Riches and Reward

Text: Mark 10:23-31
Date: Pentecost XX + St. Luke, Evangelist + 10/18/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last week’s story of the Rich Young Man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The whole story, verses 17 through 30, used to be read as one on the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost in Series B of the lectionary. It is therefore a unique challenge to preach on each half of the story over two Sundays with little reference to the other half. The first half ends with the young man going away sorrowful because he couldn’t imagine doing what Jesus told him to do, namely, to sell all he had and give to the poor and then to come and follow Jesus. In preaching on that text last Sunday we focused on Jesus’ identity and how a person inherits eternal life only by way of repentance and faith in Jesus. Today the second half of the story has Jesus turning to his disciples to help them analyze in an even deeper way the disciple’s changed relationship with the world and the cost of following Him.

After the young man leaves, Jesus “looks around” at His disciples. It is obvious that they had just witnessed for themselves a tragedy, they saw the whole thing, the tragedy of a young man who had an interest in spiritual matters and even in coming to Jesus for answers but who, when he heard that following Jesus means to give up all his money and possessions, went away disheartened and sorrowful. As if to press and impress the issue Jesus says to the disciples, “How difficult, how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” St. Mark tells us they “were amazed at his words.” Too often, it seems, we pass by these words in our hearing with little thought much less “amazement.” We make instant excuses in our minds or interpretations because we are quite sure that Jesus doesn’t really, literally mean what he just said, that we are to sell all our possessions and that it will be hard for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. But let’s just take a moment and think about that, in order that maybe we can begin to be amazed too.

How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Well, how hard is it? What is considered “wealth?” And why and to what extent does wealth get in the way of entering the kingdom of God?

We’re not talking Bill Gates or Warren Buffet here. “Wealth” here is, simply, money or possessions without regard to the amount. So this text and this warning is not reserved only for those who have a six-or-more-figure income. There are just as many so-called “poor” people who are driven, day and night, by concern and worry over their love for money. And what is it about money or our possessions that it gets in the way of our spiritual lives?

Today’s Old Testament reading makes it undeniably clear when it says, “As one comes from his mother’s womb (so) shall he go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (Eccl. 5:15); which is the poetic, prophetic Biblical way of saying, “you can’t take it with you.” And if it’s true that we brought nothing into the world, then that means that everything we have had, have now or will have, our money or possessions or “wealth,” are, ultimately, temporary gifts of God. Oh, we talk about “earning” a living and demanding a “fair wage” for our work, but even our effort or talent or strength or work is the gift of God. Ultimately, “self” is a deceptive concept except from the perspective of God’s beautiful creation of human beings to alone be in a personal, creative, loving relationship with Him. Sin entered the picture and threw everything out-of-whack, confused, torn apart, dying and dead. When “wealth” is defined simply as having stuff, a few shekels, a few pairs of pants, a coat, a roof over your head, maybe a family, much less the “wealth” of our 21st century American experience, one or two cars in the driveway, two or three television sets in the bungalow, three or four phones, four or five email accounts, and you begin to get the picture of how deeply identified we are in and with the world, apart from our real identity as creation of God, and partner with God.

“The disciples were amazed at his words.” Then, as if to dig it in even deeper Jesus says it’s not even just wealth or possessions, but there’s a deeper problem. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!’” He means, “at all”! Yes, money and possessions and things of the world confiscate our loyalties and even our identity, but it is something else that makes it difficult to enter the kingdom of God, money or not. It is that fallen, sinful nature with which each of us is born; sin that means separation and death. And none of us can escape our sin no matter how hard we try or what we do. You can’t scrape it off, you can’t have it surgically removed; sin is the common, human infection. And sinners cannot enter the kingdom of God.

And in case you doubt the word “cannot,” Jesus drives the point even further to the ridiculous, saying, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Easier? He means IMPOSSIBLE! Got it? “And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’” And finally, FINALLY we are brought to ask the right question; the question of despairing of self, of possessions or money or wealth, of talent or works or anything in or of us. If it’s difficult for a rich person to be a Christian, and if you define “rich” as having anything, then no one can be saved…as long as the question is that of the young man, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Then we read, “Jesus looked at them.” Listen! He looked at them again! I guess there is something in Jesus’ looking at you, making eye contact, capturing your attention; something that says He knows what you’re thinking, and what you’re not thinking right. Remember, it wasn’t until after His resurrection when He appeared to His disciples that He opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures. So He looks at them. He looks at us and says, “Look at me!” And then He says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” And we’re not talking about your chances of winning the Lottery or Publishers’ Clearing House here, because “actually” statistically you could win those. But we’re talking about the otherwise impossibility of a sinner entering the kingdom of God, of actually getting on God’s good side, of gaining the assurance of deliverance from judgment and entering eternal life. It’s impossible because it takes the perfection of true repentance and faith. Only through Jesus and His Word God gives repentance, that is the fear and despairing of our self, of our own strength and our loyalties to the things of this world; and He gives faith: trust in Jesus, His amazing incarnation and birth, His holy cross and passion, His blessed death, His rest in the tomb, His resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and His coming for the final judgment; His baptismal promise, “You are mine, and I will raise you up on the Last Day.”

When Peter then began to say to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you,” for once he didn’t end up with his foot in his mouth. He was right. They had left everything and they were following Jesus. And have we? Have we come to the point of repentance and faith that we can say we could actually get along without all our stuff, our possessions? Because the funny thing is, in giving up everything, you’re only exchanging the worthless, dying stuff for the better, valuable, living stuff. “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundred fold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers”—notice “fathers” are not mentioned because you have only one Father who is God Himself!—and children and lands….” Your brothers and sisters may be those of your earthly family but now include all the saints who ever lived—the glorious company of the apostles including the Evangelist St. Luke; the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs, the holy Church through all the world. And we have the promise of a “place” prepared for us, some call them rooms or mansions, in a land of God’s new creation, Eden restored, but even better.

Oh, there’s one more thing: “…mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” The persecutions are those things suffered, that is, endured in this world as a result and because we belong to God through faith in Christ Jesus. St. Mark was writing to Christians who were dealing with religious persecution. So are we—much of it more subtle than in ancient days, yet, some of it becoming less subtle these days even as we speak. This speaks of the spiritual warfare to be endured as we reject the devil, the world and our sinful nature and confess loyalty to Christ, confess the Gospel and our new and eternal home. “This we believe, teach and confess.” This phrase is repeated time and again in our Lutheran Confession, The Formula of Concord, and is the language of those who have become God’s new creation by repentance and faith in Christ. For now such language will mean mockery, criticism, rejection and persecution from the unbelieving world. But on the last day such faithful confession will be rewarded with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25:23). “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:4).

“Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard…in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13-14). Grace, mercy and peace be yours in Christ Jesus.