I’ve been thinking about gratitude a lot recently. It’s stewardship season at Grace, so there’s that of course, and we focused on stewardship and gratitude at recent diocesan clergy and leadership days last month. But it’s more than that. As we see growth in our congregation and new efforts to reach out into our community and to develop deeper relationships among our community and most importantly with Jesus Christ, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the people here and our shared ministry and mission. I’m grateful to have been called to this congregation nine years ago; I’m grateful for our amazing staff and committed lay leadership, I’m grateful for the challenges presented us by an uncertain future in a changing world… Well, I could go on and on but I hope you see my point.
We have begun our stewardship campaign for 2019. We are in a strong and exciting place in our common life and our community and I pray that together we will develop the resources that will make possible new ministries and programs, and strengthen our current offerings and deepen relationships among us.
To mention stewardship on the Sunday when we hear this gospel reading is perhaps ironic, if not exactly offensive. This story is challenging on so many levels but it confronts with uncomfortable questions about our relationship to our financial assets, and the connection between our relationship with Jesus, discipleship, if you will, and money. And those challenges are also present when we think about how we will support Grace’s ministry and mission in the coming year.
Today’s gospel confronts us with two questions. The first question is asked by a rich man: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ disciples ask the second question after hearing Jesus’ words: “Then who can be saved?”
Committed Christians reside in the interstices between these two questions, seeking salvation but profoundly challenged by Jesus’ words. Because Jesus’ words are so unsettling, because they amaze us, even as they amazed Jesus’ disciples, as Mark reports. Over the centuries Christians have done any number of things to soften the edge of his words: “It is easier for a camel to go pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those words are so difficult for us to hear, because, like the disciples, we wonder. These are hard words that Jesus says, words that put is in a hard place. If it is the case, if it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, then salvation is impossible. So we try to weasel out of the hardness of the place. We tell ourselves, we aren’t rich, not like the really rich, not like Bill Gates. So Jesus wasn’t talking to us.
Then we look for another escape route. There’s always the possibility that Jesus didn’t mean what he said or didn’t say what Mark has him say. Or my favorite interpretation, that there was a gate in Jerusalem, called the “eye of the needle” through which a camel could squeeze with difficulty. In other words, these difficult words aren’t meant for us, we’re middle class, not wealthy; and camels can get through the eye of the needle after all. So let’s all breathe a sigh of relief and go about our business.
It’s important to remember that the man did not come to Jesus in search of financial advice, or in response to Jesus hitting him up for a donation. He has come for help. He approaches Jesus because he wants to know how to attain eternal life, how to enter the kingdom of God, of which Jesus preaches. He addresses Jesus with humility, bowing down before him, calling him “Good teacher.”
Jesus’ response is challenging—not simply because he challenges the rich man, but because he challenges us as well. His response to the man is to remind him of his obligations under Jewish law. In a nutshell, Jesus is saying, keep the commandments. The man asserts that he maintains his obligations to the Jewish law.
From a traditional, twenty-first century Christian perspective, the whole of this interchange between Jesus and the man is jarring. Things don’t seem to make sense. Jesus’ response to the man ought to be, “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior;” or “have faith in me,” or even “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Instead Jesus tells him, keep the law. Furthermore, when the man insists that he does keep the commandments, that, in essence, he is a good Jew, Jesus doesn’t respond with words to the effect that keeping the law is impossible, righteousness under the law doesn’t work. Instead, he gives him another command: “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” Doing that will give the man treasures in heaven, it will bring him into the kingdom of God.
But of course, the man finds those commands much harder to follow than the 10 commandments. Now we learn something new about him. Mark tells us for the first time, that he has great possessions and he can’t give them up. So he leaves Jesus. His desire to share in the kingdom of God, his desire to walk with Jesus, to be a disciple was not as intense as his desire to continue living the life he had, to enjoy his possessions.
There’s another detail in the story that is very important. After Mark reports the man’s response to Jesus’initial statement, Mark tells us that “Jesus loved him.” At first hearing, we may find such a statement completely unremarkable, but in fact, it is almost unique. Only one other time in the gospel of Mark does the writer use the word “love”—that is when Jesus recites the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. In other words, Mark never says elsewhere in the gospel, that Jesus loves someone.
Jesus loved him. So his challenge to the man “to go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me” is not a condition of Jesus’ relationship to the man, but a response to the possibility of such relationship. Jesus loved him, and because he loved him, he told him to sell all that he had and to follow him.
These simple words challenge us, and challenge every interpretation of this encounter that we might have. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t simply tell the man, follow me. No, he adds conditions. In Mark’s version of Jesus’ calling of the disciples, Jesus words are simply, follow me. But here, Jesus adds conditions, demands. Go, sell, give, come and follow me. For this man, it seems, it’s not enough to follow Jesus, he must also turn his back on all that he has, publicly renounce it.
But then, even though he turns away from Jesus, we are told that Jesus loves him. Does it mean simply that Jesus feels sorry for him, that he has compassion on him? But no, it isn’t because the man turned away in shock after Jesus’ words. Jesus loved him and then said to him, Go, sell what you own.” Jesus commands were in response to his love of the man.
The man stood on the edge of a great opportunity. Having asked Jesus a question of eternal significance, he received an answer of equal significance. But it wasn’t simply a matter of the man’s eternal fate. It was also about a relationship. To give up his possessions would have meant to accept, in radical and complete openness, the love of Jesus Christ.
Like the man, we kneel before Jesus, full of questions and uncertainty. We are drawn to him, to his words of love and hope, to the possibilities of forgiveness and healing, in gratitude for all we have received from God through Jesus Christ. Perhaps the little exercise at the beginning of the sermon opened your hearts in a new way to how you experience Christ’s love at Grace Church and through Grace Church.
May we in these weeks and months filled with planning for the next year, may we hold in our hearts and minds the awareness of Jesus’ love for us, that we are called to follow him, and to share that love with others. May our giving and commitment to Grace reflect that love and mission.