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; Honour 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.’
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I want to be clear that this morning’s scripture reading was not picked by Robin Morjikian, Calvary’s Director of Development and Volunteer Engagement. After all, this is the time of year when churches are gearing up for their annual stewardship campaign, challenging members to make financial pledges so that Sessions can plan operating budgets for the coming year. We have been reading and preaching from the Gospel of Mark throughout the year, and today’s text is, in fact, the assigned lectionary reading. In today’s gospel reading from Mark, we are challenged by some shocking remarks from Jesus. He attacks wealth and wealthy people. In recent weeks, the wife of the former Malaysian Prime Minister has been charged with 17 counts of money laundering, corruption, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust. Widely reviled for her opulent lifestyle, she is being compared with former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos and her extravagant collection of shoes. During raids on apartments linked to the family, police found 567 designer handbags, 423 watches, 12,000 pieces of jewelry including 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, 2,800 pairs of earrings, and 14 tiaras. Jesus’ harsh condemnation of wealth is fitting for such folk. While we can distance ourselves from Jesus’ harsh words because none of us enjoy such wealth and opulent lifestyles, Jesus appears to be attacking the very dream that many of us are pursuing, working hard to achieve. Our dream includes owning a home, having it well furnished, driving a safe and reliable car, to be able to eat out at our many wonderful restaurants in the city, to entertain generously, to afford to have children, sending them to private schools, and to be able to invest and save up enough money for their college education as well as for our own retirement. The comfort and security some of us enjoy today are due in no small part to our parents who made great sacrifices for us. Considering how hard our parents struggled to provide for us, it is hard to listen to such harsh words from Jesus, words which condemn and judge those who pursue wealth and prosperity. Jesus said, “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.” Try preaching these words to women slaving away long hours hunched over sewing machines in a sweat shop, to men washing dishes or bussing tables in a crowded Chinese restaurant. Do we have to choose between the American dream and the Kingdom of God? Given such a choice, I can identify with the shocked disciples who cried out, “Then who can be saved”!?
I. Today’s gospel reading centers on a man who runs up to Jesus, kneels down, and asks: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In the gospels, we are used to people asking Jesus questions to test him, to trap him into giving the wrong answer, to say something that gets him in trouble. But it is not the case here. For here we have a man who is genuinely concerned about his life and the direction it was taking. The man comes running up to Jesus and falls on his knees, on his knees to demonstrate his sincerity and humility. But listen again carefully to how the man phrased his question: “What must I do to INHERIT eternal life”? INHERIT is the word he uses.
INHERITANCE makes me think of privilege and wealth. Inherited money is not earned money. It is money that comes to you by way of family, the family into which you happened to be born, like Donald Trump inheriting the millions of dollars from his father; like children living off of trust funds and never needing to earn a living. The fact is the man stood to inherit much. He stood to inherit everything his society had to offer a Jewish man. And it certainly didn’t hurt that he was good, keeping the commandments from childhood up until now, a grown man. In a position to inherit all that his society that favored men had to offer, what more did he want? How much is enough? So, the man asks his question in a rather strange way. “What must I DO to receive this inheritance” as if eternal life was an accomplishment, an achievement. After all, as the man claimed, he had kept all the commandments since his youth, which was no small accomplishment. If anyone should feel like he or she had earned a ticket to heaven, this man did. And we read in the story that Jesus loved this man. I think Jesus loved this man because he didn’t come to Jesus to brag about his accomplishments, but because he was struggling, like the way we struggle with having to choose between the American dream and the Kingdom of God. All of us here at Calvary are like this man, this man whom Jesus loved.
II. It must have been painful for Jesus to have to tell this good and faithful man that after all the good he had done, that one more thing was needed: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” So instead investing and saving for our children’s college fund or for a comfortable retirement, instead of that Mediterranean vacation or river cruise, instead of season tickets to the Giants or the opera, we give all that money to the poor so that we will be able to have treasure in heaven. When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. I’m shocked! And I bet you’re shocked! This is so much more than downsizing when you move out of San Francisco to Davis or to North Carolina.
So what is the point of this troubling story? Dr. Kate Bowler, professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, has dedicated her scholarly work to examining the prosperity gospel. In her book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, she writes: “The doctrine of the prosperity gospel is that the believer is in control of his or her destiny. All the believer must do to gain health or money or safety in a storm is to pray and strive and demand and claim such things from God. All power is in the hands of the one praying, the man or woman who invests and strives for God’s favor. The human being determines his or her lot in life.” The rich man in the story did all that and more. He expected Jesus to affirm his piety and obedience to the commandments, give him yet one more seal of approval, one more accolade to add to the long list on his resume. But Jesus, loving him, asks that he stop acquiring—wealth, status, affirmation—and start relinquishing—power, money, privilege. Jesus says it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus turns our way of operating upside down. Poverty is not a divine judgment, punishment or crime. Wealth is the problem!
III. Heidi Haverkamp, an Episcopalian priest and author, posed this question in the recent issue of Christian Century: “What if this passage is about humility, not power and possessions? ‘The last shall be first and the first shall be last,’ Jesus explained to his disciples. Inheriting eternal life in Christ is not about checking off boxes, not even the boxes of commandments. It is not about achieving extreme-sport levels of prayer or atmospheric levels of spiritual wisdom. Whatever we think eternal life means, perhaps its first lesson is that we cannot earn or create it ourselves. Perhaps the eternal life that Jesus offers means emptying ourselves and our lives rather than accomplishing anything.” A few years ago, in crisis, the author went to a local Christian spiritual center and was assigned a spiritual director who was an elderly Catholic sister. She listened to her story, and then told her two simple things: First, that God is love. Second, pointing her finger at her with firmness and affection, she said, “Remember, you are poor.” She explained: “you do not have the resources to save yourself, fix your problems, or change the world—only God does.” Perhaps the sister saw her temptation to believe in her own ability and responsibility for her life, in no small part because of her many possessions—great education, successful work life, health insurance, retirement savings, and a house full of stuff. The author goes on to say, “I am tempted to believe that, based on my own efforts and knowledge, I can achieve—am supposed to achieve—a spiritual life, a godly life, eternal life.”
Who then can be saved? Unlike the teaching of the prosperity gospel that we human beings determine our lot in life, Jesus’ teaching is that we cannot save ourselves; but God can. As Jesus makes clear to the young man looking for his extra credit assignment, the way to eternal life is not achievement but want and surrender. It is to claim the words ‘I am poor’. Jesus’ final words to the young man are: “Then come, follow me.” What gets in the way of our following Jesus? It is whatever possessions we grip tightly. Own the fact that we are poor, that our only wealth and security is Christ. My father was more than disappointed; he was furious with me when I decided to accept the call to ministry instead of pursuing medicine. He yelled at me, “You will live in poverty the rest of your life”! The theme of the recent seminar which Sharon and I attended was, “The Path of descent is the Path of transformation.” In his senior year in high school, my son, Stephen, rarely said a word to the family. That path of descent probably began several years back; we just didn’t notice it. When he left home for college, he went as far away as possible, ending up in Boston. On his first trip home at Christmas, he informed me that he needed to talk. Over dinner, he poured out his disappointment and anger at me, his father, whom he accused of being absent in his life—missing his concerts, his football games, not being there when he needed me. I resisted the urge to defend myself. I hardly said a word that evening; I mostly listened. At the end of the evening, as we got up from the table to leave, Stephen gave me a hug, the first one in years; and he whispered in my ear, “I love you, dad.” The first steps on the path of transformation in my relationship with my son were taken that evening.
So, what do we need to sell, relinquish, in order to inherit treasure in heaven? The rich today include many more of us than in Jesus’ time—we are used to trusting in our own wits, work and will to get things done, to bending our world to our control. For many of us, money remains the issue. Money is power, control, security. Money imprisons us in systems that benefit us personally at the expense of others. Following Jesus requires us to give up the system that rewards us. Following Jesus means seeing others—children, women, the marginalized—really seeing them when they are suffering often as a result of the privilege you and I take for granted. Following Jesus calls us to see all God’s people as one body, hurting when any part of the body hurts, rejoicing with whatever part rejoices, inextricably united in Christ. Like the rich man in today’s story, when asked to make a pledge to the church, we walk away unable and unwilling to let go of the security that money represents. A former Moderator of the General Assembly, Price Gwynn, speaking to our Presbytery many years ago, said: “God doesn’t need our money; God isn’t going to declare bankruptcy and file Chapter 11. God is not concerned about the dollar. But God is concerned about the donor.” For where one’s treasure is, there your heart will be.