Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2018
Year B, Proper 23: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
CLICK HERE to listen to the recorded sermon.
As I was thinking about today’s readings, I couldn’t help but think about the last several weeks and it suddenly occurred to me. Are all the material things I have here to serve me or am I here to serve them as I desperately look for storage spaces for more clothes than I can possibly wear? I know we live in a different world, but I think of how many people lived in a world where adults had their “Sunday best” and adults had two sets of work clothes and children had school clothes and play clothes that all fit neatly into a dresser.
Apparently, the man we hear about in today’s gospel, who is sometimes referred to as the “rich young ruler” had much more, even in the first century. He had all the material possession that he could possibly want. He had also obeyed the commandments all his life.
Yet something was missing. He did not feel satisfied. He felt a deep hunger for something more, so he came to Jesus asking that powerful question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Who is this man who stops Jesus on his journey? Here in Mark, he is neither referred to as “young”, as he is in the Gospel of Matthew”, nor a “ruler” or elder of the synagogue, as he is in the Gospel of Luke. In the Gospel of Mark, he is only a “man”.
In other words, he is just a person like any of us. Evidently, he is a religious person who really tries to be faithful. Since his youth, he has kept all the commandments Jesus mentions.
There is no reason to think he is self-righteous or evil. He is truly trying to do his best as a person of God. And as a faithful member of the household of God, he would understand his wealth as a sign of God’s favor, as a sign of his righteousness. He has all the things that give life meaning.
Jesus looks at him and loves him. Clearly, Jesus wants very much for him to become one of his own. He yearns for him to become who he was meant to be and follow him into the Kingdom of God or as the man calls it eternal life.
Jesus invites the man to break out of his bondage and enter a new life of freedom. He speaks to him in the language of the possessions, which control his life. Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…” Jesus can see that even as the man kneels before him he is looking for yet one more possession. He wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life. Eternal life for this man is one more possession, the ultimate toy for the person who has everything. He is still preoccupied with himself and his own spirituality. Eternal life is something to get for himself. Jesus diagnoses his disease and offers his prescription for the cure. Give up all your possessions, all things that possess you.
We can interpret the saying of Jesus in many ways. We can look at the things inside that block us, the things we must set aside in order to give our all to Jesus. Indeed, plenty of “things” as it were, in our lives can take the place of God.
All these preoccupations that put self in place of God do indeed stand as obstacles to our relationship with God. We are missing something if we fail to hear the very specific message that Jesus is giving us. He really is saying something very specific about our material possession. After all, one-sixth of the quoted words of Jesus and one-third of the parables deal with money. Jesus fully appreciated the power of money. We can say we are not rich – that is somebody else. Though if we truly consider our relative position, while most of us may not be part of the one percent or even part of the 10 percent, I suggest that in comparison to our neighbors across the globe, that we are among the wealthy.
Someone once observed that those who have means think the most important thing in life is love; the poor, on the other hand, believe that what matters most in life is money. Indeed, Jesus knew that money matters. He knew that we are material creatures in the midst of material reality. It makes me think of the song, Material Girl by Madonna.
Jesus’ exhortation to strive to be rich in heavenly things is different from the man’s expressed desire to know the secret of attaining eternal life. Moving from the man’s question to Jesus’ answer shifts the goal of the religious life from getting oneself into heaven to expanding the self that one will have when one reaches the end of life’s journey. We might see a subtle shift in language – for example instead of “saving one’s soul”, we are “making one’s soul”. “Saving one’s soul” often becomes about self-preservation. Making a soul is all-together different – it’s an ongoing task of cultivating wisdom, loving-kindness, mercy and hospitality among other virtues.
As many of us watch with some level of worry, I am sure, about the downturn in the last week of the stock market, what does this message from Jesus say to us. Because you know the reality is we do need to have food and drink, and a place to stay.
What I hear in this gospel message is a reminder that gospel standards of ethics are different. And if it seems impossible to follow the exhortation to sell all one’s possessions, perhaps we can hold on to them less tightly. Eternal life is more secure than all our possession.
The future of Christianity in the next hundred, even the next twenty, years will expand and open before us. It is not likely to be the same as the last centuries. As Christians, we can no longer rely on institutional memory to keep church services going to have the faith passed down to the next generation. We must remember that it is only in following Jesus on his road into the unknown future that we can inherit eternal life.
So, what does he require? That we sell everything? Well, perhaps more…perhaps our expectations of what church means, and what we get from that may be turned upside down. We gather as a community of Thanksgiving—thanksgiving for this Jesus whose generosity in giving himself models for us how our life can be filled with generosity and thanksgiving. The question of money and possessions is not a question of anxiety or fear with Jesus, rather what we have is an opportunity to live lives of generosity and thanksgiving, both individually and corporately.
Finding what Jesus is calling us to is a matter of courageously accepting the call to eternal life and the real difficulties of discerning what of our expectations to sacrifice, so that we can confidently live that life of thanksgiving that Jesus has for all those who he loves.
None of us can make this leap alone. It is only by God’s grace that we do so. Jesus invites us to open ourselves to God’s generosity. To open our hands to receive God’s good gifts, and then open our hands to share them.
What we hear in today’s gospel is a message of hope. This passage reminds us that God is in control of our lives and that the hope is for eternal life. And that God and God’s abiding love will sustain us.
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