Twenty First Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, RCL
October 14, 2018
North Fork Ministries
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "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, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
The Austin City Limits Music Festival is going on right now. With the thousands of visitors and the hundreds of bands that converge on the city, it's a great time to be in Austin, or a good time to get away, depending on your perspective. A few years ago, my son, Nathan, had a temporary job working a booth at the Music Festival – selling a very “Austin” kind of soy based ice cream appropriately called “Not a Moo”. Parking is impossible at ACL so he called me asking for my advice on the best route to walk to the festival from his apartment. Recognizing a rare opportunity to spend a little extra time together, I volunteered to walk with him to Zilker Park where the festival is held – much like I had walked him to school when he was a young boy. As we walked along the hike and bike trail that leads to the park, chatting about his plans for the future, we passed under an expressway that rises above West Austin. And scrawled on a giant concrete pillar supporting the freeway, we simultaneously read the following inscription: “Your life is meaningless.” My son, 22 years old at the time, who was in the midst of a particularly intense period of searching for meaning in his life, turned to me, smiled, and said, “Kind of takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?”
The story of the rich man we just read about in Mark, is described in Matthew as young and in Luke as a ruler. But in the Gospel according to Mark, he is just a man, albeit one who had many possessions. Christian tradition often conflates the gospels, combining elements from each book, so that we are left with a composite, a composition that often results in a less distinctive story, a story with the particularities of meaning erased by painting the separate gospel stories with one broad stoke.
This man, whether he is rich, young, a ruler, or all three comes to Jesus with a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I think that we, particularly those of us who emerge from a fundamentalist tradition, are quick to assume that the man is asking Jesus about what will happen when he dies, or how he can avoid death and live forever.” Jesus doesn’t choose to answer that question. Instead, Jesus, as he often does, talks about what it takes to enter the “Kingdom of God.”
You know, I’ve talked with a good number of young men and women who are searching for something, and the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life, isn’t the first query that comes up in our conversation. The question most people have, young and old, whether it is clearly articulated or not, isn’t about what happens when we die. The question that weighs heaviest on most of us is, “What we do with this life that we have right now?” or “What’s the point?” or “How can I find some meaning?”
Jesus takes the man’s question and turns it upside down, away from the man’s concern for himself, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and instead points him toward his actions regarding others – first in observance of the law – refraining from murder, theft, adultery, lying, fraud, and honoring one’s parents. And then, assured by the rich man with many possessions that he had always comported himself in an acceptable fashion, Jesus asked him to do the one thing that a rich man would find the hardest to do – part with his riches.
Jesus often uses hyperbole. That shouldn’t be too shocking. Jesus, just as we do, sometimes overstates his case to make a point. But the point he is making is real. Maybe it wouldn’t be good stewardship of our resources to give up everything we have. But if Jesus’ message doesn’t compel us to take that first step toward discipleship, then what, please tell me, is the point?
Consider the man’s question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” His question reflects a typical mind-set of the privileged – assuming that we can do something to be a part of God’s kingdom. In the verses preceding these, Jesus was telling his disciples that they must receive the kingdom as little children. But not having heard that message the man assumes that he can inherit the kingdom by doing something. It is useful to remember that heritance is, by definition, something that is given, not something we deserve or earn.
But then Jesus does give him something to do. Not because he will earn God’s love by giving away all that he has, but because Jesus recognizes that the man has been blinded by his possessions. His possessions have prevented him from realizing that he was loved already.
The bargain Christ offers isn’t a simple tit for tat. Give away all you have and you will get more. This isn’t the prosperity gospel we hear preachers profess on Sunday morning cable TV channels. There isn’t a trace of the idea here that money and wellbeing are signs of God’s favor. Here Jesus is calling us to recognize that wealth, power, and possessions get in the way of our quest to find a meaningful existence.
In this passage Jesus identifies the element in the man’s life that holds him captive. And Jesus offers him freedom from the wealth that enslaves him. The philosopher, Jacque Ellul, has written that the only way to free ourselves from the power of money is to give it away. He asks, “How do we overcome the spiritual ‘power’ of money? Not by accumulating more money, not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings. The law of money is the law of accumulation, of buying and selling….To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.”
This man who comes to Jesus is religious. And clearly the practice of his faith, his observance of the law, have lead him to the conclusion that there must be more to the experience of God than he as known thus far. In seeking this next step, he wants to know what else he must “do”, what needs to be added. But instead of adding something, Jesus tells him he has to give something up. If he is to know the Kingdom of God in all its fullness, he must surrender his whole self. He must empty himself in order to make room for God.
Mark tells us that upon hearing Jesus’ advice that the man sell all that he has and give it to the poor that “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” I like to think that the young man left in sorrow, not because he was refusing to take Jesus’ advice, but because he was imagining the consequences of the course he was going to take. Perhaps the man was grieving over the anticipated loss of his possessions. But what I like to imagine for the man is that, in the presence of the Christ, he understood that a life richer and more abundant awaited him.
In what is certainly one of the Bible’s most beautiful passages of scripture, Mark recounts how upon hearing the man’s story, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him”. My hope for the rich young ruler, and my prayer for us, is that we can let go of whatever it is that possesses us, our money, our fear, our insecurities, all that prevents us from realizing that we are too are loved.