Proper 23B October 10, 2021
Today’s Gospel insists that we talk – actually begs us to talk -- about possessions. Sell them all. Give the money to the poor. And then follow me.
Follow you, Lord? If I give away all my money to the poor, I won’t have money for the plane ticket, or for gas, or for a pair of walking shoes or sandals – to follow you. Not even money for band-aids for the blisters. Besides, we want to keep our possessions. We need our possessions.
We need to remain self-sufficient, so that resources that go to support truly needy people won’t have to go to support us.
As I was working on this sermon, I thought a lot about possessions. After my step-mother died, my sister Kay and I had six days to close out her apartment – everything from the exotic carved rosewood chests to the food in the refrigerator. So many decisions. So much stuff. And so much moldy – whatever.
I look around our living room/dining room and see so much stuff. Get rid of a bunch of it? But what would the greats and grands play with when they come? And we’d miss all the souvenir stuff on the mantel. We’d miss the souvenirs on the bookcase in the corner. I did throw away three things from my desk just before I sat down to write this, though you can’t tell it by looking.
So, is today’s gospel about possessions? The story certainly revolves around them. It appears in Matthew and Luke as well as in Mark. Mark, as you know, is the, shall we say, terse Gospel. Mark doesn’t waste words. He rarely uses transitions. He just charges on from idea to event to story. His adjectives are few and wisely chosen. In spite of being a man of few words, Mark does put in a sentence that the other two do not. At one point Mark says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
In the story Jesus and his disciples are walking along a road toward Jerusalem and, as Jesus knew and as we know, toward the crucifixion. A man (Matthew calls him young and Luke calls him rich, but Mark refers to him simply as a man) this man appears and kneels before Jesus, humbly seeking wisdom about eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep all the commandments – no small achievement. Yet it’s astounding for us to learn that this man has, indeed, kept all the commandments, “from my youth,” he says. Whether he’s young, as Matthew says, or older, that is, indeed, quite an achievement. That’s when Mark tells us that Jesus, looking at him, loved him.
Oh, what a tangled web that could weave. We could say Aha! Jesus will look at me in love if I follow all the commandments, or if I have followed all the commandments. Do any of us think that we fit either of those categories? // Yet we know we are all loved by God in spite of our transgressions.
With what kind of love does Jesus look at this man kneeling humbly at his feet?
We start with an image in our mind of Jesus, with the man kneeling at his feet. Frankly, I think Mark expects us to realize that the man would have risen, either of his own accord, or at Jesus’s encouragement so that they’re standing face to face.
I want to pause here for a kind of a side bar: A priest tells a story about a potentially volatile meeting that started out with one committee member saying, “Let’s remember that we are all Christians and that we all love Jesus. Let’s be sure that everything said here today is said in love. There’s no need for criticism, negative attitudes or disparagement of any point of view. Let’s just go with love.”
Nice. And everyone went along.
And the meeting was a total bust, totally unproductive. Afterward another committee member grumbled sarcastically to the priest, “Love. Let’s just go with love.” Love was just a code word for saying, “Don’t say how you really feel; suppress all your true opinions; don’t really engage anyone or take anybody’s point of view with seriousness. Just be nicey nice and agree with everyone.
Or there’s the man who left his wife of thirty-some years (actually she probably left him) when he showed up with a new baby and his 25-year-old girlfriend. Confronted by his priest about his outrageous behavior, the man said “Who are you to judge me and lay a guilt trip on me? I’m loved by Jesus, right? So what if I’m sinning? I know that I’ll be forgiven.”
Now Jesus probably did not bestow a look of nicey-nice love – nor a look of an offhand “OK, I love you and forgive you regardless of what your attitude it.” The love Jesus has for the man is what today we call tough love. Jesus tells the man to go and sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and then come, follow me.” With that the man (young or old, Episcopalian or Baptist, mega-rich or simply having a few possessions,) the man goes away, grieving.
By the way, does Jesus tell everyone who comes to him to do as he asks the man in this story? No, this is not a universal demand made of Christians. Maybe we could say that the universal demand made of Christians is to give away or give up whatever – be it things, addictions, activities, passions, habits – that keep us from following Jesus with all our heart and mind and soul. The stumbling block could be possessions. But that’s not the only thing it could be. That’s why this story isn’t just, at its core, about possessions.
Back to Jesus and the man in the story. Maybe Jesus sees that despite all the man’s virtues in having obeyed all the commandments, he lacks one thing, and that one thing is what Jesus asks of him. Or maybe Jesus thinks that the young man is not sincere in his request, and so he is testing his sincerity. We don’t know. All we know is that what Jesus says to him, he says out of love.
This story of Mark’s is more than a simple teaching story. It’s a call story, a call to 100% discipleship – perhaps not like most of ours, where we follow Christ in the context of our daily lives, but a call to discipleship akin to Peter’s and Mark’s and John’s. The man is being called literally to follow Jesus along the way to Jerusalem, to join the disciples. Jesus really isn’t interested in how this man feels. What Jesus wants to know is if he’s up to following him. He looks at him and sees the one thing needful, the one thing which is required for discipleship, and Jesus loves him enough to demand that one thing from him.
If each of us came before Jesus today, what would be the one thing that he would demand of us? What is it that keeps us from whole-hearted 100% discipleship? As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Christ has many admirers, but few followers.”
Our Gospel story relates that Jesus’s disciples say –maybe brag? – that they have left everything to follow him. And Jesus promises them that there is nothing that they have given up to follow him that will not be restored to them a hundred times greater in the future. So there are benefits to following Jesus. But there are costs as well. And Jesus loves us enough to be up front about the cost -- the cost of giving up what we treasure, or what we think we treasure, the cost of persecution, or maybe the cost of living a new life.
Christianity is about loving Jesus. But wait! There’s more! It is about loving Jesus in the manner in which Jesus loves us. The acid test for our love is sometimes how much we have been willing to give up for Jesus in order to realize the gift – or the gifts – that he offers us. Seems like a good topic for an Advent or Lenten reflection. However, it’s not Lent. And Advent doesn’t come around until November. Late November. But I would encourage us to reflect on this Gospel about not holding out on Jesus.
It would be a good thing for us to think about what we have, in the past, given up for Christ. Are we even now sacrificing something? If Jesus looked you in the eye today, what would he tell you to do before you follow him – notice that Mark doesn’t say “in order to follow him,” just “before you follow him” 100%. And once he told you, would you walk away discouraged? Or would you trust in His love enough to say, “Yes, Lord,” and follow?