Lectionary 28B, October 14, 2018
Mark 10:17-3, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
Most sermons I’ve heard on this topic have spent more time trying to explain away Jesus words than to explore them. If you want a Bible passage guaranteed to bring out justifications of how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, or he meant it, but it doesn’t apply to us, this is it. There are several things in this passage that I suspect most of us—myself included—don’t really want to hear. The first and most obvious is Jesus’ command to give up our property. We like our wealth! And even the poorest of us here today is probably wealthier than the rich guy in the Gospel was. We have far more possessions than anyone in Jesus’ day would ever have dreamt of owning. We may not be rich by the standards of the modern world, but we are rich compared to Jesus and most of his listeners—including the disciples. Property is wonderful. Our homes keep us warm and dry, give us safe places to store our stuff. We have all these wonderful devices like stoves and washing machines and vacuums that make our lives easier and we also have things like televisions and computers that provide entertainment. We have cars that allow us to go where we want. Money and possessions can’t buy happiness—but they can sure fix a lot of the things that make us unhappy. Money can buy safety and stability. Money can buy help when we need it. Money can buy anything from basic physical needs like food, water, and shelter to more ____ desires like “interesting things to do.” Nobody wants to be poor. Nobody wants to give up what they have. Most people, given a chance, would MUCH rather have MORE stuff than we have now, rather than less.
Now, granted, money can do bad things. Money can corrupt. Money can be used to bribe. People sometimes do terrible things to get money, or let their desire for money influence them to treat people badly. People make decisions based on profit or cost rather than on ethics. For example, after some recent exposes about just how bad things are on many cocoa plantations, Nestle announced that they couldn’t possibly stop buying cocoa beans from plantations that used slave labor because it would cost too much and they’d have to raise their prices. And people judge others based more on how much money they have than by what sort of person they are, which is why poor families where the parents genuinely are trying to do their best for their children are more likely to have those children placed in foster care than rich families where the parents actively abuse their children. Money can be used as a status symbol, to decide who matters and who doesn’t. Money—or rather, a love of money allowed to dominate our thinking—can and does do a lot of evil. All you have to do is read our Old Testament reading from Amos to hear just how the love of money can corrupt a society, and how dire and devastating it is when that happens.
The thing is, there’s no evidence that the guy with lots of possessions in our Gospel reading has been doing any of that. He seems to be a faithful guy who genuinely wants to get closer to God, and has done his best to live a good life. Society was small in those days, and there weren’t many rich people around. If he were, say, using his power and wealth to cheat people or profit off of injustice, there’s a good chance the disciples would have known. Jesus certainly would. And it’s not mentioned. This man with many possessions was probably not a bad person. He says he’s been faithful all his life and tried to follow God’s commandments, and asks what else he needs to do. Jesus looks at him, loves him, and tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. And the guy goes away grieving, because he’s got a lot of possessions and he doesn’t want to sell them, any more than you or I would. And Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to be saved.
The disciples are shocked. Absolutely SHOCKED. Then, as now, people tend to take material wealth and success as measures of God’s love and blessing. If you are rich, we think, you must be doing something right. If you are successful, you must be doing something right. Conversely, if you are poor, we often assume that you must be doing something wrong. And if you were a good person, if you were doing everything you were supposed to, you wouldn’t be poor because you would have lifted yourself up with your own bootstraps and God would have rewarded you. If you are rich, it’s because you deserve it, you’ve earned it, and God has blessed you for deserving it. If you’re poor, it must be your own fault. In this way of thinking, it’s not that a person can buy their way into heaven … but if they’ve got money, it’s usually a sign that they’re already in God’s good books and have earned salvation in some way. Because no matter how many sermons we’ve heard on how salvation is a free gift of God, we still think of salvation as something we can earn, as something we can work hard enough to deserve.
Which is why, when Jesus says how hard it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, the disciples’ response—our response—is disbelief. But the thing is, we can’t do anything to earn our way into God’s good books, and even if we could, it would have nothing to do with material possessions. Money—or the lack of it—has nothing to do with how good a person you are. Some people earn great wealth while being genuinely good people. Some people get wealth through sheer luck, by being born into a family with money, or being exceptionally good at sports or music or something. Some people get wealth by cheating and exploiting others. And some people are poor because they make bad choices, but others are poor through sheer luck, by being born into a poor family in a bad area, or being disabled and unable to work, or only able to get jobs that don’t pay enough to live on. And some people are poor because they’re being exploited or cheated. The amount of money a person has tells you absolutely NOTHING about their character.
You know what money tells you? How dependent someone is. If you have enough money, you don’t need other people. Or, at least, you don’t have to depend on them. You can buy anything you need. Food, shelter, a plane ticket to a better place, healthcare, a housekeeper or assistant to take care of all the little stuff, a lawyer to get you out of legal trouble, you name it, money can buy it. And when you can get yourself out of most problems without outside help, you start to believe that everything good that happens in your life is because you earned it. Even the stuff you didn’t earn, like your health, is because you deserve it, right? And if you’re exploiting people or taking advantage of them, it’s not really wrong, because if they were smart they’d have managed to do as well as you did. The more money you have, the easier it is not to care about other people. The more money you have, the less important kindness seems: it’s easy to be kind, and it probably won’t cost you much, and it’s easy not to be kind, and if someone is not kind to you, it probably isn’t going to make a huge difference. The more money you have, the less you have to depend on anybody but yourself. The less you have to depend on God.
Poor people, by and large, don’t have the delusion of independence. They know that their survival and well-being depend on the generosity of others. They know that it’s possible to work hard and do everything right and still not be able to make it on your own. They know what it’s like to depend on others for their daily bread. They know how important that daily bread is, because they can’t always take it for granted that they’ll have it. And they know just how incredibly important kindness is. A kind person—whether a neighbor or a stranger—can literally make the difference between eating and going hungry. When you can’t pay for hardly anything, you depend on others. Being poor doesn’t guarantee that a person will be a Christian, of course, but Christians who are poor, whether here or across the world, understand that we all depend on God far more clearly than those of us with many possessions.
Here’s the thing. Salvation is a gift from God. Forgiveness, abundant life in God’s kingdom, these are all things that no human being could ever hope to earn. There’s just no way. Our sins are too great, our failures too many. There is no good deed, or series of good deeds, or perfect behavior, that can buy God’s love. We can’t earn it, and we absolutely, positively, do not deserve it. On our own, salvation is impossible. Rich or poor, we cannot be saved by our own merits. Money and possessions can buy a good life in this world, but they are worth exactly jack in the kingdom to come. And the more security you have in this world, the harder it is to believe that none of it matters in the long run.
The guy asked Jesus what he can do to inherit eternal life. He’s spent his life doing good works as if that will earn salvation. But there’s nothing he can do. There’s nothing we can do. If he sells everything and gives it to the poor, maybe he’ll be vulnerable enough to learn to depend on God. But even if he doesn’t, giving all that to the poor would mean a lot of hungry people fed, a lot of sick people healed. That generosity will have a big impact on this world; but nothing we say or do has much impact on the next. We do good things in this life because we should do good things, but we can’t earn our way into heaven. We depend on God for that. And with God, all things are possible.