17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, 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, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Mark Twain once said: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”
I don’t know about you, but there are many parts of the Bible I don’t understand well.
I don’t understand all the symbolism that runs rampant in the Book of Revelation.
My eyes begin to glaze over when I read the nit-picky laws of Leviticus.
There are parts of Scripture that are just horrific, like the slaughter of little babies and the rape of women. I don’t understand why such violent events are narrated in the holy text.
But not understanding those texts from Scripture doesn’t bother me nearly so much as The Golden Rule.
I understand the Golden Rule perfectly. When Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” in Luke 6 and Matthew 7, it’s pretty much impossible to miss his meaning. Interpreting that particular sentence isn’t controversial or difficult, and I certainly didn’t need a seminary education to understand it.
But despite the fact that I completely understand the Golden Rule, I manage to break it every single day. And the fact that I understand the Golden Rule but do not honor it bothers me greatly.
It bothers me because I can’t seem to consistently treat other people the way I’d like them to treat me.
It bothers me because I wish Jesus had said something like: “If someone treats you well, treat them well back?”
Or “Do unto others as you would have them do to you UNLESS the others are jerks. If the other guy is a jerk, you are free to write him off.”
But Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus NEVER lets me off the hook. Jesus has all these hard sayings –
“Turn the other cheek”
“Love your enemies”
“Do good to those who hate you”
What makes the hard sayings such an incredible pain in the you-know-what is not that Jesus’ words to us are hard to understand. These sayings are hard because they are hard to obey.
And honestly, sometimes I just don’t want to do what Jesus says. Sometimes, I want to do what I feel like doing. Sometimes, all I want to do is hit back at my enemies. I don’t want to do good to those who have hurt me. I want to hurt them.
So hang onto your hats, my friends. We have another one of those pesky, bothersome Jesus texts in the lectionary today and boy oh boy, is it a doozey.
Today we have to somehow get our minds around the text in Mark where Jesus tells a man with many possessions to, “Go and sell everything you own, give all the money to the poor, and follow me.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to sell my stuff, at least not all of it. Maybe I could sell a few things on eBay, and goodness knows I have a few hundred books I’d be happy to unload. But I kinda like my house, my car, and I dare you to try convincing me to part with my LeCreuset dutch oven.
Surely, Jesus doesn’t mean what he’s saying here, is he? Surely he’s talking about really rich people, right? Jesus can’t be talking about giving up OUR possessions?
Not surprisingly, many religious people have tried to find a way around this text. They’ve come up with all sorts of interpretations to soften this hard text in which Jesus not only says to sell everything, but also suggests you won’t get into heaven unless dump your 401K and hand over the cash to the homeless guys who sit outside PNC Park on game day.
The disciples know that Jesus is treading on some dangerous ground here. “Who can be saved, then?” they say. Surely Jesus is kidding around.
The King James translation of this text gets around the problem by adding words to soften the blow. Instead of, ““How hard it will be for those who have wealth or riches to enter the kingdom of God!” the King James says, “How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God.”
So as long as we have more faith in God than we have in our possessions, we’re good according to the King James version.
But that’s not what Jesus said.
Another interpreter said that there once was a very small gate into Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which camels could pass only they weren’t carrying something on their back. Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about!
Maybe Jesus is saying all we really need to do is get rid of whatever is keeping us from getting through the eye of the needle. Might be possessions, but then again it doesn’t have to be possessions. Maybe Jesus is talking about spiritual burdens that separate us from God.
The problem with this interpretation is that the whole thing is made up. According to Biblical scholars, there never was such a tiny gate into Jerusalem.
Countless preachers have told us that what really happened is that Jesus took a deep look into the rich man’s soul with his super duper Jesus eyes and discovered that wealth was this particular man’s special spiritual “weak spot.”
This gives us permission to assume that Jesus would not ask us to part with all of our possessions, just those that have become weaknesses —like our daily stop at Starbucks or our collection of designer pocketbooks or a LeCreuset dutch oven. We can keep the rest of our stuff as long as we give up those one or two weaknesses.
And then of course, there’s the interpretation of which I’ve always been fond. The interpretation that suggests this text is all about grace.
Jesus didn’t really mean what he said about possessions. Jesus is just using a metaphor to demonstrate that none of us are good enough to get into kingdom of God. None of us can get through the eye of a needle, thus we must rely solely on God’s grace, and not our own goodness to get to heaven.
This interpretation has the added bonus of being perfectly in synch with good reformed theology. The story is all about God’s grace, not about giving up possessions. We don’t have to shrink ourselves or our lifestyle down to fit through the needle – God can do what we cannot because nothing is impossible for God. So we can keep all our stuff and still be good enough.
Or maybe. Just maybe. Jesus actually means exactly what he says about all the things. Maybe we ought to entertain the possibility that Jesus means exactly what he says.
The longer I look at this man in front of Jesus, the more convinced I become that he is a good man. A faithful man. He doesn’t go toe-to-toe and give Jesus a hard time the way the Pharisees and other religious authorities do.
I get the feeling that this man has worked hard to do everything right. He has faithfully kept the law. He has attends synagogue regularly. He tithes. He has taught adult Sunday school. He has served on the session. He has cooked at the men’s shelter and sent checks to worthy charities. Although it is tempting to think this man is like Warren Buffett or Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s that sort of rich guy at all.
I am convinced the man on his knees in front of Jesus is good and worthy and true. I am also convinced he is distressed because he’s stuck. He realized his possessions and his good works are all just stuff. Stuff that makes him sick and anxious. The man has all the things and has done all the things, but there is one thing he lacks.
The man may not know it yet, but what his heart desires is more Jesus. His heart has led him to his knees before the Good Teacher and ask, “Good Teacher, what more can I do? I have everything I need and done everything I can think of and I am still stuck. Sick at heart and still so far from where I want to be.”
1Jesus, looks at him and loves him. Jesus says, “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.”
When the mans hears these words, he is shocked by Jesus’ clarity. He is shocked by an answer that doesn’t include a requirement for him to do more things. The man is good at doing more – he has spent his whole life doing more, believing more, and acquiring more.
But Jesus tells him to do less. Stop doing more. Give up all the things and follow Jesus.
Hard words, brothers and sisters. Hard words from Jesus. Hard words about letting go of all the things that we think keep us safe and secure. Hard words about giving up our stuff. Hard words about throwing in our lot entirely with Jesus.
Hard words because Americans have never had more stuff. As a nation, we have never been more prosperous. And every study indicates, even with all the things we have, Americans never been more anxious and downright pessimistic about the future.
Americans have never had more faith options at our disposal. Hundreds and hundreds of places of worship. Almost 150 Presbyterian churches in Allegheny County alone. All of these churches offering every kind of worship experience. And every study indicates, the church in America, the church in Allegheny County, is in steep decline.
So we find ourselves on our knees before Jesus, saying, “We Presbyterians have been faithful! We’ve done all the things! We’ve worked, we’ve studied, we’ve planned for retirement and we’ve been model citizens! We’ve shown up for pot lucks and we’ve served on the session and we’ve served at the homeless shelter!”
And after we’ve done all the things that seem really good to do, we’re still tired. We’re still anxious. We are stuck. As a denomination. As congregations. As people.
And if we dare to look up, what do we see? Jesus. Jesus who loves us. Loves us in spite of our anxiety and our clinging to all the things. Jesus loves us deeply and tells us it’s time to let go. To begin divesting of our distorted sense of what we think makes us good and worthy. And invest in the kind of treasure that will not make us sick or sick at heart.
We lack only one thing. More Jesus.
A couple of months ago, I had the deep privilege of meeting the head of PCUSA World Missions. Rev. Hunter Farrell was in Pittsburgh, fresh from a meeting at the PCUSA headquarters in Louisville, a meeting in which it was announced that Presbyterian World Mission will have a funding gap of a little less that $1 million dollars in 2016, which means we will lose nine mission co-workers. In 2017, the gap will be $4.5 million dollars, which will result in the loss of 40 missionaries. Right now we only have 165 mission co-workers. Only 165 people to cover the entire globe.
The theme of the last couple months has been – the sky is falling! We’re out of all the things!
Here’s what I think. What is at work in the PCUSA is not a literal poverty, but a poverty of spirit. The denomination is on its knees because we have all the things just like the man who kneels before Jesus. We have buildings, investments, polity and structure — all of which we’ve worked hard to accumulate and all of which we really, really like.
And Jesus says, you know what? I don’t really care. Sell it all. Give it away and follow me, even unto the ends of the earth.
Because there are days in which I do not have the good sense to keep my mouth shut, I told Hunter and others gathered at the world mission meeting that the PCUSA does not have a money problem despite all evidence to the contrary.
We have a spiritual problem. A enormous spiritual problem. We give lip service to resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit when the truth is we are too worried about our own survival to even imagine letting go of things that couldn’t matter less to Jesus and matter beyond our imagining to people in places like Malawi and South Sudan who are probably going to starve to death this winter.
If we keep going as we’re going, we will indeed lose the message of the Gospel entirely and be nothing more than a nice group of people with all the things in a rapidly shrinking social club who will not be missed by anyone when we finally disappear for good.
Like I said. There are days when I cannot keep my mouth shut.
In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines: “The principle runs all through life, from top to bottom. Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose life and it will be saved. Submit to death – the death of ambitions and secret wishes. Keep nothing back. Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.”
Hard words, today, brothers and sisters. But they are hard words from the One who loves us, knows us and poured out his life to save us. There’s nothing cheap about this grace. It may just cost us everything. All the things that matter usually do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.