The real #FirstWorldProblems

Most of us assume that wealth is a blessing and a privilege, but Jesus says otherwise. A reflection on one of his most ignored teachings (which, if taken seriously, would pretty much resolve the climate crisis and heal the world). (Listen.)

So I ordered a latte, and I don’t know whether the barista was having a bad day or whether the coffee shop is going downhill, but I was given a flat white — and the milk was too hot. And if I’m going to spend four bucks on a coffee, the least they can do is get it right. But, you know, #FirstWorldProblem.

Then I was getting dressed, and it’s common time which means I like to wear a bit of green: but green looks kind of weird through my laptop camera, and anyway I’ve worn this top WAAAY too many times, and I’m totally sick of it, and let’s be honest, when it gets down to it, I really have absolutely nothing to wear. But, you know, #FirstWorldProblem.

And I have to admit that this reflection is a bit all over the place. The kids are doing remote learning and I can hear their voices while I work and I need to record the podcast in the car. How anyone expects me to produce a quality product without a proper office or soundproof studio or good secretary or decent laptop, I really don’t know. But, hey, you know: #FirstWorldProblem.

Now, this is the place where I am supposed to remind you just how privileged we are. As members of the so-called first world, we have houses and clothing and running water and a steady electrical supply. We have good medical care and reliable transport and superannuation; we have smartphones and power tools and books and shoes and countless other possessions filling our homes. And I should remind you that many people do not have these things, and perhaps I should urge you to think about how you could help others share in these privileges. And this would be a reasonable thing to do.

However, I am not a reasonable person, and we are not a reasonable people. We are disciples of Jesus, a most unreasonable man, who views the world in topsy-turvy ways and tries to show us things through God’s eyes. He does it again in today’s story.

A man who owned many fields and other possessions came up to Jesus and asked him, “What must I do to inherit life without limit?” Jesus looked at him and loved him, and said, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the man heard this, he was shocked, and he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Maybe he went and sat on his couch in his big old house; maybe he called a financial planner and reviewed his investments; maybe he bought a new toy to cheer himself up: the story doesn’t tell us. Instead, we are simply told that he walked away from Jesus.

Now, Jesus didn’t say that the wealthy landowner was privileged. He didn’t tell him to be grateful for his wealth, and he didn’t tell him to help others share in it. Instead, he told him to get rid of his wealth, because it was an obstacle to discipleship; and then he turned to his disciples and said, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

When Jesus said this, his disciples were perplexed; and so might we be. And we probably wonder, first of all, whether we are truly wealthy. So first, let’s clear that up: We live in one of the richest countries in the history of the world. On a global scale, anyone who has a house and car, anyone who can afford to feed a pet and take it to the vet, that is, every one of us, has extraordinary wealth.

Even on a national scale, anyone who has a house is doing very well: and this is most of us. Indeed, as a congregation we have a solid share in our nation’s material wealth. Whether or not we feel like it, we are wealthy. And, like the rich landowner, most of us have been taught that wealth is a privilege and therefore we must be blessed: so how can it be difficult for us to enter the kingdom?

Well, maybe, just maybe, the assumption that the rich are blessed is not one of God’s assumptions. Because wealth insulates us from knowing our need of others, and our need of God. When we are rich, we can forget just how interconnected and interdependent we all are. Wealth can make God’s provision seem unnecessary; we think we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or solve all our own problems. Wealth can give us the illusion of control over our lives, and our futures. And so, in these ways, wealth can blunt our faith.

It also blunts our compassion: for if we haven’t truly experienced need, it is hard to imagine it. If we don’t know what it is to be hungry and nothing in the cupboard, why would we give our sister bread? She can eat cake. If we don’t know what it is to be cold, why would we give our brother our second jacket? He can pull on an overcoat. If we don’t know what it’s like to live in a car, or a shipping container, or a tent, or a shed, why would we invite a stranger to sleep in our spare room? They can book a motel.

For many of us, these very real human needs, needs which are felt in our region every single day of the week, are beyond the realm of our experience. How, then, can the rich participate in the culture of God, which demands that we feed the hungry, we clothe the naked, and we love our neighbour, not through some abstract and kindly social policy, but in real and material ways? Who among us can be saved?

To the disciples asking this very question—the ones who don’t walk away—Jesus offers an answer: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” And God’s way is to gather people into the community of faith, where the Word of God and the people of God enter into spirited relationship. Here, we might glimpse how impoverished we become when we place our faith in anything other than God: how anxious and dissatisfied, how hard-hearted and lonely. Here, we might be challenged to let go of the things which bind us, the things which give us the illusion of security and control, and to trust God, instead. We might begin to see that it’s when we acknowledge our need that God most richly blesses us: for it is then that we are open to God’s gifts. And in receiving then sharing God’s gifts with others, we enter into God’s kingdom-culture, with all of its connection and companionship, hospitality, freedom and joy.

For social isolation, lack of trust, deep spiritual hunger, a sense of meaninglessness, failure to love, stone cold hearts: these are the real #FirstWorldProblems, and we see them all around. But in Christ we have been given a new identity that dissolves the labels of first and two thirds world, rich and poor, and invites us all into relationship. In this kingdom, we don’t need to strive to be rich, and we don’t need to pretend that we are not: endeavours which consume us and turn us into liars. We don’t need to guard and protect the possessions which so often possess us; we can hold them lightly and let them go to serve and care for others. Because we are being ushered into a new reality, God’s reality: a world that is pulsing with life and love; a community of the beloved who truly, materially, care for each other; a culture where it is not the rich, but those who know their need of God and others, who are considered truly and deeply blessed.

So relinquish the things which possess you, follow Jesus, and place everything you have into God’s culture: for then you will have treasure in heaven, indeed. And may Jesus lead you into greater fullness of life, may the Holy Spirit be your help in times of need, and may God reward your faithfulness a hundredfold: with houses, siblings, mothers and fields, all given for a sharing economy. In the name of Christ: Amen. Ω

Reflect: How do you usually think about wealth: as a blessing? as a privilege? Do you think of yourself as wealthy? With whom do you compare yourself? How does wealth block you from fully entering into God’s kingdom-culture? As an interesting exercise, you might like to look at a global wealth calculator. Different calculators use different measuring sticks, but if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly among the wealthiest 5-10% of people in the world. Just google ‘global wealth calculator’ and you’ll find a few to try. 

A reflection on Mark 10:17-31 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 10 October 2021 (Year B Proper 23) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Ahmed Nishaath on Unsplash.

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