Privilege, price, and the season of Thanksgiving

Our brief tour through the book of Job is not enough to do it justice; it is a very complex story, plenty of twists and turns.  The gist of Job’s story is that a man who is completely righteous before God must come to terms with a sudden and horrifying loss of his family, his fortune and his health.  It is a sore test of faith for Job, who has never had reason to doubt that God smiled on him.  He doubts it now.

We are brought to Job by the Lectionary to remind us that he issue of privilege is a constant theme in Scripture.  God’s favour is the mark of high privilege in much of Scripture – God chooses to bless Abraham & Sarah – to bring the Israelites out of slavery – God speaks through certain people – prophets – and God’s power is made manifest in certain, unmistakable ways throughout history.  Job’s problem is seemingly one of privilege revoked.

Job’s story has an interesting counterpart in the gospel of Mark.  The man that Jesus meets is righteous – by his own description.  He has kept the commandments – and certainly Jesus believes this to be true; or at least, Jesus admires his earnest description of his faithfulness to the law, for Jesus “looks at him and loves him.”  And then, Jesus changes the game:  “You lack one thing – go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”  Job’s fortune is taken from him; Jesus asks this man to walk away willingly.  So what does it mean to have privilege?  What does God’s favour look like?  How are we moved by Jesus challenge?

Now, this is our Thanksgiving weekend; a time when most of Canada remembers to stop and think about how fortunate we have been.  We are encouraged to give thanks for the things that make us happy – that make our life comfortable – for the people that bring us joy.  We celebrate by gathering together and eating, mostly – though some travel, and some rest, and still others go about their regular tasks with a sharper awareness that we do indeed have it pretty good – and there’s nothing wrong with any of that.  But there are those who don’t celebrate – too many who cannot give thanks; some in our own communities. I imagine an almost ironic cheer coming from those members of the family of God when they hear Jesus say “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”  Finally, some justice from the Almighty!  Finally, an area of life that does not favour those who already have everything they could ever want or need.  And it is tempting to leave the gospel there – to send the rich away empty, and to fill the needy with good things and let all give thanks that God can be just – but that is not the last word.

Yes, the first shall be last and the last  will be first; an upsetting of the usual order of things is a hallmark of the kingdom of God.  But Jesus uses one mans grief to keep us from making the rich man’s mistake, not to separate us along economic lines.

It is hard to enter the kingdom of God.  Hard for the rich, for the poor, for everyone in between – but not because of what we do or do not have; it is hard because we don’t long for the things of God in the way we long for the things of this world.

That’s not difficult to understand – after all, the Kingdom of God is a high ideal – our imaginations have been trying to describe this kingdom for thousands of years.  Peace, praise and pearly gates is about the best we can do – but there is so much more.  Loving neighbour, loving God – the kind of harmony described by Jesus as being “very near” has been an elusive dream, because power and wealth – the trappings of success – are there for the taking.  Those things are real and delightful and available, and so we distract ourselves in their pursuit.  In this, we are caught – just as the man in Mark 10 is caught.

We know the commandments; we’ve kept (most) of them to the best of our ability.  We live good lives, seeking mostly good things.  And still it is hard: hard to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly.  It is hard because we are only human.  We like our own accomplishments – our toys – our self-made, hard won privileges.  It is hard to enter God’s kingdom, not because the ‘price of entry’ is high, but because God’s favour cannot be bought, or won, or gained by our effort.  Go, sell all you have and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven…”; this is not about price; Jesus is telling us something about value.

We are all guilty, here in the middle of October, of giving thanks for things that have cost us something – we are not always aware that some of these have no value to us.  Jesus invites us to consider the way things change us – are we living in a way that glorifies the world as it is, or do our lives offer a glimpse of the world as it should be?  And while it is, in Jesus’ words, impossible for us to embody the kingdom of God, we are assured that God stands ready to help us live into that ideal.

With the Spirit’s help, following Jesus path, we can live lives of value – lives that redefine privilege; lives that honour God and neighbour and selves.  The promise of the gospel – a promise of new life and real hope – is that God’s favour is ours for the asking.

Give thanks today for all the things that bring you joy.  For your families, your safety, for the good fortune (or good planning) that brought you to a land of peace and plenty.  But give thanks too for the grace of God that finds us all, rich, poor and in between.

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