://goo.gl/UUNy9t). Number 1 by far is Walmart, which has paid a cumulative $1.4 billion in penalties. Joining Walmart in the top five are FedEx, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase. In 2017, the CEOs of these five corporations brought in a combined $280 million in personal compensation. Perhaps in the rich man who approached him, Jesus saw the ancient equivalent of JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, who was paid $162 million in 2017.
As we were pondering this passage, this phrase kept bubbling up: “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” Indeed it doesn’t. What we are faced with in this week’s Gospel is the sharp contrast between the money economy and God’s gift economy.
In her elegant performance piece, “Leaps and Bounds,” activist-dancer-artist Tevyn East portrays how the capitalist metaphor of “economic growth” is actually more akin to how cancer works than how a healthy system of social exchange would function. The endless pursuit of economic growth has served only to accelerate climate change, species loss and income inequality. Economists have long been aware of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which individuals (or corporations) acting out of self-interest have little short-term incentive to care for common resources, such as soil, water and air.
The ancient world knew better. In Jesus’ time, it was common sense that one person’s wealth must come by depriving others. Our key word apostereō, in addition to meaning “to defraud,” means “to deprive.” While the word is rare, the principle at issue is at the heart of the religion of creation narrative in the Bible, from Genesis 2 (Garden of Eden) to Revelation 21-22 (New Jerusalem). Rather than obtaining more than one’s share at the expense of others in a money economy, God’s people are called to share the gifts that do grow on trees (and elsewhere).
The same principle is at issue a bit later in Mark, where Jesus is offered a trick question by his opponents: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (12.14). Contrary to the usual, “separation of church and state” interpretation, the key to this story is Jesus’ command that his opponents produce a Roman coin, which he does not carry. And earlier in the Gospel, when faced with a hungry crowd, the disciples ask rhetorically, “Are we to go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” (6.37). Of course, Jesus rejects the idea of buying food in favor of God’s economic solution: sharing the gifts provided by earth and sea.
How can we, so deeply embedded in the imperial economy, “come out” into the gift economy that is the path to the healing of creation?
Curiously, regardless of our cultural upbringing or religious commitment, most of us have grown up in at least a partial gift economy. Since our parents didn’t charge us for room and board and were not paid for doing childcare, most of us know the experience of having our needs provided as gift rather than for money. As Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, famously said during the Great Depression, there is a shortage of jobs, but no shortage of work. Each day, we are offered endless opportunities, both large and small, to step out of the wage/payment cycle and into the rhythm of the Gift.
A couple of days ago, while walking our dog before dinner, I (Wes) came upon a huge clump of shaggy mane mushrooms (picture). How delicious to cook them up with butter and garlic over pasta! A bit more effort could have netted lots of leaves and other end-of-summer treats awaiting gathering, such as the tomatoes trailing across their bed in our backyard.
But the invitation to the Gift extends beyond the literal harvesting of earthy delights. Later this week, we will spend an evening with our three young granddaughters while the parents go out for the evening, saving them money for child care and, of course, allowing us the delight of time with these precious little girls. We can give someone a ride to or from the airport. We can offer our various ministries as gift, trusting that folks will offer their own gifts in return.
As the prophet writing in the tradition of Isaiah (55.1-3) proclaimed in the Name of the Lord to the returning exiles:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live!
May it be so.
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.