[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]
Have you ever had a reason to sell all of your possessions? About five years ago, shortly after my friend and church member Whitney Guthrie made all of the arrangements to move to Chile for a term of 3 years with Operation Mobilization, I helped her price items for her moving away yard sale. She was selling nearly everything she owned—every piece of furniture, all of her books, DVDs, CDs, knick-knacks, her dishes, small appliances, and at least half of her clothing. All of the money made would go toward her travel and living expenses in Chile while she made the transition to raising her own salary. The day of the sale, I sat with her in front yard and on her behalf haggled with neighbors who thought that $1 was too much to pay for a t-shirt. “She’s going to be a missionary,” I told one of them slowly. “Your $1 gets you a tshirt and you get to support a missionary.” “Would you take 50cents?” she asked in reply. I remember the anxiety I felt over Whitney selling nearly all of her earthly goods, so much that I even bought or offered to keep some of the items that I knew she particularly liked—a couple of t-shirts and DVDs and books—just so that I could give them back to her when she came back.
I remember watching Whitney let go of all of the things that had filled her life, as well as childhood bedrooms, dorm rooms, and apartments through the years. She was the embodiment of grace during that process, choosing to not focus on what she was losing, or how little money she was taking in for items that were much more expensive at their original purchase, but instead setting her eyes on the greater goal and her calling from Jesus.
Today we meet a man who was not ready to hear that calling from Jesus. Listen now for God’s word.
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?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
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!’ 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! 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.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 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, 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
So here is one of those passages in Mark where it seems that Jesus is actively trying to keep Christianity weird. But this man does not just appear in Mark. Here, we see that he is very wealthy. In Luke, he is called a ruler. In Matthew, the fact that he is young is emphasized. Typically, this character is called “The Rich Young Ruler.” He does appear to be sincere, as he approaches Jesus, kneeling, calling him “good teacher.” Jesus, as he does sometimes in the gospels, seems to want to banter with the man a bit. We see him do it with the woman at the well in John 4, with the sycophoenecian woman who talks to him about dogs at the master’s table, with some of the people he heals throughout the gospels. I sometimes wonder which was more normal for Jesus—to simply do what was asked of him or to engage in some challenging conversation first.
The man’s concern is with his own soul and his own righteousness. Jesus establishes that the man does know about the commandments and has even kept them. Then Jesus says something confusing for man who had kept all of the commandments and probably considered his wealth a reward for good living: sell all you own, give money to the poor, be assured of your treasure in heaven, and follow me!
The man’s reaction is to go away grieving.
I think Jesus’ reaction is equally important. We are told that Jesus loved the man. And so when he goes away grieving, I can sense that Jesus grieved, too. I’ve been there. When I sit with a sixteen year old girl who once said “yes” to Jesus and determined to live into her baptismal covenant and follow God’s commandments, and I challenge her to stand in faith and not do the things her peers are pressuring her to do and she shrugs her shoulders and says, “I mean…everyone does it.” or “I just want to be popular.” and then she stops coming to youth group or church because she’s counted the cost and she doesn’t want to pay it, Jesus stands with me in this moment and I know a small bit of the sadness he must have felt.
We read that his immediate words are to his disciples, almost as though he’s sharing grief with them too—“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” It is here he compares that task with a camel going through the eye of a needle. I read with some interest this week that there have been various attempts throughout the years to soften this comparison by suggesting a mistranslation or mistake in copying the Greek in one manuscript or another along the way—maybe Jesus actually meant something that is smaller than a camel, something a little more possible to fit through the eye of a needle. But friends, have you seen the eye of a needle? You can often barely get the thread that’s designed to pass through it to fit, much less anything else that is bigger. Jesus intends to be absurd here.
The disciples are as surprised as the man, we can assume. Who has any hope at completing that impossible task, they want to know.
Jesus tells us something we’ve heard before—in fact, you’ll find it on the front of your bulletin in our church vision statement: nothing is impossible for God.
I would like to suggest this morning that when faced by such a challenge by Jesus, when the cost of discipleship seems too great, we can make one of four choices.
The first response we might have is the one that the man in Mark 10 chose—to go away grieving. Jesus said something hard and the man decided it was not worth the great cost to do what Jesus said, so he simply went away. His life spent following the commandments, but this was too much to ask.
The second option we have is to brush off Jesus’ words. We may choose to simply ignore them or read them without taking them into consideration, or we can just write them off as a weird thing Jesus said or did not really mean or we can choose to hang our hope on the “with God all things are possible” part and move along. I thought this week that it would seem that there are lots of people who insist that we must interpret the Bible absolutely literally who have never even considered taking this section literally. If you’re the preacher this morning, perhaps you’d preach the Hebrews passage also into today’s lectionary instead and leave this camel and needle business alone. There are plenty who do that with this passage and I was certainly tempted to do so. Although I think that it should be said that if we read Scripture or hear the words of the Jesus and decide not to consider them because it disrupts the lives we are living, that is idolatry.
The third response would be to take this passage and all other passages completely literally and live this out—sell your stuff and follow Jesus without hesitation. And some have done that, which certainly takes much faith and resolve.
The fourth response is where I want to spend some time this morning, however. I think the fourth response is to stick around, not brush the words aside, and let the Holy Spirit work in our hearts. You see, if the man in our passage is to be blamed, it’s not because he was rich and it’s not because Jesus’ words caused him to struggle. It’s because he walked away. I wish he would have stuck around for a few minutes and asked Jesus some questions about this and allowed himself some space to consider the possibility present in what Jesus was asking him.
I come to you, Jesus’ Church, and I ask you, what are we to do with this passage this morning? Let’s take a moment to think about what that would mean if we understand that Jesus is asking us to do these hard things. What would it mean for you or I to sell everything we have and follow Jesus? What does that look like in your household? We know that a good many of the first followers of Jesus and members of the early church did just that—sell all their possessions and have everything in common. How does it feel to consider this? Honestly in your heart, ponder how you would have responded to hearing Jesus say this to you—“sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, be assured of your treasure in heaven, and follow me.”
Rather than mounting a moral high horse, I empathize with the rich young man. I could have just as easily made the same decision. These words of Jesus are difficult for me. Mark never gets back to this man, but I do wonder if maybe later on, after he had some time to think about it, if he made a different decision and decided to follow Jesus.
Having wrestled with this passage all week, I do have a few concluding thoughts.
It is very easy, when one has gathered money or things, to put trust in money or things. A truth about wealth is that often once we are on the course to acquire it, it’s possible to never get off of that course. We can always want more money or better things, and it is possible to never be content with what we have.
Jesus is speaking against this mindset, and against the natural human inclination to put our trust in things that are not God and have no place in God’s Kingdom. If wealth is our reason for being and our priority, we are not seeking the values of Jesus’ Upside Down Kingdom. Again, Jesus reminds us: the first will be last and the last will be first. The things the world values are not the values of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus’ words are hard this morning. If you are looking for the exits, it’s hard to blame you. But my hope today is that rather than going away grieving, we stay with Jesus and let the words here challenge our hearts. What is God calling us to do concerning our things? Where are our priorities and what motivates us? What are we doing to serve the Kingdom of God? How are we following Jesus rather than our own human desires?
The good news is this: what you may not be able to imagine happening by your own human power and ability suddenly becomes possible when submitted and entrusted to God, to whom all things are possible. Alleluia, Amen.