A sermon delivered on October 25. Scriptures: Psalm 34:8-16 ; Mark 10:17-31.
[This one didn’t go the direction I had planned. I stuck with a recent lectionary reading in Mark and that made me veer off into interesting space.]
We’ve talked in recent weeks about the finality of salvation in Jesus Christ’s cross and resurrection, and then about how nonetheless the Holy Spirit continues God’s story in us, and even extends Jesus’ life into our life. The Trinity names for us how our multifaceted life with God all holds together in a divine mystery. Today we turn to our personal life of holiness as Christians; or how we strive to live ethical lives, pleasing to God. Now, let’s be honest: The word holiness, ironically enough, has a bad reputation. We cannot hear the word without thinking of “holier than thou.” Protestants especially have often had an ugly moralistic streak—‘Christians are holy people who don’t drink and don’t have sex before marriage etc.’ This is quite against the original spirit of Martin Luther, whom we remember on this Reformation Sunday. So we’ll look today at a lectionary text on wealth in Mark; and we’ll see that there’s really no room in this text for us to get all moralistic and holier than thou. Today will also be a case study in how the Bible doesn’t contain one consistent monologue from God; instead it houses a really interesting, often conflicting multiplicity of views that speaks to the complexity of our moral and spiritual lives. As we’ll see, Mark’s gospel, more so that the other gospels, is designed to be disturbing and threatening to those who think they are Jesus’ followers. Thank goodness the Bible provides us with other messages that are easier to assimilate.
Like Psalm 34. It represents a more conventional and predominant voice in the Bible; there is much overlap between the section of the Old Testament stretching from Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and through Second Kings and what’s called the Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs and some Psalms like this one. There is a fairly consistent message in them all: If you follow God’s teaching and guidance, if you are among the righteous and not among the wicked, all will go well with you. In Psalm 34 as in Proverbs “fear of the Lord” is the key to wisdom and righteousness: “O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.” This isn’t a cowering fear; in the next verse fear is equating with seeking: “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” In this Psalm and writings like it, doing good will bring a reward of safety at least, and perhaps abundance. Evildoing will result in suffering and destruction; but notice here there is no talk of eternal hellish torment: “The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off remembrance of them from the earth.” Those who do evil will simply die, and will not be remembered. Now sure, the Pol Pots and Idi Amins are notorious; but those who seek good will not remember and celebrate them, and that is perhaps all that matters.
Considering how important it is to be among the righteous rather than the wicked, you don’t always find in the wisdom literature detailed laws of behavior. The teaching is kept general and didactic: “Depart from evil, and do good.” Still, there are hints in this Psalm that we are still dealing with the same God of justice and mercy found in the Pentateuch and the New Testament: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” We’ll pick up on that in Mark.
But mainly what we see in Psalm 34 could be described as good middle-class values. Life is precious, a great gift. We should be thankful for it and make the most of it by diligence, especially choosing right over wrong. And being righteous will pay off eventually: so work hard, and be patient. These middle-class biblical values have carried over into secular culture, except there hard work means applying yourself to a profession; if you work hard, you will succeed eventually, and then justly enjoy the fruit of your labor and talents. Whether secular or religious, these middle class values are surely dear to all of us here, but they also have come to dominate much of the world, because they work often enough, and they help keep people functional and in-line. They represent one biblical voice that deserves to be taken seriously.
Leave it to Mark’s gospel to threaten these bedrock values. Our reading in Mark is about a good, middle class Jew who is pious and sincere and willing to work hard. And we are about to watch his good, biblical, middle class values crash into Jesus, and crumple.
The young man here is not the “ruler” of Luke’s version; as is often the case, Matthew and Luke both tell this story a little differently. This is a young Jew who enjoys enough wealth to be able to afford to study Torah and to make the pilgrimages and offerings and to take off work to keep the Sabbath, all of which went along with being a good Jew at that time. It took leisure to be pious, for one had to learn to read and to study the scriptures. The common folk, called “the people of the land,” lacked the leisure and education to be good Jews; and pious people did not hold them in high regard.
My study Bible notes tell me that this young man is the only person Jesus is said to love in Mark’s gospel. That’s striking, considering how much we associate Jesus with love. More striking still is what that love looks like here. Jesus “loves him” by pushing the young man beyond his breaking point; he goes away grieving at the thought of selling all that he has. He was not arrogant and deluded by self-righteous: he sincerely knelt at Jesus’ feet and asked him, What must I do to inherit eternal life? He’s really looking in earnest for something, even though he has already worked hard.
Jesus takes this opportunity to push his beloved disciples also: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” Showing their typical keen acumen, the disciples are dumbfounded; and so Jesus repeats it, and adds that a wealthy person entering the Kingdom is like the proverbial camel going through the eye of a needle. They are astounded and feel threatened: “Who then can be saved?”
Context matters in Mark’s finely crafted story. This episode is set within culminating predictions of Jesus’ suffering and death. The story is pressing toward setting the Kingdom of God and all that following Jesus includes in a total opposition with the way of world. It is becoming increasingly clear, and distressing to the disciples, that the way of Jesus can only mean suffering, loss, and death—not because God wants us to suffer, but because the world will not countenance the kind of barrier-breaking and unrestricted care that Jesus is advocating for. This whole episode is constructed to lead up to the punch-line, a classic and often-quoted Jesus line that he could well have said: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
You see, in Jesus’ teaching, God’s Kingdom often takes the form of a forthcoming complete reversal of the fortunes of this world: the wealthy, powerful, esteemed, and respected will be shut out, and the poor, vulnerable, loathed, and disrespected will be exalted. Notice that in this part of Jesus’ message, entering the Kingdom has nothing to do with applying yourself diligently, working hard, and distinguishing yourself as one of the righteous. There is instead just a blunt assertion that God’s choice is not for the wealthy, but for the poor, powerless, and excluded. In the case of the young man, Jesus isn’t talking to someone who is super-rich; indeed, the disciples draw the conclusion that they are perhaps wealthy enough to be excluded from the Kingdom. So when Jesus says, “How hard it will be” for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom, he is talking about our equivalent to the middle class: those of us who are not completely ground down by labor or begging for survival, so that we have some options about how to spend our time. We have choices to make, and so we think that what God wants is for us to “use our gifts” in a responsible and faithful way—this is the stuff of stewardship campaigns, is it not? And we think that God cares about nothing more than what we make of our choices. Well…maybe not. Maybe God’s first concern is for those who don’t even have choices to begin with.
What does this mean for us, assuming we are “middle class?” Aren’t we supposed to be figuring out how to be holy? to discern godly ethics and the path of righteousness? Jesus seems to be saying, ‘I’m sorry, you who are not desperately /poor and excluded/ have had your share of good things; God has chosen to make the last, first in the coming Kingdom. I’m afraid you are not in the running.’ It’s not that Jesus hates the rich; he lovingly pushes the young man past his complacent belief that his salvation is under his control. “Sorry; you’ve done well, but that’s not how God’s plan works.” Can we live with this? Can we accept that the poor, destitute, and despised are the ones God has chosen to love, and we are left out in the cold? It doesn’t seem fair, does it. “But I’ve used my wealth responsibly, and I’ve done charitable deeds, and I’ve studied the Bible and attended church.”
The disciples likewise protest, because evidently they feel threatened by Jesus’ saying: “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus cavalierly and enigmatically replies, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Peter then reminds Jesus that the disciples have left middle class comforts to follow Jesus. And Jesus kind of assures them. Notice he does not address them directly, like this: “Oh, not you—you’re good. Don’t worry.” Rather, his words are a little cagey: “No one who has left” all the middle class comforts of the day: family, progeny, land—“for my sake and for the gospel will not receive a hundredfold now in this age.” And he lists the same middle-class goods, and then adds, “with persecutions.” What’s that? I find that little addition awkward and perplexing. I checked the Greek; it doesn’t help at all. It’s as if Jesus is saying, O yes, you’ll get all that good stuff in spades. And you know what you’ll get to boot? I’ll even throw in some persecution!” It sounds like he is gently mocking his disciples. Maybe throwing in “persecutions” is a signal that what we think of as really living—family, kids, land—is not. Maybe to know persecution on top of all that is what real living is all about. Maybe persecution, contrary to our love of comfort, is the icing on the cake. Be that as it may, and granted that the disciples who have left everything to follow Jesus will have life a hundredfold here and now, and also eternal life, Jesus nonetheless concludes by reiterating once again the grand reversal of the Kingdom of God. “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Well, take heart, things are not as simple in life as the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. We all know suffering in life. We even all know unfulfilled desire. So let’s not get too bent out of shape about Jesus’ off-putting remarks. I don’t think we should conclude from this story that, “We relatively well off people are screwed.” But reflecing on it, at the very least let’s not just take it for granted that what it means to be a Christian is simply to apply ourselves to the pursuit of good, holy principles for living. There’s nothing bad about doing so, and God knows the world would be a much better place if people did just that, instead of pursuing blind selfish interests. But maybe we with our piety and earnest efforts are at best second string players in the Kingdom. Or maybe our surest entry into that Kingdom comes when we do leave our goods and face persecution. In any event, we should attend to that enigmatic verse: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Perhaps our way forward is to consider our inclusion in God’s kingdom, whose first citizens are the poor, the excluded, the suffering, the miserable, to be strictly speaking “impossible.” Maybe we have made it into the kingdom, or will make it, only because God does the impossible. And maybe grace isn’t really grace unless it is impossible grace. Meditating on this might shake us out of any complacency we have in common with the young man.
Even so, we still have our decisions to make; our ethics to work out. We have all this freedom and it seems like we should do something with it, no? And so we come before Jesus, and kneel, and ask, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Must I give up my possessions? To whom should I give things to maximize my impact? Must I stop eating meat? Must I avoid products being boycotted for reasons of justice? Must I factor in my carbon costs to my purchases? In personal relationships, should I always put others’ needs before mine? Must my heart be chaste?
We who “have it together,” whose lives are not in shambles, face a million such questions. I want to look at them carefully with you in the future, because our biggest impact on the world lies not in singular actions, but more often the kind of daily patterns of behavior that we follow which, en masse, lead to things like global warming and exploitative labor practices in developing nations. But for now, Jesus’ strange reply to the wealthy young man, besides being initially off putting and discouraging to us, can also be liberating.
He teaches us that we mustn’t take our ethical dilemmas too seriously. God has bigger fish to fry. The whole world is out of whack and upside down, as far as God is concerned; real salvation, the real of Kingdom of God, will not be something we accomplish by our checklist of ethical practices. We can at best be bit players in this drama. And so there is room for some laxity, some slack. Jesus, after all, liked to enjoy himself at dinner with his friends. He is even accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. And he tells his disciples to relax a little when they get too worked up about selling everything and giving to the poor (check out Mark 14). The world’s salvation is not riding on us; it is up to God. We don’t need to once again try to put ourselves in the place of God, as human beings have been doing since the beginning.
Now beyond this liberating breathing space, we should appreciate how central are the poor, oppressed, suffering, and excluded to God’s reign. If you want to know God’s Kingdom in action, don’t just help the poor; go be with them. Let them be your spiritual guides and sustenance. I really doubt you are going to experience the Kingdom of God by attending a fundraiser benefit with a bunch of rich folk—as good a cause as that may be. You are more likely to experience it by hanging out on the corner with the people of the land or the people of the street and being part of their struggle for survival.
And finally Jesus suggests that there is a real possibility of holiness when you encounter persecution—when you put it all on the line for God. When you stand up to the vested interests and the powers that be. Maybe that is our surest way to holiness and eternal life. But in the meantime, let’s not write off the seeking of God, the fear of God, that comes when we apply ourselves to wisdom, and put our heads together to depart from evil, and do good. Let’s trust that the same spirit that had Jesus seemingly write us off, also inspired the Psalmist to give us some meaningful work to do. And let’s do it. Amen.