I had a great idea for starting this sermon. I was going to get a powerpoint of all sorts of artist’s depictions of this bible story about the rich man and Jesus. It’s such a dramatic story, I could picture the paintings before I even found them. A painting of the man in beautiful robes running and kneeling before Jesus, or the dramatic moment of Jesus looking at the man with love, or the man reacting to Jesus’ words with a sad expression on his face, and even perhaps a painting of the rich man walking away with Jesus and the disciples watching him as he goes.
But I googled it, and lo and behold, the paintings of this bible story just aren’t there. I found only a few paintings, mostly done for Sunday school storybooks. No famous painters tackled this bible story. Why? Famous painters were usually commissioned by rich patrons to produce artwork for churches. It appears that the story of Jesus telling the rich man to give away all his possessions has not been a story that rich people want to be reminded of every time they come to church!
This story can be very hard, but maybe it depends on where you find yourself in the story. Who do you identify with? That’s why I like reading scripture in a little reader’s theatre where everyone is involved as a character in the story. Where do you find yourself as you hear it? Do you identify with Peter who has given up everything, or do you identify with the rich man who went away sorrowful? I wonder whether we can identify with Jesus….
Let’s walk through the story.
“As they set out on a journey” It’s not just a journey, it’s Jesus’ last journey on earth, and he knows it. He is heading for Jerusalem where he is going to be tortured and killed. We’ve been following Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem…that’s why we have our journey display here by the altar table.
“A man ran up” We aren’t told who this man is. This story is also in the gospel of Matthew and Luke, and there we are told that the man is young, and also that the man is ruler. But here in the gospel of Mark, he is just a man.
“A man ran up and knelt before him” Now in the gospel of Mark, whenever someone has knelt before Jesus they want or need healing…a person with leprosy, a woman whose child is sick, the man from Gerasene. The fact that this man is kneeling is a clue for us, a hint that the writer gives us about the story that is about to unfold.
“Good teacher”…This is the first time in this gospel, and I think in all the gospels, that Jesus is called a good teacher. He’s called a teacher, but not usually a “good teacher”.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Here is the crucial question, that people throughout history have puzzled over. The question is asked in a curious way. The man uses the word inherit. You inherit something because of who you are. For example, many people thought they would inherit the kingdom because they were sons or daughters of Abraham. Jesus talks about that in a different setting. The funny thing here, though, is that the man uses the word “do” in relation to inherit. He wonders what he has to do or achieve or accomplish in order to inherit eternal life.
Jesus responds with the phrase, “Why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone.” Some people read this as a sharp rebuke to the man. Other commentators think that this is a mildly spoken response, a polite response in that culture; when people offered you praise, and tried to place you higher on a pedestal, it was common to defer and say that you did not deserve it. This harkens back to the scripture we read earlier from Mark, about not seeking to be the greatest.
You 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; Honour your father and mother.” ’ Jesus appears to be reciting the basic requirements for leading the good Jewish life. They are from the ten commandments, all except one. Jesus slips one in…you shall not defraud. That is a direction from Leviticus 19… Perhaps he thinks this commandment about defrauding might be of particular interest to this particular man!
The man says to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ This man is sincere. He is sincerely seeking and apparently is very devout and has lived his life, carefully following all the commandments. Or else he is so proud that he can’t even see his own faults. Some commentators are harsh on this man, and point to his blindness to see that he has fallen short of the law, which can be very difficult to follow.
The next sentence is the kicker in this story, for me. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” We haven’t heard this before, that Jesus looks with love one someone, and we don’t hear it again in Mark’s gospel. It’s striking because, in my mind at least, this guy is not a prime candidate for someone who might stir love in Jesus’ heart. You might think that Jesus will love the person with leprosy, or he will love the little child, or he will love one of his disciples, or how looking at his mother, he loved her…the list of potential people to love is pretty long. Why this man? Jesus just loves him. Is it anything this man has done that has made Jesus love him? Nothing that we can see, except perhaps this desire to receive eternal life, this desire that has caused him to lead a good life.
‘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.’ You lack one thing. Imagine having everything you need, but one thing. What is it that this man lacks?
Jesus says, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” This is something that the man can do. He has asked for something to do, and Jesus gives him something to do. “And then come follow me.” Jesus issues a call, an invitation to follow, every bit as serious as the invitations to the other disciples. Will this man be the thirteenth disciple?
“When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The Greek word for “went away grieving” is literally, his face clouded over. He was gloomy, he was sad, he was grieving. He would not do what he was called to do. He will not follow Jesus.
Is the thing that the man lacked…the actual doing of these activities? If he had done them, would he have inherited eternal life? Is the one thing required that we all sell our possessions and give the money to poor and follow Jesus?
This story about the rich man is a hard story, a puzzling story, a story that people have been uncomfortable with. It can make us squirm in our seats. I think it’s explained just a bit further on in the gospel of Mark. In chapter 12 we hear Jesus saying that the one essential thing is for you to love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. God desires this more than any sacrifices or burnt offerings. It’s not the sacrifice that is required, it is the love. The love can and will lead you to sacrifice, but the sacrifice itself is not enough. I Corinthians 13 has the familiar words, “If I give away all my possessions…but not have love, I gain nothing….”
I think that what the man in this story lacks is love in his heart. Jesus, looking at him loved him. But the man did not look back with love. If he loved Jesus, he would follow him. If he loved his neighbor he would give sacrificially rather than hoarding his wealth for himself. Jesus looking at him, loved him. The man was only sorrowful. He went away still a rich man, but poorer for not having gained love.
Jesus goes on to talk about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. From the perspective of all the people in the crowd, the rich man was the complete package. He was devout, following the commandments, and the fact that he was rich would have proved to them that God was blessing his life. Jesus points out the one thing lacking. This man’s heart is so full of love for money, that there is no room for love of anything else. Where your treasure is, there your heart is also. I’m going to the leave unpacking the whole camel illustration for today. Today I want to concentrate on the one thing lacking.
Here at Lendrum, are we walking in the rich man’s shoes? I don’t like to find myself reading the lines of the rich man. First, like many of you, I don’t like to think of myself as rich…there are so many people who have so much more than me. So this story of the rich man lacking one thing couldn’t apply to me, could it? Because I’m not rich!
Here is where listening to our brothers and sisters from different parts of the world can be very helpful, the churches in Africa, in India, in South America. They do have a critique of North American churches, they do tell us that materialism is a big problem, that our priorities are clouded because of our wealth as a church.
Maybe we do stand in the rich man’s shoes, if not individually, then collectively as a society.
We are busy doing many things. We do things for many reasons…we do them because we should do them, we do them because people tell us we should do them. Do, do, do…we can do things all day long, but if one thing is lacking, it means nothing. Do we have love in our hearts?
This week many people in Edmonton and across the country have been listening to the voices of First Nations peoples in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as they share their stories of what they experienced in the residential school system in Canada.
We heard many stories this week of children being slapped because they cried or because they spoke the only language they knew. Stories of children being physically beaten because they tried to run home to their parents, children being sexually abused because they were innocent and unable to defend themselves, children being psychologically abused because of the colour of their skin, children being told that their culture was sinful. Their very language was taken away from them. We have begun to hear the stories of these survivors, and there needs to be a lot of listening to that pain, that anguish. The Truth and Reconciliation is the beginning of the telling of this story, not the end.
The residential school system was not a vague amorphous impersonal entity that hurt people. The system was comprised of many thousands of teachers and administrators and support staff. What I would also like to hear, what I have not heard, is the story of the teachers who did these things. Especially the story of teachers who taught in the residential church schools. I wonder. Did they set out to do good things? Did they enter the “mission field” with noble ideals, with the hope that they would inherit eternal life? They were doing what society and the church asked them to do, travelling to remote areas, giving their lives to God, to the education of children.
Many of the teachers were in religious orders…they had given up everything to follow Jesus. As priests and nuns in the Catholic and Anglican church they had made vows of poverty, they had given up their right to own anything, they had followed the call of the church to serve in remote and difficult environments. Jesus couldn’t say to them, there is one thing lacking, sell your possessions and give to the poor and come follow me, because these people had done that. They had given all their possessions, they had followed. They did precisely this hard thing that makes us all squirm when we read this story. But obviously, there was still something lacking.
Without a doubt, the people that hurt these children lacked a lot of things. They obviously lacked insight. They lacked insight into the long terms effects of cultural genocide, which in hindsight we have. That may or may not have been possible for them to have in that time, in that place. But most importantly they lacked love, and that was well within their reach. If they had love for these children, they would have sympathized with them and been kind to them, and cared for them like they cared for their own children. They would not have abused and tortured them.
Jesus looks at the misguided, bewildered, rich man and has love for him. Maybe Jesus was even looking at the rich man who he knew had defrauded and impoverished the people in his community. No matter, Jesus looking at him, loved him. Jesus looking at the aboriginal child pulled from their home, loved her. Jesus looking at the residential school teacher, loved him. Jesus looking at us, loves us.
In your Bibles, we sometimes have little subheadings to identify the stories. I am guessing that this short story is called “The rich young ruler”. It could also be named “The calling of the thirteenth disciple”. The fact that this call is rejected is a prediction of everything that is to happen in the coming weeks on Jesus’ journey. Jesus looks at the world with love, and the world does not love back. The world turns away. Jesus just keeps on loving, giving up his body and his blood.
I wonder whether we can find ourselves in the story, in the person of Jesus. That means that whatever we do this week, we must look on people with love.
Can we find ourselves in Jesus’ story, as we drive down Calgary Trail and are cut off by the young man in the red pick-up truck, who acts as if he owns the road, going 40 km over the speed limit, endangering his life and ours? And Jesus, looking at the man in the red pick-up truck, loved him.
Can we find ourselves in Jesus’ story as we read the newspaper and hear about the annexation of the Crimea by Vladimir Putin. And Jesus, looking at the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, loved him.
Today we are coming to the Lord’s table. It’s a time to examine our hearts, to say, is there love in my heart? Have we taken Jesus as our model? And it’s a time to reflect on the fact that nothing we have done has gained us an invitation to this table. We don’t deserve to be here. We are brought here by love, because the God who made us loves us. Period. We are all invited. The residential school survivors and their teachers, the man in the red pick up truck, Vladimir Putin, and us.
Today’s bible story ends with Jesus saying that anyone who shows love will receive a hundredfold…. houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions…and in the age to come, eternal life.
Yes, eternal life is to be gained, but first on earth there is persecution. It’s not popular to love the people that the world loves to hate. As a community we refuse to hate anyone, not the child abuser, nor the tyrant. And the church, looking on those that the world hates, loved them. And sometimes there is a price to be paid for that kind of love.
As we come to the Lord’s table together, remember the example of Jesus, who loved us, even when we did not return that love. He loved us to the end. Thanks be to God!
A sermon preached
at Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church
on March 30, 2014
by Carol Penner