Sermon from October 14, 2012 (my first attempt at a stewardship sermon!) Here is a link to a recording of my sermon (only up temporarily).
“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Amen.
Last week in Genesis we learned about how God made us stewards of creation. This week in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us about being stewards of wealth.
Now, even back then, money was not a comfortable topic, and you can practically see the disciples grimacing and groaning as Jesus broaches it. The whole discussion begins, as most of them do, while they are traveling on the road. A man comes running up and throws himself on the ground in front of Jesus. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17). Jesus replies with a summary of the commandments that deal with relationships between people. The man replies that he’s a faithful Jew; he’s kept the commandments his whole life. Jesus searches the man’s face and smiles, loving him. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor...then come, follow me” (v. 21). At this point the man leaves dejected, “shocked...and grieving, for he ha[s] many possessions” (v. 22).
Over the years, it seems the man in this passage has been painted as a miserly, Scrooge-esque character. After all, when Jesus lists the commandments, he changes “You shall not covet” to “You shall not defraud.” Apparently, the man has been stingy with his wealth. The man believes that he has followed the commandments, but perhaps not as closely as he thinks. It’s not that the man is rich that’s keeping him from eternal life. It’s that his wealth gets in the way of how he treats others, and therefore gets in the way of his relationship with God. “Jesus...discerns in the rich man’s wealth an obstruction to his participation in the dominion of God and calls him, for his own good, to abandon it and follow him” (Marcus* 723). As singer Billy Joel would say, “It’s a matter of trust.”
Back in Jesus’ time, wealth was thought to be a reward from God for being faithful (this is why it is so shocking to his disciples when Jesus says that the wealthy have a hard time entering the kingdom of God). This idea of wealth as a reward has resurfaced recently in what is known as the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel claims that God wants us to be happy, so if we are truly faithful, then we will receive economic prosperity. But joy is not found in material wealth. True happiness is found by being in right relationship with others and with God. In today’s world, the idea of giving away all one’s possessions is counterintuitive. The whole concept of money and possessions is that they keep you wanting more. Bored with your wardrobe? Get the latest fashions! Missing the latest technology? Update to a newer model! Have a bad day? Fix it with retail therapy! I succumb to this over and over again. But the problem is that accumulating more things or more money does not replace the emptiness. Only God can fill that void. We are called to trust that God will provide for us, that God really will fill that void.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus tells the man. What is the one thing you lack? What is the one thing that gets in your way of trusting God completely? For some of us, like the man in the story, it could be money or possessions. Or it could be holding grudges. Or maybe it’s guilt, busyness, self-consciousness, or pride. Whatever it is, Jesus is inviting us to let it go, to release its hold over us, and to follow him.
“What must I do?” the man in the story asks. But the thing is, his question misses the point. There is nothing we can do. We cannot inherit eternal life on our own; the very word inherit implies this. Just as inheritances are given, so eternal life is given to us. It is God’s to give, not ours to earn. We trust that God will save a place for us.
I’ve always felt a little sorry for the man in this passage. He seems to be genuine in his attempt to live a life of faith, to follow the commandments. And Jesus loves him for it, as a father loves his child. This is the only time Jesus is said to love anyone in Mark’s Gospel; it should give us hope! Jesus loves us when we try, even though we fall short--and we all fall short. None of us can follow all the rules, none of us can enter the kingdom. It’s impossible. But not for God. “[F]or God all things are possible" (v. 27).
Most people think that the man walks away grieving because he realizes he is unable to give up his many possessions. But we actually don’t know what happens to him; the passage leaves his fate open-ended. Here again we find hope. There’s a chance that the man grieves for a while, then ultimately realizes that his possessions really aren’t making him happy. There’s a chance that he decides to let things go, trusting in the mercy and love that Jesus demonstrates time and time again.
It is this trust that Jesus refers to in the section just before this passage, when he says that we can only enter the kingdom as little children. Children cannot provide for themselves; they must rely on their parents in order to survive. The man in this passage’s “...trust in delusive security afforded by his wealth prevents him from becoming a ‘child’ who relies exclusively on the [generosity] of the heavenly Father” (Marcus* 724). If he can only let go of his need to control his fate and trust that God will take care of him, then he will have removed his obstacle to eternal life.
We are invited to examine our lives and see what is lacking. We are invited to explore what our priorities are and what we are able to let go of. We are fallen, but--in Jesus--God has torn down the barriers separating us from God. Listen: Jesus is reaching his hand out to us, calling us to follow him! Trust in him and enter the kingdom.
Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, ca. 1890
*Marcus, Joel. Mark 8-16. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2009.