Lectionary 28 (19th Sunday after Pentecost)
October 11, 2009
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every now and then I'll catch a few minutes of one of those talent-contest reality television shows,
such as American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, or Dancing with the Stars.
These shows do a great job at building up the drama of the tryout.
They give viewers personal background on the contestant,
perhaps even showing pictures of her 3rd grade ballet recital or middle school choir solo.
We see footage of the contestants hard at work,
and hear testimonials from parents and friends
about how dedicated the contestant is to her art.
By the end of the season, viewers are pulling for their favorite contestant,
convinced that she has done everything right,
and deserves to win the prize.
Surely St. Mark could not have imagined Ryan Seacrest hosting American Idol,
but the story he tells us today of the man coming before Jesus seeking eternal life
is remarkably similar to the tryouts and contestant profiles we observe on reality television.
Just as contestants on these shows often fall to their knees before the judges, begging for approval,
our Gospel story today begins with a man who runs up to Jesus and kneels before him,
asking, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
After switching the focus from him to God his Father –
"Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" –
Jesus reminds the man of God's commandments.
"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;
Honor your father and your mother.'"
I can imagine the man kneeling there before Jesus,
looking up at him and nodding as he lists the commandments.
In the equivalent of a stunning reality show performance,
the man then boldly attests to following the law faithfully,
demonstrating to Jesus that he has what it takes to be a disciple.
"Teacher," the man responds, "I have done all these since my youth."
Jesus looks at him and loves him,
clearly approving of the man's response,
of his dedication to the law and his desire to follow as a disciple.
Like viewers of a reality show, expecting to hear judges reward a contestant's strong performance,
we anticipate a "thumbs up" from Jesus,
an embrace of this pious man who seems to do everything right.
But instead, we get a surprising response:
"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 was shocked, and he leaves grieving. Truly, he wanted to join the disciples.
Truly, he wanted to follow Jesus.
Truly, he did so much right.
Truly, he was close, but not close enough.
And so this man, this contestant, goes home, without having won the prize.
We should be careful not to think that Jesus' words here are overly harsh,
or that this man of many possessions was extraordinarily greedy or selfish.
Jesus simply asks this man to do what the other disciples had already done –
drop everything and follow him –
a requirement few of us would accept.
Back in Mark 1, Jesus called Simon and Andrew, who were casting nets in the sea, saying,
"Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."
They dropped their nets and followed Jesus,
even though fishing for people won't put bread on the table.
Similarly, Jesus called James and John,
who responded by leaving their nets, boat, hired men, and even their father to follow Jesus.
Again, leaving gainful employment is no way to live, is it?
In chapter 2 of Mark's gospel, Jesus calls Levi, who made his livelihood by collecting taxes.
Levi left the tax booth behind, and walked with Jesus.
So in today's story, Jesus simply puts before this man of great piety, belief and yes, wealth,
the same requirements that he had set before the others –
give up what you have, and follow me.
Is this our calling? To give up everything and follow Jesus?
As a dutiful and still newly ordained Lutheran pastor –
I turned for guidance to Martin Luther and to the Book of Concord,
that collection of Reformation-era writings that articulated the faith of the Reformers,
writings that our church continues to accept as
"true witnesses and faithful expositions of the Holy Scriptures."
And I was disappointed,
for in the writings of the Reformers
I found again and again that they dismiss Jesus' instructions to sell everything
as particular to and only intended for that one man in that one story.
Here's one quote:
"It is silly to maintain that it is an act of devotion to God to leave possessions, friends, family …
this calling is not for everyone,
but only for the person with whom Christ is talking here."
(Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article XXVII)
According to the Reformers, then, Jesus' command is not a universal call for Christians
to divest themselves of their possessions.
I'm just uncomfortable with how quickly the Reformers dismiss Jesus' command.
Of course, understood in their proper historical context,
we know that the Reformers were responding to abuses of the church in their day,
which claimed that vows poverty made by monks and priests were holy
and garnered for them a special promise of salvation.
The Reformers rejected this and sought to narrow the divide of holiness
that separated clergy from laity.
And they made the case that the money earned from good, honest work need not be given away,
but that instead hard work and caring for family and neighbor with one's earnings
was indeed a holy task.
On this score I heartily agree with them … the everyday work in which we're engaged in the world,
work that is honest and good, work that contributes to the good order of society,
work that serves our neighbor and provides us with income
to care for family and friends and those in need …
this kind of work is indeed blessed and holy!
You need not make a vow at an altar or work for a church to do blessed work in the world.
Nonetheless, I'm still disturbed by how quick the Reformers are to dismiss Jesus' words.
Is there nothing to Jesus' instruction to the man to give all he had to the poor,
or to the tension Jesus sets up between wealth and the Kingdom of God?
I'm not willing to just pin this on the man in the story,
to say, "Well, wealth was his problem … the command is just for him …
the call to sell everything doesn't have anything to do with me."
for, as I highlighted earlier, the discipline of giving up one's worldly goods
is something that Jesus asked of each of his disciples, and of those who followed him …
it's not like this is a solitary instance or an out-of-the-blue teaching from Jesus.
Is it "silly," as the Reformers say, to suggest that this command just might be for all Christians?
No … I think there's something to these stories.
Call me crazy, but I think that these stories are in the Bi
ble for a reason,
that they probably have something to say to us us today.
But what do they say? Are we to drop everything, sell all we have, and follow Jesus?
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, I don't know.
I do fear that the theological tradition has been muddied with defenses of the status quo,
with teachings that soft-pedal the hard demands of the gospel,
that seek to make the Christian life as ordinary or common as, say, citizenship.
I fear that some have uncritically accepted Luther's writings,
and embraced the so-called "protestant work ethic,"
so as to sanctify the middle class lifestyle as blessed and holy in and of itself,
allowing Jesus' difficult call to drop your nets, sell your possessions,
take up your cross, lose your life …
to allow this call to get buried under the weight of overly nuanced biblical interpretation.
We see in today's Gospel reading that the call to follow Jesus is more than the recitation of God's law,
as the rich man is able to do, but is also a call to live in a different way,
a call to live generously for others.
This man was told by Jesus to give it all away …
Zacchaeus, the tax collector in the gospel of Luke, gave half.
We can debate whether the Lord asks for all or half, or even only 10%,
or as little as the approximately 2% average annual giving of most Americans …
And these are important questions …
But either way, if our acts of prayer and worship
are not accompanied by works of justice, generosity, and love for neighbor,
I wonder if God couldn't care less about our holy festivals or solemn assemblies,
which is the stern warning from the prophet Amos, read in part in today's first reading.
The call to follow Jesus leads us to the places where he goes – beyond these walls,
to the poor, the hungry, the outcast, to those who need to hear the comfort of Good News …
Indeed, the call to follow Jesus leads us quite uncomfortably to the cross,
as we heard just a few weeks ago when we read from Mark 8,
where Jesus calls followers to take up their cross and to lose their life … in order to gain it.
Adding all this up –
giving up all we have, acting for justice,
taking up our cross, losing our life, going from first to last –
I wonder if it is even possible to follow Jesus at all.
The latter part of today's gospel reading affirms the sheer impossibility of the demands of the gospel,
echoes the desperation that we feel when faced with such unattainable holy expectations.
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!" Jesus says.
"You're telling me!" we respond, after hearing that bit about giving everything up.
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," Jesus says,
than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Bewildered by this teaching, we ask with the disciples, "Then who can be saved?"
Jesus answers, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
And therein lies the Good News for us today –
salvation is God's gift, not our work;
it is impossible for us to win the prize;
yet, it is God's nature to freely give it to us.
Just as Jesus looked into the eyes of the rich man kneeling before him and loved him,
so too does Jesus look at us this day and love us,
despite our brokenness and sin,
despite our unwillingness to drop everything and follow him.
And in this way the last few verses of today's second reading from Hebrews help us:
"We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.
Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,
so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
let us heed the advice of these words –
let us approach the throne of grace with boldness,
and call upon our Lord Jesus, the high priest,
to strengthen us for our calling, to forgive us our sins, to love us in our shortcomings,
so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.