October 11, 2015
Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
Jesus has been teaching his disciples about what is most valued in God’s eyes. Now, a conversation with a rich man brings his message home to the disciples in a way that is surprising but unforgettable.
17As [Jesus] 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?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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.’ ” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, 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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus 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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
I’m not convinced that there are many totally universal things in our culture these days. We seem to be polarized, divided in our country about so many issues. Mention gun-control, immigration reform, healthcare, or which “Dancing with the Stars” routine was the best, and you’re bound to have different ideas and different plans. With all of our differences, though, I believe we have at least a few things held in common. One of those things, I feel, is one of our culture’s more nerve-wracking, more anxiety-producing, and more sleep-depriving rituals. It sometimes haunts our nightmares, stands in the way of our dreams, and, at the very least, fills our stomachs with jitters and butterflies. I’m talking about, of course, the dreaded report card. Yes. The report card. Sometimes we call it an employee evaluation. Sometimes we call it customer feedback. Sometimes we get it in the form of a friendly, but firm, comment. Sometimes it’s in the form of a red pen on an otherwise black and white paper (which, I’m convinced, is the only reason ever to make red ink these days). Sometimes we ask for some pointers and tips but sometimes we don’t.
So today in our gospel we meet one of those brave souls who seems to be wanting a report card from Jesus. He approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher,” (yes, he even calls him “teacher”), “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We read on a little bit more and we find out that he’s done pretty much everything there is to do, and he’s even made a good bit of money along the way. Whether he’s inherited the wealth or earned it, it isn’t clear, but he certainly seems to feel entitled to it. So, rereading his original question, he seems to be saying, “What ELSE must I do to inherit eternal life?”
You know, if we’ve read this gospel text before or heard it preached from one of the other gospel accounts, we may have this idea that this rich man is some kind of young fool. “How could he possibly ask such a ridiculous question?” we may think to ourselves, “I’d never ask something like that.” But, if we look at the text, we see something very strange, and it may make us a bit uncomfortable. This man doesn’t seem to be malicious, dumb, or selfish – instead, he seems like the kind of guy who managed to follow the law to the letter and, when he made a mistake, would make up for it. He seems like the kind of guy who has genuine respect for Jesus and his teachings, and so he wants to learn from him. He seemed to be the kind of person who thought he was doing everything he was supposed to do.
How could he think that? Because that’s all he had experienced. His wealth was surely seen, at the time, as a sign of God’s favor. His following the law seems to be earnest and genuine. What he had, he had earned by being a good person – or so the line of thinking goes. And I think we still get so caught up this this trap of thinking that if we just work hard enough, then I’ll get everything I want. This man had enough to get him through life, now he was thinking ahead toward the next one. But life following Christ, a life accompanying Christ, is not one marked by wealth, but by generosity. A life marked by Christ is one that values God’s work over our work.
Immediately after this man leaves, dejected by the fact that he had worked so hard but would have so little to show for it, Jesus begin talking a little strangely about camels and needles. Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to pass through a needle than it is for a rich person to get into heaven. In our global culture, we are definitely camels. But what if the camels are only convincing themselves that passing through the needle is something they have to do to get into heaven? What if the Jesus isn’t giving us one more task to manage, one more item on our ever expanding to-do list? Maybe Jesus is saying, here, that you’ll never experience God’s love in the stuff you have. You’ll experience God’s love by sharing what you do have. Maybe Jesus is telling us to just stop trying, that the needle we’re trying to pass through is some self-concocted, religious tradition passed down by the ages past. Maybe we’re mistaking the needle for the blanket. Maybe we’re mistaking the means of blessing, our money, skills, gifts, and perspective, as the blessing themselves. What good is a needle when you’re cold and really in need of a blanket?
So, if following the law doesn’t save us, give us purpose and confidence, or pacify that gnawing deep down in our guts that comes from not knowing if we make the grade, what does save us? As Jesus so elegantly states, it’s impossible for us but definitely possible for God. You see, God isn’t some task master telling you to sell all you have, taking away your toys so that others can play with them and you can’t. Instead, God invites us to share a deeper sense of belonging, a stronger bond of community, and a larger vision of God’s work in the world than we could ever get from being distracted and bogged down.
We live in a world where we are often confused by mistaken identities. We can mistake texting or phone calls for actual communication. We can mistake fleeting positive feelings for love. And we can mistake the things we have for the things we are entitled to. And we can mistake grade, reports, and evaluations for our self-worth. In our culture, just like the rich man who approaches Jesus asking for a grade, we often don’t know much different. We often don’t recognize that the gifts of God, eternal life in the face of uncertain future, endless love in the wake of unspeakable hatred, unfathomable light and joy in the darkness that seems to crowd around us, are already here. Christ calls us not to follow the rules, but to follow, to accompany, him. Our impossible tasks are limitlessly possible with God.
I find it so comforting to know that, as that man sat kneeling before Jesus, awaiting his report card, Mark writes that Jesus loved him. When we come before Jesus with our mistakes, our failings, Jesus loves us. Jesus loves you. Jesus doesn’t give you a failing grade – he takes the report card and tears it up and invites you to forget it. What you feel defines you – your successes, your failures, your job, your family role, your money, your toys, your skills – has no bearing on how Jesus defines you. Jesus, who came down to earth to be lifted on a cross and be raised, looks on you with love. There is nothing on earth as powerful, as all encompassing, as the love that God has for each and every one of us.
I hope so badly that this man, who left dejected, was able to figure this out. I hope he realized that what he had was not a sign of God’s love, but was actually a way that he could show God’s love to others. We so often approach faith like we approach report card time or our employee evaluations – as a way to know how to change and get better, although always failing. But here’s the news – God has already done the work, and that changes everything.