I’ve been involved with a program called Education for Ministry since 2005. EfM is a four-year program of Christian education for lay people although it can be part of a discernment and/or educational process for clergy-to-be or even ordained clergy. Over the four years, a person studies the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Church History, and Theology. At the end of my four years, I wasn’t ready to stop learning so, at the suggestion of my mentors, I took my first training and then began co-mentoring with them. Six years later, I’m still learning and still proud to be associated with this program.
One of the great things I gain is new ways of looking at familiar things. Take, for instance, this past week. Laurie Gudim, a friend and one of my co-mentors, posted on our discussion board about learning new things about the culture and times of the New Testament, such as that there was no middle class in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus but would have to give up everything was told to do a very traumatic thing. Laurie commented, “…I’ve always kind of thought poorly of him. But what if he was looking at was a poverty so severe it might have killed him?”* That got me thinking.
The story in Matthew is a bit more abbreviated and had a young man wanting to go bury his father. Both stories involved giving up something important. For a son not to bury a father was a sign of ultimate disrespect and rejection; to give up one’s wealth threatened his life, his well-being, his position, even potentially his family. Remember– there was no middle class. It was all or nothing.
Imagine an all or nothing world. People either had more than they needed but never as much is they wanted, or they struggled every day just to provide the absolute necessities for themselves and their family. The rich young man was told to give up everything he had ever known, including the security he had always had, in order to follow Jesus. The same with the man in today’s reading; not burying his father and coming to follow Jesus would have meant giving up absolutely everything he had ever known in the hope of finding something better. I have a feeling that most of us would probably fail that same test if it were given to us directly by Jesus standing in front of us. It’s easier to do it at a distance.
It makes us able to ignore poverty around us and to think that somebody else will take care of the problem. In the world of Jesus, that just doesn’t fly. We have a middle class, a place where people are comfortable but not rich, and where their basic needs and a bit more are met. There are many who have never really experienced what it means to truly be in want, or, in a better word, need. It’s one thing to want a BMW two-seater convertible and only receive a sedan than it is to want to provide needed extensive medical care for a loved one and not be able to do it. It isn’t unheard of in our world to have some catastrophe rob us of just about everything we had and knew; thirty seconds or so in the path of a tornado does that. If we’re lucky and have good insurance, we can come back from the disaster, but our lives are forever changed.
It occurs to me that Jesus made that a condition of following him, not just giving things up but using them to help others as a test of faith and of desire. It is like a person standing on the high diving platform and looking down at the water below, realizing there was an awful lot of space between the two and where there was no changing their mind about what was going to happen next. The person has the choice of either turning back and going down the ladder or taking the plunge and launching themselves into the air, hoping that they enter the water painlessly and not flat on either belly or back. Life puts us on that platform every day, and we have to choose which way to go.
Jesus’ message is not that it is necessary to live in abject poverty or live the itinerant life that he and his disciples did. It is to choose what and why it is truly important. That is not to say that some who are wealthy are not good Christians because they have more than perhaps they actually need. Many of these share generously and willingly to those who are less fortunate. There are some who have just what they need but still choose to share to help others. There are some impoverished who perhaps cannot give from the treasure they don’t really possess but who give generously of their time and talent to help others. It is a form of trickle down economics and service, and if more people contributed, more would benefit. But there is always the dead father to bury or the security to be maintained that gets in the way.
We are not all called to be a Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi. We see the good that they have done and we admire those who follow them closely enough to try live the lives they did. Still, we are called to follow Jesus, and that means to take risks and to lose the fear of life without total comfort and total security. We are called to help others to find lives with more comfort and more security. Giving away some of our own does not mean we are in want, it means that we want others to have what we have. In a way, it’s the same as what the early Christians demonstrated to outsiders. The outsiders saw the love the Christians had for each other and wanted some of that love. It’s really that simple.
But the only problem was simplicity is that sometimes it is too simple. It asks us to take a small risk that can point to a large one, but we’re not even comfortable taking the small one. I know I am.
What would it take to get me past the fear? That’s something I’m going to have to think about for a while. Perhaps I can start with the love part — even if that may be among the hardest things to do.
*Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer, teacher, mentor and preacher. She shares her meditations and reflections on the Thursday Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café. Her name and words are used with permission.
Image: By Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons