Rich Young Ruler

Rich Young Man

I’m back after a long hiatus. I will continue and finish my thoughts and dialogue re:Derek Webb’s album, Mockingbird.

(vs. 1)
poverty is so hard to see
when it’s only on your tv and twenty miles across town
where we’re all living so good
that we moved out of Jesus’ neighborhood
where he’s hungry and not feeling so good
from going through our trash
he says, more than just your cash and coin
i want your time, i want your voice
i want the things you just can’t give me

My theology was revolutionized when I began to see Jesus in the context of my life. I began to see him less as a good teacher and more as a man whom I must follow. I looked around at my middle class surroundings and wondered if he would be comfortable with Panera bagels and Starbucks coffee. I am sure that he would enjoy them as he enjoyed the tax collector’s delicacies, but would he be as lackadaisical when he watched television or stuck in traffic in a heated sedan pumping out the latest pop Christian music. When he watched the news would he be able to flip the channel? When he saw the drunk beggar, would he easily ignore and walk faster? When his cell phone lost a call would he curse his carrier? When his pants were too tight would he complain about the blessings of food that had gotten him into that predicament?

Obviously, some of the questions are absurd. Jesus did not commit gluttony. He did not have unrighteous anger. He was not complacent. And yet the absurdity of them makes me wonder why I, as an adopted child of God, am so prone to these problems. “Oh, it is so sad that all that is going on in the Sudan.” Oh, I am so sad when I see a beggar on the streets.“ Oh, I should eat less and give more to those in need. In so many ways I had moved out of Jesus’ neighborhood. Watching ”The Nativity Story“ with my wife a couple of weeks ago caused me to pause as I thought of the poverty Christ took on to redeem the vile (2 Cor 8.9).
Christians in the United States have given into the exorbitant culture that surrounds them. We have forgotten that we belong to another land. We have forgotten the journey that we are on, fixing eyes on stones and not on the beaten man on the side of the road.
What is so painful about writing this is that I have no solution that I have performed. In so many ways my faith is theory. How often do we scoff at the idea of social gospel preaching and never lift a finger to take care of our neighbor. As we drive into our inner city church and leave to go to Denny’s, are we thinking of our poor next door? I have to admit that I have thought more of paying my bills than feeding Jesus.

What is captivating about this verse Webb has woven is the last sentence: ”i want the things you just can’t give me.“ Turn of phrase. The things we can’t give are the things we don’t want to give – because we have time and a voice. The other meaning is so true. We can’t give God perfect obedience – unfettered worship. How much of our works is motivated by self-exaltation and attempts to earn marks with the Almighty? What he requires of us is sinless worship in service to others as we usher in the kingdom for our neighbor. The ability to feed the hungry with a pure heart is not something that we can give. Rather, it is something that must overflow from what we have first received (Lk 7.47). Service is a gift from God – all the while it is to God – all the while it is through God.

(vs. 2)
so what must we do
here in the west we want to follow you
we speak the language and we keep all the rules
even a few we made up
come on and follow me
but sell your house, sell your suv
sell your stocks, sell your security
and give it to the poor
what is this, hey what’s the deal
i don’t sleep around and i don’t steal
i want the things you just can’t give me

In the spirit of recent talk of prosperity preaching (that which says, ”God wants you to be rich!“), this verse hits the heart. But beyond that, it hits me in the heart – one who is a conservative evangelical who likes to say he loves the lost and wants to see people treasure Jesus more than anything else in life. Now I haven’t bought an SUV, but I own one. I haven’t invested all my money in order to make a lot of money.

But I have to admit that I want to make a lot of money. I am reminded of Ron Sider’s theology that pushes on the fringes of the acceptable in our fluffy North American culture. Have I given in to the idea that contentment is okay? That is, have I become the self-juestifying rich young man who says that he loves Jesus and wants to go anywhere and do anything for the kingdom; and yet I cling to my bag of IRA’s?

After thought, I have decided that Jesus does tell us to give up everything to follow him. There is a fine balance to be walked when it comes to material prosperity and spiritual fullness. Have we forgotten Jesus’ injunction that we use unrighteous mammon (money) to further the kingdom of God. I can’t help but think that if every Christian were to literally sell all he has, then we would not have people to financially support missionaries, pay for higher education, feed the poor, etc.

The remedy? Don’t spend your life and don’t fix the aperture on the lens of your life after material blessings. We should labor and seek to do well so that we can bless others. If I can say that God has blessed me so much that a Lexus with gold-plated rims is evidence of this, I have given in to North American definitions of success – and not conformed to the biblical mandates. If I had submitted to the biblical mandates, then I would have gotten a Toyota, subtracted the difference and given it to a worthy ministry.

(bridge)
because what you do to the least of these
my brother’s, you have done it to me
because i want the things you just can’t give me

May we never forget this teaching of Jesus. How many are in prison? How many Samaritans are under the bridge smoking crack? These have too often become themes of jest rather than objects of brokenness. Need I remind you of the popular phrase, ”Are you smoking crack?“
May God forgive the plush, obese, lazy, self-centered pride of our lives which seeks to build ourselves up while abandoning the purpose he has given us to do!

Comments 1

  1. Great thoughts, Matt. As young(ish) Christians struggling to “find ourselves” in the American Empire we need to hear Jesus’ hard commands more than ever. And yet you hit on the delicate balance, not between obedience and disobedience, but between one of Jesus’ commands and another. There simply aren’t any of the abjectly poor around us in America in the way there was in Jesus’ day and in the days of the traveling friars and monks. So somehow we need to “sell” everything as well as redeem what we keep for the Kingdom’s sake. Both of those positions require selling in our hearts, because whether I give money away or spend it and make that purchase available for my youth group to abuse, I have to have already parted with it in my heart.

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