SCRIPTURE – Mark 10:17-31
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said 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.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Not a Fan of Jesus
Sept. 23, 2012
There sure is a lot to talk about in this text, and pretty much all of it makes us uncomfortable! I never thought I would miss preaching on Paul, but at least with his more difficult words we could spend time talking about things like context and audience and other factors that soften the blow a bit. But not with Jesus. There’s no explaining away these words. I can’t tell you that the Greek words for “sell what you own” actually translates to “sell what you no longer need, but keep the good stuff.” I can’t provide a contextual reading that makes these words any easier to take. I wish I could tell you the Israelites owned really small camels and sewed with really big needles, but we all know the actual size of a camel and a needle. One commentator said, “If this message does not take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we have either heard it so much that we don’t hear it anymore, or we’ve not heard it enough.” When he says hard things like this, I’m not a fan of Jesus.
And we’re not the only ones who have trouble with what Jesus says here. His own disciples question Jesus’ response to this man. Being faithful Jews, they knew that physical and financial blessing was a sign of God’s favor. Abraham was rich. Joseph became rich. Job was rich, then poor, then rich again. David and Solomon were rich. What’s wrong with being rich? What does Jesus have against people who have wealth? Nothing, I’d say. This story isn’t a condemnation of people with money. Jesus doesn’t say it’s impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. He says it is very difficult, because he knows the challenges that come with having resources like money and possessions, he knows how tempting it is to forget that the only god we’re called to worship is God.
I have strong personal reasons for not being a fan of Jesus based on this passage. Not many people know this, but at one time I was fairly wealthy. It started slow, with a little money in the bank and a few meager properties. But then I really turned a corner. I bought a railroad and even a utility company, not to mention a couple hotels. I had a shiny silver car and a fancy top hat. I was not afraid to take a chance, even if it meant going directly to jail. It seemed like every time I turned a corner, someone was handing me $200. But then, the game ended, and I had to put all the Monopoly money back in the box.
Obviously, the man in our story isn’t ready to give up his wealth so easily, but otherwise, is there really anything wrong with him? Sounds to me like he’s done an awfully lot of things right. He could have been anyone we know, wearing a sharp three-piece suit and power tie, working his way through life to provide for his family, saving and investing and splurging every once in awhile. He approaches Jesus and offers him a sign of respect by bowing before him. This is a good man, an honest person. Could be any one of us.
He then gives us some insight into his situation: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Inherit” – that’s a wealthy person’s question. He’s not asking, “Where can I stay tonight to get out of the rain?” or “Do you know of any local soup kitchens?” Jesus answers his question by referring him the manual: “You know the commandments.” At this point, the man has to be feeling pretty good about himself. He knows he’s followed the law. He’s walked the straight and narrow, he’s led a holy life. This isn’t some vagabond looking for a loophole in the law through which he can weasel his way into heaven; this is a fine, upstanding believer who has done all that has been asked of him by God. This is a good person trying to do good things.
But he feels something is not right. He doesn’t have that sense of peace about his faith. There’s got to be something else he can do to make sure he’s on the elevator going up instead of down. There’s got to be one more thing he can check off his spiritual to-do list that will ensure a reserved seat at the banquet table. He has the means, he has the desire, all he needs from Jesus is the name to write on the check so he can add “eternal life” to his list of assets.
But to solve this problem, our man doesn’t need addition, but subtraction. Jesus looks at him with love and sees the illness in need of a cure, sees what it will take to make this man whole. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” This is the only place in scripture where Jesus’ call is refused. This man could have been a history maker, he could have written a gospel, he could have served with the Messiah, if only he could have un-stuffed himself. Relinquishing power and wealth is the hardest for those who have the most power and wealth to relinquish, but salvation is not for sale. So the man turns his back on Jesus, crestfallen and with a heavy heart.
Jesus has a way of making a mess of people’s tidy little faith, doesn’t he? It seems like he’s always putting down the good guys, like the law-abiding Pharisees, and lifting up the ne’er-do-wells, like tax collectors and lame beggars. And when he has Mr. Moneybags right in front of him, the guy who could bankroll his ministry for the foreseeable future, he doesn’t say, “You want eternal life? Here’s a pledge card” or “Getting into heaven? A big donation to the capital campaign can’t hurt your chances.” Instead, he tells him to get rid of the one thing that means the most to this man. Jesus isn’t making very many fans this way.
But he’s not looking for fans, is he? He’s looking for followers. This rich young man was a fan of Jesus. He’d heard the stories, seen the crowds, knew that Jesus was doing some pretty cool stuff. And he asks the question, “Hmm. What’s in it for me?” So he excitedly bounds up to Jesus like a groupie looking for an autograph. But being excited about religion isn’t the same as trusting in Christ. This man was eager to make sure his spiritual ledger leaned to the positive side, but not interested in truly following Jesus.
So what are we? Fans or followers? Do we have our spiritual to-do lists? Go to church, make a pledge, pray (when I remember), do something nice for someone. Look, those are all good things and if you’re doing them, I hope you keep doing them. But doing those things doesn’t make you a follower of Jesus any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. This man who comes to Jesus is a respectable man, he’s fulfilled the commandments to not cheat or steal or murder. It’s respectable to never take anything away from someone. But it is Christ-like to reach out and give something to someone.
Does that mean to move from being a fan to being a follower means doing what Jesus says in this passage, selling all we have and giving the money to the poor? Nope. Jesus isn’t giving that command to us. Jesus wasn’t laying down poverty as a requirement for everyone. The Great Physician doesn’t write everyone the same prescription. But for this man, the thing that stood between him and God, the thing that kept him at arm’s length from Jesus, the thing that held him back from following was his wealth. And, Jesus says, that’s what has to go. What has to go for us to move from fan to follower?
This man’s dilemma reminds me of what I go through in trying to maintain my health. I know there are certain kinds of foods I shouldn’t eat, but they taste so gosh-darn good! And then I get on the scale and am disappointed that the pounds aren’t just falling off. I go for runs, then use that to justify eating even more foods that are bad for me. “Another scoop of ice cream? Why not? I ran a half mile last Thursday!” If I want to get serious about losing weight, something’s gotta go, probably the sweet tea and kettle corn. That’s not easy to do, and I don’t have to do it. I can keep eating badly, yell at my scale, go for a run, then eat badly again. But I can’t expect to see progress toward my goal if I’m not invested in reaching it.
If our goal is to be a fan of Jesus, then we can probably keep doing what we’re doing. We’ll lead respectable lives that way. But if we want to be a follower of Jesus, then we might need to take a closer look at what stands between us and God. What’s in the way? On overloaded schedule? A fear of doing something wrong? A feeling of inadequacy? Or are we, like the man, looking for what else we have to do to inherit eternal life? Our eternal life is not a prize to be won. It’s a gift, a gift given to us freely by God. And in return, we give God a gift, the gift of our lives, the gift of giving to others.
This is not a story about how money is bad. The Bible tells us about several people who stayed wealthy and followed Jesus, because for them, their wealth was a means, not an end. Those folks had to leave something else behind – a consuming career, an unhealthy relationship, an addiction, a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. What we have to leave behind may not necessarily be bad, it’s just in the way. Compared to being a follower of Jesus, to doing God’s work in this world, it just isn’t that important. At the end of the game, it’s all going to go back in the box. So how can we use what we have now to get us closer to God, not separate us further?
This is hard stuff, but then again, Jesus never said following he would be easy. Faith is a choice, and it’s rarely an easy one. Wouldn’t it be great if we could stay rich or stay comfortable or stay uninvolved and still be a follower? But we can’t, can we? There are days when stuffing a camel through a needle sounds easier than following Jesus. Can we do it? Can we be more Christ-like today than we were yesterday? Can we use what God has given us to make a difference in this world? Can we not be fans of Jesus, but be followers? Some days it just feels impossible. It is impossible, if we try to do it alone. Thankfully, we’re not alone. For God, all things are possible.