Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 2/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 30th, 2017
We are looking at texts that we know, we have heard, they are familiar to us. We are looking at them again to see what we have not seen in them; what do they tell us about ourselves. Most of us know the story of the rich young ruler probably because we don’t like it. Although we may not know, Mark is the only one who suggests that he is rich. Matthew is the only one who says he is a young and Luke is the only one who called him a ruler. But the fact that this young rich ruler shows up in all three of the Synoptic Gospels is a pretty good indication that his story is true; although we do wish that he had never shown up at all. Because in him we have one of the hardest sayings in the Bible: go sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me. Mark does not say right off that the man is rich but you could tell, not because he has good manners and falls on his knees in front of Jesus but because he addresses Jesus so grandly and uses the right words for upper social tiers. Good teacher. You can tell he’s rich because of the question he asks: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
This is an individual who is not burdened with questions of survival like: where can I find a job and how do I feed my family. This man does not have to spend his time trying to make ends meet. He is able to pursue the good life to come, secure in his existence. Because that’s one of the things that will foment in his day not as if it was gotten unfairly if if you acquired money in that day through cheating or through lying or being mean, it was no better than poison for those who had it. But if you acquired a bit more than your neighbor honest means like inheritance then it was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and you were one of God’s chosen. Bestowing wealth on people was understood as the way God set you free from the daily grind. Your responsibility then was to serve the Lord. That was the understanding of the society of the day. So this man approaches Jesus, he’s got money in his pocket, he has no shame about his great possessions and if anything in his mind, the number of digits to the left of the decimal point where his credentials, the very thing that gave him the right to approach Jesus and asked the question.
Jesus is not impressed. He looks down at the man kneeling before him and he sees someone who is clearly above average and wants to stay that way; someone who wants to achieve as much in heaven as he is achieved on earth; someone who is willing to do whatever is required of him to add eternal life to the possessions he carries. Maybe the man hopes that Jesus will say to him: buy a pair of shoes for everyone: man, woman and child in all of Judea and the man will say well that’s costly but I’ll do it. Better yet, throw all of your dust covers on your furniture and put stuff in storage, lock up the house, leave it all behind and come follow me, accompany me on my travels. He maybe hoping Jesus will say that. He is an extraordinary man, and he wants an extraordinary assignment. Unfortunately Jesus does not cooperate. Jesus says: you know the commandments and Jesus reels off about half of them. Do this. Do not do that. Do this. Do not do this. Honor your father and mother. Any first grader could list that list; it is one of the most important things of childhood if you’re a young Jewish male or woman is knowing the Ten Commandments and keeping them. This man wants to do something to earn his way in. So Jesus has just told him you earn your way in by doing the same thing as everyone else. That man did not want to hear that. He doesn’t see himself like everyone else.
Teacher I’ve kept all of these things since my youth. In that moment Jesus loves him. We can’t hear the tone but there’s something in this text that tells us that he did not say those words pompously or impatiently. He must’ve said those words like a confession. I’ve kept the law all my life which is how I know it is not enough. I have amassed great wealth which is how I know it’s not enough. He is saying I am a rich man. I am rich in things and rich in respectability and I’m rich in obedience to the law which is how I know none of those things is enough to give me the life that I want. What must I do to inherit eternal life, the kind of life worth living forever? The text tells us, Jesus loves him. This man is ripe, he’s ready for God and he has come to the end of what he can do for himself. He’s come to the end of what society can do for him. Jesus looks at him; Jesus loves him; Jesus recognizes him as a seeker; someone who is kept God’s word; someone who is kept his own word; someone who has translated his beliefs into a genuine obedience of the heart of God; someone who knows there is more and who knows to go looking for it.
But Jesus does more than look at the man. He also looks into him. Jesus is a physician making a diagnosis. He looks inside of him to see what is the matter? What is the right medicine that will heal you? Jesus looks at him with as much compassion as he looked at anyone who was blind or deaf or paralyzed. Jesus was aching to make him whole. And then of course Jesus chose his words carefully, said to the man: you lack one thing. I’m sure the man’s heart begins to spin in joy of finally hearing what it is I got to do to inherit eternal life. Whatever it is I will do it. Whatever it costs I will pay it. Whatever it requires of this young man he will do it. He will anything for this extra prize of eternal life in his pocket. Only the words of Jesus turn out to not be a matter of addition but of subtraction: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor you will have treasure in heaven, and then come, follow me. It is a rich prescription for a rich man; designed to melt the lump in his throat and the knot in his stomach by dissolving the burden on his back, a hulk that keeps banging into the doorframe of the doorway into the presence of God. Jesus offers him an invitation to become smaller and more agile by closing his accounts on earth and opening one in heaven, so that is treasure will be drawing interest inside of that tiny gate instead of keeping him outside of it.
It is a dare. Jesus didn’t say I dare you but it was a dare to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all of those words that have described him up until now: wealthy and committed and gritty and cultured and responsible and educated and powerful and obedient and good — to trade them all in on one radically different word, free.
It seems to me that we Christians mangle this story in two different ways. First, when we act like it’s not about money. It is! And second by acting as if it were only about money. It is about money and as far as Jesus is concerned money is a lot like nuclear power, it is able to do a lot of good in the world but only within strongly built and carefully regulated corridors. Most of us don’t do well handling money. We get contaminated by its power and we contaminate others as we wield it carelessly. We want it too desperately and we use it too manipulatively. We believe in money too fiercely and we defend it too cruelly. Every now and then someone manages to use money well. But Jesus tells us the odds of that are about as good as they are of pressing a camel through a microchip. The story of the rich young ruler is a story about money. It’s not only about money. If it were that might be good news for us because then we could put together build up our treasury and buy our way into heaven. You know the deal: cash in our chips and we buy our tickets, we put them in our pocket. But you know that’s not the deal. None of us earns eternal life no matter what we do. We can keep the Commandments until we are blue in the face. We can sign our paycheck over to our favorite charity. We can rattle our tin cups on the street for supper money without earning a place of God’s banquet table because the kingdom of God is not for sale.
The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their wealth. The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift given to whomever God pleases for whatever reasons please God. The catch is you have to be free to receive the gift. You cannot be otherwise engaged. You can’t be tied up right now. You can’t be too tied down. You can’t be too occupied. You can’t accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it because they are clutching your possessions. You can’t make or it is all of your rooms are already full. And you can’t follow if you are not free to go. That’s why the rich young ruler went away so sorrowful because all at once he understood that he was not free. His wealth was supposed to make him free, but kneeling in front of Jesus he understood all at once that that is not so. Jesus is painfully clear give up what defines you, what defines your life and follow me. Put God first and follow me. The rich guy can’t do that.
He is the only person in the whole Gospel of Mark who walks away from an invitation to follow Jesus. He is the only wounded individual who declines healing. Not being rich and important and powerful scared him more than the bondage of his wealth. He could not believe that the opposite of rich might not be poor. The opposite of rich is free. Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and he said how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. They were amazed at his words — absolutely astonished by them — Mark tells us. Jesus was challenging the social order of the day turning it upside down, taking their understanding of where God was in their midst and turning it upside down. Jesus stated clearly that wealth is not God’s gift. Those who rode through the gates of Jerusalem on golden litters would find their handlebars stuck on the gates of God’s kingdom. So will all of us who cannot leave things behind. The thing I can’t figure out about this text is why the disciples were so amazed. Two of them had left their fishing business behind. Two more of them had left their fishing boat and the father behind. Another one of them had left behind an incredibly lucrative career collecting taxes to follow Jesus. All of them had walked away from something not because it was a prerequisite for becoming a disciple; it was more like a consequence, really. He called; they followed; stuff got left behind. Not because stuff was bad but because it was heavy and in the way. Not because they had to but because they wanted to. He called and nothing else in the entire world seemed all that important anymore.
Jesus was so much more real to them than anything else in their lives and so it was no big heroic thing to follow him. He set them free. That’s all! It was not their achievements, it was his gift. So who can be saved? Well, who is brave enough to be free? This is actually my favorite part of the text because everything up until now tells me that I’ve missed out because I’m pretty good at making excuses and talking myself out of this text and I’m too hardheaded and too grippy to let go. I am the rich man in the story and there’s no way that I can save myself. Fortunately, we have the big mouth of the group, Peter, and I guess if you say enough words you can eventually say the right ones. I think these are the right ones. I don’t think these are Peter’s words; I think it is a gift from the spirit. Peter poses the question, the right question, then who of us can be saved? And the right question hasn’t changed in all of these years, and neither has the answer,
Jesus said for us it is impossible, but not God. For God all things are possible. We follow a Jesus who asks us to wonder at what point do we have enough and at what point have we crossed over into selfishness. We have a Jesus who asks us to wonder at what point our acquisition of wealth and material goods and collecting stuff became a hindrance to our discipleship. All things are possible through God, through our relationship with God, including the answers to those questions. The apostle Paul picked up on this and he summarized it this way, you are saved by God’s grace. This salvation is God’s gift to you; it is not something you possessed; it is not something you have done of which you can be proud. Instead, you are God’s accomplishment. You are created in Christ Jesus to do good things. Your life in God, doing God’s good thing is the way of God’s kingdom. Peace and blessings to you. No not peace and blessings. The struggles of life to you as you practice God’s way.