Series: Discipleship Camp
October 11, 2015
William G. Carter
As Jesus 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?”
We are in Week Three of Discipleship Camp. And as it often happens, when you go to camp for a while, there are some who drop out. The food in the mess hall becomes a routine. The bug spray loses its power. There’s a little too much rain. And somebody may say, “I want to go home. I don’t want to be here, I want to go home.” So we hear about somebody like that in today’s text.
He begins eagerly enough. He runs toward Jesus: he is enthusiastic. He kneels before Jesus: he is respectful, even worshipful. He calls Jesus the “Good Teacher.” And he wants to know – how I gain the life that you alone can offer? How do I participate in the joy of God’s eternity? What must I do?”
Jesus chortles a bit, and says, “Why do you call me good?” Then he knuckles down to affirm the man knows the Torah, the instruction of God. Most of it is about behavior, not belief: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, and all the rest. And the man says, “I have done these things since I was a child.” This guy is real impressive. He is living right, and he has a clear conscience. So for the first time in the Gospel of Mark – the only time in the Gospel of Mark – it says, “Jesus loved him.” He loved him!
That’s remarkable. There’s not the quibbling with the religious authorities that Jesus has contended since chapter two. The would-be disciple does not have a visible illness to be healed, nor a demon that be cast out. On the surface, he is an easy convert. And then Jesus lowers the boom: “sell what you have, give the cash to the poor, and come follow me.” This wonderful prospect is shocked. This is not what he expected, not what he hoped. Enough of this! He turned around and went home.
It’s the only time in Mark where it says Jesus loved somebody. It’s the only time in Mark where a possible disciple refuses the invitation.
Now, this is the Gospel of Mark, where none of the disciples of Jesus smell very good. Later on, Judas Iscariot turns in Jesus for the promise of money. Peter denies that he knows the Lord, and at the end all twelve abandon him when he is arrested. All of them are imperfect followers of the Christ, which is something that you and I can relate to. But the young seeker doesn’t even get that far. The story tells us why: “he had many possessions.” He couldn’t give up his stuff and trust in Jesus alone. He couldn’t walk away from what he had, so he walked away from Jesus, the Jesus who loved him. That is sobering.
This story always hits me pretty hard. Over the years, I have preached five different sermons on this passage. This is number six, and it raises the same general concern: to what extent do our possessions possess us? It’s a really good question, and any serious desire to follow Jesus must contend with the ways that our wealth gets in the way of the promise of his eternal joy.
Some of this may simply be inevitable. Back in chapter four, the Lord offers his teaching as a sower throws seed in a field. Consider the generosity of the sower, says Jesus. He is so generous that he throws his seed just everywhere. Everywhere! Some of that seed feeds the birds. Some of that seed falls on rocks and hard soil. And some of that seed begins to grow, but it is choked by thorns.
What are these “thorns”? The Good Teacher says it plainly: “The cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.” (4:19).
Certainly that is the truth of the young man. He has heard God’s Word. The Word takes root in his life. He lives by the commandments, especially in how he treats other people. He is trying hard to be a good man. But that does not make him a follower of Jesus. When Jesus calls him to “leave good and kindred go,” he doesn’t even try. He doesn’t even pause to say, “Wow, Lord, you are asking a lot – you want me to unload everything that I have? That’s really demanding. Let me get started on that, take some first steps, and begin to lighten my cargo.”
Some of you know how liberating that can be. If you have downsized to a smaller place to live, have you ever had a yard sale? Get rid of those size 32 waist pants that haven’t fit for thirty years. Give away those golf clubs that you never used. How about the forty-seven cookbooks that you picked up but never used? Doesn’t it feel good to pare down and simplify? Of course it does. We live in an acquisitive society that pushes us to buy more stuff. It is a blessed relief
And most of the things we own come with strings attached. It’s nice to sever those ties, too. When my younger daughter went off to college, we parked her car in the driveway. It sat there for a while. She didn’t want to drive a car in Washington DC, and we couldn’t blame her. At one point, she said, “Go ahead and get rid of my car.” It was a 1998 Honda Civic. It ran fine and it didn’t owe us anything. We agreed it was time for the car to go.
My brother was looking for a car for his son who turns sixteen this month, and offered to take it off our hands. He offered to pay the very amount that we had put into it. That sounded like a deal, and he drove the car away. I saw the car recently and it looks great. “Of course it does,” he said. “I’ve put $1500 dollars of repairs into it.” Let the buyer beware. I’m glad he has taken that burden off my shoulders. Lord knows, I have enough burdens remaining.
But there is more at stake than merely cleaning out the garage and giving away the things we don’t need. Ched Myers is a theologian who has listened closely to this Bible story. The rich man is in pretty deeply. Ched says, “Listen to the question he asks: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”
At the first level, you don’t do anything to inherit. Either you are written into the will or you are not. Then as now, inheritance is something you receive through no effort of your own. If your beloved uncle dies and leave your three thousand dollars and a college ring, you didn’t earn that. At best, you kept in his good graces and did get your name deleted from the will. The man’s question is skewed.
Ched Myers says it goes even deeper than that (see http://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/10/08/the-call-of-the-rich-man-as-a-text-of-terror/). In the first century, there were a few landowners who possessed huge amounts of land (land was the primary possession of the extremely rich) and everybody else lived a hand-to-mouth life. And how did you acquire enormous amounts of land? You inherited it. Can you see how this extremely wealthy man understood eternal life? Just like he understood wealth – it’s something that you have coming to you.
Not only that, when Jesus first asks if he knows the commandments, Ched points out that Jesus alters one of the commandments. Did you notice that? “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness” . . . and then “don’t defraud.” You probably thought he was going to say, “Don’t covet.” But the man is loaded with wealth. He doesn’t have to covet – he has everything he can buy.
So Jesus adds a commandment from Leviticus: “Don’t defraud,” which in its original form says, “Don’t defraud your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:13). That’s a stinker, if you think about it. Some of those who are at the pinnacle of the economic food chain have done so at the expense of all those below them. And what word does the Bible use to describe all of them? The word is “neighbor.”
Jesus sees this man – he really sees him – and he loves him. And because he loves him, he says, “Give it all up. Give up your inherited prestige. Give up your inherited superiority. Give up your inherited position over your neighbors. Give up your inherited identity as the pious rich guy in the village. Give it all away to the poor who are also your neighbors. Then you will be free to follow me, and I love you enough that I invite you to come.”
The problem with the request of Jesus is that it is crystal clear. The problem with preachers like me is that we soften it and declare, “It doesn’t say what it says.” We try to explain it, and therefore explain it away. And if an honest person seeks after God, and overhears what Jesus asks of the wealthy wanna-be disciple, she or he is due to ask, “What must I do?”
What must I do? I don’t know.
Maybe it’s the sort of thing that we see in an extraordinary human being. When Pope Francis came to America a few weeks ago, he met with a lot of people, most of whom he did not know. He spoke to Congress. Afterwards, the lawmakers invited him to dinner. “No thanks,” he replied, “I have other plans,” and he went to the homeless shelter to eat with the people there.
“Sure,” says the cynics, “he works for one of the wealthiest enterprises on earth. All his needs are taken care of.” Maybe so. But for the moment, he gave all that up and gave himself to the poor.
“OK,” you say, “that’s the Pope. He’s somebody special. What about people like me? I’ve got a mortgage, some commitments, some debts, and a lot of people to take care of.” Good question.
What about you? What must you do?
I take refuge in the knowledge that Jesus wasn’t talking to me or you. He was talking to a man so loaded down by his stuff that he was not free to follow, much less free to share any of it with his neighbors in need. And it seems to me that one of the primary tasks of following Jesus is to get free from anything that holds us back, and that would include all that nice stuff we have stashed in our closets, our basements, our barns, and our banks. All of us can hang on to all of our stuff as tightly as we want – we have the freedom to do that. But for those who grasp and grab, there won’t be not enough freedom to set them free.
So what must we do?
For some of us, this may the defining question. We have worked hard and we have done pretty well. We enjoy our comfort and take delight in our security. We have the freedom to travel wherever we want, whenever we want to go. We have treasures on earth, but the nagging question is “Do we have treasures in heaven?” And late at night, after we’ve paid off the American Express bill, we wonder, “How much is enough, if I don’t have any satisfaction in my life, if I don’t have any sense that God is present in my heart, mind, or soul?” What must I do?
For others of us, this is the lingering question. We work hard, and we struggle, and it’s still hard to make ends meet. Sometimes it is impossible to keep up with our neighbors. The cable bill is high, the cell phone bills demand more than we can afford, and there is never enough to do what we would like to do.
And we hear him tell the rich man, “Give it all away,” and we say, “Jesus, do you think he can give a little to me? I mean, I know it’s complicated to be rich, but I wouldn’t mind struggling with that, at least for a while.” But secretly we know better. The rich aren’t any better off than anybody else. Maybe a bit more cushioned, but not necessarily any happier or more humane.
What must we do? Here’s my answer: follow Jesus. Pay attention to what he notices. Love the people that he loves. Give up the things that he gives up. Go where he goes. The specifics will be different for all of us, but the directions are always the same: to live more simply, to love more deeply, to offer ourselves to provide basic needs of the people around you who are most vulnerable, and to do all these thing to the glory of God.
This is how you inherit eternal life: you follow Jesus so closely that he will recast your priorities. When you do this, you will know what it most important. All of his blessings will flow through you to become blessings for others. That’s what it means to be “rich in heaven.”
What must we do? When he calls, you will know what to do.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved