Have you ever asked yourself or someone else, “What do I have to do to make you happy?” “What do I have to do to get this promotion?” “What do I have to do to get my life back on track?” “What do I have to do to get out of debt and make ends meet?” What do I have to do to get my teenagers to stop fighting?” “What do I have to do to ease this burden of grief?”
I’m sure that at some time each of us has asked one of those questions or a similar one. There are times in our lives when we feel powerless, times when we feel as if we’re stuck in a rut. There are times when we feel overwhelmed and just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, or if we see it, we’re sure that it‘s an oncoming train. Even when everything seems to be going well, there are times when we feel like something is missing, we yearn for something more and sense that it is somehow beyond our grasp.
Our Gospel lesson this morning introduces us to a man in just such a predicament. Mark describes him only as a man, though many of us remember this story as the story of the rich young ruler, borrowing the term young from Matthew’s version and the word ruler from Luke’s. The man’s identity is unimportant, however. What is plain is that he comes to Jesus seeking something. Later references to his possessions inform us that he is a wealthy man, or at least living very comfortably, (like most folks in Boulder!). We also know from our lesson that this is a religious man, a man who has kept the commandments, who has probably faithfully attended synagogue, studied the scriptures, and made the appropriate sacrifices. Yet he is troubled by one thing. One question keeps nagging at him. Despite his success, despite his wealth and comfort, he is unsatisfied and a bit worried. Something is missing. Something is bothering him. Something seems to be just beyond his grasp. So he seeks out Jesus and asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The man’s sincerity is obvious; he comes and kneels before Jesus, not something a rich or haughty person would do very easily. Then he asks a curious question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This young man was undoubtedly sincere, but he was also confused.
Jesus first responds to him with a brief question of his own, “Why do you call me good?” And then adds a reminder that, ”No one is good but God alone.” Jesus is drawing this man firmly into God’s presence, setting him on his feet before the one true God, the only giver of eternal life.
Jesus then recites a short litany of commandments. Those cited are all drawn from the second half of the Decalogue, the ones having to do with human relationships, and he even introduces a new one: “Thou shalt not defraud.” Perhaps Jesus knew something about the business practices of this man, who listens to the litany and then responds, perhaps with a smug sense of satisfaction, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” This man believes that he has been a good Jew, that he has faithfully adhered to religious laws and practices. He may even feel that he deserves a gold star for his faithfulness.
But what is Jesus actually doing here? By reminding him of the commandments, he is setting the man squarely within his own faith tradition, and setting him before God, making sure he knows that he is accountable to God, and that what he seeks, namely eternal life, God alone can give. Perhaps at this point the man was expecting a pat on the back, a loud, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” After all, he believed that he had lived an exemplary life, keeping the commandments and upholding his faith traditions. He was undoubtedly totally unprepared for Jesus’ next statement: ‘‘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.’’
Mark precedes that instruction with a brief phrase: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said.....” Jesus’ heart is filled with compassion for this unnamed man who has come to him to ask one of life’s greatest questions. Jesus knows how the answer he is about to give will be received. Jesus knows how difficult it will be for this man to forsake his possessions and become a follower, how hard it will be for him to inherit the eternal life which he so desperately seeks.
Note carefully Jesus’ response. He does much more than just instruct the man to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. He also issues an invitation to come, to follow, and to become a disciple. The man in this story is clearly rich by the standards of his day, just as we are all rich by the standards of our world. Yet he, and perhaps we, lack one thing. What is it that he lacks? (That we lack?) Humility? Compassion? Love for his neighbor? Devotion to God which goes beyond paying lip service to commandments and worship rituals? Jesus offers to this man, and to each of us, the opportunity to live a life of service and discipleship, the chance to choose how we will use the resources entrusted to us. He offers the possibility of eternal life.
Note also that Jesus does not impose any new religious demands on this man; he merely instructs him to go, to sell, to give, to come and to follow. It really is that simple. Jesus asks him (and us) to set aside all other dependencies and in radical trust to stand before the God who gives. Remember how ashamed Adam and Eve were when they discovered they were naked before God? Isn’t this much the same? Jesus says: God isn’t impressed by your wealth, by your possessions, by your status or your achievements. God wants us to stand up but also to stoop down, to acquire wealth if we have a good business plan, but then to use that wealth appropriately, for the purpose of helping others. This passage from Mark contains neither praise of poverty nor condemnation of wealth. What it proposes is a radical new definition of wealth – Jesus offers this man the opportunity to be rich before God, by ceasing to define himself by his possessions.
Perhaps our reading from Hebrews can further illuminate our thinking. The man who came to Jesus saw himself as a righteous man, one who had obeyed the Word of God as contained in the commandments. The writer of Hebrews challenges us to see the Word of God in a different light, writing: “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” What good does it do to obey God’s commandments not to kill or steal or commit adultery if the intentions of our hearts are not in accordance with God’s will? We encounter once again the image of nakedness before God. Verse thirteen states: “13And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
The writer of Hebrews portrays Jesus as the “great high priest” before whom we stand in judgment, but he reassures us that this Jesus understands fully our weakness and our humanity, having in every respect been tempted as we are. We have read the accounts of Jesus’ temptation. We’ve heard him pray in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” We have heard him cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This Jesus whom we follow, this Jesus who responds to the rich man in Mark’s gospel, knows temptation, knows human need, and knows the heart of God. Jesus’ full humanity and in particular the way in which he identified with human suffering by suffering himself, enables him to be sympathetic to our weakness. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
But what do today’s readings say to Christians and to churches in the 21st century? Interestingly, the message is the same today as it was 2000 years ago: riches constitute a formidable obstacle to persons who seek to become disciples. A formidable obstacle, but NOT an impossibility. The good news does not lie in playing with the Greek words to change camel into rope, or in interpreting the “needle’s eye” to mean a narrow gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which kneeling, unburdened camels could barely pass. The good news is that for God all things are possible. God can forgive. God can redeem. God can grant eternal life, even to the wealthy. “Go, sell, give, come, follow.” That is the pathway to eternal life.
So as we enter the season of stewardship and budgets, we might want to ask ourselves some tough questions: How wealthy are we? How are we using our wealth? Whom are we helping? What proportion are we giving to the poor and the needy? How can we faithfully follow Jesus encumbered by the trappings of our wealth?
It's hard to have lots of money and not have your values a little askew. Most of you business people know the name Jack Welch. Welch is the much-celebrated former chairman of General Electric. He went through a well-publicized and very acrimonious divorce proceeding and as a consequence his retirement package from GE became very public. What was revealed was a remarkable assortment of luxurious lifestyle "perks" which made the headlines. What you might not know is that many years ago, Welch also had a brush with death. He was asked by a reporter afterwards what he learned from this experience of coming face-to-face with his mortality. Had he had an epiphany during his heart surgery? His answer was this: "I learned I didn't spend enough money." When he was pressed he added that, after his bypass surgery, he vowed never again to drink wine that cost less than one hundred dollars a bottle--and he was completely serious!
What must I do to inherit eternal life? That’s quite a question, isn’t it? Contrast this next story to the one about Jack Welch. I read in a NY newspaper some years ago about a woman who had emigrated from Columbia and become an accomplished chef and caterer. She was, at the time, employed by David Rockefeller and worked on his plush estate in Potantico Hills. Her life was very comfortable, and she had become very wealthy by the standards of her native country. But her wealth will probably not get in the way of her entrance into the kingdom because she chose to use her gifts, talents and resources to benefit others. She planned to cater some elaborate benefit dinners with the proceeds designated to assist the 200 or so Hispanic day laborers who lived in a nearby town. She and some colleagues would donate their talents to prepare meals, and the sum which guests paid for those meals would purchase winter clothing and Christmas gifts for those who had little or nothing. Wealth in service to others rather than in service to self, is never a problem.
I was unable to attend the budget meeting here last Sunday so I do not know the state of CUCC’s finances. But I’m pretty certain that Rick is not going to stand up here next Sunday and tell you that unless you sell all your possessions and give the proceeds to the church you can kiss any hope of going to heaven goodbye! That’s not the point of today’s lesson, but stewardship season does give us an annual reminder to rethink our values and to perhaps do a bit of rebalancing.
You might try a little experiment: each morning drop a dollar into a basket on your table as you eat breakfast and say grace. Think of it as a “thank you” offering. At the end of the month, you’ll have $30 or maybe $60 dollars in that basket. Ask yourself if you’ve missed that money? Have you had to go without anything you really needed? If the answer is no, then consider raising your pledge to the church by at least that amount monthly. If you look at the sum over twelve months, it may seem large, but taken out of your pocket daily, it will probably not really be missed.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? The question is a haunting one. Dismayed by Jesus’ response to the young man, and knowing how much they have sacrificed in order to follow Jesus, the disciples asked: ‘‘Then who can be saved?’’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’’ Imagine for a minute these “impossible” options for those who truly trust our Lord’s promises. A rich man chooses to donate his whole fortune to charity and then devotes his life to working in a drug addiction program. A woman relinquishes a wealth of resentment and for Jesus’ sake forgives her estranged sister (or child). A teenager gives up a chance to play in a championship soccer game in order to take part in his youth group’s trip to spend a week building a Habitat for Humanity home. A family decides collectively to simplify its lifestyle as a response to the Gospel, and to give more time and financial support to the ministry of its church. Small things? Maybe….but life-changing ones in many ways.
Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow. Become….the formula is really quite simple. Living for Christ. Loving and serving God and our neighbor. Using our gifts and talents as well as our wealth, in service to others, is all that Jesus really asks of us.
Who knows what sort of new life God will shape in us as we begin to take God’s word and Jesus’ invitation seriously. Who knows what things that we “give up” in order to be disciples will be hallowed and transformed for the benefit of many? Who knows what marvels we will see, what lives we will touch, what joys we will experience on our journey of discipleship?
What must I do? Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow. Become all that Christ calls you to be. The invitation to eternal life awaits only our response. With God nothing is impossible, even when dealing with the likes of us! Amen.