I had a great idea for starting this sermon—a PowerPoint presentation of artists’ depictions of this Bible story. I could imagine the paintings: a man in beautiful robes running and kneeling before Jesus, or the dramatic moment of Jesus looking at the man with love, or the man reacting to Jesus’ words with a sad expression on his face. Perhaps even a painting of the rich man walking away, with Jesus and the disciples watching him as he goes.
I searched on the internet, but the paintings of this Bible story just aren’t there. I found only a few, mostly done for Sunday school storybooks. No famous painters tackled this story. Why? Famous painters were usually commissioned by rich patrons to produce artwork for churches. It appears that the story of Jesus telling the rich man to give away all his possessions has not been a story that rich people want to be reminded of every time they come to church!
This story can be hard, but maybe it depends on where you find yourself in the story. Who do you identify with? Do you identify with Peter who has given up everything, or do you identify with the rich man who went away sorrowful? I wonder whether we can identify with Jesus. . . .
Let’s walk through the story.
“As they set out on a journey.” It’s not just a journey, it’s Jesus’ last journey on earth, and he knows it. He is heading for Jerusalem, where he is going to be tortured and killed.
“A man ran up.” We aren’t told who this man is. This story is also in the gospel of Matthew and Luke, and there we are told that the man is young and also that the man is a ruler. But here in the gospel of Mark, he is just a man.
“A man ran up and knelt before him.” In the gospel of Mark, whenever someone has knelt before Jesus they want or need healing—a person with leprosy, a woman whose child is sick, the Gerasene man. The fact that this man is kneeling is a clue for us, a hint about the story that is about to unfold.
“Good teacher.” This is the first time in this gospel, and I think in all the gospels, that Jesus is called a good teacher. He’s called a teacher but not usually a good teacher.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Here is the crucial question that people throughout history have puzzled over. The question is asked in a curious way. The man uses the word inherit. You inherit something because of who you are. For example, many people thought they would inherit the Kingdom because they were sons or daughters of Abraham. The funny thing here is that the man uses the word do in relation to inheritance. He wonders what he has to do, or achieve, or accomplish in order to inherit eternal life.
Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone.” Some people read this as a sharp rebuke to the man. Other commentators think that this is a polite response in that culture: when people offered you praise and tried to place you higher on a pedestal, it was common to defer and say that you did not deserve it.
“You 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; Honour your father and mother.’” Jesus appears to be reciting the basic requirements for leading the good Jewish life. They are from the Ten Commandments—all except one. Jesus slips one in: “You shall not defraud.” Perhaps he thinks this last commandment might be of particular interest to this particular man!
The man says to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” This man is sincere. He is sincerely seeking, is apparently is devout, and has lived his life carefully following all the commandments. Or else he is so proud that he can’t even see his own faults. Some commentators are harsh on this man, and point to his blindness to the fact that he has fallen short of the law.
The next sentence is the kicker in this story. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” We haven’t heard this before, that Jesus looks with love on someone, and we don’t hear it again in Mark’s gospel. It’s striking because this man is not a prime candidate for someone who might stir love in Jesus’ heart. You might think that Jesus will love the person with leprosy, or that he will love the little child, or that he will love one of his disciples. You can understand: “looking at his mother, he loved her.”
The list of potential people to love is pretty long. Why this man? Is it anything this man has done that has made Jesus love him? Nothing that we can see, except perhaps this desire to receive eternal life, this desire that has caused him to lead a good life.
“You lack one thing.” Imagine having everything you need but one thing. What is it that this man lacks?
Jesus says, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” This is something that the man can do. He has asked for something to do, and Jesus gives him something to do.
“And then come follow me.” Jesus issues a call, an invitation to follow, every bit as serious as the invitations to the other disciples. Will this man be the thirteenth disciple?
“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The Greek word for “went away grieving” is literally “his face clouded over.” He was gloomy, he was sad, and he was grieving. He would not do what Jesus called him to do. He did not follow Jesus.
Is the thing that the man lacked the actual doing of these activities? If he had done them, would he have inherited eternal life? Is the one thing required that we all sell our possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus?
This is a hard story, a puzzling story, a story that people have been uncomfortable with. It can make us squirm in our seats.
It is explained further on in the gospel of Mark. In chapter 12, we hear Jesus saying that the one essential thing is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and to love your neighbour as yourself. God desires this more than any sacrifices or burnt offerings. It’s not the sacrifice that is required; it is the love. Love can and will lead you to sacrifice, but the sacrifice itself is not enough. I Corinthians 13 has the familiar words, “If I give away all my possessions . . . but not have love, I gain nothing.”
What the man in this story lacks is love in his heart. Jesus, looking at him, loved him. But the man did not look back with love. If he loved Jesus, he would follow him. If he loved his neighbour, he would give sacrificially rather than hoarding his wealth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him. The man was only sorrowful. He went away still a rich man but poorer for not having gained love.
Jesus talks about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. From the perspective of the people in the crowd, the rich man was the complete package. He was devout and followed the commandments. The fact that he was rich would have proved to them that God was blessing his life. Jesus points out the one thing lacking: this man’s heart is so full of love for money that there is no room for love of anything else.
Are we walking in the rich man’s shoes? I don’t like to find myself reading the lines of the rich man. First, I don’t like to think of myself as rich—so many people have so much more than I do. So this story of the rich man lacking one thing couldn’t apply to me, could it? I am not rich!
Here is where listening to our brothers and sisters from different parts of the world can be helpful—the churches in Africa, in India, in South America. They have a critique of North American churches; they tell us that materialism is a big problem, that our priorities are clouded because of our wealth as a church.
Maybe we do stand in the rich man’s shoes, if not individually, then collectively as a society.
We are busy doing many things. We do things for many reasons: we have the resources to do them; we feel we should do them, and people tell us we should do them. Do, do, do—we can do things all day long, but if one thing is lacking, it means nothing. Do we have love in our hearts?
This week many people in Edmonton and across the country have been listening to the voices of First Nations peoples, as they share the story of what they experienced in the residential school system.
We heard many stories of children being slapped because they cried or because they spoke the only language they knew. Stories of children being physically beaten because they tried to run home to their parents, children being sexually abused because they were innocent and unable to defend themselves, children being psychologically abused because of the colour of their skin, children being told that their culture was sinful. Their very language was taken away from them. We have begun to hear the stories of these survivors, and there needs to be a lot of listening to that pain, that anguish. The Truth and Reconciliation event is the beginning of the telling of this story, not the end.
The residential school system was not a vague, amorphous, impersonal entity that hurt people. The system was comprised of thousands of teachers and administrators and support staff. What I would also like to hear, what I have not heard, is the story of the teachers in the schools, especially the story of teachers who taught in the residential church schools. I wonder: did they set out to do good things? Did they enter the “mission field” with noble ideals, with the hope that they would inherit eternal life? They were doing what society and the church asked them to do, travelling to remote areas, giving their lives to God and to the education of children. Yet many of them ended up not doing the work of God.
Many of the teachers were in religious orders—they had given up everything to follow Jesus. As priests and nuns in the Catholic and Anglican church, they had made vows of poverty, they had given up their right to own anything, they had followed the call of the church to serve in remote and difficult environments. Jesus couldn’t say to them, “There is one thing lacking, sell your possessions and give to the poor and come follow me,” because these people had done that. They did precisely this hard thing that makes us all squirm when we read this story. But obviously, there was still something lacking.
Without a doubt, the people who hurt these children lacked a lot of things. They obviously lacked insight into the long-term effects of cultural genocide. That insight may or may not have been possible for them to have in that time, in that place. Most importantly, they also lacked love, and that was well within their reach. If they had love for these children, they would have sympathized with them and been kind to them. They would have cared for them as they cared for their own children. They would not have abused and tortured them.
Jesus looks at the misguided, bewildered, rich man and has love for him. Maybe Jesus was even looking at the rich man who he knew had defrauded and impoverished the people in his community. No matter, Jesus, looking at him, loved him. Jesus, looking at the aboriginal child pulled from home, loved her. Jesus, looking at the abusive residential school teacher, loved him. Jesus, looking at us, loves us.
In our Bibles, we sometimes have subheadings to identify the stories. This short story is often called, “The rich young ruler.” It could also be named, “The calling of the thirteenth disciple.” The fact that this call is rejected is a prediction of everything that is to happen in the coming weeks on Jesus’ journey. Jesus looks at the world with love, and the world does not love back. The world turns away. Jesus just keeps on loving, giving up his body and his blood.
I wonder whether we can find ourselves in the story, in the person of Jesus. That means that whatever we do this week, we must look on people with love. That means looking at the survivors of residential schools with love. That means looking with love at the perpetrators of the abuse at the residential schools.
Can we find ourselves in Jesus’ story, as we drive down Calgary Trail and are cut off by the young man in the red pick-up truck who acts as if he owns the road, going 40 km over the speed limit, endangering his life and ours? And Jesus, looking at the man in the red pick-up truck, loved him.
Can we find ourselves in Jesus’ story as we read the newspaper and hear about the annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin? And Jesus, looking at the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, loved him.
Can we find ourselves in Jesus’ story in our family, when people betray us?
When we come to the Lord’s Table, it is the time to examine our hearts, to ask, “Is there love in my heart?” Have we taken Jesus as our model? It’s a time to reflect on the fact that nothing we have done has gained us an invitation to this table. We don’t deserve to be here. We are brought here by love, because the God who made us loves us. Period. We are all invited: the residential school survivors and their teachers, the man in the red pick-up truck, Vladimir Putin, all of our family, and each one of us.
And the church, looking on those that the world hates, loved them.
As we come to the Lord’s Table, remember the example of Jesus, who loved us, even when we did not return that love. He loved us to the end. Thanks be to God!
Carol Penner is pastor of Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church in Edmonton, Alta. This is adapted from a sermon she preached there on March 30, 2014.
—Posted April 22, 2014
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