March 1st, 2020 “Our Greatest Obstacle” Rev. Heather Jepsen
This morning we continue our narrative lectionary journey through the gospel of Mark. Last week we read about Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop and we wondered about who the Messiah really was. There were hard lessons about self-denial, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus on the path to Jerusalem. Today the hard lessons continue as Jesus teaches us about the obstacle wealth creates in our quest for the kingdom of God.
We begin with a familiar story that is repeated throughout the synoptic gospels. A rich man approaches Jesus. In the other gospels he is referred to as being young, or being a ruler, but in Mark his only identifying factor is his wealth. This man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him in a sign of deference, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
There is some conversation about who or what can be good as Jesus replies “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” When we first read this it sounds like Jesus is saying he isn’t good, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think Jesus is pointing out that true goodness only comes from God. And perhaps, if the man thinks Jesus is good, Jesus is trying to draw out of him the additional knowledge that Jesus is from God.
Jesus reminds the man about following the 10 commandments, highlighting the commandments that are about our relationships to each other. Don’t murder, cheat, lie, or steal. Like many of us might, this man claims he is innocent of these sins. His reply, “I have kept all these since my youth” could mean different things. Is he puffed up and bragging? “I have kept all these since my youth!” Or perhaps he is earnestly seeking more knowledge “Yes, I’ve kept all these since my youth . . .” Either way, Jesus looks at him with love which is significant for the gospel of Mark.
In love Jesus offers the man one more lesson. “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.” It is an invitation into a radically altered life. Give it all away and follow Jesus on the way. Mark tells us the man is shocked and goes away grieving, for he had many possessions. Is he sad because he can’t do it? Or is he sad because he will miss his things? Either way, his many possessions cause him grief.
Jesus senses a wider opportunity for a teaching moment and looking around at the gathered crowds he declares “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Everyone, disciples included, is shocked and perplexed at this teaching. Just like in our own time, wealth is a sign of blessing. There are many pastors in our modern world who preach that if we are faithful to God, God will reward us with material blessings. It’s called “Prosperity Gospel” and Pastor Joel Osteen is a famous promoter of this theory. Pastor Osteen is worth about $50 million dollars so he is clearly more blessed than I am.
But not, unfortunately, according to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. According to Jesus, it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. I don’t know if Pastor Osteen has preached on this text, I’m guessing not, but other pastors have, and a common story out there is that there was a gate leading into Jerusalem that was called the “eye of the needle” and only a camel without possessions on its back could enter it. Sounds plausible right? And this kind of gets us off the hook. Too bad, it’s not true. Turns out this is a false story started by some pastor somewhere who didn’t want to deal with the real truth of Jesus’ teaching. How hard it will be for rich people to enter the kingdom of God.
Even the disciples are worried that they will be left out of this blessing. “Who then will be saved?” And I want to point out, if the disciples think they have too much money, we probably do too! Jesus’ reply is that this is impossible for us, impossible for those with wealth to enter the kingdom, but through God all things are possible.
Peter pushes the point, and just like us, he wants to highlight his own poverty. I’m not that rich am I? “We’ve left everything to follow you.” Jesus replies that what we give up we will regain in the kingdom, albeit with persecutions. Notice here that he is talking about relationships and not possessions. Followers will gain brothers, sisters, mothers, and children along with houses and fields to share with them. This is about gaining community, not about gaining wealth.
Just like the man who approaches Jesus, and like Peter who follows him, we struggle with this lesson. We are good with the 10 commandments but we stand convicted when it comes to our wealth. I think that’s ok. This is the beginning of the season of Lent and now is a perfect time to humble ourselves and think a bit about our sin. Our wealth is something we should consider in our faith lives. If our kids are going to honor Lent by sharing their change with those less fortunate, (and I’m not going to call it spare change because kids don’t have spare money, they count every penny), perhaps we should also honor Lent by considering more fully our wealth.
This is a challenging text, and therefore an appropriate lesson for Lent. No matter how we spin it, our wealth is an obstacle to our faith. In fact, I would argue that in our particular context it is our greatest obstacle. Nothing has the power to divide us from God and keep us out of the kingdom like our wealth. Imagine with me for a minute that wealth was truly, literally, an obstacle. All your possessions are like a mountain you have to climb over to reach the blessing of Jesus. Imagine climbing over your house, your car, and your things all stacked atop each other. Imagine your 401K and your bank account as a pile of pennies you must summit in order to reach the divine. How big is the mountain you have to climb? And can you muster the energy to do it? Our wealth is an obstacle to our faith.
Wealth, in and of itself, is not a sin if it is earned by honest means. I earn my money by working here and I use my money to feed, clothe, and house my family. No sin there right? But the issue is, my wealth blinds me to my need for God. Just like in Jesus’ time, our wealth is also a sign of our power, privilege, and prestige. Our wealth is something that makes us feel important, and it makes us feel safe. Lars and I sold our house that we had in Washington State last year and I know I have felt a lot more comfortable since then. The debt is gone, and there is extra emergency money in our bank account. That makes me feel safe; it would be a lie to say it doesn’t.
It can be hard to follow God when we find our sense of safety in our possessions instead of in our faith. Jesus doesn’t invite the man to get rid of his wealth; he invites him to use his wealth to form community. Give your money to the poor, and follow me. Just like with Peter, the kingdom of God is about community, new brothers and sisters, new parents and grandparents. When we share what we have with those around us, community is formed. Rather than being a place we go to, the kingdom of God is a way of life. Like our lesson from last week, it is about sacrifice and self-denial. It is about moving ourselves out of the center of our value system and putting relationships, community, and God there instead. Our wealth can be used, through God, to form community, which is the kingdom of God. This is impossible to do alone, but with God we can do it.
Last week we found Jesus redefining the idea of the Messiah. When Peter talked about Jesus being the Messiah he imagined the next ruler of Israel. When Jesus talked about being the Messiah he imagined his suffering, death, and resurrection. This week we find Jesus redefining the idea of blessing. When the young man and Peter talk about being blessed, they are talking about worldly riches and wealth. When Jesus talks about being blessed, he is talking about a fullness of life. It is a shared life in community that will be the blessing, and our wealth is an obstacle to that shared life. Our wealth hinders our need for community. If I can help myself then I don’t need you. Our wealth can be a blessing, but it is also a barrier.
This is a hard lesson for us to learn and practice and that is why we keep talking our way around it. Like Joel Osteen and his million dollar mansion, or whoever made up that story about the gate in Jerusalem, we would like to hope that Jesus isn’t talking about us. We would like to hope that this lesson doesn’t apply to our own lives. But it does. Luckily for us, all things are possible with God. Following the 10 commandments was not about earning one’s salvation; rather it was about practicing discipleship. The same is true with this lesson on wealth. Giving away everything we have will not earn us our salvation, but it will help us on our path to discipleship.
In love, Jesus invites the man into a new community, a community of generosity and sharing. In love we are also invited into this community. Sharing what we have with others is a way that we practice our discipleship. Giving away our money is a way that we follow Jesus. Forming new communities of faith, with new brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, will lead to a fullness of life that in and of itself is a blessing. The kingdom of God requires sacrifice, self-denial, and sharing. It is a way of life that we will always be journeying toward.
This Lent, in love, I want to invite you to truly consider this lesson. “How hard it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Consider this week how your money distracts you. How does it make you feel safe? How does it make you feel important? How much are you sharing? And are you willing to share more? It is impossible for us to save ourselves, but with God anything can happen. We can even get over our greatest obstacle. Let us use the blessings that we have to form a community of blessing in God’s name. This will be the kingdom of God. Amen.