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October 18, 2015 - Mark 10.13-31

“OB$TACLE$”

Mark 10.13-31

October 18, 2015

 

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.19You 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 mother.’”20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.”22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”[1]

 

One of the things that I learned when I started preaching is that sometimes its hard to tell the good news from the bad.  You see, when you start looking at biblical texts from a standpoint of having to preach them, you begin to see things differently.  Granted, it is all good news, but sometimes its not good news we necessarily want to hear.  Sometimes we get the good news of grace, and sometimes we get the bad news of judgment and the demands of discipleship.  Most of the time however, the difference between the good news and the bad news is where we are sitting when we hear it.

Today’s text is an example.  It’s basically in two parts.  One is seen as being sweetly sentimental, cuddly, warm fuzzy good news – the part about the children, and the other is not so good news – the part about the rich young ruler who won’t follow Jesus because he is too rich.  Now why would Jesus tie these two subjects together?

Jesus welcomes the children whom the disciples reject.  Jesus is “incensed” at his disciples for their forbidding of the children to come to him.  Ancient society’s values were that children were not important.  They had no status, no rights, and their presence was a nuisance.  The disciples had bought into this.  Jesus sees things differently.  In fact, he says, the rule of God belongs to persons just like these – powerless, vulnerable, weak, dependant, deemed a nuisance and unimportant.  The disciples have missed the entire point of Jesus’ ministry.

Let us not look at these verses as being a celebration of a child’s naïveté, or some sentimentality about their innocence.  That is not Jesus’ point.  He is not extolling the virtues of “cuddliness.”  The text does not idealize any particular characteristic of children at all.  Rather, the key is the verb “receive.”  Children receive the kingdom of God without any agenda or issues.  They are powerless people, and they have no claims to stake out and no demands to make.  The rule of God comes to these children as Grace from God to people in need; as hungry people invited to a banquet, to children without status or even usefulness.  They are eager to be taken into Jesus’ arms and blessed.  They seek nothing more than to be in God’s presence.

Including the children also meant including the women who had the responsibility of caring for the children so that the women may also hear the teaching of Jesus.

The key to the dependence of children is this:  they cannot depend upon themselves.  They have to depend upon their parents.  If we assume we can depend upon ourselves, then we misunderstand our real need for God.

So why does Jesus tie this lesson about children to the lesson about wealth? One thing we often forget about in our reading of this text is that children are the primary victims of poverty – today as well as in Jesus’ time.  The children that Jesus is welcoming are the poor he is talking about with the rich young ruler.

Jesus tells the man that “you know all the commandments…” and he lists them.  So far so good.  Then he says, “there is one thing you lack…” and then wammo! The bad news.  Sell all you have and give it to the poor.

Note that in his question the man says, “What must I do?” He assumes that “eternal life” comes from something he does, an achievement of his sincere spiritual striving.  Or he sees it as something he can get – how do I inherit…

Jesus responds to the man’s question with a whole string of fierce commands: “Go . . . sell. . . give . . . follow . . . and you will have eternal life.” The man perhaps wanted to have a civil, detached, theological discussion. Jesus invites him to let go of his securities and to become a disciple.[2]

At least give the man credit; he came to Jesus with a big question which, in a sense, Jesus makes even larger. And I think it sad when our questions grow small and manageable. It is sad because, as Christians, we are trying to worship a living, large God who is not easily contained in simple answers.[3]

Jesus must not have given the answer the man was expecting, or an answer that he wanted to hear, because Mark says the man became depressed and walked away. In this scripture Jesus responds to the man’s question but he flips it back upon him, reframes it, and doesn’t give the questioner the answer he wanted.

Sometimes that’s the way it is with Jesus’ answers to our questions.

Lots of people in our world today want a faith that they can put on a bumper sticker – three spiritual laws, six basic fundamentals, and four Christian principles to live by. But our God is so much more interesting than that. Jesus is so much larger than that, and life is so much more demanding.[4]

We readers of the text respond differently to this depending upon our economic status.  For some, the story is discouraging.  If someone who is committed to living justly and had experienced Jesus’ love and walks away sad, then who can follow Jesus?  For others, the story is encouraging.   It explains the difficulty they have in dealing with wealth and the demands of Christian teaching.  We must admit that it is our wealth that stands between us and taking action on behalf of the poor.

Will Campbell at Riverside Church in Manhattan.  “What can Riverside Church do to help Race relations?  Nothing.  Nothing…unless you sell your big building and give the money to the poor people of this community.  Let’s go out on the street and see what you can get for this big thing.”  The people were not amused.

We are called to resist the pressures of this consumer culture, which creates perpetual needs to be met in order to sell us new things we didn’t know we needed; more possessions and newer possessions, possessions that are nothing more than things waiting to become dust.

We are swallowed up in it, and we have the same problems that the rich young ruler had.  How many of you would look at me as if I was crazy if you came to me for pastoral counseling, and I said to you, “What you need to do is sell all you have and donate the money to the poor.”  All of you.  Me, too.  What we expect is to tell each other some comforting words that reassure us that we are doing the best that we can. 

More often than not, we do not call ourselves to this abundant life Jesus demands, but we answer the call to mere decency – to self-protection with a dose of guilt relief.  After all, if I as your pastor really called you to genuine discipleship, to responsibility, you might call me to base my life not on things that are common to folk like me but on Jesus.  Then where would we be?  I’ll tell you – we might have disposed of this anemic thing we call “love” and we might be on our way to something like the real love of Christ. 

 

Will Willimon tells about the sermon he preached on the evils of materialism on this text.  He gave them both barrels – held nothing back.  But he got it back in full force from the chair of his church’s trustees on the way out the door when the trustee said to him, “Great sermon, pastor – but I bet you still expect a good raise this year.”

Can we love each other enough to speak the truth in love?  Can we be like children, with no agendas and just people who need Jesus? 

The image of the Kingdom of God is rejected children who are accepted by God.  It is concern for the poor, the love for them, and the willingness to give all we have in order to show them the love of God.  It reminds me of the Harry Truman quote: “I never give ‘em hell.  I just tell them the truth and they think it’s hell.”  Jesus is telling us the truth here, and it feels like bad news because it means we have to rearrange our priorities to take care of the poor and let lose of what we substitute for Jesus. 

It is a legitimate question to ask in our culture if we own our possessions or if our possessions own us.  Our money can easily be an obstacle.  You don’t have to be rich to be in love with your money.  It is takes up too much of your time or if you worry too much about, then your money is an obstacle for you.

C.S. Lewis perceptively realized that one of the greatest enemies of our discipleship is our desire for moderation.   We want Jesus’ teachings, but only so much of them.  We want to be Jesus’ disciples, but only if we can work it into our schedule.  We want a relationship to God, but we insist that it be a moderate, manageable thing, not too extreme or fanatical, that only makes calculated and careful demands. 

In his book The Screwtape Letters, Lewis gives us a fictional, satirical correspondence between two devils, one a mentor of the other.  In it, Screwtape counsels his nephew devil to keep stressing the need for moderation into his patient’s ear, tempting him to water everything down.

Talk to him about “moderation in all things.”  If you can get him to thinking that religion is all very well up to a point,” you can feel happy about his soul.  A moderated religion is as good for us [devils] as no religion at all – and more amusing.[5]

Children have no concept of moderation.  Have you ever noticed how fast kids can empty a cookie jar?  Have you ever noticed that children run everywhere?  Have you ever noticed that children hug harder than we would ever think to?  Have you ever noticed that children never wait for anything?  They are so full of energy, enthusiasm, love and play that – because most of them have no real worries – that is, the ones who are cared for by their parents.  Children who exude joy are the ones that are cared for by their parents – and they know it.  They rely upon their parent to supply their needs.  We are to be like children – to rely upon God and to realize how much we need God.

Welcoming the powerless and useless – the children.  Giving up all we have.  What will it take for us to become free?  What would it take for us to hear the part about the rich young man the same way we hear the part about children – as an invitation of grace?  I wonder if there is someone here today that hears this story, not as bad news, but as good news?  I wonder if you can hear Jesus saying to you, “Come on, you can do it.  You are destined for so much more. You can come, let go of everything to which you cling so tightly.  Come.  Be free.  Follow Jesus.

 

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Oct. 14, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lewis, C.S.; The Screwtape Letters.