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Monday, August 9, 2010

Possessions and the Poor (Mark 10.17-31)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
August 8, 2010
(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
New: some of the service music used (not live - all from youtube)
  • Come Thou Almighty King (ITALIAN HYMN)
  • More Precious Than Silver (Lynn DeShazo)
  • Wonderful, Merciful Savior (Wyse/Rogers)
  • He is Jesus (Altrogge)
  • Be Thou My Vision (SLANE)
We are continuing to look at Jesus’ “follow me” sayings. For all the hot topics out there about sex, politics, religions, and war, I think today’s text has the potential to stir us up the most because it hits so close to home.

To say it most briefly, the man in the story is a rich man who keeps God’s commandments. I am sure most of you can identify with efforts, however imperfect, to keep God’s commandments – in our words, to be a “good Christian.” Where we run the risk of missing God’s Word here is to think that any of us are not rich. I recently read a study that asked people in increasingly higher income ranges whether they were “rich” and each one said “no,” pointing to folks who made just a little (or a lot) more than they did. But the reality is that in contrast to the 300 million people living in our country, much less to the 6.5 billion people in the world, we who live in south Charlotte are rich. Or perhaps an equally persistent trait of Americans defines us: we often try to live beyond our means, living richer than we actually are.

We can debate your and my richness more if you like, but I’m going to move on. The definition of richness is not going to be the key factor so much as your and my willingness to loosen our grip on wealth and the pursuit of it. So let’s press on and look at the text.

Narration: What Shall I Do to Inherit Eternal Life? (vv. 17-22)

So the main encounter unfolds in verses 17-22. Notice some of the detail: as Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man RAN up to him and KNELT before him. This is not an academic or philosophical question, but someone seeking something very specific from Jesus. He asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The verse that follows can throw us, because Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone?” Seeing what question Jesus asked next, it seems clear that Jesus was preparing to challenge the idea that human “goodness” was sufficient to attain the Kingdom. So he’s answering the question… in a way specific to the man’s needs.

So Jesus next lists several of the ten commandments, interestingly focusing on the “horizontal” commandments 5-9 rather than the first four having to do with worshiping God alone (or the 10th, having to do with wanting things). That is another clue to understanding the “No one is good but God alone” comment. Jesus seems to recognize right away that there may be a competing ‘god’ in the man’s life.

The man responds that he has been diligent to keep these laws all his life. Notice verse 21: “Jesus felt a love for him.” This is no Pharisee, stirring up Jesus’ righteous indignation; rather he is someone who has sought Jesus out and is earnestly seeking eternal life. But Jesus also recognizes that a key piece is missing in the man’s life. And here’s where I want to be careful with you. Jesus’ response is all one piece, one statement: “Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” There’s the “follow me” invitation we are focusing on.

Has the man lived a pretty good life and Jesus is telling him the one more thing he needs to do to be good enough?

“Just sell your things and then you will inherit eternal life.” No.

“Just give to the poor… take care of the poor… and then you will inherit eternal life.” No, though God certainly commanded us to love neighbor, particularly including the poor among us.

Those actions lead to the key action – key because Jesus has said that no one is good – there is no threshold of human goodness that purchases eternal life. Rather these actions lead to the key action of following Jesus. One must trust and follow Jesus in order to inherit eternal life – a gift of God to and through Jesus Christ, our gift (and inheritance) as adopted children through Christ. And these things are what stood in the man’s way, as demonstrated in verse 22: “At these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”

Was it the wealth in and of itself that was the problem? I don’t think so. It was the grip he had on it – like the trap I understand is sometimes used to catch monkeys – they put their hand in the trap to grab onto a piece of fruit and are trapped by the fist, not ever willing to let go of the treasure they’ve found. The man had been so eager to speak to Jesus and ask about eternal life. How important then his wealth must have been to turn away from this clear answer in grief.

Explanation: The Impossible and the Possible (vv. 23-31)

We don’t always get an explanation of Jesus’ teaching, parables, or interactions. But this is one case where we do. In verses 23-31, he turns to his disciples and offers commentary and explanation on what has just happened. So let’s look at that explanation to help us understand the stakes before we try to engage in application.

Jesus begins in v. 23, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” Does that statement surprise you? Mark tells us that the disciples were amazed at these words.

“How hard is it,” you might ask?

Jesus answers in v. 25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

How are we to understand that? Maybe you’ve heard the thing about a small gate in Jerusalem and one would have to take all the bags and pack off the camel for it to go through – unfettered by possessions as it were. Well, I have heard that many times and went to look it up and apparently that gate wasn’t built until medieval times. As nicely as that illustration would be to help us out, I think it actually falls short of Jesus’ full point here.

What is left, then? It’s impossible. A camel can’t fit through the eye of a needle. And that was the disciples’ conclusion in v. 26, “Then who can be saved?” Notice two things here. There is a specific point regarding the rich man and a broader point regarding all people. Jesus actually said it twice. First, in v. 23, “How hard it is for the wealthy…” and then in v. 24, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom…” And the disciples didn’t ask, “Then how can such a man be saved?” They asked, “Then who can be saved?”

Here’s what I’m trying to highlight. Jesus is making a specific point about the rich man. His “good works” were not sufficient to save him, particularly with grip he had on the idol of his wealth. But neither would anyone’s “good works” save them. It was not enough to keep the Commandments; it is necessary to trust and follow Jesus.

If that doesn’t all seem clear, look at Jesus’ response in v. 27: “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

Indeed, it is impossible for a wealthy person to inherit eternal life. But so it is also with all people. It is not we who save ourselves, but God who saves.

By all means don’t miss the specific application, for our pursuit and prioritization of wealth can provide an extra hurdle to keep our attention from God. We in the most affluent culture in the world need to take that application seriously. But also don’t miss the broad application: salvation does not come from us, but comes from God through Jesus Christ. Only God can do the impossible.

The last part of the text is a kind of testimony to the truth of what Jesus is teaching. Peter pipes up and says, in effect, “Is this not what we (disciples) have done?” And Jesus affirms him, saying that God indeed is doing that “impossible” work in them as demonstrated and lived out in their discipleship.

Application: Discipleship = Sacrifice

So what application would we make from all this?

We must look to God for salvation through Jesus Christ. But we would be wise to also guard against turning wealth into an idol.

Now it is rare to have these things face off at a single point of decision. In a way that would be so much simpler. “Sell your house and live; keep it and die.” Most of us could figure out the best course of action there. But reality is so much more complicated and the pursuit of wealth so much more insidious than that. It is more likely that we justify our pursuit of wealth one bit at a time, with it slowly winning our attention, allegiance, and service.

“I need to make this much to support my family… I really need a little bit more so my kids will have toys and clothes comparable to their friends… I really need a bigger house or a safer neighborhood or a second vehicle.” We confuse needs and wants and often live beyond our means. And it always seems like “a little bit more” would solve so many problems. And my guess is that our grip on our wealth (or desire for it) gets tighter and tighter and tighter.

Wasn’t Jesus saying that it’s impossible anyway and we needed to rely on God to do the impossible? Well, yes. But what does that look like? It would look like God loosening our grip and growing us in spiritual maturity to cling less and less tightly to wealth. Otherwise, God would have left Peter and the other fishermen on the boat and saved them in spite of their decision to stay and fish. But God’s miracle in them overlapped their following of Jesus. That’s just it – it is the following that is both the human decision and the indication of God at work.

So, given that none of us will probably face a single moment where we have to choose, what would it look like to loosen our grip on wealth and make the kind of move that Jesus describes in this text?

The most helpful indicator might be to look of signs of idolatry or signs of stewardship. Very few (or none!) of us have arrived at perfect stewardship or complete idolatry. Rather, we are likely headed one way or the other.

Are you in a cycle of accumulating more and more or do you look for ways to simplify and share and give away wealth?

Do you tend to regard your personal wealth and resources as YOURS or as GOD’S?

Do you perceive giving to the church as a bill to be paid or as investment in God’s mission? “What’s God doing?” Are you interested in what God is doing?

These are important questions to wrestle with, and I will be the first to say that I have not arrived at godly, mature stewardship. I won’t even claim to be in the front of the pack headed the right direction. Many weeks I kind of circle around, distracted by this or that thing I think I need.

Next Sunday we will hear from the youth who participated in summer mission trips. I don’t know what they will say, but I bet more than a few youth and adults experienced the disorienting and FREEING experience of living without the usual distractions for a week. That perspective can be life-changing. Indeed, it often brings one face to face with just how trapped we can be in our wealth.

I invite you to listen carefully to our youth next week. I invite you to dig deeply into today’s text. I invite you to consider your own view of wealth. Following Jesus does involve sacrifice and obedience. It does involve putting God first. It does involve putting others ahead of ourselves. And that discipleship – following Jesus – is both a choice Jesus invites you and me to make and it is a sign that God is at work in our lives.

“Come, follow me,” says Jesus, “for with God all things are possible.” Amen.

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