Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Turn from injustice to the poor, that you may live
So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. (Ps. 90:12)
Approach the throne of grace with boldness
Teaching on wealth and reward
According to today’s reading from Hebrews, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” Scripture is as invasive as a scalpel, slicing right into our human condition. To me, this is a scary image—nobody relishes the idea of going under a surgeons’s knife. On the other hand, I’ve heard from many of you that sometimes you experience a level of pain so intense that having a doctor cut into you is preferable to continuing to live with that knee or hip or other body part as it is.
Today’s Gospel lesson is like that for me. This story from Mark really, really bothers me. If I could avoid preaching it, or for that matter, reading it, I would. But here it is, slicing into my soul, piercing my heart, and exposing all the yuckiness that needs to be addressed so that I can be made well again. Maybe some of you share my feeling of being exposed by this text.
The story begins with a rich young man coming to Jesus with a question: “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” I wonder how many of us, even those who don’t believe that heaven’s a physical place we go to after we die, even those who have memorized Luther’s teaching about our inability to be saved by works, have wrestled with some version of this question. Surely some of you have wondered, as I have, “What do I need to do to make God happy? How do I live my life in such a way that I deserve salvation?” Or some variation on that theme. I won’t ask for a show of hands, I’m just going to proceed as if some of you get where this young man is coming from when he asks Jesus his question, and want to hear Jesus’ answer.
I want Jesus to tell the man, “You can’t do anything to inherit eternal life. That’s not how inheritance works. You inherit something when someone bequeaths it to you as a gift. You will inherit eternal life simply because God chooses to bestow it on you. Go in peace.”
But that is not what Jesus says. Instead, Jesus reminds him of the 10 Commandments, the summary of God’s law, surely sharper than a double-edged sword. Each rule is a reminder that whenever we turn away from God, creation, or our neighbors, and focus solely on ourselves, we sin.
The young man doesn’t seem daunted at all by being asked to look at his life through the lens of God’s law. He apparently finds no significant gap between how he lives and how God’s law demands he live. Instead, he tells Jesus he’s always lived this way.
But then the scalpel slashes deep. Jesus says to the rich young man, “You’re lacking 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.”
That’s the part that hits me hard every time. I want to rationalize this in a million ways. I want to suggest that Jesus is offering him a task that is just as impossible as perfectly keeping the 10 Commandments, and he doesn’t really expect the man to follow through. Or I want to say that Jesus was giving a task to this specific man and not to the rest of us. I want to suggest that this command is meant only for truly wealthy people, so I don’t qualify. I want to do all kinds of things to avoid the discomfort that I feel from reading this passage in a straightforward, honest way.
When I’m not trying to weasel my way out of it, what I think Jesus is saying here is, “Sell what you own and give your money to the poor.” Which is something I don’t want to do. At the same time, I want to remind Jesus that we aren’t supposed to do anything to earn grace; it’s supposed to be a gift, so this is not what he’s supposed to say to that rich young man—or to me or to you or to anyone (except the people I think are really, really rich, and then it’s totally fine).
No wonder Mark’s Gospel describes the young man’s response this way: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
And, as far as we know, that’s the last time we ever encounter this man in the Bible. We have no idea what happened to him next.
Maybe he did go and sell all he had. Maybe he donated everything to St. Vincent De Paul and began sleeping on a mat on the floor of a homeless shelter, truly embracing the life of the poor. Maybe he did come back to follow Jesus. Maybe he was there, at the Lord’s table, when Holy Communion was offered for the first time, or at the beach when the resurrected Jesus cooked breakfast for his followers.
Or maybe he went home and assessed what he had and what he might gain from giving it up to follow Jesus, and decided he just wasn’t able to do it. He loved his motorcycle or his red shoes or whatever he most cherished, and just couldn’t leave it all behind. Maybe he closed the door on that idealistic whim and carried on with his life as usual.
Maybe this encounter with Jesus made him turn sour and rebellious. Why keep all those religious laws if they don’t do any good anyway? What’s the point of trying to please God when clearly I can never measure up? Maybe he got more tight-fisted and selfish after walking away.
Or maybe he was somewhere in between. Maybe he gave some of his stuff to charity—the jeans that never fit anyway, and that chair no one liked to sit in. Maybe he wrote bigger than usual checks when it was stewardship time in his congregation, and tempered his habits a little, but didn’t take the idea of selling all he had too literally.
What do we do with this encounter between the man who tried to keep God’s laws and even came asking what more he could do to live as God desired? And what do we do with how Jesus speaks to the crowd after the rich young man walks away? What about this bit about how it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom? What are we to make of this Scripture?
Of course we know Jesus is right about wealth. It can and does get in the way of our relationships at times. It can lead people to selfishly hold onto what they have, to make distinctions Jesus himself never made about the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Financial gain can deceive people into believing they are self-sufficient and don’t need anyone or anything else. Rich and powerful people tend to make decisions that enable them to hold onto or build up their wealth, while consciously or unconsciously affecting the lives of people with less money and power in the process.
So is this a text that promotes communism? Socialism? Are we not supposed to acquire any wealth, or if we do, at least we should feel appropriately bad about it in the process? I find myself sympathizing with Peter’s insistence, “Hey, Jesus, look at what I’ve done for you! I’m not like that rich young man! I have made all kinds of sacrifices for you!” But Jesus won’t have it. He says that anyone who has given up anything for him will receive it back—along with persecutions, of course.
See why I don’t like this text? The knife is uncomfortably close to the bone here. I think it’s especially challenging for many of us who live in the United States, who have houses and cars and an education and a job and many other luxuries not available to at least two thirds of the world, not to mention a growing number of people in this country too. The sword of God’s word is drawing blood here, and I don’t like it one bit.
Here is where the surgeon steps in to do the necessary procedure. According to Hebrews, God cuts opens the human heart in order to remedy what is wrong with it. Once we’ve looked into the chasm of our brokenness, we are open to how God wants to fill us. The imagery in this reading from Hebrews shifts from Jesus as surgeon to Jesus as sympathetic high priest. The word “sympathy” in Greek conveys the idea of “feeling with” someone. We might better translate it “compassion.”
Jesus compassionately and sympathetically understands human vulnerability in every possible nuance, since he has experienced it. Jesus responds to human vulnerability with grace, which brings healing. One of the reasons our liturgy often begins with a confession of sin is so that we are cracked open enough to know the power of God’s forgiveness poured out for (and into) us. One reason we come to communion with empty hands extended is so that Jesus can fill them with his very self.
Maybe, when we see how wealth divides and ruptures our communities, we are ready to let God direct us toward the blessing of being released from its grip. Many people talk about how giving away money fills them with happiness and well-being. We are genuinely designed to find joy in giving as much as receiving, which stewardship leaders often point out. God doesn’t need to receive our money so much as we need to offer it to God and the world God has made. It is for our well-being that Jesus longs for us to be released from being possessed by our possessions. Maybe when Jesus tells the young man to give away what he has to the poor, he’s trying to reconnect this man with his community, to break down the artificial isolating boundaries money can create and restore this network to wholeness.
In any case, the one verse that I cling to in this troubling story is this: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” However the young man had come by his wealth, and whatever he had done with it up to that point, Jesus loved him. Whatever Jesus says to him that sounds hurtful and hard, Jesus loved him. Whatever he was going to do after he walked away sadly, Jesus loved him.
This is the good news for all of God’s creation too. God wants all living beings to be free. When God’s word makes us squirm, it is because God is peeling back the the layers of what imprisons us, exposing the wounds, for only then can they be treated. The treatment might sting a bit, but God is always working for our well-being, always striving to free us from slavery, and has been as far back as the Exodus. Freedom from bondage, restoration to wholeness, is always God’s goal, no matter how sparkly and shiny what enslaves us may appear to be. It may sound impossible, but Jesus himself says that nothing is impossible with God. Thanks be to God that when our sympathetic, compassionate high priest looks at us, it is always, always, with love.
~Pastor Susan Schneider