Taking Jesus seriously here is both promise and challenging diagnosis, but ultimately reveals a path to life in this world and the promise of life in the world to come.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28 B
Texts: Mark 10:17-31; Hebrews 4:12-16
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
What do I have to do? That’s the question.
This unnamed man wants to inherit eternal life. He’s looking for a promise of life after death and thinks Jesus might have an answer.
We know Jesus sees eternal life as a both/and reality: both life after we die and life in this world. In this encounter, Jesus distinctly offers both.
Pay attention to that. It’s too easy, like this man, to focus only on one – life after death – to the exclusion of the other.
So: imagine this man is carrying luggage as he approaches Jesus.
That might make it easier to see what’s going on. He’s got the full backpack, the big roller bag with another one strapped on top, and two Samsonites he’s wrestling with. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s a good man, keeps the commandments, tries to be faithful. But he’s worried: what if I haven’t done enough to secure eternal life?
Jesus looks at him, loves him, and says, “first off, you’re going to want to drop all that stuff. It’s dragging you down. Sell it and give to those who need help.” Notice this is not conditional. Jesus doesn’t say letting go of his wealth and possessions earns him eternal life. He says, “You’re carrying too much around; let go of it, share it, and trust that you have treasures in heaven.”
But once you’ve dropped the luggage, then come follow me, Jesus says. Having let go of all that you value so much, trusting in the gift of life after death, now you’re freed to really walk alongside me. Even to the cross.
And here Jesus offers a second grace: whatever luggage our guy sets down, whatever he sells and gives to those who are poor, he will receive a hundredfold more graces in this community that’s also walking with Jesus. Countless houses where he’s welcome wherever he goes, more siblings, parents, more life than he can even imagine, Jesus says.
But the man is deeply sad. He grieves. He says, “I can’t do that.”
In this he differs from Lutherans. We say, “We don’t have to do that.”
But the end is the same: the letting go, the dropping of that which drags us down, the sharing, doesn’t happen. Our “we don’t have to do that” too often leads to not walking the path of Christ. We don’t walk away grieving, though. We’ve convinced ourselves that just believing in Jesus is the thing. Because Jesus’ death and resurrection establish the promise of life with God after death, because what we do doesn’t earn that love from God, we easily talk ourselves out of doing what Jesus says, out of following.
“The Word of God is living and active,” we heard, “sharper than any two-edged sword.
“It pierces until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Today’s Gospel is that sword Hebrews promised this morning. We try to soften this encounter with Jesus, explain it away, use God’s forgiveness and grace as an excuse to hold all our possessions and wealth and privilege.
But – and I’m as sorry to hear this as I am to say it – God’s Word cuts right through our self-justification and our desire to say we are not this man. This Gospel reading will not let us off the hook.
If this man – living under Roman oppression in a backwater part of the world in the first century – is rich, what are we? By any measure, every one of us here is in the upper percents of the one percent on this planet. Even if we led simpler lives, we’d have a lifestyle billions can’t begin to imagine. We spend so much of our lives accumulating wealth and things, protecting ourselves with locks and insurance, resisting any claim of Jesus that this is dragging us down and depriving others. We rarely think about at whose expense it was that our wealth was accumulated, whose stolen land it is that we are buying and selling, whose lives are harmed by our growing portfolios.
We rarely let Jesus’ call to “sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come, follow me” haunt us, or bother us.
Here’s another uncomfortable truth: the early Church believed Jesus really was talking about our wealth, our possessions.
They understood Jesus saw faith as something lived concretely in the world, not just thought or believed. They embraced a shared abundant poverty that took Jesus seriously. We can easily find repeated calls for this kind of letting go of wealth and possessions throughout the entire New Testament.
And though the Church developed power and social respectability that led to centuries of theology plastering over Jesus’ words, there have been voices since those first years that kept saying, “I think Jesus meant what he said, and we need to follow him.”
The desert mothers and fathers left the cities believing they could not live faithfully in power and wealth. St. Francis of Assisi literally dropped everything to follow. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement in the 20th century followed that call, as did Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, whom our Roman Catholic siblings will declare a saint today. There are always voices calling us to hear Jesus and take him seriously. To really follow.
We’re a lot like this unnamed man. Overall, we think we’re pretty good.
We think of sin only as bad actions we do, and forgiveness as avoiding punishment. So as long as, like him, we keep the commandments, act decently, are “good” people, we pretend we don’t have to worry about Jesus’ words. But some in the Church have heard in Jesus a different message, seeing sin more as a disease, ailing our whole body and soul. It is seen in actions, yes. But it’s a deeper problem that needs healing.
That makes sense in this case: our addiction to wealth and privilege and power is so deeply embedded, given where we were born and where we live, and our centuries of denial that we have any more than anyone else, it really is like a disease.
There are enough spare rooms and bathrooms amongst the people of Mount Olive, in all our homes, to close down the homeless encampment today, and give every one in those tents a place to stay. That you and I don’t even consider that possibility, even recoil from the idea, is a sign of how deeply the sin of wealth infects our whole being.
Now we understand the disciples’ despair: “then who can be saved?”
But hear Jesus’ answer: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” As Hebrews also says today, because of Jesus entering as God into our lives and facing our suffering, our testing, our human reality, and bringing that into the life of the Triune God, we can approach God’s “throne of grace with boldness, seeking mercy, and grace to help in time of need.”
Grace to help in time of need: our disease of sinful addiction to our wealth and possessions is so deeply in our every breath, only God can do what needs to be done to end it, to change us. Give us courage to drop our luggage, face our addictions, and find the freedom to follow Jesus’ path.
Jesus offers the grace of life now and forever; let’s seek both.
To trust, because of God’s endless love, and the life won at the cross and empty tomb, that life with God after our death is our sure and certain hope. We Lutherans are right on this – there’s nothing we need do to earn that, it’s pure gift.
But to then recognize how tightly we’re holding to our luggage here, how it harms us and others, and let it go, so we are free to follow Jesus down his path. Our wealth and possessions so claim us, it’s not going to be easy even to see baby steps in dropping these bags. But we trust that for God, all things are possible, and that working in us, together as a community, God will help us simplify, let go bit by bit, share so all have what they need, and gradually find that hundredfold abundance in this communal life promised to all who follow Jesus’ path.
Jesus really is serious here. He means what he says, hopes we follow, and he also intends the grace he announces. Thanks be to God who makes possible our following, and abundant life here and in the world to come.
In the name of Jesus. Amen