Texts: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Those of you who are not connected to the internet will shake your heads once again at what is going on there. If you are connected, well, then you know already. Social media giants like Facebook are continually targeted by scam artists.
This time, in an interesting twist, it’s a scam about a scam. It seems that some people out there are getting their jollies by making people think that their Facebook account has been hijacked and is being misused for unscrupulous purposes. All the while the account is actually untouched. The force of the scam is in making people very upset and worried about the loss of their privacy.
It’s a very big concern, especially for anyone who has ever been a victim of fraud. Even if you’re not a computer user, there are still plenty of telephone scams out there. Including the old- fashioned kind of scam involving real people scheming for control of others in various ways. You can’t be too careful these days.
You’d think, given our sensitivity to this matter that we’d be more worried about the longest-lasting and largest breach of privacy ever. One that is going on at this very moment. As the writer of Hebrews put it: “…before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” It’s God of course who sees all and knows all about us.
But when it comes to God’s access to our interior-most thoughts, who loses any sleep over that? Welcome to the world of Amos. The prophet showed up around 750 BC, in a time of relative peace and prosperity. A time when hardly anyone was tossing and turning with regret on any given night. When Amos came to Northern Israel (he was a southern boy) saying, God would like to have a little word with you, a lot of folks just thought that Amos was just a mouthy troublemaker from away.
Who gave Amos the right to criticize everyone else? If people were not getting justice in the courtrooms at the massive city gates, probably they just hadn’t found the right lawyer. And maybe what looked like a bribe to Amos was just his inability to understand how things got done in those parts.
And why did the prophet trouble himself about the percentage charged to the poor for selling in the market? It’s a place of business, not a charity for God’s sake! Which brings up the subject of the ragged people hanging around the gates begging. If you gave one of them so much as a tenth of a coin wouldn’t fifty more come crying to you? Besides, with such a strong economy there are plenty of jobs for anyone willing to work.
The people felt no need to justify themselves to Amos. Or perhaps it’s better to say that they justified themselves that they needed to make no justification. They were only doing what everyone – or the majority of people anyway – did. Were they really being selfish or uncharitable? God knows they all mean well, right?
Amos just stuck with his text. God sent me to say this: “Seek good and not evil so that you may live…hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate…”
The gospel of Mark tells the story of a man who wanted very much to justify himself. Approaching Jesus, the man was polite and deferential. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus didn’t accept his gratuitous language. His response that God alone is good should have been a warning to the man that his application to be an inheritor of eternal life wasn’t starting well. Jesus was reading him like a book. Like he knew his thoughts.
But the man got through it. He was as prepared as anyone can be. Jesus named six of the commandments, and glory be! The man had kept them all. At least, he thought he had. What the man didn’t take into account was that his own justification had exactly zero influence with God.
Jesus so loved the man that he didn’t criticize him. He gave the man an out: “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” The man went away deeply sorry that Jesus had asked him for the one thing he could never do. It seemed so unnecessary…
The disciples were surprised again by Jesus. They still thought, along with most people, that wealth was a sign of God’s favor. And if God favors you, then why wouldn’t you get to inherit the kingdom too? So, who then can count on being saved? Peter began to ask what the payoff was for following Jesus. After all, they’d given up a lot.
So Jesus said it again. You can’t justify yourself. Wealth does not justify you. Obeying the law does not justify you. Jesus said, God justifies you. And he said it this way: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Hearing Amos prophesying to Israel and Jesus with the wealthy man, we always stand outside the stories to arrive at conclusions. Where there is corruption, we would blow the whistle. Yes, the poor should be helped. Courts may sometimes render unjust verdicts but not if we can help it. Sure, wealthy people do have advantages. But we should try to do good with what we have.
There will always be someone poorer, someone richer, someone meaner, someone kinder than us. It is fruitless to justify ourselves. God knows our innermost thoughts anyway. So apart from believing we will be held accountable, what is a Christian to do?
Hebrews says: “Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace – to help in time of need.” Perhaps eternal life isn’t an end, it’s what happens to us in following.
Jesus said that following him means taking a loss but we will still find ourselves with plenty. He said that following him means taking the last seats in the last car on the last train but still arriving in front. Go figure.
The wealthy man vanished and of him nothing more can be known. Seems like the only end to this story we’ll ever know is the one we write with our lives.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.