Things That Make for Peace: Empathy and Economic Equity

A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 13, 2018

Text: Mark 10:17-31 (The Message)

Things that make for peace. I asked last Sunday. Alan said “empathy” and Kathy said “economic equity.” Maybe I should have said, “Great. You preach next week.” But since it’s my job, let’s see what I can do. The lectionary texts for today were no help, (actually, they weren’t very inspiring at all,) so I sat down to try to conjure up a text that dealt with peace and empathy. What first popped into my head was this tale of Jesus and the one who had great wealth. Notice that the gospel of Mark gives neither gender or age to the wealthy one. No “rich, young ruler” here. Some commentators suggest this is so we can more easily put ourselves in his place. (The Greek pronoun is masculine,)

Here we have the very definition of empathy – “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Let’s put aside any empathy we have for this wealthy one for the moment and see how empathy does and does not play out generally in this story. To begin with, I think there is great empathy between Jesus and the wealthy one. The wealthy one has detected something in Jesus that inspires him to come running, to kneel in great reverence, and to ask the question that’s burning in his heart, sure that Jesus has the answer. His empathy may not be complete, especially his understanding of what Jesus is all about, but his desire to see, understand, and share is deep and it is sincere.

The empathy of Jesus is clear. He sees deeply into the life of the wealthy one and understands his honest desire for “eternal life,” for something more than he has found, even with all his wealth. The text says, “Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him!” Of course, Jesus also sees that the wealthy one is not ready for full commitment and that saddens Jesus. Still, it does not preclude his deep affection for one who is struggling to find his way. What quickly evolves here is a connection, a relationship, if you will. There is reverence and affection, compassion and love. There is little, if any room for conflict. The desire for shalom, peace, well-being that’s built into this encounter is one born of empathy. It is true that the wealthy one walks away deeply conflicted, but his conflict is not with Jesus. It is an inner conflict with himself.

When I was studying psychology, there was a very popular book called “The Skilled Helper” that distinguished between ordinary empathy and what the author called “advanced accurate empathy.” The point was that the skilled helper could develop and fine tune her listening ability until she could see and hear in her clients things that the clients weren’t yet capable of seeing themselves. However, the skilled helper would never go plunging into that material ahead of the client. Instead the skilled helper would help draw that material into consciousness carefully and respectfully. Then the counselor would be able to help the client process that material.

Without overly psychologizing this tale from Mark’s gospel, I wonder if something like that happens here. Jesus, the well-practiced skilled helper, sees more deeply into the wealthy one’s soul than the wealthy one himself does. Jesus confronts the wealthy one more directly than most therapists might and yet he does it in love and affection. The reality Jesus spells out must be teetering on the edge of the wealthy one’s conscience already. The wealthy one comes knowing that, as rich and wonderful as his life may be, something is lacking. When Jesus accurately names what that lack is, the wealthy one goes away with a heavy heart. I want to believe that this is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new chapter. The wealthy one is not now ready to act, but the seed is sown, the idea planted, consciousness raised. The wealthy one may have gone away sorrowful, but his lack has been addressed. The notion now planted has the chance to prosper and grow over time.

Empathy is a way of seeing deeply into another and understanding where they are coming from. You may see the pain behind their smile, the frustration behind their success, the joy behind their tears, the desire for real shalom behind their struggle to get ahead, the craving for sabbath behind their busy-ness. The point is, when you take the time and make the effort to walk in another’s shoes, to enter their world view, to explore their inner workings, it is difficult not to develop some degree of compassion, some sense of feeling with them, some sense that you don’t have all the answers. This allows for gentleness along with a desire for peace born of that enlarged understanding.

And what of economic equity? For several years now, I have found it difficult to talk about justice without talking about economic equity. We can speak of justice in rather rarefied and abstract ways. For me, pairing justice with economic equity makes it more real, gives it some practical substance.

As you are aware, in Adult Spiritual Direction we have been studying John Dominic Crossan’s work on the evolution of “divine violence”. One of the key things we have learned from Crossan is that, from the creation of the earth and the beginning of time, God has been a God of what Crossan calls “distributive justice.” In distributive justice, God creates a world founded in shalom. As we know, a huge piece of that shalom is the prosperity and well-being of all. God creates a world of plenty and tasks us with ensuring that that abundance is shared equitably among the whole of creation. You have heard me argue that that is what it means to have dominion, to work with the Creator to ensure distributive justice or economic equity. All that we’ve needed, thy hand hath provided. No need for greed, to hoard, to accumulate, to take more than your fair share. There is more than enough to go around

And yet, when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, it seems inevitable that the conflict generated will spill over into violence. Economic equity is surely a recipe for peace as an antidote to economic inequity, which breeds envy, greed, discontent, resentment, and revolution. It may a bit of a stretch, but I think this is the lesson that Mark is lifting up in the story of the wealthy one. At the very least, Jesus is teaching the wealthy one, his own disciples, and us a lesson about economic equity, about distributive justice. Working backward within the text, as the wealthy one walks away we are told that he was sad because he had great wealth. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, “He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.”

The nagging question is, if the wealthy one was so dedicated to finding eternal life – remember we’re talking about something much deeper and broader than the proverbial “fountain of youth” – why was he so committed to accumulating and hanging on to that which, in the end, could not satisfy? Does the wealthy one go away sad because he has so much to hang on to, or is he sad because, deep down, he knows Jesus is right? His stuff really does get in the way.

Because Mark is the gospel for this liturgical year, I have been working my way through a very challenging commentary by Theodore Jennings entitled, The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto. As you can imagine from that title, Jennings takes a pretty radical view of what the writer of Mark is about in telling the story as she does. (For example, he persists in using feminine pronouns for the author because we don’t really know who wrote it.) Jennings argues that biblical scholars, theologians, and everyday Christians alike have gone out of their way to spin this tale, to gloss it over so that it doesn’t mean what it says or say what it means.

Jennings argues that “Mark is saying, God is to be honored not by cult or temple, but by justice and mercy. No religious shortcut, no cultic detour, is possible from this path.” He continues, “…this teaching makes clear the incompatibility of the gospel with worldly care and possessions.” “…there is entry into [eternal] life only for those who are unencumbered with possessions. There is no room in the companionship of Jesus for wealth, not even for private property” (Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto, p. 159 ff).

This is radical stuff, tough teaching. Part of me wants to know how well Professor Jennings is adhering to what he argues. Does he practice what he preaches? And yet, I believe he is correct in his interpretation of the text, even if it is almost inconceivable for us, caught up in our capitalist framework. Rabbi Moshe Leib teaches, “How easy it is for the poor to depend on God! What else have they to depend on? And how hard it is for the rich to depend on God! All their possessions call out to them: ‘Depend on us!’”

I’ve always spun the story this way: what is it that gets in the way of our following Jesus, what comes between us and God, what keeps us from living into God’s Beloved Community? It may very well be wealth or possessions, material stuff. It may also be some other deep desire – fame, revenge, the perfect partner, the tenured professorship, the dream home, the downfall and destruction of enemies, the fountain of youth. If you give it enough time and thought I am sure you can name the one thing that is lacking for you. What is it that you are holding onto tightly, afraid to let go?

Jesus lays out for the wealthy one, for his disciples, and for us what eternal life is like, life in God’s Beloved Community. It’s an encumbered life in which we are free to follow Jesus. It’s a life that liberates us from all that binds so that we can operate in solidarity with the least of these. As hard as the teaching may seem, and even if we go away in sadness today, it doesn’t change the reality that the unencumbered life, a life of generosity and sharing, of distributive justice and economic equity, is the way of Christ and the fulfillment of God’s original creative design. Jennings reminds us that, in the end, “…the following of Jesus is not a grim business of renunciation. It is…the joyful business of experiencing, even in the midst of suffering, the hundred-fold gain of the dawning age of joy” (Jennings, op. cit., p. 166).

Things that make for peace – empathy – the ability to see, understand, and share the feelings of another – it’s harder to fight with someone when you have an enlarged vision of where they’re coming from and what they’re dealing with – and economic equity – God’s solid foundation of distributive justice – there really is enough to go around – no need to fight over who gets what as long as we know how to share. May Jesus yet look us hard in the eye, and loving us, show us the way. May we then find the strength to follow. Amen.

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