Sunday, March 01, 2020

You Can’t Take It With You — a sermon on commandments and camels and Lent 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s / to be read at St. Margaret’s
You Can’t Take It With You
Mark 10.17-31
1 March 2020, Lent 1, NL2-26

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.”’
‘Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’
Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’
Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’
Then Peter spoke up, ‘We have left everything to follow you!’
‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’


This may be the moment in Jesus’ life that makes white Western Christians most uncomfortable. We feel sadness, horror, maybe even shame or guilt when we hear about the events of Holy Week, but we also know the end of the story — that God’s love is more powerful than human sin. But this story doesn’t seem to have any such “out.” It’s uncompromising, and the vast majority of us are like the man who heard it the first time— we walk away sad, because we are possessed by so much wealth, at least compared to most of the rest of the world.

Even the most strident biblical literalist suddenly doesn’t take Jesus’ words literally when it comes to this story. Throughout the years preachers and theologians have tried to soften the blow, by creating alternate possible meanings. A famous preacher in the Middle Ages imagined a gate in Jerusalem that was too small for a pack camel to pass through with all its load on its back — there was no such gate, but it was a comforting fabrication for his wealthy patron. Some have said that the word “camel” and the word “rope” are the same, so obviously Jesus meant that a rope would have difficulty passing through a needle. Also not true. Many have resorted to saying that Jesus’ instructions to the man were for him alone, not for the rest of us...but if that’s the case, then why does he double down and repeat himself when saying it’s impossible for those who are rich to enter the kingdom of God? Even the exchange with Peter, where Peter points out that he and the other disciples did in fact leave everything — remember they walked away from their fishing businesses, their families, their tax booths, and more — is a clear sign that they understood Jesus’ instruction to be for more than just the one wealthy man. 

So let’s talk about what actually happened in this encounter between Jesus and the man who asked the question. 

Jesus and his disciples had been traveling from town to town after the Transfiguration, and he was  teaching them along the way, as they headed toward Jerusalem. Moments before this story took place, Jesus had been surrounded by little children, giving them blessings, and telling the adults that “anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then, as he left the pack of children and startled parents behind, heading back to the road, a man ran up to him, like he was afraid he was going to miss the train. You can practically picture him falling on his knees, out of breath, desperate to ask his question.

This man took his faith seriously. He took the word of God seriously. When Jesus told him that he needed to be careful about keeping the second half of the Ten Commandments, the ones that have to do with how we love our neighbour, he was able to honestly say from his perspective that he had already done it. 

On the surface, I would bet most of us could also say we have kept all of these. In fact, it practically feels easy....don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie....ok. 

The man was probably feeling pretty good, because he had definitely ticked all the boxes on this checklist for heaven.

Then Jesus looked at the man....with love. This is the only time in his gospel that Mark tells us that Jesus looked at someone with love. Now if I was the man, I might be torn between two emotions at that point. On the one hand, hey! Jesus is looking lovingly at me, I think I have it made! And on the other hand, uh oh! Jesus is looking lovingly at me, he’s about to say something I’m not going to like.

It was the latter, of course.

Jesus looked at this man, and loved him enough to speak a hard truth. He had many possessions, which doesn’t mean he had a lot of furniture and artwork and books and fancy dishes, it means he had a lot of land. And in a society where most people were peasants barely scraping by, while he probably owned the land they worked for subsistence wages, that means that he may have fulfilled the letter of the law but not its spirit. Because as long as he owned all of that, while others were suffering, he was not really loving his neighbour. Sure, he didn’t directly murder them, but how many died because they didn’t have the means to survive, let alone thrive, while he sat in comfort on his acres and acres? He didn’t directly steal, but how much rent did he charge his tenants? And did he participate in the jubilee year when land is supposed to be returned to its original owners so that every member of the community would have the means to support themselves and enjoy their inheritance from God? What other actions did he think were only about him but had ripples of consequences for others? He may have technically followed the rules, but that isn’t the same as “keeping” God’s commandments in our hearts, letting them inform how we think and act and relate to each other on the deepest levels. Instead he kept his position, his power, his prosperity closest to his heart, as if he could insulate himself from others and ensure he could make his own way in this world and the next. Jesus loved him enough to call him to repent, to turn around and put his old ways behind him and go forward into a new way of life in true mutual relationship with others.

The man did turn around, turning his back on Jesus and his call. But he went away sad...and we don’t know what happened after that. We don’t know if perhaps he took Jesus’ words to heart, and after some time for grief, maybe he did turn his life around, laying aside his desire to control his own independent destiny, and finding the joy of community. Or perhaps he decided, as many have through the centuries, that Jesus can’t have meant what he said, and that really it was in his best interest to keep his land and houses and maybe just pay the workers a bit more, and pray for them, and that would be good enough.

Remember that when Jesus sent his disciples out to share the good news with other villages, he sent them out in pairs, and he told them not to take anything with them. They were to rely on the communities amongst whom they worked. That’s essentially what he told this man as well — don’t rely on your own strength, your own resources, your own powers. You can’t take any of that with you, if you want to experience the kingdom of God. Instead, it’s those who come like children — who enter the world with nothing, and who know their need of help from others, who rely on their caregivers for everything — who will be able to reach out and grasp the kingdom that is at hand.

For a change, the disciples understand what Jesus is saying....that this is so difficult as to be impossible. Even in hearing the teaching, we can’t get it under our own power, let alone actually putting it into practice. Only by relying on God will we have any hope of fulfilling this calling. It is God who saves, and God who offers us the path of transformation that enables us to see and know and live eternal life, even now.

Lent is a season of repentance — and the word “repent” means “turn”, as in literally turn our bodies, our minds, and our hearts away from something and toward something else. This story, I think, reminds us that if we’re honest, our lives are over-full, and often we are more possessed by our possessions than we would like to admit. Lent is a time when we can be honest about that, and also practice letting go. 

Fasting isn’t so common anymore, but it is the traditional practice of Lent. When we fast, we are invited to lay aside the things that distract us from following Jesus. It isn’t really about giving up chocolate — can you imagine if Jesus had just asked the man to give up chocolate? It’s about intentionally abstaining from the things that keep us separate from God and from others and even from ourselves, the things that make us believe we can do it on our own, that we can earn our way into the kingdom of heaven somehow. 

So this season you are invited to consider: what possessions are possessing you instead of the other way around? What are you relying on to keep you afloat, separate and safe, rather than relying on God and community? How are the things you hold dear actually obscuring your ability to love your neighbour as yourself? And then see if you can, even slowly, even intermittently, fast from those things for a while. Turn away from them, and toward the way of Jesus instead. And perhaps, in the process, you’ll get a glimpse of eternal life. Remember: with God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.

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