Jesus’ invitation is to enter the kingdom of God, the rule of God, by letting go of all that hinders us from following with our lives, and recognizing that this kingdom is now, not future, and lived in community.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 28, year B; text: Mark 10:17-31
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There are two powerful elements in this encounter between Jesus and the young man which are deeply compelling. First is the earnestness, the eagerness of this young man. He runs up to Jesus, he wants answers to his question from a teacher he calls “good”. This is someone who wants to be where he is, and is completely engaged. And the second is that Mark tells us this tiny detail: Jesus looks the man in the eye and loves him. It’s the one time that Jesus calls someone to follow him where a Gospel writer adds that Jesus was filled with love toward the person. Jesus recognizes that this questioner isn’t testing him, but is truly interested and serious about his question, and Jesus is filled with love toward him. And so Jesus also takes him seriously in his answer. The sadness of the story is that the young man didn’t follow, he went away. It surely wasn’t the only time it happened, but it must have been very difficult for Jesus to watch him go.
The issue for us today is pretty simple: what if we were that young man? Because we are that young man. We have questions of our Lord Jesus, important questions. And when we come to ask them, Jesus looks into our eyes with love and invites us to follow. And the question lingers in the air: what will we do?
It’s complicated, though, isn’t it? Complicated by what Jesus says next, about how hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom. Because it’s as if Jesus sees right into our hearts and knows exactly why we hesitate. He knows before we even hem and haw what is holding us back. It’s our wealth, our security, our belief about ourselves and what we deserve and who we are.
But maybe it’s good that he anticipates our response. Because now, now we can reconsider. We don’t have to answer the way we were going to. We don’t have to walk away. But to change our response, we need to get some things straight.
First, Jesus’ invitation to the kingdom is now, not future.
Remember what Jesus says at the beginning of this Gospel of Mark, “the kingdom of God has come near.” (1:14) The same thing is happening here. The kingdom of God, the reign and rule of God, are something Jesus invites us to enter now. It’s a question of understanding differently what we means by being “saved,” which becomes clearer when we understand what Jesus means by “kingdom”.
This young man understands it differently than Jesus. He’s thinking about what laws he needs to keep to “inherit eternal life.” The implication is that he’s thinking about how he can be sure to have life after he dies. For him, being saved, having eternal life, is a final destination question. In other words, he’s thinking the way many Christians think. How do I make sure I get to heaven?
But Jesus refocuses him immediately, because Jesus is thinking about the now, about the reign of God which he is beginning now. Jesus understands this is a good man, he keeps the commandments. But he’s not getting what it is to live under God’s rule. Please note what Jesus knows, though: this is a good man. He really does want to please and serve God. But he wants it without knowing just what it will take to do that, to serve God with his life.
What Jesus needs him to realize is that living under God’s rule is trusting God for all things, not trusting his wealth, or his law-keeping, or his intelligence, or anything else. These things are blocking him from living a life which sees everyone as a brother and a sister, living a life of joy which trusts that God will provide, living a life in God’s kingdom.
So this is the first learning from Jesus: this kingdom is now, is near, is here. He wants us to know that the point of following him is to learn what it is to live with God in love and live in love with God’s people and God’s creation now. To experience in every way what it is to live as God created us to live. Not to live in such a way that we’re trying to keep the rules and make sure we get a good spot in the life to come. (Even the disciples James and John will struggle with this, as we’ll hear next week.)
When Peter says to Jesus that they gave up everything to follow him, Jesus agrees, and says they’ll get that back and more – now, now, in the present age. And then in the age to come, eternal life. Yes, that is part of the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. But let’s be clear: Jesus believes and says again and again that there is a quality of life in the kingdom which is ours to enjoy and cherish in this life. A quality of life to which he invites this young man. A new way of being and living in God’s love.
Second, the kingdom is not only now, it’s communal. It’s about following for the sake of the whole community.
That’s what this man’s view of faith is keeping him from seeing. He’s interested in finding out what law keeping he needs to do to be right with God himself. Me and God, how can I do the right thing to get this “eternal life” you’re talking about, Jesus?
But Jesus tells him that he’s focused on too small a view. The invitation to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow, is an invitation to follow God’s rule for the sake of the whole community. To see himself and his salvation as only happening within a whole community of believers, one where the poor are taken care of, where all are fed. One where people are not reliant on their own ability and wealth, where people enter with nothing and find everything. A community which models for the world the way people were created to be and to live, and which by its existence can transform the rest of the world.
That’s what Peter and the others are receiving, a whole community. Yes, they may have left family and home to follow Jesus. But now they have more sisters and brothers than they can count. Homes in any community they enter, simply by finding other followers. A community that gives them life and support and sustenance.
When God claims a child in baptism, and we welcome them into the kingdom of God, we are speaking on behalf of the entire Body of Christ, to which each of us belong, and this community of believers extends around the world, so that we are never alone, never apart from disciples of Jesus wherever we go.
Jesus’ invitation to this young man, and to us, and to all disciples, is to enter a way of life which is for the sake of the whole community, and which trusts and relies on God for everything, and trusts and relies on the community Jesus creates.
But here’s the third and hardest thing we need to get straight in our hearts and in our heads: the question before us is what’s keeping us from taking up Jesus’ invitation?
There’s no question that we are wealthy, though we always can think of people we know who have more. We, as much as any generation of believers in any place on earth, are challenged by our belief that we need to keep ourselves secure by our wealth. We want to be with God, we want a life of faith, but when it comes to giving up everything for the sake of following, we can’t imagine how we’d do that. People even struggle to see how they might give 10% of what they have to God’s work and ministry; imagine what it would be like to be asked for 100% by Jesus.
But I don’t think it’s a question of all of us needing to leave here and sell everything and give it away. It’s more a question of knowing what’s keeping us from following with everything we have. It’s a question of knowing what owns us instead of the other way around.
Put it this way: to find out what it means to “leave everything” for the sake of living in Jesus’ kingdom, find out what your “everything” is. It’s likely going to be the thing you get most defensive about when you are challenged to let it go. The thing you most want to protect and keep from interference by anyone else.
And for most of us, one of those things is wealth. It’s amazing how people can want God to tell others what to do about their lives in so many ways, but when Jesus again and again challenges our use of wealth we say, or think, “what I do with my money is my own business, and no one else’s.”
But for most of us, like this young man, there are also other “everythings,” things that we have that we can’t let go of but which are in our way. Personality habits. Behaviors. Selfish decision-making. Attitudes or beliefs. Any number of things that we know are blocking us from fully following Jesus, fully living in the kingdom, but we’re just not ready to part from them.
That’s why Jesus says it’s so hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom. They’re a model of not being able to let go. Because the more you have, the less you need others. The pains and sufferings of the world are not your own, they’re someone else’s. And maybe you and I will be willing to give a little to help another person. But that’s not being saved. That’s not life in the kingdom.
Life in the kingdom is fully entering into the community, taking on the other person’s problems and sufferings as our own, and being a part of them. Giving up everything that prevents that, and if some of that is our wealth, using that wealth to make others in the community better. It’s seeing everything as connected, everybody as connected, and living in love of God and love of neighbor not as a motto but as a way of life.
So now we know what’s at stake. The question is, what will you say to Jesus?
This young man walked away. He couldn’t imagine letting go of the wealth that gave him security, the law-keeping that defined him, his way of life that kept him who he was. Jesus was inviting him to become someone completely different. And he couldn’t do it.
In the next weeks we’re moving toward our semi-annual meeting, and a stewardship emphasis in mid-November to plan for our work together next year. As we begin this time of our life together, it’s going to be easy to think it’s all about money. Budgets are made, plans are engaged, and we ask each other to pledge wealth to do this work together. And there’s no question it is about money in some ways. And each of us should pledge with the thought in mind, what is Jesus asking me to let go of so that others might have life?
But it’s more a question of faith when we really come to think about it. What Jesus invites us to live in is a relationship of faith and trust in God, and a life in a community of believers, not a group of individual believers. Do you see the difference? When we learn to let go of our dependence upon ourselves and our own wealth or skill or habits or intelligence or good works, we learn the joy of life in this kingdom, this community of God’s rule. Our faith deepens and grows as we learn to trust. And yes, it will come as our financial giving increases and we take more and more risks for the sake of others, for the sake of God. But the end result is God deepens our faith.
So what will you say to Jesus? He already knows it’s going to be hard for you, for me, we who have so much we can afford to cling to many things. But remember, he’s looking at you in love, and inviting you to a life lived with God in trust which perhaps you’ve never even imagined was possible. God bless us all as we hear Jesus’ invitation to this life, and give us the grace and faith to follow.
In the name of Jesus. Amen