On Goodness, Riches and Impossibilities
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Osy Nuesch at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
on November 18, 2018 based on the Gospel Lesson from
A rich landowner named Melvin enjoyed riding through his vast estate while reminding himself of his great wealth. One day, while riding on his favorite horse, Melvin saw Hans, and old tenant farmer. Hans was sitting under a tree enjoying his lunch. After the usual pleasantries, the old farmer, Hans, said, “I was just thanking God for my food.” Looking at Hans’ meager lunch, Melvin responded: “If that is all I had to eat, I wouldn’t feel much like giving thanks.” “Nonetheless, God has given me everything I need, and I am thankful for it,” Hans replied. And then the old farmer added: “It is strange you should come by today, because I had a dream last night. In my dream a voice told me, ‘The richest man in the valley will die tonight.’ I don’t know what it means, but I thought I ought to tell you.” Melvin snorted, “Dreams are nonsense,” and galloped away. But he couldn’t forget Hans’ words. “The richest man in the valley will die tonight.” Melvin was obviously the richest man in the valley, so he invited his doctor to his house that evening. Melvin told the doctor what Hans had said. After a thorough examination, the doctor informed the wealthy landowner: “Melvin, you are as strong and healthy as a horse. I don’t think there is any fear of you dying tonight.” Nevertheless, for assurance, the doctor stayed with Melvin, and they talked and played cards through the night. Sure enough, morning came; Melvin apologized for becoming so upset over the old man’s dreams, and the doctor left. At about nine o’clock, a messenger arrived at Melvin’s door. “What is it?” Melvin demanded. The messenger explained: “It’s about Hans. The old farmer died last night in his sleep.” (“The Richest Man in the Valley” Author unknown, found in Sandy’s Weekend Story, 10/10/12).
I like that story for several reasons. I appreciate the misdirection. It works because of the shared understanding of concepts. We think we are talking about the same thing, and then….the punch line makes you question the accepted definitions and you have to go back to the beginning and review the whole story and decide all over again “who is rich?” What makes someone rich?
Today’s Gospel story – and the sayings that follow it – do something very similar. We are not told much about the man: We know him as the rich, young ruler. But that is a compilation of information from the 3 synoptic gospels. What we can infer is that the man who questions Jesus comes with widely-held assumptions, assumptions that obviously the crowds and Jesus’ disciples also shared. “Obey the commandments and follow the rules and you’ll be all set: God’s will will be done and you will be blessed.”
And just when it looks like we all agree on the basics, out of nowhere, Jesus comes up with a demand that sounds quite unreasonable: “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” (v. 21). The man cannot subscribe to the drastic claim upon the things that he values. So he leaves, probably confused, unfulfilled and even hurt – all the emotions we associate with grief, misery, heartache. The disciples too are shocked and likewise confused. Shocked that Jesus would disappoint such a promising candidate (“Hey, we could use someone like him.”). And they are as confused by Jesus’ interpretation of commonly shared values.
Every time I pause to reflect on this story and to dissect Jesus’ teachings, I end up with a bit of a headache as well. Preachers have used this story to preach stewardship and to encourage generosity, and the result is that most people leave unfulfilled and annoyed too.
This story does not discriminate. This is a passage that at every possible junction misdirects, disrupts, and frustrates no matter where you address it from. From the very beginning, when the man approaches Jesus with a flattering compliment, we know that this is not going to go as expected. “Why do you call me good?” is Jesus’ question in response to a question. “No one is good but God alone” (10:18). I’m sorry, but if no one is good, what motivation does anyone have for aiming for a higher level of ethical or moral living? “No one is good” so what’s the point in even trying!? The deck is already stacked against you!
And then there is that other saying that hurts all the way down: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 23). How do you define wealth? By what standard? There is always somebody who is richer than you.
And just when Jesus manages to turn things around so that we can find some affirmation for following the way of discipleship, the Rabbi throws in something that doesn’t belong. Those who are willing to make sacrifices to follow the way of Jesus, and to live out in their lives the Good News of God’s coming reign, such people (they/we) will be vindicated. Jesus promises a hundredfold return now – and oops!: “did I mention persecutions?” (v. 30) One of these things doesn’t belong!
Confronted by these conflicting views of the kingdom, the disciples asked: “Who then can be saved?” All this was such a stretch for them: As heirs of Jewish thought and worldviews, they were convinced that riches were a sign of God’s blessing on people’s lives.
By the time we get to the end of the passage, we are back at the beginning – not much wiser, certainly not very confident, and not exactly sure of what we are supposed to do. So we are right back at Jesus’ feet asking: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Just as in Jesus’ days it was understood that wealth, honor and shalom followed those who followed God as revealed in the Law of Moses was widely accepted, we live with assumptions that we don’t often question. Just listen to what politicians promised us if we voted for them last week and you’ll conclude that what our country needs right now is: jobs for everyone who wants them, a growing economy, no reliance (no intrusion from) on foreign powers, a strong defense (most people think a strong military), and a well funded social security and Medicare programs that will be there for you and me when we retire. Get all that and we’ll be all set. We all voted for those who made the best argument as to how these goals can be reached. Because these goals align perfectly with our goals for the ideal life: We want a good job that will allow us to have all the things that we need, get rid of our consumer debt, pay off our mortgage, and save enough to have a comfortable and fulfilling retirement. But onto these delightful road maps, Jesus interposes a plan of discipleship that stresses strange concepts: go, sell, give, come and follow.
When we examine the different realities, they don’t seem to come together. The deeper we get into Jesus’ plan, the more inclined we are to shake our heads and go away sad because it is impossible to fuse all these hopes into one neat package. But that is exactly where Jesus wants us.
“When the disciples wondered if it would ever be possible for anyone to do what Jesus demanded, then Jesus had them just where he wanted them. What is impossible for us, for the rich young ruler, for the astonished disciples is only possible for God! In fact, that is precisely the claim that Jesus was making for himself. That is what Jesus came into this world to do: to accomplish the impossible, to do what only God can do, to pull us along with all the camels in the world through the eye of a needle” (Steven E. Albertin, “Against the Grain: Words for a Politically Incorrect Church.”) or whatever metaphor works for you to describe what is practically impossible.“Attaining eternal life is not in the realm of things that are possible for human beings to do. But be of good cheer: this is not impossible for God: for with God all things are possible.”
At this point you are hoping that I will have some helpful “take aways” from these verses. Here you go: We should take Jesus at his word when he assures us that “God is good.”
Anything less, the concept of God as vengeful, punishing, retributive, will only lead you to despair because there is no one that is good, certainly not ‘good enough’ to deserve God’s good graces. There is hope for us only if God is good.
We should take Jesus by faith when he tells us that for God all things are possible. It is that conviction that allows us to take risks, especially the risks involved in following. Think of all the things that we are just not capable of doing, but God accomplishes these things in spite of us. God grants us a strength that is not our own so that we can accomplish things we didn’t think were possible. God grants us a faith that is not our own allowing us to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary. God grants us a love that is capable to reach out to those many would consider “unlovable.”
And because God is good, and even the seemly impossible is possible for God, God is able to grant eternal life. From God come all the blessings we receive. A compassionate, bighearted and generous God is the source of every blessing. The person who realizes that is thankful in everything and rich beyond measure.
And finally, for all the alarms that Jesus’ teaching sounds in our brains and in our hearts, and despite the misdirection and confusion that plague our understanding, we have to appreciate what Mark shows us about Jesus.
Mark shows us a Jesus who is deeply moved to love a perfect stranger. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him….” Such a small detail – and it comes at us so quickly that we can almost dismiss it! Here is a tender moment that ought to surprise us. This is such an unusual thing to hear in this Gospel. It surprises me because it comes out of nowhere. The man hasn’t done anything (that we can tell anyway) that would merit that kind of response from Jesus. There have been other people who approached Jesus with the intention of following; there have been other people who had deep theological questions; it doesn’t say anywhere that Jesus loved them.
And Mark is not one to mince words. Mark doesn’t use just any word for love! Oh, no! What Jesus felt was not a carnal (erotic) love. It wasn’t even the kind of feeling that says: “I like this guy. I’d like to hang out with him and get to know him a bit better. I bet we could become friends.” The word Mark uses describes the deepest kind of love – that seeks the other’s best, that is willing to do anything for the other (agape).
What in this man provoked such a strong, emotional response that Mark felt compelled to tell us that Jesus loved him? Was it the man’s enthusiasm that so touched the Master? Did Jesus sense a level of sincerity that appealed to him? Or maybe innocence? Was it the fact that this man came to Jesus because he thought the Master had the answer to the great puzzle of meaning and existence? True existence now and beyond? Or was it one of a thousand other details that struck a chord with the Lord? Mark doesn’t tell us. With typical control Mark gives us the bare details we need. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Mark doesn’t tell us what it was that Jesus saw in that man perhaps because we should know that the Lord sees beyond what you or I can see. And Jesus is able to find the one thing that makes each person lovable in the eyes of God; the one detail that makes each of us lovable in the eyes of God. If this questioning man represents every person, then perhaps we can assume that Jesus responds to each individual with a singular kind of love. We put in the lips of children the greatest truth able to transform every woman and man: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Mark shows us that Jesus knows what our spirits lack. We may not like the answer. In this case, a tremendously significant question received a terrifying response. The man responds in the way that any one of us would. “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The man goes away sad. Hearing the answer to his request, he “slumped down, got real depressed, got back into his Porsche, and left.”
At this point Jesus turns to the crowd and proceeds to shock all of his disciples, the original ones and those who came after then (us): “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” It shocked scribes through the centuries who naturally tried to take some of the edge off this saying. A strong variant reads: “How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God.” (Thank God! I can live with that one!) But that is followed by yet another unsettling statement that has puzzled interpreters for centuries: “It 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.”
But Jesus cares enough to show us the way that leads to life, to growth, holiness, fulfillment.
There are some things/actions/activities that yield eternal rewards. It is not all meaningless. Don’t buy into that. Don’t fall for that lie. Life counts. Look at the early stages of the conversation. The man asks “What must I do?” And Jesus reviews the commandments. But which ones? Jesus did not list all 10 commandments! He concentrated on the second half of the Decalogue. And the commandments Jesus lists are not in the usual order (any confirmand who has had to memorize the 10 commandments can tell you that). And did you notice the misdirection there also? Jesus sneaks in an eleventh commandment: “You shall not defraud.” Did you notice it? Where did that come from? (If the man knew the commandments so well and had kept them so carefully, shouldn’t he have objected about this addition?) And why did Jesus single out these commandments while leaving out the commandments that relate directly to God? What happened to “You shall have no other gods before me”?
It becomes very clear early on that this man’s religion had not made any serious/real demands on his life. “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” And that’s when Jesus puts it all on the line. God demands everything. At some point, what is truly important and essential will demand everything. Peter got it: “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” Peter is quick to reply. Doesn’t that count?
God has made some demands on us. We have had to make some decisions. We made it this morning: we got up in time, brought our pledges, we came prepared to give an offering. We will go to the Busy Hands sale and find something we can use or gift to somebody. I prepared a sermon and came up with a neat litany for Stewardship Sunday and have some prayers to say as well. And you practiced music. And you brought shoe boxes. And you volunteered for Interfaith Hospitality Network last week. And we went to committee meetings. And Jesus assures us: We will be blessed – no doubt about that.
But being a disciple, following Jesus on the journey, will always require more…much more, for which we will have to depend entirely on God’s infinite resources – because ours are not enough. Are we ready to follow where Jesus may lead so that we may experience what only Christ can provide? Then we will experience the life that Jesus invites us to enter into and enjoy now, because it leads to eternal, lasting, good, full, and meaningful life. Amen.