A sermon from the first Sunday of Lent, based on Mark 10:17-31.
This one time, about two years, I preached a sermon about money. I thought it was okay… But then afterwards, there was an invitation to come and into that room over there with our coffee and talk about the sermon and money and Jesus. I waited, and waited, and waited, and in the end, and only Peter and Thelma came! I commented that “I guess people don’t want to talk about their money,” but then Thelma kindly suggested that the low attendance was maybe because people went home to go watch the Brier. She was certainly more optimistic than I was.
Another time, about a year and a half ago, we had a series of conversations about marriage and sexuality. We had between 70 and 100 people show up on 6 straight weeknights. One of our speakers had this to say right off the hop (I’m parphrasing): “I’m glad that we’re all here on a weeknight to talk about the few Bible verses that speak about sexuality and marriage, but let’s just remember that there are oodles of Bible verses that speak about money, and I highly doubt that we’d have this many people here to talk about those.”
Or, as the artist Rich Mullins says:
“You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you just have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too…But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”
The snarky part of me smiles when we quote Bible verses to our liking, or when we say that we should just follow the Bible, or just do what Jesus says, because when we say these kind of things, we definitely do not mean these verses directed towards the rich young man.
Sell everything you own and give it away? Surely, Jesus doesn’t mean me, does he?
We would much rather talk about who’s born again and who isn’t and who can marry whom, than talk about our money.
In most of the gospels, we have Jesus inviting people to follow him, and they enthusiastically drop everything and hit the road. This story is one of the only ones where the invitation to follow Jesus, is rejected. Maybe he doesn’t like talking about his money either?
Let’s start with the question that he asks Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I actually think he asks a terrible question. I think it’s selfish and egotistical question. He’s not asking questions about mercy or justice or community or suffering or peace or loving your neighbours He’s just looking out for number 1. Himself. What must I do to be saved?
And he even does this little, buttering up thing to Jesus by starting with “Oh good teacher.” It’s like when I was a teenager: “Mom, I think you’re a great mom. Can I take the car to Winnipeg?” Clearly, this is a manipulative move disguised as a compliment so that I could get what I wanted. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out so well with my mom.
How did it work out with Jesus?
Just as well. First of all, he says, “Yeah, save your compliments. God alone is good.” And then he tells the rich young man to follow the commandments. And then he starts listing them. But he Jesus sneaks something in there that I had never noticed before.
Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother…
Do you see it? Did you catch it? Did you see the sneakiness?
Well, unless you have Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 memorized, you might not notice. And who really has those chapters memorized? I don’t.
Jesus lists some of the 10 commandments… don’t murder, don’t steal, blah blah blah. And then, he adds one in there! Do not defraud! It isn’t one of the 10 commandments! Why would Jesus sneak an extra commandment in there?
Well, the young man was rich, so presumably he came from a family that had a lot of wealth. And, back then, how did you become wealthy? You owned a lot of land. And, if you owned a lot of land, that means that you weren’t practicing the year of Jubilee.
Here, again, unless you know the book of Leviticus really well (which is okay), you might not know about the year of Jubilee. In a nutshell, Jubilee was this practice of cancelling all debts and returning all land to its original owners every 50 years. It was meant to ensure that you never had people living in perpetual wealth or perpetual poverty. Every 50 years there was a giant reset button of wealth re-distribution.
And biblical scholars tells us that the Israelites actually practiced Jubilee a grand total of… zero times. They never did it once.
So, the young man having wealth isn’t even his fault! He and his parents and his grandparents and great-grand parents were all part of a system built on not really following the law.
So, when he says that he’s followed all the commandments since he was as young boy, he is technically correct when following the 10 commandments, but technically incorrect because he’s part of this big, centuries old system that doesn’t follow the law and works to keep the poor poor, and the rich, rich.
Maybe, a parallel example is present day Canada. Somewhere in Canadian history, European settlers came to occupy the land of First Nations, and for the most part, I think we can all agree that it wasn’t the European settlers that got the short end of the stick.
And now we are here, today. Most of us are good, law-abiding citizens who work very hard, but we don’t quite know what to do with all the big questions about justice and reconciliation and land use and treaties and the Indian Act that we have to face. We can claim that it’s not really our fault, or our parents, or our grandparents… We were given the land by the government and were told it was empty (or we looked the other way)! We, too, are part of this big, centuries old system that works well for the favour for some, but not in the favour of others.
The next verse then, is truly good news, for all of us.
“Jesus looked at him, and loved him.”
The rich man isn’t a bad guy. He’s not the enemy. He’s not morally bankrupt person who hates people with less money than him. He’s not stealing candy from babies or shaking people upside down to take their coins.
Every time Jesus challenges those who have power and wealth, he never calls them personally evil or malevolent. Instead, he points to the fact that they’re blind, and that they can’t see.” – Richard Rohr
In this story, something is blinding the rich, young man. Something is getting in the way. And Jesus names it: His possessions. This is why Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions. They’re blinding him. They’re causing him to be defensive. They’re causing him to ask questions about how to save himself. They’re causing him to justify his existence. I’m worthy! I follow all the rules! I’m a good person! Really!
Jesus continually seems to be telling his listeners that there are some pretty big things that blind us, namely, power, prestige, and possessions. These three things seem to be quite universal, actually, and they seem to get in the way of the Kingdom of God.
Power, prestige, and possessions.
Take a look at the billions of dollars we spend on elections. Or the money we spend on bombing our enemies to give us a sense of security. Look at to our neighbours to the South. When some of the presidential candidates have talked about killing terrorist’s families, or turning away refugees even if they’re orphans, or they’re talking about who we can drop the most carpet bombs… Or when we in Canada casually talk about who we should bomb… Do we really have the capacity to decide who should live and who should die? These are questions about power, and they make us blind to the Kingdom of God.
Take a look at how we talk about the low value of the Canadian dollar. “Oh man, my vacation is costing so much more!” “That boat I wanted to buy is thirty thousand dollars more now!” Generally speaking, if we’re complaining about the exchange rate for our overseas vacations and luxury boats, we’re blind to the Kingdom of God.
What we’ve discovered amongst teenagers on social media is that they will take about 50 selfies, post one, and then if there aren’t enough likes within an hour, they’ll delete it. The image they present to the world matters. And before us adults get to smug about “kids these days”, I think they learned it from us. When Ash and I came back from South America in the summer, as soon as we landed back in North America, I noticed all the ads for laser hair removal for women or hair transplants for men or other cosmetic surgeries. When we spend so much time and energy on the image we present to the world, I think we’re blind to the Kingdom of God.
So, the story of the rich young man is a story about money and wealth. But at a deeper level, it’s a question about how power, prestige, and possessions are blinding us.
And asking what in our lives is blinding us, trying to figure out what’s holding us back, trying to address what’s getting in the way… That takes hours of contemplation and reflection and intentional decision making. It’s hard work. So hard, that it might be easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle.
It’s not addition that makes one holy, but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of the pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too seriously. Conversion is more about unlearning than learning. – Richard Rohr
This is why we have this great tradition in Christianity of giving something up at Lent. It’s about us trying to figure out what’s getting in the way. It’s about letting go of what’s blinding us. And it is not always an easy journey.
Eugene Peterson wrote a translation of the Bible in contemporary English, and he translated the story like this:
Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him! He said, “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”
The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.
So what are we holding on to tight? What do we not want to let go of? What’s getting in the way? What do we need to unlearn? What’s blinding us?