SERMON Lectionary 28 / 20th Sunday After Pentecost 2015
- Amos 5:6–7, 10–15
- Psalm 22:1–15
- Hebrews 4:12–16
- Mark 10:17–31
I think we’ve all heard this story before, the story of the man — in Mark he’s just a plain, ordinary rich man, in Matthew he’s a rich young man, and in Luke he’s the rich ruler — who comes up to Jesus and asks with all honesty and reverence:
Good teacher, What must I do to inherit eternal life?
And, of course, Jesus responds by telling the man to follow the teaching of God as given to Israel through Moses — do not murder anyone, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud anyone, and honor your father and mother. All those “thou shalt nots” with a nice dollop of “thou shalt” on top.
What were you taught, Jesus is asking him, and did you actually do what you were taught?
Yes, the man says, from the days of my youth, I have done all these things. As Protestants, most of probably snort at that — we all know everyone is a sinner who has fallen short of the glory of God. Somewhere along the line, I suspect, this man lusted in his heart, or hated his neighbor, or wanted something his neighbor owned, or cursed his mother and disobeyed his father. No one is sinless, no one is righteous, except Jesus. We know this to be true, we confess it regularly. Maybe not in worship, but the founders of our churches did, in writing, confess our essential sinfulness.
So, the man is clearly lying. We know this. Right?
There’s something I want you to consider when we hear Jesus say something or do something. I want all of you to consider the possibility that Jesus meant it. Perhaps even literally.
So, consider what Jesus doesn’t do. He doesn’t argue with the man’s assertion that he has, in fact, kept the law. That he is righteous. he gospels frequently suggest that there are people who are righteous, and don’t need to be healed. He doesn’t make this a theological discussion — “really, you are sinner.” He agrees with the man. Yeah, you’re righteous, you’ve done all God has commanded.
And then he adds something — something not in the Torah. “Go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
It’s an interesting conversation Jesus and this man are having. See, the man knows something, something in his choice of words that he forgets as he speaks. He talks of inheriting eternal life. Not acquiring, or earning, or building, or creating, or seizing. He understands that this life eternal he so desperately seeks isn’t a thing we earn or make. It isn’t the product of honest labor, or a reward for services rendered. It’s unearned. It may be expected — the heir to a fortune always has some idea that money and property will land on him. But he doesn’t know when.
And the heir cannot be entirely sure that he will inherit. There’s always a matter of chance. Wills can be changed, New heirs can be found. The fortune can simply dry up or get washed away before it will ever be passed on. That there will be nothing left, and the heir will stand there, empty handed. With nothing.
It’s unearned, this eternal life. We don’t get it for ourselves. And yet, there’s a sense that all the good we do must somehow contribute to it. The man just wants Jesus to tell him — how do I guarantee that I will be an heir? That there will be eternal life coming my way?
“Go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
As good modern human beings, inheritors ourselves of the liberal capitalist order, we know the role Anglicans and Lutherans good Scots Presbyterians played in creating the modern world — a wealthy world where the virtuous worked hard and saved and created their wealth carefully and scrupulously. And we know how little of value there would be in the world if this instruction — go and sell all you have and give to the poor — were actually followed. It’s absurd! Think of all we would never have accomplished if everyone just gave everything away!
Well I have good new for you — Jesus isn’t telling you to do that. He’s telling the man, who asked him what he could do to inherit eternal life. And in all four gospels, so far as I know, this man is the only person Jesus specifically instructs to leave everything and follow him. So, whatever property and wealth you have, you can relax. Take a breath. You’re okay.
But I do want you to consider — suppose Jesus really does mean this. Leave everything, and follow him.
Because from the very first encounter Jesus has with his disciples, when calls them to be fishers of men, they respond that way — they leave everything and follow him. When Jesus looks at Levi the tax collector and said, “follow me,” Levi gets up, leaves his work, and follows Jesus. Time and again, there are people Jesus meets and he calls them to follow. And they do follow, they leave whatever it was they were doing, they get up, and they follow. They leave work, home, father, mother, brother, sister, wife, children. They leave property and obligations behind, and they follow. They follow Jesus.
He never had to tell Peter and James and John and Andrew and Levi to sell everything, give it away, and follow. Because they abandoned nets and boats and homes and even families. To follow Jesus.
And the man, when faced with the cost of following Jesus, walks away.
The passage said he is disheartened, and sad, but think about it for a minute — he’s actually giving thought to what it means to follow Jesus. Peter never did. Neither did his brother Andrew, nor James, nor John, nor Levi. None of them considered the costs when Jesus walked into their lives, they heard the call, and dropped what they were doing and left it all to follow Christ. We would hope a woman or a man when faced with such an immense decision would at least consider the matter, give it some thought, weigh the costs and consequences with the benefits. Make some kind of rational choice.
Jesus stepped into my life on September 11, 2001, underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center. He didn’t tell me, “follow me,” at least not that day. But follow I did. It wasn’t a reasoned choice (maybe it ought to have been), but I left everything. A solid career as a journalist in Washington, savings, financial security. And now all of it is gone. I went to seminary, through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s candidacy process for ordained ministry, failed spectacularly at it, was asked to write a book about my life, which has — as of this morning — only sold a few hundred hundred copies despite being an astounding tale of my journey through Islam and the kind of terrorism that flies airplanes into tall buildings to meeting Jesus underneath those very same burning buildings. I’ve been unable to find work, Jennifer and I have been wandering from place to place without a proper home, and no one will call me to be their pastor. I’ve not only left everything, I’ve just about failed at everything I’ve done as well.
I feel like Peter when he tells Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” And i’m not sure I’m wrong. Because Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter, doesn’t shut him up, doesn’t correct or contradict him, and does not tell him, “get behind me Satan!” Like the man who came looking for the secret to eternal life, Jesus takes him seriously, and at his word. Yes, you have left everything. I know.
But more importantly, Jesus tells Peter and the rest of his disciples — and us — that even as we leave everything behind to follow him, we will receive in return a hundred times what we left.
This is not some prosperity gospel claim. We don’t, as followers of Jesus, name it and claim it. Rather, we become part of a community of people — the followers of Jesus — who become brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. This is the kingdom of God, the miraculous and marvelous provision. You who have nothing, who left everything to follow, you have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and even children in Christ. You have homes and lands and more than enough. Because God, and God’s people, provide.
We no longer own. We no longer possess. We no longer acquire. But we do inherit. In this kingdom we belong to each other. In all the time I have been unable to find work, Jennifer and I have thankfully never been without a place to live. Occasionally it has been cramped, but we have been cared for. By brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and fathers, and yes, even children. The people of God. Sharing what they have. Allowing us to inherit.
All this, and eternal life too.
Now, I suspect we’re used to thinking that this man walked away, sad, dejected, so entranced and attached to his wealth that he could not part with it. Certainly not for the poor, and certainly not to follow Jesus. An object lesson. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make it into the kingdom of God.
But this is where the Gospel of Mark is interesting, because while this story appears in Matthew, Mark, and John, only this detail appears later — at the time of Jesus’ arrest — in Mark, chapter 14:
51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.
It doesn’t say who this young man was. Mark does write that at this point, everyone else had fled, and this young man was the only person left. I like to think he is rich man who came to Jesus, seeking eternal life, righteous in all he had done. He walked away, grappled with his sadness and his sorrow, and then — he sold all he had, gave to the poor, and followed Jesus.
Because with God, all things are possible.