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.’
This is a Hard Lesson: Mark 10:17-31
One way that you know something interesting is getting ready to happen in a Bible story is that the story begins with a journey. And something really interesting is getting ready to happen as Jesus sets out on this journey to Jerusalem. Jesus is going to surprise a man who wants to follow him. He's going to surprise the disciples, too. First, he challenges the man who calls him good. When the man said to him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life," I expected that Jesus would tackle this whole eternal life thing first. That seems like a pretty big deal. But, Jesus had something else in mind as he decided how to respond to this man. He said, why do you call me good? Only God can be called Good.
Now, such a statement could start quite the theological argument. But, I don't think Jesus' primary interest at this moment is to start a discussion about what it would mean to call him good. I do think he is interested in drawing this man's attention away from the teacher right in front of him and back to God as the source of all things eternal. After all, it is God who showed us how to live together with God through the 10 Commandments. And, the first commandment is to remember that God is your God. In telling him that only God is good, Jesus reminded him of the first commandment. Then, Jesus wanted to remind the man that he had a responsibility to other people, too, so he asked him about the commandments that have something to do with how humans interact with each other. Jesus asked him if he had valued human life, if he had honored his neighbors' relationships, if he had stolen or lied about people, and if he had respected his own family. The man said he had been following these commandments his whole life. Jesus seems to have believed 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.
And, yet, though he loved him, he still realized that this man could take one more step towards a life beyond what he knew. Here is the second great surprise of this story. Even though this man had followed the law, Jesus asked him for more. 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, 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 realized that the couldn't give it up. So, he went away grieving.
I don't think you have to be rich to understand that giving everything away is a very high price to pay before you follow Jesus. I probably have more stuff right now than I've ever had in my whole life and I would have a very hard time giving it all up. I think Jesus knew that this was hard even before he told the man to do it. I think that is why he looked at this man with love, because he could see that he was trying. He knew what he was asking was hard. But, it wasn't the first time that he had ask someone to give up all they knew and follow him. In the book of Mark, each of the 12 apostles is asked to follow him, with no explanation for how they will make a living or support themselves on the way. The difference is that the first 12 were probably pretty poor to begin with. They had much less to lose in giving it all up to follow Jesus. But, even though they were poor, Jesus acknowledged that they had given up a lot to follow him. They had given up familial ties and responsibilities, the core of their agrarian society. Jesus assured them that they would find new family in the life to come. This was enough assurance for the apostles. Assurance of treasure in heaven was not enough to comfort the man who had earnestly wanted to inherit eternal life.
Jesus says in this passage that it will be hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and this is shocking to his disciples, who may have been accustomed to thinking of wealthy people having been blessed by God, with their wealth as a sign of their blessing. He said it would be as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. Now, some have suggested that he's not talking about an actual eye of an actual need, but instead talking about a particularly narrow gate in Jerusalem, a gate that a heavily loaded camel would have difficulty squeezing through. Others have suggested that this may be an ancient typo, with the words for camel and cable being confused, and Jesus is actually talking about fitting a really big rope through a needle. I think it is likely that Jesus actually was talking about a camel and a needle because he wasn't just trying to come up with something that was hard to do, like fit a big camel through a little door or fit a big string in a little needle. He was trying to talk about something that was impossible to do, or at least impossible for a human to do. Just like he did with the man who called him good, he wanted to point the disciples back to God as the one who provides directions for one's spiritual life. 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.
I think that Jesus knew that money roots us in exactly what is possible. Money is so tangible We look at the money we have and we can immediately know just exactly what we can do with it. Four hundred dollars gets us a new water pump for the camp. Two hundred dollars replaces the doors that got busted during the break-in. Several thousand dollars gets us a new roof and repairs the plaster. We can look at our budgets and look at our needs and say we need to raise money here and save money here. And, if we are lucky enough to have more money than we need, we might spend a lot of our energy protecting it. After all, this money is what allows us to live in the mode to which we have been accustomed. We can't lose it. On the other side, when we don't have enough money, we can despair, and worry that we'll never have the things that we need. We can worry that we will always struggle and never actually catch up. We can become trapped in a feeling of scarcity. Either way, whether we are worried about losing the wealth we have or living in fear that we won't have enough, we are spending our energy on what is possible, given the finances that we have. But, Jesus is interested in what is possible. Jesus is encouraging us to concentrate on what is impossible.
Jesus seems to be telling anyone who wants to follow him that real abundance does not rely on our ability to earn and keep money. Our wealth or lack thereof is not a sign of how much God wants to bless us. Real abundance is found in orienting our lives away from systems that tell us that more money and more things makes us happy, and orienting our lives towards God's system of love and justice. Abundance is not squirreling away all that we have to protect our supposed "blessings." Abundance is actually sharing what we have with people who don't have as much, and then following Jesus into a life of simplicity and service. This man seems to have been afraid because he could only think of abundance in terms of protecting the things that he owned. He could not imagine that abundance could come through a simpler life, with goods shared, and trust that the journey with Christ would bring a far different kind of riches. His wealth and his need to protect it prevented him from deepening his spiritual life. His concern for his abundant material wealth kept him from understanding God's abundance.
What would it mean for this church to look for God's abundance? Is there something that we feel like we need to protect to be safe? What would it mean for us to give that up in order to share with our neighbors and follow Jesus? Do we ever use our money to simply protect ourselves rather than tend to the needs of the people around us? As we plan for our future in ministry, how can this story inform our priorities in ministry? These are all hard questions that I don't think are easily answered. It does help that we're not starting from scratch. I think that we already have begun orienting ourselves towards God's abundance. We aren't afraid to share our space with community members who need it. This week, Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and the Lifeline Screening have all shared our the fellowship hall. Also, this year, you have already donated over a $1000 more for special offerings than you did last year. But, just like the man who had already done so much to follow the commandments, I think there are more steps we can take to orient ourselves to the needs of the people beyond our walls. The good thing is that we don't have to do it alone. We have each other and we are guided by the Holy Spirit, the one who specializes in impossible things. Together, I think we can make a different choice than this man did. We can rely on God's abundance, not our own, and we can choose to follow Jesus. But, we have to be willing to give up some things that we think it would be impossible to live without.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3699
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year B, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
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.