Albuquerque, NM 87107
Sunday October 11, 2009
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Mark 10:17-31
There is nothing quite like the angst of a preacher in one of the wealthiest nations in the world being asked to proclaim the good news of a text that is so overtly about money like the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler or as I like to call it the Loaded but Sorrowful One. When the lectionary, our program for reading through the Bible is a systematic way, deals a text like this to me, I feel like I am between a rock and a hard place. If I take on the text and preach about money, even once a year, members of the congregation will perceive that the church is always talking about money and trying to make them feel guilty about their good fortune of living in this country. If I figure out some clever way to avoid the text I could be compromising my calling to proclaim the gospel with integrity. And all of this is quite clearly Jesus’ fault as he spent a great deal of time talking about economic issues, the seductive dangers of wealth, the need to protect the vulnerable from economic exploitation all the while demonstrating a radical form of communal living that scared the authorities witless. Jesus could be downright confrontational in a tough sort of way that we’d really like to avoid in church if possible with all of our good taste and delicate sensitivities.
As someone once confided in me, it is not the parts of scripture that I don’t understand that trouble me, it is the parts of scripture that I do understand that give me the most trouble. Today’s text is one of those passages.
Jesus is headed for Jerusalem and all the conflict that awaits him. It is probably not a great time to sneak in a conversation about religious devotion, but sensing an opening, a rich man seizes the opportunity. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus, who appears to have a low tolerance for rich, upwardly mobile, spiritual overachievers delivers a brush-off line. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus is not exactly exuding warmth, Things do not look promising in the meaningful dialogue department.
Rabbi Jesus, follows this up with a kind of stock lesson about keeping the commandments rattling off 5 of the ten best ways, thinking it may end the conversation. However, the rich man is not deterred. To Jesus’ surprise the rich man answers that he has kept the commandments since he was boy in Sabbath school. Wow! Who of us can actually say that with a straight face and a pure heart? There is a kind of youthful confidence here but also the sincerity of a truth seeker. Jesus, catches his breath, looking the young man over. He sees the beautiful clothes, the Calvin Klein robes, the North Face tunic, the Keen no make that Gucci sandals, the expensive shades, the trendy watch and all the gold around his fingers. He looks deeper, into the rich man’s proud eyes and handsome face, pondering this child of God in front of him. Behind the protection of wealth, past the good breeding, and underneath all that excellent education, he senses a hunger about this young man, a hunger for something more than ordinary life affords. A hunger for life itself, rich with meaning, unfettered by the expectations that bind and circumscribe the everyday, alive to the movement of God.
The text is poignant. It tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Has this happened to you? Have you found yourself staring into the eyes of the one who is “for you,” in the biggest sense of that word? Have you looked into Love’s eyes, eyes that want nothing less for you than life, life that keeps growing, keeps expanding, keeps getting more interesting… life eternal?
Jesus looses his sharpest arrow at the most tender part. “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 and follow me.” The arrow finds home. Go, sell, give, come, follow. The young man staggers, under these five new commands. His disbelieving heart is bleeding. “How could you,” his eyes plead? How could you make it so hard? The conversation dissolves in grief. This loss is too much. It cannot be embraced. This truth is something to escape from; back to the creature comforts, back to the balm of beauty, back to the safety of success.
There is silence as Jesus’ friends struggle to understand. Perhaps there is silence for us as well. This story is a little too close to home. It is certainly not a story about charitable giving or turning in your pledge card this coming week even if this reading always seems to comes up during stewardship season. No, this is a story about the very center of life. It is about the deep demands of discipleship, of following hard after God. The famous theologian, Paul Tillich, defined faith as one’s ultimate concern. Bob Dylan reminded us all that, “You gotta serve somebody.” Jesus baffled his disciples by challenging their idea of wealth as a pathway and sign of God’s blessing despite the popular thinking of the day and ours for that matter. Jesus viewed wealth as a hindrance to entering the Kingdom of God which amazed his disciples.
So what are we to do with this text. It is strange that this demanding text about selling everything and about how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God follows Jesus’ teaching about receiving the Kingdom of God as a child. The message that the kingdom of God is easy to enter, that it must be received as a child would receive a gift, is contrasted with this passage in which the kingdom of God demands our best obedience and all that we have. In fact, all we can do is not enough to achieve the life we desire. Such wholeness, such salvation is possible only from God, and we can only receive it as a gift.
In essence this passage tells us:
How hard it is for anyone to enter the kingdom of God, but for rich people it is quite impossible, like the amusing image of a fully loaded camel trundling through your grandmother’s sewing needle. In fact humanly speaking it is impossible for anyone to be saved rich or not; but don’t despair, don’t lose heart. With God all things are possible. Jesus’ teaching to his disciples puts gift and demand together in a paradox that is the matrix for the Good News. You cannot earn the kingdom of God but you cannot just do nothing either. Belonging to God, becoming a part of the Kingdom of God is both gift and demand. It is an astonishing paradox but true. It is simple like a gift but it is demanding like your life. It doesn’t cost more than you can afford but it does cost all that you have.
Of course throughout the ages the church has tried to understand this wild teaching of Jesus in a number of ways. The literal or eschatological reading of this passage was no doubt important in the early church. With the expectation that Jesus would soon return in glory the early Christian community took the command to go, sell, give, come, follow quite literally creating a radical sense of community and commonality of possessions that was experienced as receiving a hundredfold houses, brother, sisters, mothers and children and fields as they awaited Christ’s return.
Later, as life continued and had to be sustained an ascetic or restrictive reading of this text took center stage out of necessity. The passage was still read literally but was applied only to certain people in the Christian community not all disciples. The reading of the text took on a institutional form in vows of poverty of the religious orders and for certain individuals who were led to a life of radical renunciation of possessions and total dependence upon God. Those engaged in this kind of life were meant to be a kind of example to others about the costly nature of discipleship and a prophetic witness to the dangers of possessions.
Yet another popular way to understand this text today especially among Protestants is to spiritualize its meaning. The story is no longer meant to be taken literally but rather has particular spiritual meaning for all disciples who are called to root out of our lives whatever may hinder our following of Jesus. The hindrance in each of our lives is highly personal and applies to the particular individual.
In our efforts to take seriously Jesus’ teaching, we institutionalize, generalize, or spiritualize the message and in doing so we discover many things that are true and helpful to our spiritual lives. Yet the tension of this radical text resists easy resolution that removes all pressure on us as followers of Jesus. After we have done our best to make this text say something less upsetting to our system of values, Jesus looks intently at us and continues to quietly affirm that life is to be had not by accumulating things, but by disencumbering ourselves. “One must travel light.” In essence Jesus proclaims to us, here and now that the way to be really rich is to die to wealth. It is a message that takes our breath away. And therein is the good news, that Jesus still can shock and amaze us back into life if we are only willing to listen. You are no fool to give up what you cannot keep to gain what you cannot lose.
I want to go back to the loving gaze of Christ. This seems to me to be at the center of this story. We’ve already proven that we can quickly give you any number of ways to explain this passage of scripture away. But that is to keep Christ at arms length. It is in the eyes of Christ that the power of this passage is found. Jesus looked intently at the rich man when he said, “go, sell, give, come, follow.” and he looked intently at the dumbfounded disciples when he answered there question about who could then be saved, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” I want to challenge you to do some God gazing, to look deeply into the eyes of Christ. Perhaps you will want to spend some time with an Icon of Christ the teacher, the Pantocrator, or perhaps you can already see the eyes of Christ searching for you. I want you to spend some time this day or this week just looking and praying into those ocean deep eyes of compassion. Looking into the eyes that loved the rich man. Opening yourself up to hear the love of Christ’s command. “Go, sell, give, come, follow.” God knows where your tender parts are. God knows how to draw you into the dance of discipleship. God knows what it will cost you. God knows you can afford it. God knows your life depends upon it.