By The Rev. Sherry Deets
20 Pentecost, Proper 23, October 14, 2012
Taking a step into the future can be a difficult task: getting ready for the first day of school, going out on a first date, leaving the corporate job to set up a business, undergoing experimental treatment for a life-threatening illness, selling all we have (giving it to the poor) and following Jesus. That last example was the step into the future that Jesus recommended for “the man” in Mark, chapter 10, verse 17.
In Mark, he is first called “a man”. Later, in verse 22, we find out that he is a wealthy man. He is a “ruler” in Luke and “young” in Matthew. In Christian tradition, he is often referred to as the “rich, young ruler.” But for Mark he is just a regular guy, although with “great possessions.”
This man, perhaps thinking he has everything else – if that is what having “great possessions” means—has the ultimate question for Jesus: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As Jesus did when the Pharisees put him to the test with the question about divorce, Jesus reframes the question in terms of the kingdom of God (“come, follow me”) rather than the language of eternal life.
Throughout this section of Mark’s Gospel, people come to Jesus with all sorts of questions: “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In each case, Jesus recasts the question in terms of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God and the new behavior that is required. In most case the disciples just don’t understand. We just don’t understand. The disciples comprehend enough to say, “Then who can be saved?”
Look, here’s the thing: this man comes to Jesus for a reason. He knows there’s something wrong. He’s kept all the commandments and yet he still experiences a certain disease. Indeed, given that everyone else who kneels to Jesus in Mark is making a request for healing, it may be that he knows himself quite literally to be diseased and in need of restoration.
First steps into the future can be and are painful steps. We witness a painful moment for the wealthy man who leaves “sorrowful” or “grieving”. That first step into new life can be difficult: attending the first AA meeting, calling the marriage counselor, talking with a son or daughter about the marijuana in the jeans pocket, coming ‘out of the closet’, or maybe hearing a call to ministry and literally parting with most of what we have to follow Jesus.
Life in the kingdom of God is about transformation and character change. With the demands and temptations of life bearing down upon us, we want to cry out like the disciples, “Then who can be saved?” Who can live a kingdom life? How can I change? How can I take the necessary first steps?
There was a ‘made for TV’ movie that came out several years ago called, “Murder Ordained.” The movie is based on the true story of a pastor in Kansas who murdered his wife so he could marry his secretary. One of the key characters in the movie is a State Policeman who doesn’t believe the pastor’s story and keeps searching for the truth – even though most people try to stop the investigation. In an early scene, where the policeman’s character is still being developed, the policeman stops a speeding motorist. The motorist is driving an expensive car and wearing an expensive suit. The policeman gives the ticket to the man to sign. But when he passes it back to the cop, there is a $50-bill clipped to the ticket.
The policeman asks, “Is this yours?” The man replies, “no.” “It’s not mine, either,” says the cop as he throws it into the wind and watches it blow across a field.
The man cannot be bribed because money is not his god. He responds to a higher calling than that. Would that we all could say the same.
Money you give away has no hold over you. One of the best ways to become free of the power money has over you is to give it away. Give enough away that you are no longer bound by the money you have and can instead respond to God’s will for you and your money. Perhaps that is why Jesus tells the young man to sell all he has and give it away. At the same time, I believe it is possible to have wealth and to serve God. Jesus depends upon some wealthy women to support him in his ministry (see Luke 8:1-3), for instance.
The difference comes from learning to use money without serving it. It’s a matter of having possessions without being possessed by them.
You see, the opposite of rich is not poor. The opposite of rich is free. He was not free to take the hand of Jesus because his hand was too full of his things and his love of things. He might as well have had a ball and chain around his leg. He was not free to follow Jesus.
In fact, the meaning of “rich” may have less to do with how much money one has as it does with what our attitude is about the money we have. Some people have a lot of money but they are not enslaved by it; others have very little but they cling to it with desperation.
I read in a book some time ago something about the art of trapping monkeys in India. One technique is to drill a hole in a coconut and place rice in the coconut. A monkey will come along and stick a paw into the coconut, grab a fistful of rice, and then be unable to pull its paw back from the coconut. He is trapped by his greed. All he would have to do is turn loose of the rice, his hand would be free, and he could draw it out. The problem is that he places greater value on the rice that he is holding than he does on his freedom (Raymond Bailey, “Do You Want To Be Healed,” Best Sermons 3, Harper & Row, p. 6).
Character transformation begins with identification with Jesus (“come, follow me”). And identification with Jesus signifies that character change is not only a slow process but also a relational process. When the disciples exclaimed, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus responds with hope: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” For them and for us, Jesus holds out the hope that, with God, change and first steps are not only possible but are already happening. “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….and in the age to come eternal life.” So it should not be surprising that, as the result of first steps, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
“All things are possible with God.” Amen.
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