The Ponzi Gospel

The Ponzi Gospel

Mark 10:17-31

by Daniel Harrell

Among the recurrent problems for modern-day suburban Christians in America is figuring out what losing your life for Jesus’ sake looks like. For the earliest disciples, taking up a cross for Jesus left little to the imagination. In a time when Roman rule demanded worshipping the emperor or else, losing your life for Jesus meant losing your life. Going to church was hazardous to your health. However these days, with actual martyrdom in America nonexistent, losing your life is easy since you know it ain’t going to kill you. But what if by losing your life Jesus also meant losing your lifestyle?

This morning’s Scripture passage is one that most of us dread. A man runs up to Jesus and falls to his knees. He asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Many presume the man to be seeking some prescribed formula for salvation, an accomplishable to-do-list for getting into heaven. Clearly he’d just missed the verses just prior about how you gotta be a little kid to get in. But then again maybe not. The man did ask in terms of inheritance, indicating that he understood eternal life not to be something he could earn or purchase. Jesus characteristically responded by changing the subject. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This may have been Jesus’ indirect admission of his own secret identity, but it also seems to emphasize that genuine “goodness” is very hard to attain. Jesus asked the man about the Ten Commandments, which the man insisted he had kept since his was kid. Loving the guy for his enthusiasm, Jesus nevertheless sucked all the air out of his balloon. “You still lack one thing. Go, sell however much you own, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Now at this point in the story, everything the man owned could have been a small amount. It’s not until afterwards that we learn the man was wealthy, and apparently it was his wealth that he worshipped. He sadly slinked away, illustrating Jesus’ assertion elsewhere that God and money don’t mix. Here the Lord remarks how hard it is for rich people to get into heaven—harder than it is to thread a needle with a camel. Believers have always been shocked by this. In the Middle Ages somebody tried to come up with this silly idea about a gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle that camels could squeeze through if they held their humps just right. But there’s no such gate. We’re talking actual camels and actual needles here. No can do. The disciples were shocked by this since for them wealth was a sign of God’s favor. The rich man kept all the commandments. That’s why he was rich. But now if Jesus is saying not even this pious rich guy can squeeze in, what chance did poor sinners have? Who the heck could be saved? Jesus assured them that God can do anything, but whether that meant saving the rich guy is anyone’s guess. We never hear from him again.

If you joined the congregation this past Ash Wednesday night, you heard me quote Jesus from Mark about how the Kingdom of God belongs to little children. Interpreters traditionally take this to mean that childlike qualities of simplicity, innocence and trust are those intended by Jesus. But these characteristics were likely foreign to most first century people. Simplicity, innocence and trust, while admirable, ran a distant second to a whole set of other childlike characteristics such as ignorance, frailty, immaturity and foolishness. To be compared to a child was to be called a baby. It was humiliating. Which was the point. Jesus said you have to humble yourself like a child and become a servant, which would be like, well, selling all of your possessions and giving the money to the poor.

It would be humiliating, especially since our value as people is established mostly in economic terms. Just like it was in Jesus’ day. This is why we pay so much money for ephemera such as fancy cars or watches or jewelry or Mount Blanc pens: symbols of prosperity that are desirable because they are expensive. People spend a great deal of money for the advantages of being perceived to have spent a great deal of money.” Unfortunately these advantages are easily diminished by the whims of fashion, rendering one’s status quickly commonplace or passé, and leading Jesus to suggest investing your treasure in heaven instead where neither moth nor rust nor changing style can diminish it.

I probably shouldn’t let this moment pass without making a stewardship pitch—we are running behind on our budget. Not that giving toward the church budget is storing up treasure in heaven per se, but it is better than hoarding all your money for yourself. I should also add that personal prosperity is not a Biblical vice. Diligence at work, good stewardship, education and faithful relationships—these are all Christian virtues that can result in financial gain. Yet with financial gain always comes the expectation of financial generosity. “From everyone to whom much is given, much will be required,” Jesus said. The issue is never that God’s people sometimes prosper, but that in their prosperity they adopt the attitudes of their high socio-economic status and afterward ignore or even despise those still clinging to the social ladder’s lower rungs. This may have been the rich man’s problem.

It might help to understand what the Bible means by prosperity. The Proverbs speak of prosperity as the “reward of the righteous,” which is why, like the disciples, many tend to equate financial gain with divine favor. But the word actually denotes a kind of contentedness independent of one’s bank balance. In fact, the most prosperous people in the Bible are often the most monetarily impoverished. As the apostle Paul expressed it to the Philippians, “I have learned the secret of being content whatever the circumstances, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man to sell whatever he had was not a call to poverty, but a call to genuine faith and radical trust in Christ.

The apostle Peter, worried, perhaps, that his own salvation was at stake (if not his reputation), pipes up to remind Jesus, “Look Lord, you know we have left everything to follow you!” Jesus assures Peter that “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times as much now—along with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.” Puzzling to most people about Jesus’ promise here is not that persecutions get included as a return on our investment (we all know we would suffer more for our faith if ever we really behaved in line with we say we believe). No, what puzzles most people is the hundredfold return Jesus promises now. We understand “eternal life in the age to come,” pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by and by, but what’s with multiple homes and family and real estate here and now? Who ever gets that?

It’s kind of embarrassing. It makes Jesus sound a little bit like convicted swindler Bernie Madoff, the master of the 50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme. Either that or some health and wealth prosperity preacher who promises believers that God will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams if they give to their church and just believe they will receive back a hundred times over, citing Jesus’ own words as guarantee.

If you haven’t personally reaped the kind of return Jesus promised, it may be because you really haven’t given up anything to follow Jesus. (Did I mention we’re running behind on our church budget?) On the other hand, Peter and the rest of the disciples gave up everything, but nowhere do we ever see them raking it in. This reason is because Biblical prosperity is not about the money. There is a contentedness and a confidence that comes with faith in Christ that money cannot buy. Moreover, there is a community too. Jesus promises not only a hundredfold return in homes and land (code words for contentment—think “a house and a yard”), but a hundredfold return in brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers as well. Who are these people? Back in Mark chapter 3, Jesus was preaching to a packed house when his family rolled into town. Too crowded for them to get in the door, his mother and brothers got a message to Jesus indicating that they were looking for him. Jesus responded by asking, “Who is my mother?”—which must have made poor Mary faint right on the spot. And if that weren’t enough, Jesus then turned to the motley crew crowded around him—poor fishermen and prostitutes, despised tax-collecting losers and sinners of every stripe—and said “Behold my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God, that’s my brother and sister and mother.” So much for family first.

What’s Jesus saying? Look around. Go ahead, take a look. This is your hundredfold return. We are each other’s reward… Wow. It’s a little disappointing isn’t it? I bet the disciples felt the same thing. They took a look at each other and thought, “I left everything I had for this?” And that’s before tacking on the persecutions. How is this a reward? Ask most folks to describe Christians and the adjectives typically include words like hypocritical, self-righteous, judgmental, selfish and downright spiteful sometimes. There’s the running joke that churches would be great places if it weren’t for the people. If only we could have Christ without Christians.

Turns out that maybe you can. Here’s a little video to show you how….

This has got to be one of the silliest Christian ideas to come along in weeks. Answer a few questions, click a few buttons, and boom, Monvee designs a customized personal walk with the Lord based on the way God has wired you to walk. Persecutions not your thing? No problem, Monvee will map out a less painful path. Prefer to keep your possessions for yourself? OK, Monvee will steer you clear from those guilt-inducing commands in the Bible. Monvee’s designer described it as “the eHarmony for your soul, but instead of finding a mate, Monvee helps you know how you’re wired and how you best connect with God.” The best part is that Monvee lets you find G-Harmony all by yourself! No more hypocritical Christians. No more boring church sermons. No more messy small groups. No more needy people. Just a few clicks and you can relax your way to righteousness.

OK, so maybe I am a cynical old man who wouldn’t know a life-transforming technological advance if it hit him in his Palm Pilot—even if I do have the cool glasses. Maybe a programmed relationship with Jesus is better than having to wait and pray and trust and suffer and deal with all the ambiguity. Just the way Facebook and other social networks beat awkward or tedious interactions with people in person where you’d have to waste time listening to them go on and on about all of their problems or drive them to the airport or something.

Those of you familiar with psychological research are likely familiar with the famous Grant Study, a 72-year longitudinal look at a group of men at Harvard, alongside another group from inner-city Boston and a group of women from California. Typical psychology studies that examine people at single moments in life can be terribly misleading—a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may in fact be gestating toward amazing maturity. Longitudinal studies, though expensive and time-consuming, take in an entire life span and see how everything fits together. The goal of the Grant Study was to determine the key to “a successful life.” When asked recently what he learned from studying the lives of more than 300 people across seven decades, the project’s chief researcher, George Vaillant responded: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Jesus was right again. Look around. We are each other’s reward.

And yet, Professor Vaillant tells the story of one “prize” subject, a well-known physician and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came one hundred single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. His wife put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Professor Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box of letters down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the physician said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read them.” To which Professor Vaillant concluded, “It is very hard for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Maybe this helps explain our addiction to Facebook kinds of friends. They require little more than our coming up with clever status updates and hitting “like” now and then. The problem with actual love is not only what it demands you give it to needy people, but that love exposes you to be needy too. I remember a guy who worked with me on a homeless ministry project complaining about having to listen to needy people go on and on about their same problems over and over again. It was tedious. Hearing his complaint, an older member of our group interjected how that is the tough thing about friendship: being there to listen to friends talk about their same old problems. It can be tedious. Frustrating too. But the great thing about friendship is that there will be times in your life when things won’t be going so well for you. And when that day comes, you’ll have someone there to listen to you too.

“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions.” What if Jesus’ words are not some hyperbolic declaration, but an actual invitation, or even a provocation to us to become each other’s hundredfold return? What if we were to be each other’s reward, each other’s brother or sister or mother or father or child? You would have hundreds. What if Jesus’ inclusion of persecution is also a further invitation, or even a provocation, to step into the harder, more difficult aspects of these relationships, sharing one another’s troubles in ways that cost us something—if not a loss of life, at least a loss of lifestyle or some loss of time? I think if we consistently made that kind of investment, it’d be hard for anybody to use adjectives such as hypocritical or selfish to describe Christians anymore. The only adjective that would fit, I think, would be: rich.