October 10, 2021 Nineteenth Sunday After Trinity The text is Mark 10: 17-25, 27-31.
17 As Jesus was coming out to the road, a man came running to him and knelt in front of him. He asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: Never murder. Never commit adultery. Never steal. Never give false testimony. Never cheat. Honor your father and mother.” 20 The man replied, “Teacher, I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. He told him, “You’re still missing one thing. Sell everything you have. Give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then follow me!”
22 When the man heard that, he looked unhappy and went away sad, because he owned a lot of property.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for rich people to enter God’s kingdom!”
24 The disciples were stunned by his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” 28 Then Peter spoke up, “We’ve given up everything to follow you.” 29 Jesus said, “I can guarantee this truth: Anyone who gave up his home, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or fields because of me and the Good News 30 will certainly receive a hundred times as much here in this life. They will certainly receive homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields, along with persecutions. But in the world to come they will receive eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In this morning’s gospel from Mark, we again encounter Jesus and the disciples making their way toward Jerusalem, and the culmination of that he has been preparing them for. And you will recall, they aren’t handling this very well.
And since their arrival in the city and his ultimate arrest and crucifixion are not far off, it appears that Jesus is intent on imparting his teaching to the disciples in the space of time he has left with them. And many of these lessons have been difficult for them, the Pharisees, and us to acknowledge. No stumbling blocks are to be placed before people who are coming to believe in Jesus; the first will be last, and the last, first; a challenging teaching on divorce; little children are worthy to be brought to Jesus, in direct opposition to the cultural acceptance that children (and women) have no rights in society. And this morning we find ourselves confronting yet another uncomfortable gospel lesson from Jesus, one dealing with wealth, possessions, and what’s required to become a fully invested follower of Christ. Thus, Mark continues to reveal the ways that Jesus declares the difficulty of coming to true faith.
We meet the rich man who announces to Jesus that he has obeyed the entire Law of Moses ever since he was a child, something that we all know simply isn’t possible. For instance, can any of us honestly say that we have never told even a little white lie? Yet, this man, who may actually have felt that he was doing his best to abide by the Commandments, seemed earnest enough in his request to know what else he would need to do to gain eternal life. Perhaps he was seeking validation of how he was living his life. The resultant answer was certainly not what he expected. “Sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow Jesus”. This he found impossible to do. It seems that what he was really seeking was something, some action he could take in order to go beyond what he felt was nearly enough to secure life eternal, full immersion in the kingdom of God. And, while he appears to be sincere in his question, it’s likely that what he was really looking for was a shortcut, a way to get into heaven without necessarily having to actually do anything more. For, when Jesus informed him of what was needed, off he went, dejected. Not the short cut he was seeking.
Someone who gave intense thought to this notion was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who lived during the Nazi regime in Germany. He was hanged in prison for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler as WWII drew to a close.
One of his most well-known writings deals with the concept of the ways we respond to God’s gift of the kingdom. He titled it “Cheap Grace”; this is an excerpt of his writings.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession”. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ”. “Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again”. “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ”. “Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us”.
And this was all much too much for the rich man who sought out Jesus this morning; he was unable to surrender his great wealth to achieve the kingdom. Like “cheap grace” it seems he was in search of, and willing to practice a “cheap faith”. A short cut to discipleship, a way to attain God’s grace without actually acknowledging its immeasurable worth. Jesus had not yet paid the costly price that Bonhoeffer wrote of, but the dejected man wasn’t willing to hand over his wealth for the sake of his salvation. When Jesus told him what was required, he found himself unable to separate his desire for kingdom life from his possessions. He couldn’t bring himself to abandon his self-security, his earthly wealth and exchange it for complete reliance on the grace of God expressed through the sacrifice of Jesus.
Now, I’m certainly in no position to suggest that Jesus’ admonition to the rich man to sell everything he owned wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but it is just possible that it was intended to serve as a metaphor for complete submission to discipleship. Jesus’ declaration that it isn’t possible for rich people to enter heaven likely doesn’t condemn those with a few extra dollars in the bank to eternal damnation. Rather, I think it’s meant more to cast light not on one’s literal wealth, but more on the attitude toward that prosperity and how one uses it for the benefit of others. Not so much the part about “sell everything you have”, but perhaps the obligation Jesus is emphasizing is “give the money to the poor”.
The clinging to excess while others have nothing; this is truly an expression of “cheap faith”. And if we expand on this, we may find that the call to full discipleship speaks to more than just a willingness to share our treasure with those in need. The man kneels at Jesus’ feet, secure in his conviction that he has pretty much figured it all out. I’m a pretty good guy, I follow the rules and I’m thinking that I’m nearly there; I’m on the road to life eternal. He thinks all he needs is one more element to embrace and he will clinch his seat on the heaven-bound bus. Not so fast, Jesus tells him; there are no short cuts. For the rich man what was needed was a willingness to share his great wealth. This was intended to serve as a signal that he was prepared to embrace a “costly discipleship”. But what about the rest of us; what is asked of us; what is Jesus calling us to renounce to demonstrate our commitment to “costly faith”?
Perhaps it’s the stubborn clinging to whatever holds us back from going “all-in” regarding our faith; whatever it is that we must be willing to surrender in order that we may claim our absolute identity as followers of the Way of Christ. And this may include anything and everything that would limit or restrict our ability to fully trust in the gospel. The rich man couldn’t separate himself from his wealth; perhaps for us it’s our fear, worry, anger, stubbornness, doubt, despair; all those things that keep us from surrendering fully to the promises of God, secured by Christ. And, unlike the rich man in the gospel story, relinquishing those aspects of our lives that hold us back doesn’t cost anything at all. We simply have to trust and be willing to let God carry them for us. So, in a way that only God can accomplish we’re able to possess a “costly faith” that we’re not charged for. After all, Jesus has already paid the price on our behalf.
While it remains that a camel still can’t pass through the eye of a needle, Christ Jesus provides for his followers a wide-open doorway to life eternal. All that’s needed is faith; and a willingness to loosen our grip on whatever it is that we find difficult to relinquish. For there is nothing that we need to cling to that we can’t discard in order to fully immerse ourselves in the Way of Christ.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and holy God, we acknowledge that there are things that we hold too closely that may prevent us from completely surrendering our lives to you. Help us to loosen our grasp on whatever keeps us from absolute trust in your Word. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who calls us to shed whatever it is that keeps us from a life abundant, in this world and the one to come. Amen.
God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!
Preached by Minister Tom Houston at Grace Ministries when he presided at service there on Sunday, October 10, 2021.