Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 11:1-11 Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Jesus wasn’t a king. I said that in my sermon last week. Jesus in his role as messiah wasn’t going to be a king. In Mark 12, Jesus said that the Messiah wasn’t a son of David, that is, wasn’t a descendant of a king who could argue that he deserved to because of that royal lineage. I said, to your very faces, across your phone and internet lines, that Jesus wasn’t a king and that I think that Jesus wanted to make sure that the people following him didn’t think he was going to be a king. The Messiah was not going to be a new monarch to restore their people to the Good Old Days of King David. I still believe that. And, yet, here where are today, back a chapter or so from what I preached on last week, with Jesus entering Jerusalem kind of like a king in a royal procession. Great. Thanks, Jesus for messing up my point from last week. I hope you’re happy. Because that’s what this strange little parade is supposed to remind us of: A king entering the city. And, Jesus is set up to be the king in this parade, but none of it looks quite right.
The book of Zechariah has a prophecy about a king on a donkey. It reads: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” When we read that Jesus asked the disciples to borrow a donkey for him and that he rode that donkey into Jerusalem during Passover, we’re supposed to remember that prophecy and think of Jesus like a king. Bonnie Bowman Thurston reminds us, in her commentary, that kings usually had the right to use whatever they wanted. Jesus wanted the donkey and he got it. Whenever people do what Jesus tells them to, things work out well.
The city of Jerusalem would have been packed. It was the festival of Passover, one of the most important Jewish festivals, and Jewish and God-fearing non-Jewish pilgrims from all over would have been traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate. The streets would have been full of money changers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. People who were sick and impoverished would likely be in the streets, asking strangers for help, especially for food and money. You remember the story of Bartimaeus? The streets of Jerusalem would have been full of people just like him. Children would have been running wild, too, enjoying the exciting trip to the city, and probably driving their parents to exhaustion.
The city would have also been tense. Passover is a celebration of God rescuing Israel from slavery, a celebration of God taking down a tyrant to save the people. Another tyrant was ruling Israel, this time Rome. Rome was quick to violence if they thought a people they conquered were going to revolt. A festival celebrating liberation seemed ripe for rebellion. Fred Craddock, in a sermon titled “If Only We Didn’t Know,” said that Rome increased the size of their military presence in the city by three times during this festival. The presence of the soldiers was intended to be threatening. So was the presence of Pontius Pilate. He was always ready to enact violence to protect Rome. Pilgrims remembering liberation while under the watchful eye of a violent army. The city would have been tense. If all we think about is the Hosannas, we can forget the tension that would have been all around them. Into this tension, this ruckus of pilgrims, vendors, sick people, and soldiers, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, riding on a borrowed donkey, carrying the weight of Zechariah’s messianic prophecy and almost looking like a king... or at least a man who might want to be a king.
As he rides into town on a donkey, people see him coming and they make a path for him. You don’t just make a path for any old pilgrim coming into the city. You clear a path, especially in this way, for someone special, maybe even someone royal. Mark doesn’t call the branches palms. That happens in John. But, they are leafy branches of some kind that people take the time to cut down. Dr. Thurston points out in her commentary that in the book of Isaiah, one way you welcome a king is by smoothing out the road ahead of him and in the book of 2 Kings, when Jehu is proclaimed the king, some military officers spread their cloaks out in front of him to acknowledge his kingship. At Passover, parts of Psalm 118, were sung: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.” The word “hosanna” comes from that text. Hosanna means “save us.” Importantly, you don’t just yell save us at any random pilgrim who comes riding by on a donkey. You yell “save us” it to the King. You yell “save us” to God.
I once read a dramatized account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem written by Doyle Burbank-Williams. Rev. Burbank-Williams imagined that the people who watched and joined the procession would have had all manner of responses to it. I was particularly struck by a couple of crowd members he imagined:
Voice 2: What a great day! I haven't had this much fun in ages! Did you see that rabbi Jesus enter the city? He came in like a crazy little king. Pilate comes charging in on his chariot, leading his army. Jesus trotted in followed by a bunch of peasants. We all grabbed branches and waved them high, shouting and cheering. What a great day!
Voice 3: I waved a branch today, too. And, I laughed. But, even more, I hoped. I hoped that maybe this Jesus means to change things. I'm just like one of those peasants following him. They know how hard life is. Jesus knows, too. So, hoping that just maybe he might be a new messiah, I joined that crowds that shouted: Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! Hosanna!
Unfortunately, we don’t have any accounts from the actual crowd members, just the story of the crowd’s behavior as curated by the author of Mark years after the fact. I could believe that the two members of the crowd gathered might respond like that, one in delight over anything that might knock Pilate down a peg and another with an uncertain hope. Also, though, I’ve read the stories after this one. Even as Jesus is greeted like a king and a savior in today’s reading, the rest of the week will not feel triumphal. I know that by Thursday, Jesus will be betrayed, and by Friday, Jesus will be dead. Crowds will shift from yelling “save us” to yelling "Crucify him!" By Saturday, his followers will believe that all hope has been lost.
I mentioned Dr. Craddock’s sermon “If Only We Didn’t Know” earlier. In that sermon, Craddock points out that if we’d paid attention to Jesus at all in Mark, even as he looks like a triumphal king in this story, he has already told us three times that this royal parade will end up on the cross. Roman soldiers will call Jesus “King of the Jews” while they torture and mock him. If Jesus was supposed to look like a victorious king entering the city, if he was supposed to be fulfilling the prophecy of a Davidic heir entering David’s city and would be returning their people to glory, why on earth would he later be betrayed and killed? What kind of king is this?
For all the trappings of royalty and allusions to heroic kings of the past, the events of this story and the rest of Holy Week, will show us that Jesus was no king. Or, at least not the leader everyone thought he would be. Yes, in some ways, if Jesus is “kingly,” he shows us a vision of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of love and justice, which stands in opposition to the cruel Empire of Rome. In his commentary on this passage, Ira Driggers wonders if even the use of the donkey colt as his mode of entry into the city is intended to show us that Jesus will lead not like Pilate, charging into the city on a warhorse, but on a humble donkey, a mount fit for leader rooted in healing and care for stranger and neighbor alike.
Driggers argues that if we are to understand Jesus as a king, it is a king unlike any other. From his baptism to his death, Jesus demonstrates his deep commitment to his mission to restore humanity to covenant with God. This commitment to restoration and wholeness will put him in opposition with people of good will who disagree with him, powerful people who are invested in the structures that oppose wholeness, and Rome, who wants nothing to do with a rabble-rouser. Jesus knows that means his life will be cut short if he remains this committed to his mission. As Driggers puts it, “Jesus chooses death because toning down God’s healing love - to avoid death - is not an option for the Messiah. Jesus can only love at full speed. And Jesus knows that this same love will overcome death itself.” So, shout your hosannas today. Jesus will hear them. The next week is going to be hard. But these moments of celebration are pointing us to the greatest celebration yet to come.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The First Commandment
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”, - this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
The Question about David’s Son
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ” David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
The Widow’s Offering
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
The Jesus we meet in scripture is an interesting teacher. He seems to understand that sometimes you need can hear an explanation and immediately understand it. He also seems to understand that sometimes you need some examples to make the meaning clear. While he rarely wants to clarify himself to people who are questioning him in bad faith, he will clarify for his disciples and for people who genuinely seem interested in growing closer to God. Last week, we heard some of Jesus’ most contentious arguments with the religious elite of his community. This week, we shift into the final session of those “interrogations,” as some scholars call them. This one is not nearly so contentious. In fact, this one shows us how Jesus is clearly situated in the best of his tradition and this scribe is right there with him.
Pastor Intern Becky already gave us a good introduction to the text, so I’ll only talk about it a little. Jesus is clear about what he thinks is the heart of Jewish law. Love God and Love your neighbor. I’ve even heard of the 10 Commandments being lumped together, with the first tablet the “love God” tablet and the second tablet being the “love your neighbor” tablet. It probably doesn’t surprise those of us who have been hearing and reading Jesus’ words for a long time. We know that he is the foundation of the covenant between Israel and God. What might surprise us, if we’ve heard lots of sermons about how terrible scribes and pharisees are, is to hear this scribe agree with him.
The scholar Sarah Henlicky Wilson is the one who reminded me what a gift this wise scribe is to Christian readers. Too many sermons, probably even ones I’ve preached, have developed interpretations that put our Jewish neighbors in a bad light, misunderstanding their traditions of interpretation and the culture both of ancient Jewish people and our contemporary Jewish neighbors. Given how often Jesus is arguing with Pharisees and the fact that Pharisees were Jewish religious authorities, people will shortcut the arguments into Jesus disagreed with Jewish people. That is a poor reading. The stronger reading, according to Wilson, and I agree with her, is to say that Jesus is a Jewish teacher who argued with Jewish authorities. And, sometimes, we see those same authorities agree with Jesus’ interpretation of their shared religious tradition.
This scribe sees Jesus’ wisdom and Jesus sees his. This affirmation of sound, shared teaching is enough to make the most contentious interrogations of Jesus’ teaching stop, at least for the moment. As Bonnie Bowman Thurston says, this portion of story shows us that Jesus and the scribe alike know that the Law is intended to be a gift from God to the people, a gift that shows the people how to relate to God and, frankly, to other people. If your behavior is rooted in the covenant, it consistently demonstrates these two commitments. The rest of today’s reading shows how hard it can be to consistently demonstrate love of God and love of neighbor. Those priorities can get lost in love of self.
The story has shifted. Jesus is teaching a large crowd in the temple. And, he begins with a question about the Messiah. How can the Messiah be the son of David? Richard Horsley, in his commentary on this portion, says we should read this question as being directed to the people who thought the Messiah would restore a true king to Israel through a leader from the line of King David. Jesus didn’t believe the Messiah, or his role as Messiah, was to be a military or royal leader who brought back the Good Old Days. Instead, the Messiah will harken back to the root of the covenant, love and justice, and reorient the people back towards God. You remember that cornerstone image? Jesus said the Messiah isn’t a king but a foundation for building covenant with God and with other people.
With that in mind, Jesus looks towards current leaders who should be pointing towards God and neighbor, and, instead, are just shining a big ol’ light on their own holiness. Jesus has little patience for hypocrites, who want to look good before other people but fall down in their adherence to the covenant. In this last part of Mark 12, it seems like there are few things that anger Jesus more than hypocrisy. I think it’s because the hypocrite loses sight of both God and neighbor while being concerned about their reputation and image.
What exactly makes one a hypocrite? Jesus' gives a pretty succinct run-down in verses 38-40. You wear your nicest ritual garments around town to show off how holy you are. You use your education and privileged position to get positions of honor and the best seats in the synagogue. You make a show of your faith without actually living out the core tenets of that faith. And, most damningly, you take advantage of the poor. Debie Thomas, in her commentary on this scripture, points out that some of the people in the greatest need in Jesus’ community were the widows, that is, women who had not simply lost their husbands, but who likely had no family at all to call upon for help. Care for the widow and the orphan was embedded in scripture and in the practice of the law. In her commentary, Thomas reminds us that when the Psalmist wanted to describe God's capacity for grace, they called God the parent to the orphans and the protector of widows. The law even made allowances for poor people to avoid giving to the temple if they could not afford it, a fact that the scribes in this story seem to have forgotten.
The scholars that I have read this week argue that what Jesus is really doing in this text is calling out his religious community for forgetting God's priorities. He is not using a poor woman to guilt people into giving more. He is calling out a temple system that consumed every last dime of the poor but does not seem to be offering the support for them that was demanded by the law. Remember, Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. God and neighbor are a package deal. If you missed either one of these things, you missed out on living the life God called you to.
Thomas argues that Jesus may actually believe that it is an actual shame that she has so little. Her faith leaders should be bound by their faith to help her and make sure that she has something beyond her last coins that she tithes out of faith. What Jesus finds galling is that it seems as though caring for her has been forgotten in favor with fancy clothes and fancy dinners and keeping up the system that gives them power. Jesus is clear. If we have any concern for the covenant, for building a relationship with God, we should not be like these religious leaders who care more for their reputation and institution than for the people whom God loves.
The next part of the scripture, just after today’s reading, is ominous. But, I think it needs to be noted. After noting that some scribes are wise and upholding the covenant well and after noting that too many powerful religious people are disregarding love of neighbor for love of power, Jesus says that the institution that they are investing in will fall. In chapter 13, vs 2, Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here up on another; all will be thrown down.” A few decades after Mark was compiled as a Gospel, the temple would be destroyed by Rome. I don’t think that’s what Jesus was predicting though. He never preached as though God was using Rome to punish Israel. But, I do think he was critical of the religious institution built up around the use of the temple, an institution, that several times before this, he preached lost sight of the heart of scripture, which was love and justice, in favor of rigid and sometimes hypocritical practices that harmed actual people.
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, wonders if this is actually the hardest and most important question this Gospel asks of modern readers. We are long disconnected from the temple practices that Jesus critiqued. But, we, being humans, can build up our own version of the hypocritical practices in our time. Part of being the body of Christ means being willing to look inward to see if our outward manifestation of Church is really about love of God and neighbor or has morphed in something more selfish or self-aggrandizing or self-protective. Jesus warns us that any institution that claims to be built on love of God and neighbor but doesn’t actually practice that love can crumble long before it helps to enact the kindom of God in this world. As we consider a return, hopefully in the next few months, to our building and our more typical gatherings as a community, we would do well to make sure that all that we have and all that we are points to love of God and neighbor. For, this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Mark 12:1-17 The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
Then he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”?’ When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
The Question about Paying Taxes
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
I have talked about how we will be traveling through the book of Mark during Lent until Easter. At this point, we’ve mostly been traveling in the order of the story, ever closer to Jerusalem. Today, though, we’ve skipped ahead of the story a bit. The two parts of this reading take place after Jesus has made it to Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry we celebrate on Palm Sunday and after flipping tables in the temple. This is a story about the height of the conflict between Jesus and the religious rulers in his community. As several scholars I read this week noted, it is common to hear the stories of the triumphal entry and the resurrection during Holy Week. We don’t always get the stories of the most intense conflict, the stories that show us how someone could come to the conclusion that Jesus needed to be harmed. Remember, he taught as one with authority. And, he challenged the people in authority. These are stories that tell us something about power- what power Jesus had, whose power is threatened, and, ultimately the power of God. Jesus teaches about power by talking about a vineyard and a coin.
Vineyards are all over the place in the Bible. They were an integral part of the culture and community. It makes sense that, when trying to find a metaphor that people connected to, prophets and teachers would look towards vineyards, places of deep roots, hard work, and daily cultivation, to help teach something about the people’s covenant with God. In the book of Isaiah chapter 5: 1-7, the prophet calls Israel God’s vineyard. It was on a fertile hill, set up for success, and lovingly tended by God. Unfortunately, where God hoped to reap justice, God found violence. This vineyard produced unusable and bitter grapes. The people did not live into their call to love and justice. In Isaiah, God was going to raze the vineyard, starting something new, to get to fields of righteousness, where, as 5:17 states, “lambs shall graze as in their pasture, young animals and kids shall feed among the ruins.” Sometimes, you need to start over to get to the end you desire.
The scholar Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, believes that the religious leaders would have understood that Jesus’ parable of the vineyard to be labeling them as the wicked, violent tenants. They realize that Jesus believes that they have so fully fallen short of their covenant, that they have sown violence where they should have sown justice, that they have become what the prophet decried in Isaiah. The metaphor isn’t exactly the same in this story, but it’s close enough to feel like an indictment. The leaders in his community would have heard the echoes of the earlier vineyard story in this one. They would have realized that the way that they wielded their power was being questioned. And, powerful people rarely want to be questioned, especially if they feel like they are doing the right thing.
Power is a slippery concept in this story, to be sure. While we are probably intended to understand that God is the vineyard owner in this part of Mark, as God was in Isaiah. This vineyard owner owns other humans, which is not just, and keeps sending the humans he owns into a dangerous situation, which is not just. A scholar I read named Angela Dienhart Hancock says she finds this scripture particularly hard to preach on because of the violent and complicated layers of ownership and relationship. She thinks the key here is that bit about the cornerstone. There is a strong, usable stone that will first be rejected but will end up being key to the construction of the new building. Just as with the first vineyard story, where the vineyard becomes something new, a pasture, this vineyard will be changed, too. The cornerstone will reshape the space back towards justice. That is the power that Jesus, and God through Jesus, will wield here; the power to shape the people into the Kin-dom of God, the sweet pastures where love and justice are cultivated. This is why the people in power were threatened by Jesus. He said they were doing it wrong and that they needed to be corrected to be put more in line with what God wanted from them. Now, if you have been in power and someone tells you he’s pretty sure you’ve messed up so badly that you must be removed, you might end up wanting to get rid of him, too. And, you would definitely want to know who the heck he thought he was to be telling you how you were doing wrong by God.
There is an additional entity exerting power on Jesus and his people that the second part of our reading addresses: Rome. Rome has taken over Israel and is a cruel colonizer, extracting goods and people for Rome’s own gain. Even as Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are having intense arguments about what it means to be Jewish and adhere to the covenant, Rome is a constant threat looming in the background. Someone who is crafty might be able to use the power of Rome against Jesus in order to bolster their own authority without taking the blame for violence enacted against him. That’s what this bit about the coin is here for. To show us how people threatened by Jesus hoped to get him in trouble with either the people who had trusted him or with Rome, who had the power to do him harm. Jesus, again, has the power to change the direction of the conversation away from what his questioners intend and back towards God.
Clayton Croy, in his commentary on this text, reminds us that Jesus’ community hated paying taxes to Rome, not because there is something wrong with taxes, but because the taxes ultimately supported the Empire that had conquered the local people. If Jesus seemed to side with the Empire, the regular people would stop listening to his teaching. If Jesus was too anti-Rome in his response, Rome would come after him for threatening the empire. Remember, this is during Passover and Roman soldiers were everywhere. They had a low tolerance for any talk that sounded like Revolution.
Jesus, though, did not answer the question on their terms. He almost never does. Instead, he makes this a question of taxes into a question about who has power of what. Caesar, who has money printed up with his face on it, has power over what is done with that money. But, God has a different power. God’s power should be their first concern. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But, give to God what belongs to God. Croy, in his commentary, said that Jesus argued that what you owe Caesar is actually pretty limited. What you owe God is a much bigger question.
I’ve read before that we should remember that if the image of Caesar on the coin shows us whom the coin belongs to, perhaps we should consider where we see the image of God to figure out what belongs to God. You might remember that humanity is said to bear the image of God at creation in the book of Genesis. “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” That means that our whole selves and our neighbors’ whole selves belong to God. So, as we consider our actions, we act in such a way that we are rededicating ourselves to God and tend to our neighbors’ well-being as they are reflections of God. And, look at that. Jesus, in reminding the people that what is owed to God is our first concern, has realigned his people with the covenant. This is him using the power of the cornerstone that he talked about, directing the shape of the kindom we can build with God. As we move ever closer to the crucifixion and, ultimately, resurrection, remember this. Remember that Jesus is ultimately directing us towards God and all that is God’s. Even when things get scary and complicated, Jesus is answering the question: What is God’s? Jesus says we are. Now, let’s make sure the vineyard we are working in reflects that.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
This Sunday was an intentional intergenerational Sunday, which includes liturgy that is written specifically for children’s developmental levels and a sermon that is written with the children’s developmental levels in mind. Before Ann, our lay reader, read our Scripture, I told everyone that there was more than one story in our reading and asked them to pay attention to how many different stories they heard. As you read our scripture for the week, I invite you to do the same. How many stories are in this one story?
Mark 10: 32-52
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Sometimes our readings for Sunday morning have more than one story. Before our reading today, I asked you to listen to see how many stories this chunk of Mark is telling. When you were listening, how many stories did you hear? (listen to their guesses) Those are all good guesses. Becky and I figured that there were three: the first part, where Jesus predicted that something bad was going to happen to him in Jerusalem, the second part, where James and John want to have the best seats alongside Jesus, and the part where Jesus heals a man named Bartimaeus. And, these three stories work together to tell us something about what it means to follow Jesus.
The first story in this reading, the one where Jesus made a prediction about what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. Remember, Jesus and the disciples are walking together and he is teaching and healing people along the way. In this part of the story, when it says that people are following Jesus, it means that they are literally walking with him towards Jerusalem. And, some people who were mad at Jesus and were in the city of Jerusalem had already sent spies to check on what he was teaching. We haven’t read that story together recently, but they did. So, as the group of people were walking with Jesus towards Jerusalem, they got nervous. They knew that people who didn’t trust Jesus lived there.
If you are doing something scary and your friends are coming with you, it is good to let them know that the thing you will be doing together is scary, especially if the thing you all are doing is important. And, what Jesus was going to do in Jerusalem was important. He had to make sure that everyone who followed him knew that it would likely be dangerous and also make sure that they were willing to risk going there with him even if it were dangerous. Sometimes being brave means knowing something is scary, feeling scared, and doing the hard thing anyway. The first part of the story is where Jesus makes sure that the disciples know that not everyone likes what he’s teaching and some people are really mad about it. But, even if people are mad and will hurt him, in the end, they cannot stop him from rising. A couple of the disciples then go on to ask some questions about what it means to follow Jesus and if they could have a special place with him. Intern Pastor Becky is going to tell you more about that.
This morning you heard a story during the scripture reading about James and John, two of Jesus’ 12 disciples. They both asked Jesus to grant them the right to sit one at the right hand and one at the left hand in Jesus’ glory. They wanted to have special seating in front of the 10 other disciples. Do you think the disciples were shocked at John and James’ request or mad that they didn’t think to ask first?
Think about this for a minute: When you go to your Grandparent’s house for Thanksgiving dinner or another special occasion, do you rush to sit at the table beside one of your grandparents, or do you have to sit away from them or even at a different table? What about when you were having your lunch in the school cafeteria before Covid? Was there a special person that you felt you needed to sit beside to eat lunch or lunch wouldn’t taste the same if there wasn’t space available??
Jesus agrees that it is good to be a leader, but says that a leader is a person who puts the needs and wants of others before his or her own. Think about being part of a team, like the 12 disciples were. I know many of you have been part of a sports team or played music with other people, so you know what it is like learning to work together. It can be difficult at first to learn to pass the ball so someone else can score, instead of keeping it to score yourself. Or being one of the members of a relay team and learning that everyone working together can make you all winners, not just the one crossing the finish line. Leaders are people who give up their own glory for the good of the team. A few leaders that come to my mind are Rev. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
James and John had asked Jesus the question because they believed it would be a privilege and they would sit in greatness besides Jesus. But Jesus’ lesson was about servanthood, helping others before helping ourselves. When we follow Jesus’ teachings, we stay close to him, by serving others before ourselves.
So, the first story is Jesus warning his friends of the danger that awaits them in the city. The second story shows us that the disciples want to follow Jesus, even if it’s dangerous, but that they misunderstand what will happen if they follow him. James and John think that they might have a special honor if they follow him. Jesus has to tell them and all the disciples that following him isn’t about making yourself special but about serving the people around you. And, then we have the third story, a story where Jesus heals someone and that person immediately begins to follow him. I read an article by a teacher named Mark Vitalis Hoffman who said that this story is pretty special. There are lots of stories where Jesus heals people. There are lots of stories where people decide to follow Jesus. There aren’t as many where someone is healed and also starts following Jesus down the road. Bartimaeus is special. He has a great gift, and this gift allows him to come closer to Jesus than many people could have imagined. Thank goodness that he realized he had such a gift, or he might never have approached Jesus and he might never have been healed. And, what is Bartimaeus’ great gift? His faith. As you may remember, Jesus said that it was his faith that made him well. And, we can all learn an important lesson from Bartimaeus about how to use the gifts that we have to follow Jesus.
Bartimaeus didn't have much money. Notice that we first see him, he was asking for money from strangers when he encountered Jesus. Sometimes people have so little that they have to ask strangers for help so they can have food and a safe place to stay. Sometimes people call our church and ask for help like Bartimaeus did. And, since he is asking strangers for help, it probably means that he doesn’t have family or friends who are helping take care of him. Sometimes people aren’t nice to people like Bartimaeus, very poor people who are sick and have to ask strangers for help. When Bartimaeus realized that Jesus was coming close to him, he started shouting out for his help. He must have already learned that Jesus could heal people and hoped that Jesus could heal him. Some of the people with Jesus told Bartimaeus to be quiet… to leave Jesus alone… it’s like they thought Jesus had more important things to do than deal with the likes of Bartimaeus.
Luckily for him, Bartimaeus wouldn’t be shushed when help was so close to him. He kept yelling and asking for help. He did something else special, too. He realized, way before other people, that Jesus was the Messiah. That’s what he was saying when he called Jesus the Son of David. Few other people realized so quickly who Jesus was. When Jesus heard Bartimaeus cry out, he had compassion for this man with the great gifts of faith and bravery. Jesus asked his friends to go get him. Jesus' disciples said to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Has anyone ever told you to take heart? That means, “Hey! Something good is getting ready to happen. I hope you feel good about it.”
In the last couple weeks, we’ve heard stories about different people approaching Jesus. A teacher named Bonnie Bowman Thurston noticed something interesting while comparing Bartimaeus to the rich young man who approached Jesus. When Jesus told the rich young man that he needed to give away everything he had to the poor and follow Jesus, the rich man got very sad and didn’t immediately follow Jesus down the road. He walked away. Bartimaeus was different. He was willing to give up all he had to come to Jesus. Did you hear that part that said he “threw off his cloak, and sprang up, and came to Jesus.” His cloak was probably the only thing he owned. He was ready to drop all that he had to get to Jesus quickly.
Jesus asked Bartimaeus the same question that he had asked James and John in the second story. He said, “What do you want me to do for you?” Rather than ask for a place of honor, as James and John did, Bartimaeus, asked to be able to see. Jesus does it. He heals his eyes so he can see. Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” This sounds like he’s telling him that he can leave and go somewhere else. But rather than run off to go celebrate, Bartimaeus chose to follow Jesus, joining the disciples and others who were walking with Jesus to Jerusalem.
Wow! That was a lot to learn in three short stories. What do you think we learned about following Jesus today? Here's some that I came up with: Something scary may happen in Jerusalem. Sometimes you have to do hard things even if you are scared. It is good to take people with you when you do something important. We follow Jesus not because we want to get fancy things or be in charge but because we want to be servants like he was. Be kind when someone with no money asks for help. Be willing to give up something if you are going to follow Jesus. Following him and being a servant is more important than having lots of money. Ask Jesus when you need help. These are all good lessons! Do you think you’ll be able to put any of these lessons into action this week? Next week, will you let me know if you did?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2642
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Carolyn Brown: http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/09/year-b-proper-24-29th-sunday-in.html
Seasons of the Spirit
Mark 10:17-31 The Rich Man
As he 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; Honour 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.’
I have been trying to remember how many times I’ve heard conversations about this reading get bogged down in one particular part of the reading: that business about a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. It is such a powerful metaphor that people seem to have this impulse to figure out if Jesus really meant to say that it was easier for a camel, which the internet tells me is, on average, a little taller and heavier than your average moose, to fit through the hole in a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God. Really, Jesus? That sounds a little harsh. What if it’s a really nice rich person, like the kind that donates money to vaccine research? They can get into the kingdom of God, right?
And, maybe Jesus doesn’t mean a whole, giant camel and the teeny, tiny eye of a sewing needle. Maybe Jesus is not talking about a sewing needle. Maybe he’s talking a gate in the wall around the city of Jerusalem. It’s a really small gate and the camels have a hard time slipping through. But, they can do it, if you don’t overload them. It’s not impossible, like fitting a camel-sized animal through a miniscule hole. Surely Jesus isn’t insinuating that wealth and the kingdom of God are so incompatible as to be impossible to mix. Some scholars have suggested this story has an ancient typo. The word for camel and for cable, like a big rope, that kind of cable, are very similar. Maybe Jesus was talking about a string too big for your average needle. At least cables, which are made out of thread, are kind of related to needles, which use thread to sew. It is not an easy fit, but, not totally out of the realm of possibility. Maybe you could unravel the cable down to its smallest parts? Then, they would fit! See, not exactly impossible, just, like super hard. He couldn’t have meant that it is literally impossible, could he? I’m starting to think that he meant it was just about impossible. And, I don’t quite know what to do with that.
To be fair, Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her commentary on the text, says that Jesus says it’s not impossible but it is very hard. Maybe that’s why the gate or cable interpretations could make more sense. And, maybe she’s right. But, even if this is a metaphor about a cramped door and a camel or a big cable and a little needle, this is still a story about Jesus telling a wealthy person that their money is a spiritual impediment. And, that it is a hard word to hear, for us and for the devout young man. How on earth did we get to this place where someone who has been keeping the law, with great faith, is suddenly so sorrow-filled about his relationship to God? I think we got here because Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem, teaching about God on the way. If you want to follow him on that journey, you have to be clear about the cost of being on the journey with him.
The young man who approaches Jesus seems legitimately interested in his teaching. Mark Vitalis Hoffman argues that the fact that he is kneeling is best read as a sign of his sincerity. And, he calls Jesus good, also, a sign of his sincerity. What a surprise it must have been when Jesus said, “why do you call me good? Only God can be called Good.” I am convinced by Thurston’s argument that Jesus responded this way to draw attention away from himself and back to God. Because, the next thing Jesus says is about God’s law. And, remember the law is intended to keep humanity in covenant with God. When asking specifically about this man’s relationship to the covenant, Jesus asks him if he’s kept all the commandments related to caring for other people. Hoffman calls them the second tablet commandments. I’d call them the “Love Your Neighbor” commandments.
The man said he had been following these commandments his whole life and Jesus seems to believe him. Jesus took him at his word, understanding that that commandments are not some list of impossible tasks, but actions that every day people can do in order to better follow God. Jesus believed him, looked at him, and loved him. I think we’re being invited to believe him, too. According to Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, he’s the only person in the Gospel of Mark who is said to be loved by Jesus. Jesus loved him and we can be generous to him because he’s devout and trying hard, but also still really wealthy.
Even though this man had followed the law, Jesus asked him for more. We often ask more from the ones whom we love. He told this man to sell everything that he owned and give the money to the poor. Then, Jesus invited the man to leave everything else behind and follow him. While the man had found God's commandments to be manageable and while his wealth had helped him be able to follow ritual purity rules, he found Jesus' invitation to be much more challenging. He looked at his life, a life that was, by all accounts, blessed and well-lived, and began to grieve. He was accustomed to the sacrifice of following the covenant. This was a sacrifice he didn’t know how to make yet. So, he leaves in sorrow.
The disciples, who have already left behind all they had, still get confused when Jesus starts talking about camels and needles. First of all, when Jesus says that it will be hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is likely shocking to his disciples, who may have been accustomed to thinking of wealthy people having been blessed by God. Then, as now, there is some common and problematic theology that equates being beloved by God with having lots of money. They knew the man had followed the law and they knew he was rich, which means they suspected that he was already blessed by God. But, Jesus said that wealth could be an impediment to joining the reign of God. The disciples wonder, “Then who can be saved?” I think this is a reasonable question.
Just like he did with the man who called him good, he wanted to point the disciples back to God. He said that humans can't do something impossible, like squish a camel through a needle. But, we're not talking about human powers here. We're talking about God. And, God regularly deals with the impossible. Peter is still caught up in what humans can do, and, specifically, what the disciples have done. “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Peter echoes the young man this way: “I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, responding similarly to his disciples as his did the young man, acknowledges that it is possible to make choices to follow him, and that following him and sacrificing for the Gospel will bring reward, but it will bring as much persecution as it does gain. And, just because they were the first to follow him, that doesn’t mean that they will have a particular standing in God’s dominion. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Even if you give up all you have, you still can earn your way into Grace.
In his commentary on the text, Hoffman points us back to the young man’s original question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Well, some things must clearly be done. The Love your neighbor parts of the commandments, for one. Something else must be done, too. You must be willing to give up the rewards you expected, be it the wealth you’ve accumulated or your status as an early adopter of the Gospel. This journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem is too turbulent to hold tight to too many expectations and following the Gospel is meaningless if you are only doing it for the treasure. In Mark, chapter 8, Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” In the end, though, inheritance isn’t only about what you do. It’s also about who you’re connected to... who’s your family. You are a child of God. That feels impossible. But, with God, all things are possible.
In her commentary on this passage, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson noted that we don’t actually now what ended up happening to the young man in the long run. We just know that he leaves this moment, bereft, because he has many possession and Jesus told him to give them all away and follow him. She also reminded us that later in this story, at the empty tomb, the women who are the first witnesses to the Resurrection run away in fear, and tell no one. And, yet, we are here, evidence that they must have told someone. Maybe the young man went away, sad, but ultimately unchanged. But, maybe he gave away everything. Maybe he caught up with Jesus in Jerusalem. Maybe he went on to preach about how he had been changed, about how he learned the good news. Maybe he told stories about camels and needles and impossible things made possible with God. We don’t know what happened to him but we know that Jesus loved him. Jesus loves us, too. Now, we just have to trust that love enough to let go of the things that are keeping us from following Jesus to Jerusalem. Because, it won’t ultimately matter if we are first or last, as long as we go. I pray that we can go.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.