Jesus and the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31)

October 14, 2012 at 7:53 am Leave a comment

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS
Pentecost 20 (Proper 23B)
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
14 October 2012

17 As he 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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You 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.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus 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, 30 who 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

This Gospel story is filled with temptations for the preacher.
On the one hand, it has been used as a stewardship sermon text.
Simply unburden yourself of some excess wealth by giving it to the church,
and you will be saved.
On another, preachers are tempted to immediately engage the question,
‘Are we being asked to give away all of our money?’
and to explain how the answer is, miraculously, ‘No’
when by all accounts it ought to be ‘Yes.’
Very few preachers will simply answer ‘Yes.’
Very few employed preachers, that is.

The pressure that this Word of God exerts on us,
especially upon us of the twenty-first century Western world,
can be simply fantastic, if we do not keep it at arm’s length,
If we actually allow it into our souls and spirits,
who knows what it might do.
No wonder the preacher is tempted
to relieve the pressure,
to refuse to allow this story about Jesus
to either engage him or his hearers,
but to concoct an immediate application,
something that we can do to get around Jesus’ words,
to save ourselves from the seemingly implications.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem,
presumably to the people, he is headed there to try and become king.
The disciples know, but do not accept or understand,
that he is headed there to his death.
But as he is setting out on his day’s journey,
there comes a man, presumably in a great rush,
who needs to ask the great Teacher a very important question before he leaves.
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’

It is an honest question.
If it were a dishonest question,
Jesus would not speak with him in love,
as our text says,
but give him a ‘Get behind me, Satan,’
and be on his way.
But he does not.

Jesus questions him about the commandments of God.
Again, we need not trouble ourselves
with accusing the man of secret sin,
but must take at face value his confession,
‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’
Leave aside for the moment our understanding,
which is true, that we cannot save ourselves by keeping the Law.
This man earnestly strives to know and keep God’s commandments.

What does Jesus do next?
He says, ‘You lack one thing.’
After hearing this story so many times,
we ought to know what that one thing is, don’t we?
This man is too rich.
He has been trampling on the poor all his life.
He has lied to himself, he has told himself that he has kept the law, \
that he has been good,
but in reality he is evil – sitting fat and happy amidst so much wealth
that he can’t see beyond the money
to those are in desperate need.
He’s just like those people that the Prophet Amos rails on about;
those who turn justice to wormwood and bring righteousness to the ground.
The one thing he has to do is give the money away and he will truly be good, and be blessed.
He has to give up his sin in order to be saved.
Am I right?

That’s very interesting.
Where does it say that in the text?
I think that the editors of the lectionary were wrong
to pair the reading from the prophet Amos with this Gospel text.
Perhaps it would go better with the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus does not chastise this man for being too rich.
He does not bring out an accusation that he has dishonored the poor,
he does not point out how evil he has been,
how he has been living a lie all of his life
What Jesus says for the man to do is this: ‘Come, follow me.’

‘But wait, Pastor, you forgot about the part where he says about selling all that he has,
and giving it to the poor, and he will have treasure in heaven.’
Oh, yes, that is there.
If Jesus had just said,
‘Come, follow me,’
it wouldn’t make sense, would it?
So he has to make clear what has to occur before the man can follow him,
before he can be with Jesus,
the one thing he lacks.
He has to get rid of what is keeping him away from the one thing needful.
To whom better should he give the proceeds of this moving sale
than the poor, who truly do need them?
It’s a win-win.

It’s quite easy for us to assume that the one thing that the man lacked
was charity, was humility, was a sense of balance in his life.
Instead, we come face-to-face with the idea that what he lacked was Jesus.
Jesus wanted this man with him,
not to be one of the twelve apostles
but to join the great throng of disciples.
Because Jesus loved him,
Jesus was calling him to follow him,
and the thing that was in his way of this particular man was this man’s possessions.

‘But, Pastor, what about his wife and children?
Should he have just left them behind?’
we protest in vain.
Funny. I don’t see in the text
that says anything about him having a wife and children.
Perhaps if he had brought his wife and children,
Jesus would have said something different to him.
I’m not in a position to know.

Jesus does not call this man evil,
but neither does he pronounce him ‘good.’
‘No one is good but God alone,’ he says.
We come to this story saying, ‘How can we be good,’
and expect an answer of what we need to do in order to be good.
Instead, we hear that what we need is not to be good or to do good,
but to be with God, revealed in his Son Jesus.

If I were to end the sermon here,
some of you might go home thinking,
‘Pastor said that it doesn’t matter what we do with our money.’
God forbid!
It matters because our money does not belong to us, but to God,
who entrusted it to us for our sustenance and for the doing of his will.
It matters because Jesus said to his disciples,
‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’
Again, not because those who have money
are more evil than others,
but because money so quickly becomes our god,
our good without which we cannot do,
it becomes our snare, our stumbling block,
our touchstone for whatever we do.
We’re constantly thinking about it and worrying about it
– do we have enough? Will we have enough?
Can I spare this or that?
Money prevented the man of the story, who sought to love God, from following Jesus.
It kept him from the one thing he lacked.
What could it do to us?
How hard it is for us who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
Harder than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
We are called to be with Jesus,
and so however much or little we have,
Jesus calls us to orient our lives so that our wealth
becomes the tool for serving God
instead of the thing that keeps us away from God.
This is made harder by the fact
that the way we follow Jesus is usually a stationary following –
we don’t follow a man on the move.
We gather in the presence of the community,
in the presence of the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments administered,
and here we encounter Jesus.
Maybe that’s a good place to start.
What is keeping us from weekly Sunday worship with the community?
What is keeping us from delving into the Word,
from time in prayer, from fellowship with our fellow sinners called to be saints?
What keeps us from being with Jesus in the place where he calls us to be?
Are we willing to give that up in order to be with Jesus?

Then, as the man in the story would have undoubtedly found,
we will find that those who would follow Jesus
are soon sent in Jesus’ name to others who need him.
Are we willing – and able – to be sent in Jesus’ name?
To our co-workers? To our neighbors? To our family members?
To those in need of the Gospel?
For one day, for three days, for a year?
What gets in the way of being sent in Jesus’ name?
Are there others that we could send in our stead,
those who we could support to preach the Gospel that saves us?
Will it cost too much? What would we have to risk, or give up?
I have a feeling that when we as individuals and when we as a congregation
start asking this question –
Are we willing and able to be sent to others in Jesus’ name
and send others in Jesus’ name? –
our life together as a congregation will change.
It might be a little less comfortable, but it certainly will be even more exciting.

In a way what Jesus asks us to do – be with him and depend upon him –
is just as difficult as what he asked the man in the story to do.
It would be much more clear-cut should he ask us to sell all that we have and give to the poor.
And yet we have his help.
We have his word that nothing shall be impossible with him,
even our own salvation.
We have his word that we will never lack for what is important,
that we will have in this life the things we need,
and even joys we never thought we’d have,
with the persecutions that come with being a follower of Jesus.
Finally, in the age to come we will have eternal life in him.
He is all that we need and in the end he is all that we will have.

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