Sermon – October 12, 2003

People in the gospel of Mark, and Jesus’ ministry in general, approached him two primary reasons. The Pharisees and Sadducees, those with whom he contended over the theological issues, would approach him to test and challenge. “Teacher, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife,” that was a test. “Teacher, why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat, they are in violation of the purity laws.” Many approached him to test him. But many also approached him for healing. That was the other reason people came to him. The leper said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The friends who lowered their companion through the roof sought to place their friend before Jesus to heal him. Jarius, the leader of the synagogue, approached him, kneeled, and said, “My little daughter is at the point of death. If you lay your hand on her, she will be made well and live.” The woman with the flow of blood said, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.!
” They Syrophonecian woman bowed down and begged for the healing of her daughter. These folks approached Jesus with the understanding that there was something here that could make their lives whole and complete, save them from their agony, save their friends and families. They come to him for healing.

I think the story of the rich young man today is a story of healing. He came before Jesus and knelt and said, “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” this was not a trick question, a test. He knelt before him and by all indications he came with a sense of sincerity and urgency, like the sick, like the advocates for those in danger. He knows despite all his good fortune and wealth his life is incomplete, that all he had accumulated, all he had was not enough to answer that fundamental question, “How shall I enter into this eternal, divine relationship. Jesus recognized his ailment. He did not dismiss him or rebuke him, in fact, it says he loved him. He saw that this young man was, like others, possessed. Possessed by his possessions. Blind to the fact that they were an obstacle to his healing, a barrier to the wholeness he sought. Possessed by a false confidence, not only in his wealth but in his piety.

And Jesus lovingly tells him what he must do. Sell all that he has and give it to the poor. And then he issues a rare invitation for an individual, that he would come and follow. But the man turned away, rejected the healing. Unlike all the other healing stories, he rejected the remedy.

And in explanation of this to his disciples, Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. And here we are presented with the opportunity to beat up on the wealthy. Because by our own estimations it is usually the other guy that is wealthy. But we know, and we have heard, it is not news, that we are the rich young man, that we are the ones who come to Jesus seeking this eternal relationship with the divine. We face the same dilemma. By all accounts we are all wealthy, not fearing for our next meal or whether we have a roof over our heads. So, over the years folks have responded to this text in a variety of ways to soft-pedal it. One famous example is that that eye of the needle was actually a small gate going into the temple, and it would be difficult, but not impossible for a camel to get through that gate. Might have to squat down or crawl. .. . . No. !
Jesus is not fooling around with obscure metaphors. Jesus is troubled about money, troubled about what it does to us, with our relationship with riches. He, for example, has a lot more to say about money than he has to say about sex.

What is the problem with wealth? Well, wealth is often confirmation for ourselves of our goodness and righteousness. We aren’t breaking any new ground here. It was in the rich young man’s time a confirmation of God’s blessing and righteousness if one was wealthy. But Jesus is concerned not just of ends, but of means. Notice his litany of commandments this morning, he slips one in that you shall not defraud. “You shall not defraud,” is not one of the commandments. It is understood that in a land of limited resources like 1st century Palestine, to gain wealth, to get rich meant that is was most likely that you had to take from another for you to achieve your wealth. Jesus is saying that this piety that you put up, this confirmation of your righteousness is itself, flawed. That is the danger of having such means. He says, let go of these false hopes and claims, and follow me . . . and that he could not do.

Jesus points out the perpetual problem with wealth that it is a diversion, a replacement for that which is transcendent, that which God call us to not only acknowledge, but to serve, namely his Son. . . .this egalitarian, sacrifice demanding Jesus who will tolerate no others before him. It keeps us from realizing our need for God, because we use it as a buffer against vulnerability. Nothing wrong with putting aside a nest egg, of course, until it becomes the object of our obsession, our self worth. We use wealth to fill the emptiness in our hearts and souls, and in doing so, we push out that which is truly real and healing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says that “A dollar is not value, but representative of value, and, at last, of moral values.” Wealth, money is a morally neutral thing. It does not in itself carry with it bad judgment, evil, greed, selfishness. What is of concern, what’s at stake, it that to which it attaches itself, how we respond and use it, whether it either breaks down or benefits. This is an issue again of the heart, and if God hold the primary place in our hearts, then wealth will be met in that context, and poverty and need will be met in that context, calling out of us obedience to the scriptural mandate to be an advocate for the orphan and widow, the poor, the sojourner in the land. If God holds our hearts, the needs of others are more apparent, but if wealth rules our heart and mind, then our needs and wants will overcome our compassion, and finally, our loyalty. Finally, there is the problem “You can’t serve God and money,” “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus here is claiming that authority, that loyalty, and reminding us that without him, we cannot but serve another. He suggest that wealth closes the window through which his light would shine, and our light toward others would shine.

And to all this the disciples respond, “Then, who can be saved?” All of us are tempted or overcome by something, whether wealth and power, or like the disciples, status. How can we be saved? How can we find a way to God? What can we do that we might not be overcome by such things? Well, we cannot. You see, it is not a matter of what we do, but what Jesus has done. Jesus is saying you cannot be on your own. These things are too big, too powerful, to compelling, even justly achieved, for you to sustain your faith against them. But . . .for God, all things are possible. We don’t need to despair if we have been overcome or tempted by these things.

He leaves us with a promise. That you will have an abundance of the things you long for, the relationships, material security. . . . he says, following me you will have these, but in my context, these things will take on community power and community identity. You will have mothers and brothers, sisters and households, they will be seen with new eyes, if you will follow, and they will be enough, in fact they will be abundance. And for that odd notion, that your gifts will be used for the benefit of others in my name, you will receive criticism, disdain, suspicion, because they are so countercultural. . .he calls them persecutions. But then you will finally receive that which the rich young man came seeking, that which we come seeking, the healing of our lives, the peace of knowing that all things are in God’s hands, the promise that the gift which exceeds all that the world can give, awaits you. How are we to receive eternal life, we wonder with the rich young man? !
To turn away from those things that would take Christ’s place, and then to follow him to wholeness and healing. The same invitation is extended to us, to embrace the truth and promise of his presence, and to follow. May God us the grace and faith to make the choice the rich young man could not.

Amen

 

Copyright (c) 2003 by Pastor Robert J. Rasmus