Proper 23 October 11, 2015
Job 23:1-9, Psalm 22:1-15
The Economics of the Kingdom
Jesus drives a hard bargain, doesn’t he? This young man in the Gospel passage runs eagerly up to him and falls on his knees, imploring him, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus summarizes the commandments for him, and the eager potential disciple assures him that he has kept them all since his youth. The story tells us that Jesus looks on him with love and compassion, and then tells him he lacks one thing. He must sell his possessions and then give the money to the poor, and only then can he come and follow. This is the deal breaker for the poor young fellow. He is shocked. Maybe he expected Jesus to give him some counsel or advise him to take on some prayer practices or studies in order to find eternal life. Instead, he calls him to totally turn his familiar life upside down, to give up his way of living and follow this teacher into the unknown. It is too much for him, and in the end, he turns away grieving and leaves Jesus. Isn’t this kind of harsh of Jesus, to expect this young man to sell all he has? Couldn’t he have let him follow some modified plan, where he could simplify his lifestyle and give some of his riches away? It seems that with Jesus, it is all or nothing. What is he asking of this young man, and what might he be asking of us, today?
In Mark’s gospel account, Jesus is calling people to a radically new way of life in which true power and treasure are not found in dominance over others and in money and material wealth, but in a loving community of people who are united by their love of God and each other. True riches are found in living out the commandments of God and promoting his kingdom of righteousness and peace. This gospel was written at a time when the Roman rule was becoming more and more oppressive, about to reach its culmination in the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Many of the religious leaders in Israel lived comfortable lives and lacked compassion and concern for the vast number of people suffering physical and spiritual poverty. Into such a world Jesus did not come preaching business as usual, with a little bit of spirituality added in. He challenged the status quo and sent it reeling. The first will be last and the last will be first, children will receive the kingdom before learned teachers, and if you lose your life you will save it. There are no half measures here. Jesus and the early Christian community are challenging people to move beyond seeing religion as a set of rituals and to understand it to be part of a living faith that transforms an entire way of life into a proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
Like many teachers of his day, Jesus uses graphic illustrations and exaggerations that grab the attention of his audience. We visualize the camel going through the eye of the needle, the first being last, the last being first. He condemns the accumulation and love of wealth as spiritual poison in people’s lives, and says that when one is focused on riches, there is no room for God and living the values of the Kingdom. Indeed, throughout the Gospels, Jesus has a lot to say about the inordinate love of money. It is a violation of the commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So Jesus is asking much more of the young man in the story. Jesus is calling him higher. It is good that he keeps the commandments of God and tries to live a devout life. Yet Jesus is seeking nothing less than this fellow’s total transformation into a way of being in which he radically trusts God for his very life, in which all that he has is received from the hand of God, to be shared and given away, so that all may share in the abundance of his labor. Jesus is asking him to strip himself of everything that gives him security and power, and to seek true joy and riches in following him alone.
Then the disciples, who are understandably baffled and dismayed, began to talk amongst themselves about these amazing and alarming words, asking: “Then who then can be saved? It seemed he was setting an impossible task before them. Jesus answers “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible.” He understands that we can’t save ourselves and change on our own. It is only possible through the grace of God living in us. On our own, we are seduced by pride, by money, by possessions, by the illusion of being in control of our own destiny. Following the commandments and trying on our own to live a good life will not transform our hearts—we need to have Christ living in us and feeding us with his very life, and then nothing will be impossible for us.
What is it that causes you, like the young man in the story, to turn away, sorrowful and grieving, when invited by Jesus to follow him? Like the rich man, is it an attachment to material things that crowds out the desire for a deeper relationship with God? Is it fear of letting go of the illusion of control of our own lives, and entrusting ourselves, all that we have and all that we are, to the gracious One who deeply loves us? Maybe you are afraid you will be asked to change too much, and that is scary. Perhaps you have been hurt too many times in your life, and being vulnerable and trusting God completely seems like too great a risk. Following Jesus means traveling light, letting go of the burdens of resentment, prejudice, lack of forgiveness, pride, and fear, that weigh us down. I know for me, it is pride that makes it hard for me to give my heart completely to Christ. I want to be in control, I want to be self-sufficient, I want to do it on my own, and I forget that I need to be part of the Vine part of the Body of Christ, which gets its life from him. We all have things in our lives that hinder us from freely and joyfully receiving God’s grace.
“For mortals it is impossible to be saved, but not for God, for God all things are possible.” The good news, friends, is that when we turn sorrowfully away from Jesus, he never turns away from us. He is still standing there inviting us, hoping, waiting, longing for us to follow him in freedom and joy. He will never give up on us. We may spend our lives resisting God, running headlong down paths that lead to destruction, to grief, to loneliness, to isolation, and pain, and yet God still is never far from us. He will be beside us even as we turn from him in our sin, in our fear, in our pain, loving us and inviting us to return. God is like the prodigal father in the Gospel of Luke, who sees his son returning from afar and runs to embrace him before he even has a chance to say he is sorry for wasting his living. God sees the first hesitant steps we take to turn on the path toward home, and hears our prayers of sorrow and of hope. He knows what is in our hearts and accepts us as his own children, even though our attempts to follow and live a holy life often fall short. When we reach the end of our own strength, Jesus is there to fill us with his strength, his life, his grace, and enable us to follow him in freedom and joy.
The good news, friends, is that the Church exists to equip us to follow Christ more nearly, and then seek to invite the world into the circle of his love. We are to be a Church on the move, a Church that is on pilgrimage with Jesus, traveling light, trusting in his grace, and inviting those we encounter along the way to experience the joy and freedom of a life united to him and our brothers and sisters on the journey.
Our own church is called to be a place where people are invited to follow Jesus, are loved and supported in their Christian lives, and then sent out to share the good news of the Kingdom of God in the world.
Jesus is standing before each of us, loving us, inviting us to follow him, to journey with him on the way home. May we all have the grace to follow in peace, and hope, and joy. Amen.