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Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Challenged"

Sermon 10/11/09, Mark 10:17-31

Be Challenged

I’ve been thinking, over the last several weeks, in light of some of the powerful lessons from the New Testament that we’ve focused on in worship, that it’s amazing that we even read the Bible aloud and pretend to like it. I wonder why our very reading of the words of Jesus and his closest followers doesn’t offend us. I wonder how we can even bear to hear what Jesus says sometimes, if we believe that he’s the Messiah, if we believe that we’re supposed to try to practice what he preaches. I think this because sometimes I’m struck with such force at how much distance there is between what Jesus teaches and what we do. Jesus challenges us. More than that. Pushes us. Tells us we’re getting it wrong. Quite wrong. Tells us we have to completely change what we know, how we live, what we do.

I recently happened on one of my favorite quotations, by 19th century philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. He writes, "The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."[1]

The Bible is easy to understand, Kierkegaard says. But we have to pretend it’s hard to understand, because following it – well, that would mean too much of a change in our way of life to be able to stand. There is, I think, a sense of humor, a facetiousness in his tone – but also a powerful truth. How can we read this Bible, if we believe it to be the word of God, and go on living as we do? This week’s gospel lesson is a prime example of what Kierkegaard writes about, and of what I mean by wondering that we even dare to read Jesus’ words in a public setting. Did you know that fully 40% of what Jesus teaches about in the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are about money or use economic metaphors? We hate talking about money, don’t we? Or at least, talking about our personal money. How much we have, how we spend it, how we use it, how much we need, how much we don’t have. How is it that we like to spend so little time talking about our money, when Jesus focused on money and faith so much? As Christians, we seem to get ourselves all tangled up in three or four verses that talk about homosexuality, or a few passages that talk about women’s roles, or that speak to some other controversial social issue of the day – we make these issues so important, but we like to stuff all the money talk in churches into a few weeks when, by necessity, we must have a stewardship campaign. And we don’t even like to talk about it then very much. And yet, almost half of what Jesus says has something to do with money, our stuff, how we share, or don’t share our wealth, and what all this means about our relationship with God.

Our gospel lesson today is a challenge. Everything that Jesus says is challenging – but this is a standout lesson for sure. As Jesus is setting out for a journey, a man falls on his knees before him and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers strangely: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” He then continues, listing several of the ten commandments to the man. The man tells him that he’s done this already, kept these commandments since he was a child. Jesus looks at him and loves him, the text says. And he responds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man is grieved and shocked, and walks away thinking of his many possessions.

Jesus then turns to his disciples, and tells them it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. At this extreme statement, everyone is astounded. They ask who can possibly be saved if these are the standards. Jesus replies, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter seems to want to show that he and the other disciples have done what the rich man seems to be struggling with: “Look,” he says, “we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus says then that there’s no one who has left someone behind to for the sake of the gospel won’t receive a hundredfold back both now and in eternal life. But he, concludes, with often repeated words: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” A challenging text. What do we do with it?

As Kierkegaard expected, many of the commentaries about this text try to find some way to soften it. Jesus says, “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.” And as soon as he says it, we try to unsay it for him. One pastor writes, “Nearly irresistible is the urge to soften this passage’s demands.”[2] Another[3] writes that he had come across two ways to interpret the metaphor of the camel and the eye of the needle that might make Jesus’ metaphor more bearable. First, he shares, “some interpreters of the Bible suggest that apart from the large gates into Jerusalem, there may have also been one small gate. This narrow gate, [easier to use than opening the big city gates, and] just high enough for human entry, was called the “Needle’s Eye.” Maybe a camel might be able to squeeze through if the beast hobbled in on its knees. As you can see,” he explains, “this tames the words of Jesus a little, and would suggest that a rich [person] humbly on [his or her] knees might be able to enter the kingdom of God.” However, there’s simply no evidence for the existence of such a gate. It’s totally speculation.

So he shares a second possible interpretation: “A second interpretation hangs on the undisputed fact that in the Greek of the New Testament the words for camel and thick rope cable are similar. Camel is “camelos” and rope cable is “camilos”. Maybe the later copiers of the New Testament got the words mixed up. This is a plausible theory. But it does once more blunt the words of Jesus.” Of course, a thick rope cable might be easier to fit through a needle eye than a camel – but I guarantee that thick rope cable isn’t going to actually going to make it through either.

Even if we take Jesus’ words at face value, some of us still don’t feel worried by this text, because we figure Jesus isn’t talking to us. He’s talking to someone else – someone who is tied to their possessions. Someone rich. We’re not rich are we? I’ve served three very different congregations now, and I have yet to run into anyone who actually considers themselves rich. The way I figure, as long as we know of someone who has more than we do, we figure that they may be rich, but we sure aren’t. It’s understandable. It’s hard to think of ourselves as rich if we struggle to make ends meet. But consider this – in my family, between me, my three brothers, my mother, my sister-in-law, and my nephew – that’s 7 people – we have 6 televisions, 5 computers, 8 telephones, 6 cars, two houses and an apartment, a swimming pool, probably 1000 DVDs and 3000 CDs, thousands of dollars worth of musical instruments including guitars, a piano, violins, and drums, 3 mp3 players, some gaming systems, 3 well-fed and pampered pets, at least a hundred stuffed animals, and at least 25 bins of “storage.” This comes from a family of workers that would consider themselves thoroughly middle class. But if we’re not rich, what’s rich? What’s the standard?

A good rule to follow when reading the scriptures is this: If Jesus is talking, he’s talking to us – to you, and to me. He’s not talking to someone else, about someone else. He’s talking about us. Jesus was really emphatic about tending to your own struggles rather than pointing out the sins of others. So if he’s talking, he’s talking to us. We might try to shed the label as best we can, but when it comes to being rich, there’s probably only a small handful of people in this congregation who could argue that this text isn’t really applicable. But if that list of stuff I shared sounds like a list of stuff you might rack up in your own family – Jesus is talking to you. Somehow, in the end, we have to come to terms with that – Jesus is talking to us. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to follow him, to listen to him. But if we do decide to follow, then Jesus is talking to us.

So now what do we do with this text? To me, it’s a question of before and after. In this passage, we have two sections that talk about following Jesus. First, the rich man wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life, and he tells Jesus he’s been following the commandments. Jesus tells him one to do – one thing – sell his stuff, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. We don’t know if the man decides to do this or not. But we know he was grieved at the prospect. At the end of the passage, we have Peter saying to Jesus, “we have left everything and followed you.” In other words, the disciples have already done what Jesus was asking the rich man to do – left everything to follow Jesus. And Jesus says they will ultimately receive a hundredfold because of it. I think the rich man was hoping that he could be a follower of Jesus without having his life after he met Jesus be too different from his life before he met Jesus. He was hoping he could be a follower, be a disciple, but not have to change anything about his life. But if your life as a disciple doesn’t look very different from your life before being a disciple of Jesus, what’s the point? What’s the purpose? Following Jesus changes us – or is supposed to – making our life after significantly different from our life before. The rich man said he followed the commandments – but really, can’t most of us say we’ve done those basic things? Following Jesus is more of a commitment, more radical of a change in our lives. In fact, a complete change. We’re new creations in Christ. But so often, from trying to interpret Jesus’ words to make them easier to bear, to trying to convince ourselves Jesus means someone else and not us, we try to minimize what Jesus is asking of us, rather than trying to change ourselves.

When Jesus speaks these challenging words to this rich man, we might over look the powerful beginning of verse 21. Just before he tells the man to sell everything and give away his money, we read, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said.” Jesus loves this man. And what he says to him comes out of that love. If you love someone, you want the best for them. So Jesus is convinced that if this man does as he advises, he will have the very best life he can have, the fullest life that Jesus can offer, which comes from letting God fill us up, rather than trying to be the source of our own blessings. Jesus challenges us, asks the impossible from us, asks us to turn our lives upside down. He does it not to make following him a task we can never perform, but because he loves us, and wants us to stop settling for an imitation of real life.

The disciples themselves are overwhelmed by the uphill task of following Jesus. “Then who can be saved?” they wonder. Jesus responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Alone, we’re in trouble. With God, we have grace, unconditional love, unlimited second chances. We spend too much time hoping God will lower the expectations placed on us. In doing so, we diminish the perfection of what God offers us. Instead of lowering the standards so we can meet them, God offers grace and forgiveness, and the help to do what we never dreamed we could. So let’s hear what Jesus is really asking of us. And despite the difficult road ahead, we can give thanks: With God, it’s possible to change our lives, change the world, and to fit a camel through the eye of the needle.


[1] Kierkegaard, source unknown.

[2] Skinner, Matthew.

[3] Prewer, Bruce.


Anonymous said…
Very nice sermon, Beth.

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