Looking for a Bargain
Beloved Members of St. Martin's,
This Sunday our collect reads as follows:
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
And yet our readings from the lectionary are all about how one cannot gain faith simply by good works. As the first part of the collect reminds us, grace is necessary. What that means is that God always makes the first move in our salvation. God takes the initiative. Something inside us responds to that pull from God, even if we are unaware of God’s invitation as such.
It also cannot be said too much: grace is a gift.
The gospel story includes Mark’s version of the "rich young man" who approaches Jesus to find out how he can "inherit" eternal life. This young man means well, and is humble enough to be a seeker after this wandering teacher, instead of attempting to summon Jesus to him, as a person of privilege might do. Jesus at first inquires as to his following of the commandments, and the young man affirms his commitment to them. What is interesting is that the gospel states that Jesus looks at him at this point, and "loved him." Mark doesn’t usually talk about Jesus’s feelings of love in this way, so this is a significant statement. But somehow, this young man also thinks that he can earn salvation without some cost to himself. When Jesus tells him he should give up his wealth in service to the poor, he goes away, not just sad, but "shocked and grieving," because he has great wealth.
It brings us once again to that word that causes so many of us to shudder: sacrifice. Passages like this one make us associate sacrifice with deprivation, with pain, with loss. But the most literal meaning of sacrifice is "something that makes one holy." This young man, who has probably never been excluded from anything in his life due to his wealth and the privilege wealth brings, hesitates to give that up. Even for "eternal life." He is looking for a bargain, for a lever with which to move God—always a foolish presumption.
The young man remains inwardly focused, seeing the relationship with God as, ultimately transactional: I will do X and then God will reward me with Y. He is doing what we all do: trying to bargain with God and get the best deal according to a human calculus of value and loss. But that subverts the point of faith, which is to look outside our own concerns to the needs of the community, to the needs of others. To celebrate our common bonds with our neighbors and with creation. To look beyond our delusion that we can earn God’s grace at bargain-basement prices to ourselves and our delusions of autonomy. To remember that we have received abundant gifts, and that our greatest witness to God's love in our lives is by being ourselves a gift to others, living generously, loving without counting the cost.
In God’s kingdom values, people are not "in" or "out" by accident of birth—where they are born, or who their parents are, or the color of their skin or the language they speak or whether they are outwardly good at following rules while inwardly cruel and hard-hearted. At some point in your life, you are responsible to choose whether to follow God and God’s expansive vision of community or not.
We see it a lot in our society right now, all over what was formerly known as "Christendom." There are people who were born into Christian homes, and brought up with going to Church. They even absorbed knowledge of Bible stories and perhaps can quote the Lord’s prayer and the 23rd Psalm. They’re "culturally Christian"—nominally fluent in the language and rituals of the Christian religion. But unless anyone decides for themselves to walk in the Way of Jesus, no matter how imperfectly, their knowledge doesn’t translate into faith.
Luckily, if we can hear aright Christ’s loving message of radical generosity and inclusion, it means that as we embark on our journey of faith, we are assured that we are not only never outsiders, we are never alone. We not only have Jesus. We have each other. We are called to deny the forces of the world that seek to exclude, to divide, and instead to embrace those we encounter, especially those who call out for help.
We ourselves have received astounding grace and mercy, whether we have deserved it or not. Jesus calls us to demonstrate that same grace to the world around us—especially when everything around us tries to make us hard-hearted and afraid. That’s how the light of Christ will shine, even in this time of fear and darkness. It will shine from inside us, once we embrace each other in true charity and empathy. No bargains necessary.