“IT’S NOT THAT THEY CAN’T SEE THE SOLUTION.
THEY CAN’T SEE THE PROBLEM.”
Imagine an article like this appearing in the Vancouver Sun:
“During his recent visit to Vancouver, the Dalai Lama was approached by local business tycoon Jim Pattison. Pattison rapidly pushed to the front of the crowd and confronted the Dalai Lama. Mr. Pattison allegedly said: “Your holiness, what does a guy like me need to do to get to this place of enlightenment and peace you’re talking about?”
The Dalai Lama replied that Mr. Pattison could have immediate bliss if he would sell all his businesses and give the money to the homeless.
Mr. Pattison is quoted as saying: “Yeah – in your dreams, pal,” as he walked away.”
I personally think that we preachers too often want to take the edge off the Gospel and its claims upon us – we are quick to tame, tone down or explain away the challenge in what Jesus is saying, because we are afraid of causing discomfort, and we don’t want anyone getting upset or walking away. Instead of letting it be heard and encouraging people toward some serious self-examination, and to deeper discipleship, we get too protective and apologetic. This is one of those Sundays when the difficulty of what Jesus is saying just hangs there – rather ominous and threatening – warning of the cost of true discipleship.
In the Gospel today, Jesus is approached by a rich man wanting something – answers to questions? – validation of his status? – reassurance that his life is nearly perfect in every way?
He comes rushing up and when he addresses himself to Jesus it is with a great flourish of humility, an exaggerated gesture of reverence. He kneels down on the ground and addresses Jesus as “good teacher . . .” It suggests something overdone – his whole approach suggests flattery as well as self-importance and entitlement.
It says in the Letter to the Hebrews, “the word of God … is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden.” Obviously, the New Testament writers believed this to be true of Jesus to a great degree. The rich man may have been looking for a crowning moment and his haste suggests he could hardly wait to have Jesus validate him as a true man of God and wasn’t prepared to be delayed much (important man and all), but according to the Gospel account, Jesus saw something else going on – something that the rich man was blind about, unaware of.
Considering the much bigger question the rich man has asked, Jesus’ response seems rather odd. You always know you’re in trouble when your question is answered with a question. The rich man asks: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus asks him: “Why do you call me good?”
So often we are unconscious of our values, especially in terms of the automatic ways in which we evaluate and categorize and divide things and people into good and evil. So often we, like the rich man, assume we are on the inside of that reality – we assume our own goodness and our ability to see it in others – and we don’t think much about whether our labels are accurate or fair. As a rich and respectable man, he would be used to evaluating others and being taken seriously – who would dare challenge or question a powerful man when he is offering his opinion or judgment about something? But Jesus stops him in his tracks. None of that impresses him at all.
Jesus is about to take this guy a long way out of his comfort zone; he has obviously been used to being a big fish in a small pond; Jesus is about to offer him a gift of a much larger perspective of the world and a new purpose in it. Is he up to the challenge?
One point today’s Gospel makes is that when you ask a big question you had better be prepared for a big answer. Nothing could have prepared him for the answer Jesus gave him. Instead of adding something to his repertoire of faithful practices Jesus suggests a drastic subtraction: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in [the kingdom of God]; then come, follow me.” This man was not thinking in terms of lacking anything – he seems to have thought, what more can I possibly do to earn my ticket to paradise? It wasn’t as if he was a bad person or anything like it.
It says the man was “shocked” by this answer and left immediately. It doesn’t say that the disciples ran after him, trying to comfort him or tell him that Jesus didn’t really mean that.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension . . . Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge”
We have often encouraged people toward pointless attempts at procuring and guaranteeing their own salvation, and this rich man has been no different. He’s not a bad man, and perhaps rightly prides himself in having been obedient and observant for many years. But the New Testament proposes a radically different alternative: What if, in Christ, God has taken that whole legal/obedience thing off the table – so that it is no longer an issue. How would you respond to God then?
The rich man didn’t get it, but on the surface, the answer is easy: there is nothing you can do to “earn” eternal life or to be loved any more by God than you are already, and yet the way we live our lives does matter, because it’s an expression of our love for God. We don’t necessarily need to add more things, activities or accomplishments, filling up some imaginary checklist of requirements that will make us acceptable or even perfect. Instead of bringing us closer to God they can actually hinder our relationships with God and others.
The issue is not “How do I get out of this life” or “how do I leave all those “losers” behind?” Jesus points him back into this life – toward the very people and circumstances he seems desperate to escape. Jesus directs him to become aware of the many around him who have had nothing while he has lived in comfort, practicing his religion as a kind of private pursuit, a largely self-serving hobby or luxury. Jesus urges him not only to see the poor, but to reach out to them with a meaningful gesture of compassion.
What we are asked to do is to accept the consequences of believing in a God who loves all people – that it is no longer about spending our lives trying to divide and distinguish ourselves from others, but about living at God’s table of abundance, in the vineyard of justice for all, in the kingdom of compassion and empowerment for all.
It’s not about gaining personal redemption, especially when it comes at the expense of others. We are not to look for a doorway out of this world; we are to seek instead for a way to bring the reality of God’s kingdom to those around us, especially the downtrodden, the bullied, the oppressed – the people that the rich have often stepped on to get where they are.
A local grocery chain jingle goes: “More, More More!” Jesus seems to be chanting a different mantra: “Less, Less, Less!”
Mother Teresa once spoke of the spiritual poverty of the West (particularly the U.S. but it would apply to Canadians as well). She said “you have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”
Mother Teresa was right. In the developed world, we have equated material possessions with happiness, with well-being, with heaven. A beer ad used to tell us “it doesn’t get any better than this.” In fact, we have made materialism and wealth much more important than spirituality, so that when we experience any setback in the economy, or in our personal circumstances, we are rattled and made extremely anxious, and don’t seem to know how to cope or rise above it.
We can see how the rich man responded to Jesus. When we encounter the Word what is OUR response? Do we too walk away from the challenge it presents? Are we too afraid to let go of false securities and our carefully constructed public persona in order to become the person God calls us to be?
Christianity is not one of those bland spiritualities that promises you a cozy life and high self-esteem and asks nothing of you. Christianity is not a religion that will allow you to walk around with your eyes closed to the suffering and pain of the world. Christianity is a religion that demands everything of you – demands that you offer your best – and to do so you need to be willing to become the best and truest version of yourself.
Again, the rich man is not portrayed as a bad man – apparently he’s quite a good man, according to the conventional religious and social expectations of his place and time. It’s just that when Jesus recognizes the potential for greatness in him, he is too invested in his wealth and power to be able to give it up.
Discipleship is about letting go of control – and opening up to the leading and direction of the Holy Spirit. Part of the message here is that if you are going to be a disciple of Christ, you are going to run in to decisions like this, in which the call or the way of Christ requires a decision or sacrifice of some sort – a summons into new territory, a new way of being – that may require leaving things behind.
What does it mean to be a disciple? This section of Mark’s Gospel makes the point that it is hard, that it is not for triflers, that if our life is truly going to mean something, we need to be able to put ourselves in a place where we can hear the word of truth speaking to us, and not just change the channel.s we reflect on what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ here in the greater Vancouver area in 2012, let us try to imagine ourselves in the place of a rich person who runs up to Jesus, thinking he is going to be given a pat on the back for his token acts of piety, and instead is given a calling that summons him into a new life.
It is crucial to begin to see God’s call upon our lives not as a threat but as an opportunity. The discipleship Jesus offers is costly. To be with Christ is an adventure, a journey, a pilgrimage without predictable outcomes, and it requires personal sacrifice and great faith. But it is also the way to eternal life. I pray that all of you will hear the summons of Christ – calling you to the fullness of life that discipleship and service can bring – that is the true reward of faith.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 Seek the LORD and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins– you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Hebrews 4:12-16 Indeed, 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. And 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. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Mark 10:17-31 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; Honor 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.”