The One Percent (Message for October 11th)

Scripture:  Mark 10:17-31

It is amazing how fast things can fade from our national consciousness and radar.   For instance, do you remember the occupy movement from about four years ago?    I would not be surprised if you do not, because we have not really heard anything about it in the past several years.  However, four years ago it was a big deal when, inspired by populous uprisings in Arabic countries, a group decided to occupy Wall Street and demand economic justice.   This group camped out on Wall Street and called attention to the fact that there is a startling stark economic disparity in this country, where 1% has access to 40% of the wealth.  The occupy movement called themselves the other 99%.  The occupy movement was eventually forced away from their protest, and that was kind of the end of it.  A formal movement never really solidified because the organizers were divided in what they wanted.  Some just wanted a financial system that did not seemed rigged to keep the rich wealthy and everyone else out.  Others were more radical and wanted a complete redistribution of wealth.   In the end the movement never got off the ground and it fizzled.   Regardless of how one feels about how right or misguided these people were, one thing that cannot be denied is that the occupy protest introduced into our common lexicon things like the phrase the “one percent”.   These protests also showed that there is a lot of wealth held in the hands of very few.    The top one percent wealthiest people in our country do have a lot of wealth when compared to the rest of us.   The top one percent takes in 24% of all income collected each year.   What makes this especially shocking is that in 1976, this group of people only took in 9% of the national income.   The top one percent also own half of all stocks and bonds in the stock market.   The other half mostly consists of the retirement funds that the other 99% are accumulating.    I am not making a value judgement and I am not saying it is a good or bad thing, but it is an undeniable fact that a small percentage of people have a lot more than everyone else and because of that they live radically different lives than the other 99% do.   

            Of course, everything I said you already know.   We know there are wealthy people, and we know that wealthy people have more opportunities, more privileges, and a less bumpy road in life than non-wealthy people.    We know that wealthy people just do not live like everyone else.   A good example of this is something that my wife and I still roll our eyes about.   Several years ago before we had kids when my wife was an untenured teacher and I was in seminary, we splurged for a weekend away.  We went to the beautiful West Bayden Hotel in French Lick.  Spending a night there was kind of a big deal and it all felt very opulent for us.   While we were out walking the grounds, we encountered a large bridal party.   The obvious father of the bride was there, and it was clear he was a man of some means.   He asked us if we could take their picture, and he handed me a state of the art digital camera.    After taking their picture, we asked him if he would return the favor and we handed him our little point and click digital camera.   He had some difficulty taking the picture, and when he gave us back the camera, he said, ”I’m not use to such a simple camera.”  The way he said simple, was so full of disdain, as if using something so inexpensive was beneath him.  

            Chances are when we hear scriptures like this morning’s from Mark 10, we think about people like that.   When we hear Jesus say “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God”, we think about people very wealthy people; people like the man we encountered who do not belittle themselves to use simple cameras.    In comparison to me, that many is probably extremely wealthy.    It is probably fair that many of us do not consider ourselves wealthy, but that is just because of our perspective.  We live in the most prosperous nation in the history of humanity, so our perspective is skewed.   When we look on a global perspective we see we are rich, in fact we might even be the one percent.    If you make or live on $32,400 or more annually then you are in the top one percent wealthiest people in the world.    Something we take for granted, is car ownership.   Only9% of the world owns a car.   Owning or even having access to a vehicle means compared the rest of the world we are rich.    When the average worker in Zimbabwe only makes $6 for a twelve hour day, we have to admit than in the grand scheme of things many of us are wealthier than we think.    We also have to admit that when Jesus said, “It is easier for a came to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”, he might have been talking about us.

            Like the rest of Mark chapter 10, this morning’s scripture can be very challenging.  Scriptures like this morning, show us that Jesus message is not one that can be molded or crafted to whatever makes us feel comfortable.  Jesus does not mince words in this morning’s scripture.   From the very beginning he is fairly to the point.   The man wants to know how to inherit eternal life, and when Jesus tells him to sell all of his possessions and give it to the poor, the man gives up.    When Jesus says it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, the bible records the disciples are amazed.   Why would they not be?   If we live in a world of economic disparity, the first century world the disciples lived in was worse.   The first century Roman world was very much a world of the haves and the have nots.    There was no real concept of the middle class.  There was the rich and there was everyone else.   The disciples were amazed that there is something that a wealthy person could not do, because it had been there experience that money can buy anything.   Yet, here they were learning without a shadow of a doubt that money could not buy salvation.   When the disciples ask about this, Jesus makes it as clear as he can by saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.   The camel was the largest creature in the Mideast and a needle the smallest opening.  There was no doubt that Jesus was saying that for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God is a realistic impossibility.  

            Verse 26 records “The disciples were even more amazed and said to each other, “who then can be saved?”   Again, the experience of the disciples, which somewhat mirrors our experience is that the rich can do whatever they want.   They always have the resources to meet their needs and every want.   The disciples, who were poor and had internalized themselves as poor, were frightened at this point because they were thinking if a rich person cannot make it into the kingdom of God, what chance do I possibly have?    The answer that gave the disciples hope, and the answer that should feel us with great hope is found in verse 27 “Jesus looked at them and said ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’ “   I think this has a dual meaning.   The primary meaning is that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.   It does not matter how righteous we are or how much we spend, we cannot save ourselves.   Salvation is an act of God through Christ.   We cannot buy our way into the kingdom of God, because God has already paid our entry fee with the blood of Jesus.   What is impossible for us, was possible for God.  

            The second meaning, in light of the rest of this scripture, does have to do with our view of wealth.   The man who approached Jesus in this scripture claims that he has kept all of the Ten Commandments, but the reason why he could not inherit eternal life is because he refused to give up his wealth.   Money controlled him.   He could not inherit the kingdom of God because when push came to shove his wealth more important to him than eternal life.   For many people wealth controls their life.   You do not have to be in the one percent for this to be true.  Even for the very poor, wealth controls their life.  If this were not true, then there would not be people below the poverty line spending more money than they should on lottery tickets each week.   We think money is the cure for all that ails us, but money is a false god that only leads to destruction.   If wealth is our primary concern in life, then we are not kingdom of God material.   However, with God all things are possible and even the very rich can change their hearts and perspective on money.   

            Often our views on money are motivated by selfishness.   We are concerned about making sure that no one gets what we think should be ours, and we look around to make sure we are always getting enough.   An obsession with wealth is always “me” centered and always about what I can get.   Jesus though told the man to give everything to the poor, because the kingdom of God is “other” centered.   In the show Louis, comedian, Louis CK tried to teach his daughter an important lesson about fairness.  She was complaining that it was not fair that her sister got something she did not.   He tried to explain to her “The only time you should in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough, you don’t look in your neighbors bowl to see if you have as much as them.”    Wealth is all about ensuring one has as much more than their neighbors.   The teachings of Jesus and the bible state that we should ensure that our neighbors have enough.    TV preachers are quick to talk about God providing financial blessings.  However, when I read the bible, especially scriptures like this one, I believe that wealth is not a blessing but a responsibility.  

            One of my son’s favorite superheroes is Spiderman.    In the Spiderman origin story, Peter Parker was gifted with his super powers, and he initially used them for himself to acquire wealth.   However, after a powerful personal loss that he bore responsibility for, Peter Parker learned that with great power comes great responsibility.  He became Spiderman so that he could use his powers to protect and help others.   Even if we do not claim it, we are rich.   Many of us here are among the top 5% richest people in the world.    With great power comes, great responsibility.   Our wealth is our power and the great many needs in the world are part of our responsibility.   Does this mean that we have to sell everything, give it all to the poor, and become destitute ourselves?   No, not necessarily.   However, we may need to change how we view money.

               Do you treat the wealth you have as a blessing to spend only on yourself or do you treat it as a responsibility to care for others?    Our natural inclination is to put ourselves first, and the truth is the more wealth we have the easier it is to do this.   However, in the kingdom of God we must be others focused and not focused on ourselves.    Last year, Pope Francis made a lot of waves when he exhorted the Catholic Church to do just this.   In the papal encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis called the church to live out the gospel call to care for others, especially the poor.  Since then this has been a consistent part of his message, including the messages, he delivered on his recent trip to the United States.  One of the things he wrote in that document is this: “Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own.  The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.” 

            The rich man struggles to enter the kingdom of God, because it is hard for the wealthy to focus on anything but themselves.   Globally speaking, we are the one percent.   We are the ones who have the great power and the great responsibility to feel compassion for the outcry of the poor, to weep for other peoples pain, and feel a great need to help them.   This change in perspective, from ourselves to others, can be hard, and Jesus might have been right.  For the very wealthy it may be near impossible.   However, all things are possible with God.    May God continue to change our hearts.    May we stop seeing our wealth, no matter how great or meager it is, as something only for ourselves but may we see it as a resource to bless and help others.   May we happily claim that great responsibility in our own lives, may we be willing to put others first,  and use our resources to meet great needs.  In doing so may we change the world by bringing about the kingdom of God on this earth.