The First Shall Be Last, and the Last Shall Be First
A sermon based on Mark 10:17-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 14, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
The Bible and a great deal of Jesus’ sayings reflect images of the character of people and cultures, and provide lessons for humnaity . . . many of them holding up through the test of time. The Texts for Preaching commentary on our Lectionary reading puts it like this
Often the Bible acts as a mirror, throwing back to us reflections of ourselves or our culture in the characters and conversations on the page. The questions asked, the attitudes exposed, the priorities held seem amazingly modern.
We still use the Bible because its age-old reflections reflect concerns and issues that are relevant in our time. In the Bible there are thoughts on how to best to achieve well being for self, for others and for creation. That’s what religion is about how to best relate to self, others and creation In our faith tradition we can understand all those things are in God, because (as Paul writes) God is that which we live and move and have our being in. As a consequence we can understand, Jesus’ Way (Christianity) to aim toward achievement of universal well being through good relationship with God in all things.
Jesus’ teaching in our lesson “ act as a mirror . . .” allowing us to see where we are and where we need to go to achieve that– the promise of peace on earth good will to all. And while today’s reading has a reflection held up by Jesus, it is actually a very dim reflection without contextual help. Americans tend not want to consider the reflection and even if they do, will find it hard to see what they are seeing.
So I am going to layer in some context. In Jesus’ day, he and his followers, and the great majority of the people in Palestine, were very poor. Daily bread was an uncertainty. That is why Jesus taught his followers to pray “give us this day our daily bread.”
I assume– and pray and hope– all of us here today do not worry about where our day’s food will come from, but there are lot of people in the world who do. In our nation there are men, women and children for whom adequate food, water, shelter and health care are constant concerns. Consequently they and many others in the world lack well being.
Today at 4pm there is a 50th Anniversary gathering for Interchurch Social Services of Knox County. Interchurch is an amazing effort by churches in the area to address these constant concerns in our community. Many churches, including ours, understand that Christian actions and prayers and hopes need to include not only that we do not have to worry about our daily bread, but that the day comes when no one in the community, the nation and the world has to. Jesus’ teachings clearly indicate that we need to act on such prayers and hopes as those who are a part of organizations like Interchurch do. The reason is that God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven . . . depends on our acts.
In our lesson that Robin read so well we hear Jesus asking a rich person to do such an act. Jesus asks him to give up his wealth, and give it to the poor, and shortly after we hear Jesus say it is unlikely for anyone who is rich to get into heaven. Those words of Jesus make us uncomfortable because when we hear the reflection he’s holding up we think we might see ourselves need to change so we do better. We might have to do an act for God we do not want to do.
Religions as a rule, and Jesus’ Way in particular suggest, we could do better, a lot better. While that is true, the heart of Jesus’ lesson in its context is not actually about wealth per se. It is a call to step out of ways of oppression and onto Jesus’ Way that acts to oppose and end oppression. The reflection held up by Jesus is meant to show that there are systems of oppression, that humans are in them, and that following Jesus’ Way requires us to get out of them and oppose them.
We hear the lesson to be against riches. Most Americans do not want to hear that, so churches often look past this text or gloss over it. But the message is much bigger than that. It is about systemic oppression being in the way of Jesus’ Way . . . In the way of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
Participation in oppression keeps God’s Empire, heaven on earth from fully breaking in. Opposing oppression helps it break in. Systems of oppression legally, or as a matter of cultural custom, have built in inequalities that favor the provision of access to fundamental rights to some, but not to others.
Such systems exist today. In our nation there has been a call from the start to step out of them and oppose them. There have always been different ideas– left, center and right– about how to do best do it, different ideas are okay, but to follow Jesus lead more than ideas are needed. The ideas need to lead to actions that end oppression. Women, People of Color, LGBTQ, People with Disabilities, People with Low Incomes need to have the system changed to stop oppression. Indeed anything in our ways of doing things that oppresses anyone, those ways need to be opposed We need to step off those ways that allows impediments to rights, rights some have, but not all have full access to.
As a secular rule it may be that not everyone agrees we need to do that. But Jesus’ religious teachings today suggests that to follow him is to work on doing just that.
Jesus’ teaching took place while the Holy Land was occupied by Caesar who claimed to be son of god and ran the world – as I have mentioned before– Caesar ran his empire with deeply imbedded patron/client system. It was akin to the mafia power structure in the Godfather movies with a million times more violence and sinfulness. That mafia power structure is a vestige of the patron/client structure of Rome where Caesar was thought to be both a god and father to everyone.
In the Godfather movies the heads of mob families bless and broker all the lives that fall within their family system. They do this by ruthlessly overseeing levels of bosses and lieutenants that in turn ruthlessly govern and protect and provide for those in the system. Imagine that system on a massive scale with Caesar as the godfather and the bosses and lieutenants as Centurions, governors, kings, religions leaders and rich patrons throughout the empire each owing allegiance on up the chain of hierarchy. Imagine that all the peasants owing allegiance to all those patrons above them.
Jesus lived in such a culture with that oppressive system ruling almost everyone. Around eighty percent of the population were peasants dependant on powerful overlord patrons who maximized the system for wealth causing virtually all those peasants to live “on the very margins of existence.” 2.
To be rich in Jesus’ time and place a person had to be high up in the system that brokered all power and wealth, and did so ruthlessly oppressing most of the population. By-and-large rich people (like the fellow in the story) could NOT be rich in the Roman Empire without being in that chain, without paying homage to Caesar and without oppressing those below their tier in the hierarchy. Peasants, all of them in abject poverty got just enough to survive (no more). But even that was conditioned on the peasant having something to offer their wealthy patron. Those not able or willing or allowed to offer something to a rich person in exchange for daily bread became expendable. Injury. Age. Disease. Social status. Could do it.
Every peasant depending on the fragile hope of work for the day and payment for that work had to worry about becoming expendable and being moved out of the patron system– the system relied upon by almost everyone in the culture –rich and poor.
Peasants who became expendable had no patron motivated to provide them protection or meager wages. They fell out of the system “These are the beggars and the homeless. These are persons who might do the jobs no one else will do, like tax collecting. These are persons who count for nothing, like prostitutes.” 3
The list of expendables included Jesus . . . and Jesus included them. In all the early written accounts of Jesus, he “is recalled as living outside the system of brokered power and economy of Rome’s Empire. He was an itinerant teacher who scrounged for a living and encourage others to do so as well.” 4
And the Gospels show Jesus “inviting people to give up their place in the web of brokerage and become a beggar like him.” 5. Jesus asked fisherman to leave their boats and follow him. He asked a tax collector to give up his booth and follow him. In today’s lesson he asks a rich person to leave his place in the system and follow him.
What all of this tells us is that Jesus was hanging out with expendables and he was an expendable, and he asked others to become expendables and he did so as part of his ministry. Why? Jesus figured out expendables had something no one else in the entire Roman Empire had, they were outside the system. They held no allegiance to the Roman Empire’s brokerage and patronage.
Jesus understood the imperial web’s way that ensnared almost everyone else was avoidable by those outside it. Rome’s way was not their way. Jesus gets that and takes advantage of that by creating a new Way, a parallel path to life that does not see Caesar as the ultimate godfather figure at the top of the system that oppresses almost everyone. Jesus’ Way is outside the world’s way, it “un-oppresses” expendables and peasants by lifting all people up. That means it also un-oppresses the wealthy too. Everyone is loved and mattered much.
By lifting all people up – as Jesus points out– the first last become last and the last become first. Which played out is an endless loop where there can be no last or first – all are equal. Jesus’ Way lifts all up.
There is no first because they are always last and there is no last because they are always first. This happens when there is no human god-father. On Jesus’ Way our God father is in heaven, God’s kingdom, not Caesar’s is what we pray for. It is God’s will we want to be done, not Caesar’s. And so we ask God our Father for our daily bread, to forgive our debts, to keep us out of, and deliver us from, trouble.
When Jesus tells the rich person to step out of the system of oppression to follow him He is holding up a mirror to his followers – us– to likewise step out of such systems–and to oppose and end oppression. What the rich person ironically lacks is lacking something. We hear it as his needing to lack money, and that’s true but only because in the context his lacking his wealth meant he would be out of the system that only lets Caesar be god and father, out of a system that ruthlessly oppresses eighty percent of the people. He lacks, lacking the oppressive system, he is part and parcel to it. He had to be in the Roman Empire in order to be rich. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”
The rich person goes away sad. Then Jesus makes sure to point out it is not just that wealthy person in the system he is concerned about. Everyone with wealth participated in Caesar’s oppressive system, not just gathering their wealth, but facilitating the oppression that created their wealth and living off of it. So Jesus says “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.” The disciples are confused by this. Like today, wealth back then was considered by many as a sign the person was blessed by God. And Jesus with pointed humor dispels that theological presumption. The absurd notion that wealth is an expression of God’s preference for those with it, is met with an absurd truth “It is easier [Jesus says] for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
But the disciples still don’t get it, thinking that if a rich person with all those blessings can’t enter heaven. “Then who can be saved?” they ask. And “Jesus looked at them and said “For mortals it is impossible, not for God; for God all things are possible.” And Peter then points to how the disciples gave up everything and followed him, and Jesus notes that those who do that receive a hundredfold now and eternally.
But he adds that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” That end line captures the essence of Jesus’ Way and God’s realm. God makes the impossible possible in a loop of love that keeps everyone from being first and last, a loop of love that makes everyone of equal value. Think of the image we get when we put a mirror up to a mirror. The reflection reflecting the reflection reflecting the reflection.
When Jesus’ Way plays out the first are always last and the last are always first in an unending loop of no hierarchy. Which is another way to say all are equal. In order to get there we have to end systems of oppression, by leaving them and following Jesus and acting to oppose and end oppression as he modeled.
Participation in systems of oppression keep God’s Empire, heaven on earth from fully breaking in. Systems of oppression legally or as a matter of cultural custom have built in inequalities that favor the provision of access to fundamental rights to some, but not to others. We are a part of such systems. Women, People of Color, LGBTQ, People with Disabilities, People with Low Incomes are placed last in various ways and the system needs to be changed to stop their oppression– and I anyone else’s oppression.
In whatever non-violent way we feel God calls us, we need work to step off ways that allows impediments to anyone’s rights and do the work needed so that all have – without question– full access to them. As a secular rule it may be that not everyone on the left, or in the center or on the right agrees we need to do that. But Jesus’ teaching today is that to follow him means working on doing just that. We can certainly differ on how best to do that work, but we need to do it.
1. Texts for Preaching, CD-ROM Edition, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Years A, B, and C by Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, and James D. Newsome Jr
2. I relied a lot of a great book for the ideas in this part of the sermon The God of Jesus by Dr. Stephen Patterson. This part comes from p 63.
3, Ibid at 64
4. Ibid at 64-65
5. Ibid at 65
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