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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.’

Mark 10:17-31, NRSV

Preached Sunday, January 21, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman

This is a story about stuff–about having it, about giving it away. It’s a story about following the rules, about salvation. And it’s a story about grace.

It’s also a story that tends to make us more than a little uncomfortable. This particular section of verses is a section that we desperately want to soften.  Starting even in the 9th century, there is a sole commentary that, in an effort to soften this passage, speaks of a smaller gate within a larger gate to Jerusalem that was used for the daily comings and goings of the people living there.  This commentary informs us that the smaller gate, known as ‘the eye of the needle’ was big enough for humans, but camels, often with goods hanging from their sides and stacked on their backs, would have to put their burdens down in order to fit through the gate. 

While this is certainly an explanation that makes this passage a little easier to swallow and the metaphor of letting go of that which weighs us down is helpful, the reality is that there is little evidence such a gate ever existed.  Truthfully, such notions are little more than an effort to make this hard story less intimidating. It’s not uncommon for us to try to explain away Jesus’ words as part of his cultural context. You see, it’s much harder to deal plainly with Jesus’ words.

In order for us to do that–to deal plainly with his words–there are a few things we need to get straight. The first is that this story shows up in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each time it shows up in a slightly different form.  Scholars refer to this story as that of “the rich, young ruler.” As it turns out, Mark tells us he’s rich; Matthew informs us he is young, while Luke adds that he is a ruler.

The second is the overall tone of this story. Often, we hear this story told in a way that suggests Jesus was angry or indignant or that he reprimanded the man.  The scripture itself, however, presents a different tale.

We are told that this man ran up to kneel before Jesus. We see from his actions that this man carries a deep respect for Jesus as a teacher. His submission and words “Good teacher” indicate at least that much. Then, not wasting much time, he asks Jesus the million dollar question:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

After a brief lesson on the nature of God, Jesus outlines to him the Jewish rubric for religious success–the commandments. The ruler affirms that he has “kept all these since [his] youth.” The commandments were more than a list of rules. It was understood that following the commandments would not only make your life livable, but it would bless you. This is certainly the implication with the rich, young ruler–he followed the rules, and in the eyes of society, he has been blessed hence why he is rich and ruler at such a young age.

Then, we are told, Jesus, looking at him, loved him. This is the part we so often blow by. Jesus loved him. Now, elsewhere in Mark, we see Jesus’ love in action through is healing of those desperately hurting or his listening to those who need to be heard. But here, love looks like some difficult insight. Tough love, we might call it today. 

Jesus isn’t trying to make this man’s life harder; he isn’t playing him like a pawn in some cosmic game of chess. Here we find the same language and emotion each time Jesus heals someone in Mark’s gospel.  In fact, each time someone approaches Jesus by kneeling in the gospel Mark, it is to request healing. If we look at the story this way, Jesus’ next words shift from being a nearly impossible demand to being a radical prescription for a deep-seated illness or need.

Jesus really looked at him—at this rich, young ruler—and saw him for who he was–a beloved child of God who was hurting, who was looking for something more to life. And that is when Jesus tells him “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.”

And the man does what I think most of us would do in this position, he has what I would call a natural, human response. Mark tells us “when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Just in case he wasn’t clear enough to the man or those gathered around him were curious as to exactly what Jesus meant, he re-iterates his point: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Just to be sure they get the point, he tells them another way: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

Wow.  Jesus makes no bones about it, does he? These were hard words for those around him. And they’re hard words today.  In first century Judaism, much like our society today, wealth was interpreted as God’s blessing. Jesus’ words that the rich would have a hard time entering the kingdom of God are contrary to nearly every notion of God, wealth, and life that people had.

It’s scriptures like the story of the rich, young ruler that we would rather forget because, at the end of the day, there’s no easy way around this–it’s a story that pierces us to the core. It’s a story that asks us what we really value—and the truth isn’t always what we’d like it to be.

It’s also important to point out that Jesus doesn’t simply tell him to sell his things. Jesus is specific: Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. Implied here is the importance of sharing in the hardships of life with each other, including the poor.

All in all, we’re left with a pretty tall order, one that even the people who heard it were stunned by. Feeling what I suspect was pretty hopeless—I know this passage makes me feel that way sometimes—the disciples question their own faith. They say to one another, “then who can be saved?” A legitimate question, I suppose.

Who can be saved?  Jesus offers us some comfort: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  These are the promises of God, the promises on which we stand—that even when we fall short, God’s grace proves stronger.

Indeed, for God all things are possible and while that knowledge brings relief, it doesn’t release us from the demands Jesus places on our lives if we are to go and follow him. And only him. 

I was sitting in this beautiful sanctuary earlier this week as the guys were painting. I thought about all the people who’ve sat in those pews and lined this balcony. I’ve thought of the faithful preachers who’ve stood in this pulpit telling people over and over again of God’s love. I thought about how one day another preacher will think of me the way I think of them. And I thought about one of the most meaningful stories that is part of our Westfield lore. It’s a story that dates to 1796. Seventeen-Ninetysix. Our congregation was just reorganizing from the First Church into our modern-day Westfield. They had just built built the new building across from what’s now Tillinghast Funeral home yet—that’d still be a few years. But they knew that they needed to do something.

Here’s what our congregation’s 1905 handbook has to say: “In those days”—side note: I love that this story starts this way because so does the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2. I just love that the author thought this story was important enough to start it with that phrase. “In those days, money was a scarce article, even to those who possessed property. There seems to have been doubt as to how they should get hold of the income which they were likely to need from year to year. Hence it is profoundly significant when we read that in view of their poverty they decided to raise a fund among themselves of $3,000, the income of which should be for the preaching of the gospel! “The church and society being small and feeble,” says good Mr. Whitmore, ”were at times somewhat discouraged, but they proposed to establish a fund of ‘$3,000 which served as sort of band to bind the society together.” Such was the scarcity of money and such the poverty of these men that a number of them actually mortgaged their homes to raise the money with which to pay their share. It is certain that others gave their notes for the amounts of their subscription, said notes to be a lien upon their several estates till paid. Many years later the fund was added to by some of the descendants of these men by a similar method, and some of these latter notes, Deacon William H. Chollar, more than forty years the singularly efficient treasurer of the Westfield Ecclesiastical Society, says have been paid since he became treasurer. The original fund of $3,000 made as a kind of Thanksgiving offering to God for helping them to organize as a church has been inherited by us ; and after being slightly increased by some of the liberal descendants of these very men, and by fortunate investments by skillful and faithful stewards, now amounts to $4,700, and its annual income is constantly used for the preaching of the gospel.”

Their generosity centuries ago still provides a financial foundation for the work we accomplish together.  The selfless act of a dozen families over two hundred years ago is still empower us to preach the gospel. Talk about selling what you have and giving it away.

You know, it’s easy for us to make this passage about money alone. I knew a man from my last church who often wanted to discuss scripture, namely scriptures that dealt with money. During one of our last conversations, he got fairly worked up. “Why do people keep telling me that money is evil! Am I a bad person because I have money? I worked hard and saved harder!”

So let’s be clear: no, he’s not a bad person. And no you aren’t. And if you’re you struggle financially, that doesn’t mean God loves you less or that you’re a good person. You see, money, in and of itself, is not the problem. The problem is when money, wealth, or anything for that matter becomes more important to us than God. God wants to be at the center of our lives, and friends it is so, so easy to let other things become that center. For the rich, young ruler it was wealth.  And for us, it could be money–having it, the pursuit of it. But it could also be our obsession with the lack of it. Or it could be our work, or our health—anything we center our lives around. Y’all, God wants to be that center. God wants to be our center. The issue isn’t about making right choices, it’s about what takes the highest priority in your life, and here, Jesus lays out what it takes to make God that priority.

Essentially what we are talking about is idolatry. And rather than telling this man to fight the idol of wealth’s temptation, he instructs him to get rid of it all together.

Jesus has, a chapter or so ago in Mark, turned toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. And because Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem (and all that entails), we find his teachings, healings, and miracles picking up pace and his demands become increasingly, well, demanding.  Gone is the early simplicity of his ministry…”your faith has made you well.”  Those teachings are as valid as they always were, but today we hear Jesus adding to what it means to follow him, namely–Sacrifice. You see, while Jesus’ demand of the man may seem extreme to us, it’s certainly no less than the demand he places on himself, giving not just his wealth but his very life for the world, including this rich man.

At the foundation of this story is the theme that runs through all the Gospels. Jesus came to this world in human form to show us a better way to live.  Time and again, he points out the ways that we become slaves to things we hold (which, truthfully, are the things that hold us) and encourages us to let them go. And time and again, we fail.  But friends, hear the good news.  What is impossible for us, is possible for God.

You might not be rich or young or a ruler. But Christ’s call is the same to all of us—surrender all we have and all we are and follow him. May we be so bold. Amen.

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