This is the message I shared with St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches this past Sunday, Oct. 11. The scripture text was Mark 10:17-31..
Throughout today's gospel, the one topic of conversation is that of money and possessions. Today, Jesus and his disciples are on the move, making their way to Jerusalem and Jesus' passion. Over the past few Sundays, we have heard radical demands from Jesus followed by confusion from the twelve disciples. True to form, Jesus' call to all today is uncompromising.
There are three separate conversations in today's reading. The subject of each is money and its relationship to eternal life. The rich man wants to know how to get eternal life, the disciples want to know who can have eternal life. Jesus responds with the good news that no one has a chance "at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. [But you have] Every chance in the world if you let God do it" (v. 27).
The first conversation is between Jesus and a rich man (vv. 17-22) who wants to know how to get eternal life. This story has all the earmarks of the healing stories in Mark. The scene is set for the man to request and receive healing. By running up to Jesus and greeting him with great reverence, the man demonstrates that his request in both urgent and sincere. He was heartsick. Despite his piety and wealth, something was missing.
What kind of illness did the man have that makes this passage a healing story? His sickness was that of affluenza. This man is possessed by his possessions. Jesus offers to free him and cure him of his excess. But the rich man turns his back and walks away. Remember in our gospel reading of two weeks ago, where Jesus was using the example of cutting off a hand or foot or eye to save one's life, this week's example of selling all that you own is also an exaggeration to the extreme: to give up everything in order to serve the neighbor and to receive life in God's Kingdom.
We assume that the man's heavy heart was because of his wealth that he did not want to part with, but we don't know that for sure. He may have been grieving the loss of the life Jesus offers or was he perhaps grieving the loss of the possessions he was about to sell, in order to love and serve his neighbors, so he could come and follow Jesus?
The key in this story is "Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him!" (v. 21). Seeing clear through the man, Jesus does not rebuke or discipline him, but loves him. Out of that love, Jesus tells the man the one thing he needs to do, sell everything he owns and give it to the poor and follow him. Jesus is simply calling the man to cast aside all other dependencies and in radical trust accept the invitation to discipleship. Jesus asks him to transfer his reserves to the heavenly realm and to join Jesus and his disciples among the poor of the earth who have no worldly reserves. "Follow me" was not an additional task the man needed to do. Selling and giving is the content of the decisive final word, "follow me."
Now the spotlight shifts from the rich man to Jesus' disciples (vv. 23-27), to the comprehensive issues of the relationship of possessions to discipleship, eternal life and entering the kingdom of God.
The disciples, like most people in their day, likely thought riches were a sign of God's blessing. That idea is still alive and well. Just listen to some of the televangelists. Having possessions and seriously wanting to be a Christian stand in great tension with each other.
Can stuff get in the way of our relationship with God? You betcha. We live in a world full of excess, with advertising that creates desires for things we can easily do without. To say we must give up our wealth to be saved puts the burden on us to save ourselves. Neither wealth or divestment of wealth saves us. God does.
To make his point, Jesus uses the image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. This was not just difficult, it was ridiculously impossible. Jesus was contrasting the largest animal and the smallest hole that any Jew in Israel could think of. It would seem that no one has a chance. Human effort cannot achieve salvation because it takes a miracle of God's grace.
Jesus' lament that it was very difficult for people who have it all to enter the kingdom was shocking for the disciples and for us too. If the rich couldn't be saved, no one can.
Jesus turns things around. God can even save the rich, that is get the camel through the needle's eye. God can save anyone. That is good news. The disciples were faced with divine possibility in the face of human impossibility.
The spotlight now changes to Peter and Jesus. Peter's angle was that the disciples left all to follow Jesus. Simply put, Peter is asking what's in it for us? Jesus promises recompense not only in this life, but multiplied many times in a future with more than enough. The rewards promised in this life are the benefits of being included in the new family gathered around Jesus and the hardships of persecutions and trouble.
Troubles and persecution are the caveat. Being a disciple never allows one to negotiate a permanent peace with the world, in which wealth is cherished and honored. Being a follower of Jesus means we live in critical tension with the world. The tension revolves around the fact that in God's kingdom, there is no rich or poor. In God's eyes, both are equal and one should not be given preferential treatment over the other. This flies in the face of how people in power view themselves. We can expect difficulty and resistance as we follow Jesus, witnessing to the gospel in our world.
God's word is like a mirror. We see reflections of ourselves and our culture in the characters and discussions we encounter in scripture. Questions are asked and attitudes are exposed. Since the church cannot flee the arena in which it is called to live and serve, it needs the constant reminder that the first will be last and the last first.
In Christ, we are a new family gathered around Jesus. Jesus loves us and calls us to leave behind our false sources of security. Those with power, prestige and wealth may find it difficult to renounce these things and enter into community. Interviews with wealthy philanthropists show that power and influence and the ability to get things done, are generally mentioned as the greatest advantages of wealth. The wealthy have been very successful in running their lives by themselves, making it harder for them to trust in Christ. They may not see themselves being in need of anything. They view their success as being achieved on what they have done, not on what God has done for them. As a family of Christ followers, we cannot allow such standards of influence to distinguish one person from another. The cross of Christ is the great equalizer.
Christians are sometimes accused of being too heavenly minded. "...one of the best proofs that Christianity is not a projection of unrealistic psychological wishes is the realism with which it speaks about the world and the life of those who bear witness to the gospel. Christians do not hide from evil or suffering. They overcome those realities through loving service" (Pheme Perkins).
How shall we respond? God making us his own is not the end of the journey, but only the beginning. Jesus is looking at us with love, perceiving our heart sickness and actually asking something of us. What if God is not only concerned about our eternal destiny, but also cares about the life we enjoy here and now with each other in God's creation? (David Lose).
Jesus comes to us and makes demands of us, naming whatever idol we have created (money, clothing, the latest gadgets or anything else that controls us) and asks us to give it up for the sake of our neighbors and ourselves. Such preoccupation with stuff prevents us from being all God is calling us to be when it comes to spreading the good news.
God's gift of salvation can free us to love each other, to care for God's people and world and to share the good news with others. We don't do good things to score heavenly brownie points, but it is how we respond as we bask in God's favor.
Our congregation is very active in our community and overseas. Good things are happening and we need to keep doing what we are doing. But, at the same time we need to keeping listening for what Jesus is asking of us and our congregation right now. When we hear his voice, we may be terrified that we've been found out and grieving all the plans we have made for the perfect life. The choice is ours. Do we turn and walk away from what Jesus is asking or do we give up our idols and follow Jesus?
Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B
Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible: Volume VIII, Matthew and Mark
Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark10x17.htm