Finding Our Way
Sunday, October 14, 2018
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23)
Finding Our Way
God, you promise never to forsake us, but to bring us to life, nurture us with your presence, and sustain us even in the hour of death. Meet us in our deepest doubts when we feel abandoned, drowning in our fear of your absence. Visit us in the tension between our yearning and our anger, that we may know your mercy and grace in our time of need. Amen.
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.”
All readings for this Sunday:
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
1. What do you think brought the rich man to Jesus?
2. What is the relationship between discipleship and wealth?
3. Do we have to “do something” to be saved?
4. Who are the insiders and the outsiders in this story, and does it matter?
5. How do you imagine the rich man’s life after his conversation with Jesus?
by Kate Matthews
In Franco Zeffirelli’s beautiful film, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” the turning point in the story comes when Francis of Assisi, born and raised in a wealthy and privileged (and religiously observant) family, stands before the entire town, including the local bishop and his parents, strips off his clothes, and walks off into the mountains to live among the poor as a beggar. Francis is responding to a call that has troubled him since he returned, ill with fever, from the adventure of fighting in a war between petty nobles.
His life before the war no longer makes sense to him, and he feels his soul being pulled toward a different way of living, a radical giving up of everything that would have been easily his, a turning away from the comfortable path that has been laid out before him. Francis was not just ill; he was hungry and thirsty and lost. His conversion experience came in the midst of suffering and uncertainty.
An inner sense of something not right
The rich man in this week’s passage from Mark does not appear to be similarly afflicted, although he too is apparently nagged by a deep inner sense that something isn’t quite right, not quite complete, about his life. This is no adversary questioning Jesus; the religious authorities aren’t in the scene, expressing their opinions or trying to trap Jesus.
(In a way, perhaps, they’re present in the background, in the man’s claim to have always followed the commandments. He’s taken their advice, their teaching, to heart.)
A sincere inquiry
I used to think this man was arrogant because he so easily claimed to have followed all the commandments since childhood. Where was his humility? And who can possibly follow all the commandments and not make a few major mistakes along the way?
But that’s not the point: rather, this man is saying that he has done what was expected of him as a faithful and observant Jew, and that is a good thing. However, he is struggling with a deep hunger that tells him that there is even more to life than just doing what is expected of him.
The Law as gift, and then the next step
The laws of any (true) religion are a gift, a path laid out for us, a set of guideposts when we’re not sure of the way. Jesus, in his response, isn’t quoting a law, judging the man or laying a mandate on him. He’s opening a door to the next stage, the next step, on the man’s journey of faith.
Again, Zeffirelli provides a magnificent visual for this kind of experience, as Francis walks away from the town and out toward the countryside and the mountains. There’s so much more ahead for him, not all of it pleasant or easy, and yet so rich and so full of power.
A breath of fresh air
At a point in history when the church was at a particularly low place in terms of integrity in its practice, when wealth and worldly power had led it away from its core values, Francis was the breath of fresh air who led to a time of renewal and rediscovery of the church’s basic call to faithfulness.
“Rebuild my church, Francis,” was the call he heard, and while he labored with stone (literally) to rebuild the crumbled sanctuary of San Damiano, his passionate response to the call to give everything away and follow Jesus was an inspiration that sparked a renewal of the whole church.
(A few years ago, we were told that the present pope has a similar sense of call as he chose the name of Francis upon his election to the papacy. Many people experience a kind of power in him to be a breath of fresh air in the church. I think many people around the world instantly felt the significance of his choice of a name, and keep him in prayer as he follows this path.)
Seekers right in our midst
Today we might call the rich man in Mark’s story, our Gospel text, a “seeker,” although we assume that most seekers have not necessarily been paying much attention to religious laws and requirements. (I find the lectionary pairing of this story with that of Job intriguing; Job was maybe the ultimate seeker with the ultimate questions.)
In fact, we tend to think of seekers as “unchurched,” and we may be tempted to think that we need to teach them, these “outsiders,” how to live as faithful disciples of Jesus.
But what if there are many seekers already in our congregations? What if there are many people in our pews, and even among our church leaders, who sense that there is something “more,” and just doing what’s expected of them isn’t enough?
What if, even within the church, we are still hungering for grace? What if church-going Christians still feel a deep need for transformation in their lives?
Lessons for us today
Of course, it’s always risky to move between two very different economic and cultural settings, and it’s important to acknowledge the differences between the time of Jesus and our own. However, there are certainly lessons here for us today.
For example, Dianne Bergant notes that Jesus includes a commandment (“do not defraud”) in his list that isn’t in the Ten Commandments we know so well. Perhaps this is especially significant because it emphasizes that this man has gotten his wealth in ways that are proper and not “ill-gained.”
Wealth at the expense of others
Indeed, David Watson argues that in a world where there were only two classes, the super-rich and the impoverished, those who had wealth enjoyed it at the expense of those who went without. Watson sees the rich man as benefitting, intentionally or not, from the suffering of others, and this suffering deeply wounded, and continues to wound, the heart of God.
We know that care of the poor and a just sharing of resources is at the heart of the prophets’ proclamations throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and yet we so easily slip into the same assumptions about wealth and possessions being a sign of God’s favor that our ancestors held. (“Prosperity” theology, anyone?)
Watson, then, claims that the rich man must make amends for the way his wealth has come at the expense of others. And that lesson is still applicable today, even in very different economic and cultural conditions, because those who enjoy an excess of material things surely have a responsibility toward the millions of people who go hungry and homeless.
A difficult passage, and not just for camels
Readers of this Gospel story have tried to work with its difficult teaching in a way that makes it more palatable. If the “eye of the needle” (in the wall of the city) is reduced to an uncomfortable maneuver by a camel (as I was taught), “getting into” the kingdom of God (or heaven, as I was taught) may be difficult but certainly not impossible.
We’ll just have to work a little harder at it (spiritual over-achievers will surely succeed?); it’s easy to miss the part about God making seemingly impossible things possible. Is it any wonder that we have so little understanding of grace?
Possessed by possessions
Many scholars, writing on this text, describe our possessions as things that can provide security, or distract us from God (or even become “false gods,”) though it’s fair to say that those without the necessities of life are justified in being preoccupied by them. If a parent and their children go to bed hungry at night, that basic human need may actually draw one closer to God, rather than serving as a distraction.
Still, Charles Cousar recognizes that we can be “owned” not just by money but by everything that possesses, or perhaps consumes, us and our “ultimate concern,” including “ambition, education, religion and the like. But he cautions us from shying away from a focus on material things, because they hold such power in our lives, and in the eyes and workings of the world.
Cousar reminds us that the followers of Jesus live in “a critical tension” with the world in which we minister and strive to live faithfully, a world that values wealth and power and may find the gospel most offensive. And yet, Cousar writes, this same world “needs the constant reminder that the first will be last and the last first.”
Jesus speaks with love
When the rich man waits for Jesus’ answer to his question, he receives a response that is unusual in the Gospels, one of the most beautiful lines in Scripture (and one of my favorites): “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” (10:21). Fred Craddock writes, “The man asked a big question and he got a big answer; small answers to ultimate questions are insulting.”
Craddock’s insightful use of the word “ultimate” suggests that this is no complex or nuanced or obscure teaching for specialists in theology. This is the big question, the heart of the matter, the path for us to follow. Its simplicity, however, does not make it any easier to swallow, for the rich man or for us, his descendants in faith today.
A tender lesson
Perhaps that is why the story is particularly poignant, because Jesus does not deliver this instruction in a way that is harsh or oppressive. As he looks tenderly at the man, seeing into his heart and knowing him at his deepest level, we sense that his teaching is meant to free the man from everything that holds him bound, all the possessions that possess him.
Megan McKenna sees the teaching as both an invitation “to join the inner circles of his family” and as a challenge to do the difficult thing that will restore his relationship to those on the margins of his life, those most in need of justice and generosity. Jesus asks us that same question today, in a time when a few still have too much and too many have not enough. What is our response to the invitation of Jesus?
Insiders and outsiders, again
We have been accompanying Jesus on his way to Jerusalem as he encounters and engages the religious “insiders” who come up short each time, missing the main point and often going away angry, even plotting to kill Jesus. Or perhaps the insiders are Jesus’ own followers, who also miss the point and fail to grasp who Jesus is and what he is about.
The Syrophoenician woman, for example, a pagan foreign woman, of all people, could see the power of Jesus and the heart of his mission more clearly than the disciples could. (They were too busy fretting over the feeding of crowds and the nuisance of children.)
For once, the disciples get it
However, Andre Resner, Jr. observes that this story is different from those accounts. Here the insiders get it, and the outsider who appears to have it all together is the one who misses the mark. This time, for once, the disciples get it right, and have left everything behind to follow Jesus. Instead of frustration, Jesus’ words to the disciples are full of promise and reassurance that they will receive an abundance of good things in return.
Resner observes that Jesus “draws a line in the sand” for this man, because this is a matter of ultimate concern for him, and for everyone who is too comfortable, in any age. However, it’s not about getting to heaven but living the abundant life now: “Take care of where your heart, where your life, is now.”
I remember how affected I was by the words of a speaker at the first stewardship conference I attended years ago: “Make sure that what you give you heart to, is worthy of it.”
What do our hearts need most?
Paul Wadell wrote a lovely reflection on this text in the October 6, 2009, issue of The Christian Century. He focuses on our hearts, and the “perplexing mysteries” within that make us “most afraid of what we most need.” This man, Wadell writes, runs to Jesus, illustrating the urgency of his quest.
The man is restless, and unsatisfied, and in spite of his riches, he is needy, for he stands in need of what matters most, the thing that he can’t count or accumulate or achieve or take credit for. And yet the treasure he needs and hungers for is the one thing that matters most, the one thing that is secure in this life: God’s grace.
Walking away, sad
Along with the line about Jesus looking at the man and loving him is the poignant account of his walking away “grieving, for he had many possessions.” Wadell observes that the young man knows in his heart that Jesus is right, and that makes him sad and grieving as he walks back to what he has not found satisfying all along.
However, Wadell claims that “Love is a way of seeing, and those who love us best see us best,” so “Jesus sees him as he truly is, but in a way that the young man is not yet capable of seeing himself.”
Perhaps, in the days that followed, the man re-thought his decision, just as we might re-think our own lives, and listen to that same call to come, follow Jesus. Will we respond with joy, or will we walk away, grieving?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Oscar Wilde, 19th century
“Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.”
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
“Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth.”
Princess Diana, 20th century
“They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?”
Ernesto Tinajero, 21st century
“If you read the Bible and it does not challenge you, then you are reading yourself and not the Bible.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 19th century
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
Daisy Goodwin, 21st century
“[A]nyone can acquire wealth, the real art is giving it away.”
Epictetus, 2nd century
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Stephen Richards, 21st century
“Minds are like flowers, they only open when the time is right.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“Money often costs too much.”
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