Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Rich Young Man

Following C.S. Lewis, I don't believe in coincidences. So I hardly think it's an accident (although it may have been unintentional on his part) that Charles Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol, seems to reflect a great deal of Jesus teaching on riches, especially from this coming Sunday's Gospel reading, Mark 10:17-22 (three-year series for LSB). The week after only further proves the initial thesis where the Gospel reading continues with Mark 10:23-31 and Jesus' teaching on the impossibility of man's salvation. When riches and man-made religion are his god, there is no hope. With man it is impossible; but not with God.

The Old Adam is a perfect Scrooge: a stingy old miser with no concern for anything or anyone but himself and his security. And though Ebenezer Scrooge and the rich young man have many incongruities (this is, after all, an imperfect analogy), it would appear that there are at least a few similarities worth exploring. I had even considered molding a sermon around the idea and illustration but reneged on the thought for fear of the illustration taking over and becoming the god of the day. That is why I have relegated it to this place, in part for my amusement to see if the thought really holds all the way through and in part to get it out of my system. Who knows, maybe it will prove helpful in the end despite my reservations.

At first glance the comparison seems merely superficial. Both men love money clearly enough. Jesus' teaching: "You cannot serve God and mammon" echoes throughout. Although there is a stark contrast between Scrooge's daily behavior and the momentary glimpse into the life of the rich young man in Mark 10. Scrooge operates on a greedy, narcissistic basis. Scrooge requires nothing from anyone and gives nothing to anyone. While the rich young man (who, in the end, reveals his own sorrowful faith in his god) approaches Jesus out of an apparent need. His wealth and reputation make him the model citizen in Jesus' day or our own, at least outwardly speaking. The letter of the Law he claims to have kept. He clearly has the wealth of a Victorian miser. And yet, he lacks something. He wouldn't have come to Jesus otherwise. He runs to Jesus, kneels and asks his question (even if for the wrong reasons and though he seeks the wrong answers by asking the wrong questions) "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life." He runs to Jesus. Scrooge runs to no man. The rich young man kneels. Scrooge kneels for no man, but perhaps for a precious coin. Instead of seeking answers, Jacob Marley and three spirits (past, present and future) pursue this penny-pincher throughout the night as heralds of a message.

Here is where the parallel comes closest, both men receive (and are in need of) a message of condemnation. Scrooge, with his callous, insatiable greed needs, receives three messages all with the same point: possess your money properly or it will possess you; and you had better figure it out before its too late. And it wasn't until death became apparent with the last visitor that Scrooge finally began to see clearly. But the epiphany, if it may be called such a thing in a Christmas tale, did not come until the morning. To quote Mumford and Sons, it's not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive at the restart.

Now, the rich young man's religion also needed exposing. His riches were, no doubt, his religion, or at least a part of his religion. But Jesus reveals his false gods by carefully laid questions and answers.

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.  You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”  And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”  Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Neither his riches nor his religion could make up for the one thing he lacked. And neither his riches nor his religion could answer the question he asked Jesus. Only Jesus could answer that. He didn't go away sorrowful merely because of his riches. But the riches exposed both his trust in them (to his own ruin) and his failure to fully keep the commandments, even though he claimed he could.

This reminds me of Lewis's words in the opening of The Great Divorce, "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest souvenirs of Hell."

In many ways Scrooge and the rich young man find themselves in a raccoon trap as illustrated in the children's classic story Where the Red Fern Grows. The best way to catch a coon, according to the boy, is by placing a small shiny object in a jar-like container so that when the raccoon reaches in to grab it he is trapped. All the raccoon would have to do to escape would be to release the object from its claws. But it will not. It is dead set on keeping it.

Because both men insist - in fact they are dead set as we are - on keeping their shiny objects (whatever they may be). And that is why they are both sent messages because. Love, or at the very least some kind of compassion, motivates Jacob Marley to send the spirits to Ebenezer Scrooge; he doesn't want him to end up like him. Jesus' motives are hardly unclear however. Only Mark's gospel records this salient detail. "Jesus, looking on the man, loved him and then said..."

That is to say, that Jesus' work of removing his false idols - riches and religion - from his heart was a work of love. In love he prunes when he must and even performs a full heart transplant, a violent coup against the kings we've put on His throne. Jesus must lay us bare; like Eustace we must be un-dragoned. We are un-Scrooged - not by haunting spirits, but by the Holy Spirit in Baptism. That water is violent for your old Adam but quickening for your new life in Christ. Follow me!

And there was greater love still. Jesus was "setting out on his journey" Mark records. There's another detail worth noting. Where's he journeying too? Jerusalem. Trial. Mockery. Whips. Scourging. Suffering. Crucifixion. Death. Right after Jesus discourse on riches, religion and the impossibility of man saving himself by any means, he tells us how the last become first: death and resurrection. And what's more, he's going to be the one dying and rising. He, the one who was and who is and who is to come, will be put in the grave.

Even in the Disney version of A Christmas Carol that last and final scene before Scrooge awakes always gives me a graveyard chill. Whose name is on the tombstone? What poor soul? No one's there to attend his funeral. No friends or loved ones. He is alone. Abandoned to the grave. And Death extends his muted finger calmly to the headstone. There, etched in stone, a rock that yields no help for Ebenezer, is his own name. He is helpless.

And then from death awaken me. That these mines eyes with joy may see. O, Son of God Thy glorious face. My Savior and my fount of grace. Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend!

In the morning, Scrooge awoke with joy that he wasn't dead. It was Christmas. There was still time. And he was not alone after all. And what about the rich young man. Did he wake up? Did he follow Jesus? We don't know. Some scholars think this is Mark including his own story into the gospels. It's possible. But Mark doesn't give us the ending we want. But he does give us the ending we need. He draws us into the story. We're no better than Scrooge or the rich young man. Rich or poor, we all have our gods, our riches and religion. And Christ has come to claim those too. He is a jealous God. No other gods will do. No other god will comfort when loved ones die suddenly. No other gods will show mercy when we're in grief. No other gods will crawl into the grave on your behalf and rise again. No other gods have died for you. But this one - Jesus - has. Through him, through his cross and the resurrection, God has blessed us, every one. And he continues to do so. Follow me!

With great joy we awake for our names are not chiseled on that tomb. In fact, that tomb is empty. If there is any inscription it reads like this: "He is not here; He is risen." Your epitaph is written in his fleshly scars, etched in his hands and feet and side.

What joy. You are not alone. You are forgiven. Christ has done the impossible for you.

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