Sermon text: Mark 10: 17-31
Of all the people in Mark’s Gospel, this is the only person who Jesus looks at and loves. It’s the only time Jesus shows this kind of attachment to this curious and sincere young man who kneels before him, pays him a complement, and then asks a weighty question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
At first Jesus reminds him of some commandments. Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother. That’s a common list, from the second portion of the Ten Commandments, with the added bonus of “Don’t cheat or defraud your neighbor,” and the young man responds that he’s done all of this since he was a child. That may sound outlandish, but he’s not claiming he’s sinless, only that he’s fulfilled the law, including making repentance and sacrifices when he’s fallen short. He’s blameless in those categories. It’s a claim that many others, including the Apostle Paul would make.
But notice which commandments Jesus omitted from his list. All the ones that deal with our relationship with God are missing. You shall have no other gods before me. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Keep the Sabbath. No graven images.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Pastor, Jesus never mentioned any of those commandments. He just told the young man to sell all his possessions and follow him. How on earth are these things related.”
I’m glad you asked…
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Or, to put it another way, whatever you value most, that is your god. It’s at this point that we learn the man is rich, he has many possessions, and he is shocked and distraught at what Jesus tells him to do. It seems that Jesus asks too much of him. He’s confused. The Greek phrase used to describe his reaction suggests that his head is clouded up by Jesus’ words.
Jesus loves the man, there’s something about him that has piqued his curiosity, but the man’s love of his possessions obscures his vision so greatly that he cannot even embrace the love of God. His hands are so full of his possessions that he can’t quite possibly accept the gift of love, the inheritance of eternal life. His wealth prevents him from following. We know that we can’t buy our way into heaven, is it possible for us to buy our way out of it?
I guess we should take a moment to understand what Jesus was really asking when he says, “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” A modern viewpoint leaves you to believe he daily walks out of Lord and Taylor with his arms full of shopping bags, that he has a house that rivals the Great Gatsby, that armies of UPS trucks unload mountains of Amazon packages at his front door, and he has every toy and vacation home and mode of transportation imaginable. Does Jesus really want him to liquidate his brokerage account and for him to sell the Xbox and the Rolex and the private jet? What exactly is he giving up?
This week I found a wonderful nugget from the Social-Science Commentary that I found particularly enlightening. Explaining the culture 2000 years ago, it states: “The demand to sell what one possess, if taken literally, is the demand to part with what was dearest of all possible possession to a Mediterranean person: the family home and land…Thus, to follow Jesus means to leave or break away from the biological kinship unit, a sacrifice beyond measure. Such a departure from the family was something morally impossible in a society where kinship is the focal social institution. (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary, pg. 191.)
That’s an awfully big ask from Jesus, isn’t it? Giving those things up today would be terribly difficult, and our valuable of family and clan and tribe is nowhere close to Ancient Palestine. It is everything. No wonder the man is shocked. Even the disciples are shocked. Who can be saved?
It’s ironic that the disciples ask this question because they’ve already done just that. They have left possessions, professions, and parents to follow Jesus. But perhaps that was easier and less obvious of a connection because they weren’t uber-wealthy.
It sounds like Peter does make the connection though. “Look here Jesus, we have left everything and have followed you.” To which Jesus responds, “I’m telling you, truth is, 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, if they don’t receive a hundred times as much now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields—with persecution—and in the age to come, eternal life.” Basically, I have the ability to take everything you known, and bless it beyond measure.
The 2004 movie Miracle chronicles the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team as coach Herb Brookes assembles a hot-headed group of collegiate players to represent their country. As the coach trains his team, these rivals who sometimes have history and grudges, he asks the men to introduce themselves: name, where they’re from. He then asks them who they play for, and they all answer with their college team.
Fast forward weeks later, and this is one of the most memorable scenes in the movie: The team ties the Norwegian National Team and after the game the coach makes the players skate wind sprints. He hated their lack of discipline, for they were distracted by the pretty local ladies and failed to make a good effort. So they are do sprints. They blow the whistle again and again and again. It’s painful. The players are puking, falling down, they stay so long the rink manger turns the lights off and goes home. All the while Coach Brookes is giving them tongue lashings.
Finally, as they pause for a breath before yet another sprint, one of the players shouts out his name, like he’s doing the team introduction. Then he shouts out his hometown. Then Herb Brookes asks him, “Who do you play for?” And instead of the typical answer of his college, he says, “I play for the United States of America.”
In this scenario the players were asked to trade in their possessions, specifically their pride and identity in their collegiate programs, for the realization that they’re coming together to do even more, a hundredfold more, as they represent their county on the biggest stage in sports. They’re going for gold at the Olympics.
That’s what Jesus is asking of the rich young man. Trade in your possessions, your identity, and I will give you a new one as you follow me. Give up the family ties, which for you functions as an idol, a little “g” god, a thing that gets in you way of devotion to the God of Israel, and I will give you a Father in Heaven and scores of new relatives who will bless you. You will have riches of another kind that will be of infinite value.
We are fortunate in our era to not face so climatic of a decision. Jesus still wants our devotion. Jesus still wants us to follow him. However, our idols may be different. Jesus might ask each of us to give up something unique. But no matter what stands in our way, no matter what idols block off our path, the blessing, invitation, and promise remain.
As we follow Christ, as we spread the good news of the gospel, we become enriched beyond measure by the family of faith that accompanies us. It won’t always be pretty, families can be messy, but together as church we experience riches beyond measure. With this gift, with the blessing of our sacred community, we experience eternal life right now, as we live and breathe.
As a family in Christ, as ones who follow the way of Jesus, we receive the blessing of community alongside our inheritance of eternal life. All of this has been gained through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not by our own works, but as the receivers of the gift. And unlike a normal inheritance, every time we split this bequest, we become wealthier with every addition to the family. Amen