16 July 2017

Loved into Life

Mark 10:17-31

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

We continue our summer sermon series on compassion with the rich man and Jesus.  I’ll just say it at the outset: this is a challenging text.  I’ve never heard anyone say that this was their favorite story in the Bible.  Have you?  It’s a disturbing text on so many levels.  How did you feel hearing or reading the text?  Tense?  Uncomfortable? Anxious?  Did you feel something in your gut?  What was your reaction?  Inspired? Affirmed or judged?  Maybe shame?  How about love?

In Mark's Gospel, this encounter is in sharp contrast to what happens immediately before the rich man arrives.  Jesus welcomes the children and says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mk 10:14-15). Then Jesus took the children in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

It’s then, just as Jesus was setting off on a journey, right after this touching scene with the children, the rich man runs into the story.  He falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17).

He seems desperate.  Is he worried or anxious about losing eternal life? Maybe he’s a fanatic, a religious zealot who recently “got” religion and now puts a lot of energy into his new-found religiosity, as if it were a hobby.  We know he’s possessive.  We learn that he has a lot of possessions; he likes to acquire things.  Is eternal life just one more possession he must have to add to his collection?

What we do know is that he’s a flatterer. “Good Teacher.” Jesus doesn’t want or need his flattery. He knows the type. Jesus deflects the praise and then cools the man’s enthusiasm. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18).  This is basic Judaism 101, which the rich man doesn’t appear to know.

Then Jesus tests him. “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” (Mk. 10:19).  Jesus doesn’t recite all ten commandments, only these. He doesn’t have to. Jesus is getting at the way some view religion and one’s relationship with God. For some, perhaps for many, religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) is about following the rules, obeying the law of God.  Follow the rules, follow the law, and all will be well for you, some believe.  Break the rules, break the law, transgress a commandment, then watch out.  God as Judge will act fast and furiously with condemnation.  The primary image of God operative in this religious expression is God the Judge, a God expecting perfection, just waiting for us to mess up, waiting to condemn.  When one operates with this image of God, the religious life becomes anxiety-driven.  We must behave, we must do the right thing, and if we don’t, then God help us—help us from God the Judge, that is.

It’s important to note that Jesus is not rejecting the commandments; he’s not rejecting God’s Law.  God is Judge, but not only a Judge.  And when God does judge, God judges in and through and for love.

Jesus knows that a deep relationship with God cannot be built on merely following the rules and trying to do what feels right.  Jesus knows that kind of religiosity rarely feeds the soul.  We might think we’re on the right path; we might think good of ourselves for not stealing or murdering anyone or committing adultery and for telling the truth.  But Jesus, knowing the human heart, knows that we hunger for something more, something deeper.

Without hesitation, without a moment’s pause for self-reflection and self-scrutiny, the rich man replies, “Teacher, I have kept all these things since my youth” (Mk 10:20).  He appears to be proud of the fact that he’s followed the law.  You might say he’s a respectable member of his society.  In his helpful commentary on the New Testament, William Barclay wrote, “Never did any story so lay down the essential Christian truth that respectability is not enough.”  Jesus quotes the commandments that support social decency.  Except for one (the one about honoring mother and father), they’re all negative commandments that Jesus cites.  In effect the man was saying, “I never in my life did anyone any harm.  I’m an upstanding member of society.”  Which was probably true.  But the more important question is, “What good have you done people?”  It’s as if Jesus is saying, “With all your possessions, with your wealth, with all that you could give away, what positive good have you done to others? How much have you gone out of your way to help and comfort and strengthen others as you might have done?”  Very often, respectability consists in not doing things.  A Christian ethic, however, consists in doing things, it requires action.[1] 

So, 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; then come, follow me” (Mk. 10:21).  Ouch.

This is where the text begins to really hurt, because now Jesus is talking about money.  Folks love it when Jesus talks about welcoming children, and blessing the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), but when he tells adults to sell all that they own and give it to the poor in capital, without resources, then we hear people say that religion should stick to spiritual affairs.  When Pope Francis says the “god of money” leads to disenfranchisement and extremism, or when he condemns the forces of unrestrained capitalism, people get upset and say that the Pope should not meddle with our economy.[2] 

If you happen to have many possessions or look to money and wealth as a of source your identity and security, then this text is extremely disturbing.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus talks a lot about the dangers of money and wealth.  Jesus knows he’s cutting close to the bone.  He’s very clear here: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).  Jesus is not condemning wealth, per se.  Money, itself, is not evil.  It is and will be more difficult, however, for the wealthy—and from the perspective of most of the world, all Americans, even the poorest among us, are wealthy—to be about kingdom work because it’s easy for wealthy people to put too much trust and faith in money, as though it were a god.  Wealth is very seductive.  We give it more honor and power than it has or deserves.  Wealth often distorts reality, disfigures our sense of perception, isolates us from those without wealth or resources; wealth is the cause of war between nations and violence and division within families; it warps our morality, hardens the heart, and hinders us from having compassion toward those without means or resources.  Excessive wealth does all of this, excessively.  It doesn’t have to, but it often does.

You can see here why a mature faith includes a mature theology of money, for both an individual and collectively as a congregation.  We must not be afraid to talk about money. The money that we have doesn’t not belong to us; it’s not ours.  God expects us to be generous, not miserly, with the resources entrusted to us.  Every budget is a moral document, a theological document, a confession of faith. How we spend money (individually, as a family, as a congregation) says something about our values, it says something about our faith and trust in God.  We're called to make money work to advance the kingdom, to use it all for the glory of God. Therefore, don’t be surprised if the decisions we make about money appear to be foolishness in the eyes of the world.

On Thursday evening, I was at the visitation for Nancy Burger at the Candle Light Funeral Home.  Knowing me to be pastor here, someone approached me and said, “My friend tells me there’s no air-conditioning in your sanctuary and so she’s not going to go to the service on Friday.”  The service for Nancy was on Friday afternoon and Friday (indeed, most of the week) was a scorcher.  I said, “Yes, that’s true.” Then she said, “Yes, that’s what I hear. I hear that instead of putting in air-conditioning, you gave all your money to charity.” This is not true, of course. Perhaps she was referring to our Envision Fund, which has several million dollars, dividends from which we share with the wider community, but not only with so-called “charities.” I tried to explain this to her, without going into detail.  Then she said, “That’s what people are saying in Catonsville, instead of putting in air-conditioning, you gave away all your money to charity.” And she said this to me in such a way, if true, it was somehow bad! It was a little bizarre, to be honest, as I was forced to defend the congregation’s generosity and the faithful stewardship of its resources.

So, should we all sell everything we have and give it to the poor?  Is that what Jesus is saying?  I don’t think so.  What Jesus said to the rich man, I believe, was directed to the unique situation of the rich man.  Yes, God expects us to be generous.  God might be asking you to do something similar.  But, I don’t think we should derive an ethic from this story and apply it universally to everyone. It was what the rich man needed to hear; it’s what he needed to do to grow in his faith.

Mark tells us that when he heard Jesus’ response, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mk. 10:22).

Following Jesus would have cost the rich man something, something he was unwilling to pay.  We might say that maybe he wasn’t rich enough, spiritually or theologically rich or mature enough, that is, to understand what the religious life looks like.  Jesus wasn’t saying that we buy our way into heaven.  He’s not saying that if we give to the poor we have a guaranteed admittance to heaven.  Although, I suspect, if the rich man followed Jesus’ advice he would have realized “treasure in heaven;” he would have experienced something of the will and desire and joy of heaven, he would have known what God is like. 

Jesus makes a considerable demand on this man’s life.  He doesn’t let him off easy.  As far as we know, there’s no consolation for this man.  He was shocked by what he heard.  His entire worldview, the foundation for his life, his identity, his faith—all of it was upended.  Shattered.  He went away grieving.  He walked away with all his wealth and possessions, but he lost something precious (to him) in this exchange with Jesus.  Jesus took something away from him.  Jesus took away his innocence, his naiveté about the kingdom.  Jesus exposed the lie his wealth and respectability were hiding.  Jesus uncovered the man’s childish understanding of his faith.  In this remarkable encounter, the rich man became conscious of things about himself, his life, his society that he never knew before, and he became conscious of the kind of life that God called him to.  Coming to consciousness, coming into greater awareness always costs us something, sometimes it even hurts.

So, then, how is this story an example of compassion?  I intentionally skipped over a key element of this text.  The rich man says, “Teacher, I have kept all these [commandments] since my youth.”  And then what does the text say?  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…” (Mk. 21).  It’s so easy to miss these words.  I’m not sure why. Perhaps, like the rich man, we think our faith is about following rules, we’re eager to know what we must do.  Perhaps, like the rich man, we’re shocked and grieved by the response.

Looking at him, Jesus loved him.  Jesus saw him, saw his heart, discerned his motivations.  Jesus knew him and knew what the man needed to hear and do.  Jesus loved him. And because he loved him, because Jesus wanted what was best for him, he told him to go and sell his possessions.  Jesus wasn’t trying to be the bad guy.  Jesus wasn’t being cruel.  Jesus wasn’t setting up unrealistic expectations for him.  Yes, what Jesus asked him to do was difficult, it hurt, it was painful, it was seemingly impossible.  But, Jesus was being compassionate.  Jesus was loving him into the life he was searching for.  Jesus was trying to help him.  I’m reminded of these powerful words of Walter Brueggemann, “The world for which you have so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, by the grace of God.”  Even though Jesus’ command would have cost the rich man something, Jesus was trying to save him from himself.  Jesus was trying to save his life.

In his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote, “Jesus asks nothing of us without giving us the strength to perform it.  His commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it.”[3]

This, then, raises an important, related question.  If Jesus’ command to the rich man was given, not to hurt him, but given in love, why did he reject it?  The rich man had to sense that Jesus was being loving toward him.  If Jesus really looked at you, saw you through and through and loved you, you would know it.  Then why was he not open to Jesus’ loving suggestion? He was being loved by Jesus into a deeper life, he was given an amazing “treasure.”  Then, why couldn’t he receive Jesus’ compassion?  Maybe it was too much. It would have cost him too much.

Why are we so defensive against God’s love when it is being offered to us?  Even when we are being loved into life, why is it so difficult to receive it?  Why is the truly good so frightening, shocking?[4]  Why do we resist the compassion of God? 

Maybe it’s all too much. To know ourselves loved this way is almost too much for us to bear, it’s too good to be true; it leaves us completely undone, it’s unsettled.  It’s almost too much to take in, it all seems impossible.  But when we run into Jesus—or when he runs into us—we’re always thrown into impossibility.  We’re swimming in impossibility.  And it’s precisely herein these holy moments that shock us, when we come up against the impossible, in difficult demands, in moments of new consciousness and insight, in moments that require a decision and actionwe encounter the One who is always—always, always, always—loving us into life!

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 253.
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 40.
[4] These insights were inspired by Dunbar Carpenter, PsyD, in his lecture “The Terror of the Good: An Unexplored Domain,” given at the C. G. Jung Institute, Küsnacht, Switzerland, 5th -6th July.

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