20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23 Year B    

Sunday, October 10, 2021                   Mark 10:17-31

We know this gospel story; if we’ve been anywhere near the bible in our lives, we remember this one.

And we know it so well because we can imagine, if given the opportunity to ask Jesus a question— this might be the one we’d ask.

People have been asking Jesus all kinds of questions, Mark tells us. Questions about fasting and Sabbath rules; last week we heard people asking Jesus about divorce. Today, we hear this man’s question:

Jesus, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?

And we lean in, wondering if the answer Jesus gives this man applies to all of us. Jesus answers him, “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me.”

This is not what the man wanted to hear.

The man could not do this, and if we are honest, we cannot imagine doing it either – sell our land/our homes—give everything away? What about caring for family, children and parents? What if someone gets sick?

Without any land, this man can’t leave his children anything; they won’t be able to make a living. We can easily understand why the man turned away.

There is another part of this story that draws us in too.  The words spoken by Jesus pique our curiosity.  After the man asks Jesus the question, THE question about gaining eternal life, Jesus begins his reply by saying, “You know the commandments…” And he lists them. Eagerly, sincerely, the man says, “I have kept them all!” Then Mark tells us Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Did you know that besides in the Gospel of John, where John wrote about the disciple that Jesus loved, this wealthy man in Mark’s gospel is the only person in the gospels about whom it says Jesus loved? I wonder why this man? Could Jesus see this man’s earnest desire to be good, to be counted as God’s own and given a place in the kingdom?

Jesus looked at this man, perhaps, into this man. Jesus knew he’d kept the law; Jesus knew what he lacked. And Jesus loved him. So…. Jesus told him the hard truth.

Maybe your mom or dad parented like this. My father certainly did. He absolutely delighted in telling his kids the plain unvarnished truth.

My dad didn’t go to the “build your child’s self-esteem” school of parenting. He reveled in being downright honest.

I can remember complaining over a B on a school paper and dad telling me bluntly, “Polly, you just didn’t try hard enough,” I was just looking for some empathy. Sometimes, before a date, my sister and I would hear Dad ask, “Why are you dressed like a yahoo?” Every time he’d offer one of these frank statements, we’d accuse him of being mean.

And his reply was always, “Yes, because I love you.”

Jesus wasn’t trying to keep this man from the kingdom—he loved him; so, he did the loving thing, he told this man the truth. Your wealth is your stumbling block.

This man is a man of means. We hear this when Mark tells us, “He has many possessions.” But if we are listening to the story carefully we know this well before Mark tells us. The man’s position and his riches show through in the way the man asks the question….

What do I have to DO to inherit eternal life? This man is used to being able to make things happen, he just needs to know what to do next. This man is not worried about feeding his family, or paying the tax collectors, or any number of daily problems that the poor contend with—this man is worried about his future life, as he’s pretty comfortable right now.

This man’s wealth is an obstacle for him—it blinds him. He’s so oblivious that he can’t truly see the people with Jesus who’ve left their families and their livelihoods to follow the way. It is as if they are invisible to him. He wants to know about himself.

As for disciples, even they are shocked to hear how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. They ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” It seemed obvious to the disciples, who lived their lives on a daily existence, that the rich are able to have anything they want in life, including, maybe especially including God’s promises. If those who’ve been blessed with wealth are prevented from having eternal life, the disciples pondered, then how can it be that God blesses good people with wealth?  

You can see their conundrum.

By now, you’d think that those who’d been following Jesus would be used to hearing him turn their ideas about God on their heads. Jesus was constantly challenging their whole understanding of the way God shows us love. They usually didn’t get it; the disciples were hard-headed. Like us.

This fall, the Wednesday book study has been reading Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved. We’ve explored the problems with common sayings people offer such as Everything Happens for a Reason and What you don’t know won’t hurt you. Good things come to those who wait.

And we’ve wondered, Is that Really true?   We’ve asked ourselves the hard question too: what would it say about God if everything happens for a reason—childhood cancer? Adult cancer for that matter. Tornadoes that rip apart lives?

We realize that humans want certainty so badly we slip into hard-headed beliefs or sayings, that if we examined them, we really don’t believe.

All those following Jesus had to unlearn some of their ideas too; The sayings and beliefs that had become ingrained in their cultural lives, needed undoing. Such as today’s lesson: wealth is not a gift from God or the justification that says you have a life well lived.

We are still trying to undo this one. It is still present today, and known as the prosperity gospel. —the one that says if you are good enough, God will bless you with health and wealth. The problem with this understanding, that wealth is a reward, is that it is not true to our experience. We all know good people who’ve been afflicted with sickness or someone whose job dried up, and they are left without a means to support themselves. Bad things happen to good people. That wealth is a reward is not only untrue, it is damaging. If we commit to this kind of thinking we will eventually end up with a lack of compassion for the poor, justifying, “they get what they deserve.”

It is natural I suppose for us to think in terms of cause and effect, but the grace of God doesn’t work that way. God’s favor towards us is unearned and undeserved.

Our Sunday lectionary has us reading Job right now, where this idea of health and wealth as reward is especially challenged. Job was as upright a man as God could find on this earth, and we know the long saga of what happens to him.

If the Bible and especially the gospel has anything to say about wealth, it says that your wealth implies an obligation to help those in need.

Not the law, not his personal ethics, but wealth was this man’s stumbling block. Like him, we too can be so busy and preoccupied with our own comfortable lives that we don’t see the poor. Like this man we want certainty, control over our heavenly destiny and we forget that Jesus simply calls us to serve one another: to give the one who takes your coat, your shirt too. We like to think our culture is soaked in Christian thought, but we are much better at blaming the poor for not “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps,” or “freeloading.”

I’m not sure where your life has taken you, but for most, the poor are just invisible to us.

This man’s story gives us an opportunity to open our eyes and see where we fall short. Perhaps an important place to start is to recognize that it is the labor and compromised lives of the working poor that supports the lives of the more privileged.

Give your money to the poor, Jesus tells the man. Let go of the claim on your wealth, it is getting in the way of your being part of the kingdom. Use your time and money to help the people of God live in a more just society.

Living into the kingdom is not just about keeping the law, it is about giving what you have to those in need.

A life with a spiritual practice of giving, frees us from our wealth so we can have a more a profound knowledge of God’s purpose for all creation.

We’ll sing one of my favorite hymns today as we leave—its words are a prayer, giving us the encouragement to do these things:

“Before thy throne, O God we kneel, Give us a conscience quick to feel,
a ready mind to understand, the meaning of thy chastening hand;

Search out our hearts and make us true; help us to give to all their due. 
From love of pleasure, lust of gold, from sins which make the heart grow cold, wean us and train us with thy rod; teach us to know our faults, O God.”

Thanks be to God we have Jesus, our great high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.

Thanks be to God that Jesus loves us enough to tell us what we need to hear.