This week, two events stand in stark contrast to one another. As different as night and day these 21st century events are brought into focus by the first century story which just happens to be the assigned Gospel reading for this Sunday. While the first century story told by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Mark, sees the sons of Zebedee, jockeying for coveted seats at the right and left hand of Jesus, our 21st century story portray the contrasting circumstances of wannabe-astronauts blasting far above our planet with scarcely a thought for the 150 million or so who will slip into the depths of poverty before this year ends. Somehow, the flight of the billionaire Bezos phallic Blue Horizon thrusting its five privileged passengers across our screens will capture more attention from those of us who are wealthy enough to own screens, than the roughly one and a half billion men, women, and children who are consigned to live in poverty.
Today, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Today is the 35th annual International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. But I suspect that like the sons of Zebedee, who earned renown by jockeying for privileged positions, the powerful images of an aging Captain James Kirk and his merry band of billionaires will earn far more renown than the 150 million poor souls who are about to slip into poverty as a result of the COVID pandemic.
The unknown gospel-storyteller which we call Mark, captured something of the pathetic human condition of hubris when he wrote: “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Jesus and said, “Teacher we want you to grant our request.” ‘What is it?” Jesus asked. Said the sons of Zebedee, ‘See to it that we sit next to you, one at your right and one at your left, when you come into your glory!’ Jesus warned them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the dup I will drink or be baptized in the same baptism as I?’ ‘We can,” James and John replied. To which Jesus responded, ‘From the cup I drink of, you will drink; the baptism I am immersed in, you will share. But as for sitting at my right or my left, that is not mine to give; it is for those to whom it has been reserved.’ When Jesus’ other ten disciples heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know how among the Gentiles those who exercise authority are domineering and arrogant; those ‘great ones’ know how to make their own importance felt. But it cannot be like that with you. Anyone among you, those who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The PROMISED ONE has come not to be served, but to serve—to give one life in ransom for the many.”
I don’t know about you but when that giant phallic ship was trusting into the wild blue yonder, I became somewhat indignant. I mean who in the hell believes that billionaires ought to be allowed to engage in a giant pissing contest disguised as a space race? Think about it, Jeff Bezos net worth is estimated at just shy of 200 billion dollars. His Blue Origin may not be able to penetrate as deeply into space as Elon Musk’s Space Ex, but his thrusters are straining just enough to catch up with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Boys and their toys the put downs come, pardon the pun, a little too easily. The number crunchers tell us that Bezos hubristic space jaunt cost him 5.5 billion dollars for 4 minutes in space, which kinda makes a ticket on Branson’s Virgin Galactic sound like a bargain. For a mere $450,000 dollars you could join these daring old men in their flying machines.
Excuse me if I sound a little too indignant but jockeying for a seat during a global pandemic is more than a little tone deaf, when according to the United Nations, yet another 150 million or so people will be plunged into poverty this year, swelling the ranks of the global poor to over one and a half-billion people, over half of which are children. I can certainly identify with the disciples in the story who became angry with the sons of Zebedee for jockeying for seats alongside Jesus in the next world, when the forces of Empire in this world continue to suck the life out of the poor.
I’m not so sure however, that Jesus’ response to his disciples’ indignation is all comforting. Perhaps Jesus sensed that even their anger was a type of jockeying for position, when he insisted that, “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The PROMISED ONE has come not to be served, but to serve—to give a ransom for the many.” Sure, it is easy to scoff at billionaires squandering their ill-gotten gains on momentary flights of fancy. But like the indignant disciples of old, do we actually see the role we are playing in this race to escape the limitations of our one and only planet? The colossal profits we offer up to billionaire’s are not simply the result of corporate greed. Our very own lifestyles, demand what they are selling. If you are watching this on a screen, chances are that your own wealth far exceeds the expectations of billions of people struggling to survive on this planet. You and I are the wealthiest followers of Jesus who have ever walked the Earth.
Today, on this International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, how many of us will satisfy ourselves with righteous indignation rather than sacrifice? Forget for a moment the layers of interpretations offered by generations of Jesus’ followers who have interpreted that little word “ransom” as some sort of cosmic escape clause offered by Jesus as a way out of the trials and tribulations of life on this planet. Think for a moment. Try to hear the word “ransom” not with ears blocked by centuries of perverse theological atonement theories. Think of ransom as a way out of captivity to Empire. What might we wealthy followers of Jesus be prepared to pay to serve the needs of those held captive to the financial empire of our time? Do we have the courage to serve? To climb down from our lofty positions of wealth and privilege in order to serve the poor? To free the captives? To feed the hungry? Do we have the courage to hear the word ransom as sacrifice? A sacred offering of for the sake of life here on this our one and only planet, a planet capable of nourishing life for all of Earth’s inhabitants?
I know it is much easier to poke fun at billionaires and lay the blame for suffering at the feet of self-serving fools. But those fools made their billions serving us, satisfying our desires, fortifying our comforts, delivering our lifestyles to our doorsteps. As we recall the trusting of impotent rocket ships escaping for mere moments the confines of the empires we thrive in, do we have the courage to see our own hypocrisy? Do we have the courage to drink from the cup which Jesus offers to all who profess to follow him? Are we prepared to make sacrifices in order to ransom those who suffer the indignities of the hell we have created here on Earth for the one and a half billion people held in the captivity of poverty? Or are we afraid that stripped of the security which our wealth affords us, our privileged positions will disappear, and we too shall find ourselves dependent upon the goodness of others?
I don’t mind confessing my own fear. The numbers, they are staggering. Faced with the needs of so very many, what can I do? I am after all just one person after all is said and done. I’m afraid that sacrificing more than just a pittance of my own wealth and privilege won’t accomplish much more than landing me among poverty’s captives. So, let me just cling to what I have accumulated and pay lip-service to the need for sacrifice. Or better still, let me cling to the promise of a Saviour who will carry us out of this world and into the next, at no cost, free of charge because Jesus paid the ransom for my soul.
I’m pretty sure that the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Mark had no idea that Jesus’ life and death would be portrayed by the powers of empire as a ransom to be paid to the very MYSTERY which Jesus insisted is LOVE. Christianity’s utterly loveless atonement theories about substitution and payment, arguing down through the centuries about whether this ransom is paid to God or to the devil insult the very memory of the rabbi himself, whose death saves us not from the wrath of God, but rather from ourselves. Jesus lived and died giving his life to ransom us from ourselves, from our fears, so that free from the captivity in which our fear has confined us, we might walk freely away from our own self-centredness. Jesus poured out his life in the service of LOVE. As the embodiment of LOVE, LOVE ensures that Jesus never dies. For the LOVE expressed in the life and death of Jesus lives in you and in me.
Not even our fear, even fear expressed in domination, greed, hatred and violence, not even fear of death, can kill the LOVE which lies at the very heart of all that is, and rises again and again, whenever and wherever, arrogance is ransomed by humility, fear is ransomed by courage, hatred is ransomed by kindness, violence is ransomed by justice, war is ransomed by peace, greed is ransomed by generosity, and self-centredness is ransomed by service to others. This dear friends is what it means for you and me to sit at Jesus’ side. To be ransomed from our very selves, ransomed from the fear which holds us captive to empires built on the backs of the poor. In LOVE, we are ransomed from our fear, ransomed from our arrogance and ransomed from our self-centredness, set free to trust the MYSTERY which is LOVE so that we to might live the way of LOVE, so that we might be LOVE in the world, here on this planet.
The eradication of poverty lies not in our efforts to escape the challenges of life in this world, here on this planet. The eradication of poverty is the work of LOVE in the world, this world, here and now, on this wonderful bountiful planet, upon which there is already more than enough to nourish abundant life for all. Justice is what LOVE looks like when LOVE is unleashed here on Earth. Let us offer a sacrifice in the form of embodied LOVE. Let us be LOVE in the world, by fearlessly serving the poor. Let us be reckless in our LOVing, Grounded in our service, outrageously generous in our ransoming life on this planet. Let it be so among us. Let it be so. Amen.
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Brilliant and confronting.