Rev. Lyle McKenzie Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria
Job 23:1-9, 16-17 / Psalm 22:1-15 / Hebrews 4:12-16 / Mark 10:17-31
As we just heard in the Gospel, the teaching journey with Jesus continues… we took a break last Sunday for Thanksgiving celebrations – thanking God for all good gifts, including our possessions. Family and food and homes in which to gather were no doubt on the list of thanksgivings for many of us. And we gave thanks for God’s good gifts here: this family of faith, food to share with others who don’t have enough that encircled the table, the Thanksgiving feast that we receive at this table in Christ Jesus in bread and wine, and all in this beautiful house of faith in which we gather.
But we’re back on the teaching road to Jerusalem with Jesus. And this week’s lesson is, “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.” Jesus, that’s as impossible as a camel going through the eye of a needle!
Before we turn away sad or mad, it might help to recall how far we’ve travelled with Jesus on this road. It began with confessing Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed of God, but struggling then to accept Jesus’ own understanding that this road leads to his suffering and death, and three days later to rise. And the calling for us as disciples is to take up this cross and follow. Jesus’ teachings are not a check list, but signs and measures to help orient and guide us on this way of the cross:
– to set our minds on divine not human things;
– to lose our life for God’s/Jesus’ sake and good purpose;
– to seek not to be greatest or first but last and servant to people;
– to welcome and care for all children as God’s children;
– to recognize people as allies in the work of God’s dominion;
– to give and receive hospitality, even a cup of water;
– to not put or be any barrier before any of God’s little ones;
and today – to sell everything, give the money to the poor and follow. Given the previous signs of what cross bearing means, maybe this last shouldn’t be such a shock. But it is, to the person who asked Jesus, to the disciples and to us. It’s as impossible as a camel going through the eye of a needle!
In looking at the reading/Jesus’ teaching for this week, a few things are revealing. The title the person gives Jesus is rare: “Good Teacher.” Some suggest it is an indication that they are addressing Jesus with a high status or a great compliment, and possibly expecting the same in return. This may explain Jesus’ response, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” It may also reflect Jesus’ teaching that goodness resides only in God and through God.
The person’s question is “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This could be a universal human question of seeking God. Or it could be searching for certainty, something to “do,” to ensure status before God. Either way “eternal life” is not simply life after death, it begins now, even in the person’s response to Jesus, turning away from Jesus’ invitation to eternal life now!
Jesus’ answer is a clear affirmation of the commandments. But Jesus adds a commandment not normally on the list: “You shall not defraud.” The literal meaning of this is about keeping back wages of your hired workers, or refusing to return money or goods entrusted to you for safekeeping.
The person claims to have kept all these laws from youth. This could be presumptuous or simply an honest response of having genuinely sought to do this. Either way, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Again this is an unusual use of this word in Mark’s Gospel, used only elsewhere in reference to “loving God with all your heart and mind and strength and loving your neighbour as yourself” – Jesus’ summary of the commandments. And then we hear Jesus’ “loving” confrontation, “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.” Interesting, the word, “go,” which can also be translated “get up” is the same word Mark uses when Jesus heals a person. It’s a healing word. But as we hear, and we feel, the person is shocked and goes away grieving for they had many possessions. The literal meaning of the word possessions is land or property. The person was a large landowner. And as such in Jesus’ time, they would have been one of a wealthy few who owned most of the land, while most of the people were hired hands and tenant farmers who were powerless against being denied wages or their share of the produce of the land. Maybe today is not so different.
With this reading, is what we witness in the loving and healing confrontation of this person by Jesus, a challenge to divest themselves of this corrupt land system and its oppression of the poor, to make restitution to those they have defrauded, and so then to have treasure in heaven by following Jesus in the work of God’s reign of justice and mercy for all, that is heaven on earth, that is eternal life now.
Is what Jesus asks of this person and us, about living God’s ways of loving and healing justice for the poor, as much as a personal piety that let’s go of all that possesses us and keeps us from eternal life? It seems right to hear this political/economic teaching from Jesus as much as the other.
But, is it any less impossible? When we are caught in these same systems; where the disparity between rich and poor grows and the dominant economic theology is what’s best for the economy, surpassing every other concern, defrauding the poor and most vulnerable of basic human needs and dignity, and all of us of the common good and dignity of a more just and humane and peaceful society and world; Jesus, to change all that, to sell what we own and give the money to the poor is as impossible as a camel going through the eye of a needle!
What the disciples conclude in seeming frustration are words we could easily say, “Then who can be saved?” Saved not just in a next life, but even more in and for this one “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’”
You may have noticed that three times it says, “Jesus looked,” at the person, looked around, and looked at the disciples. What is Jesus’ look like or for? For the person who came seeking eternal life, we hear it is a look of love. It seems likely, given the repetition of that same look by Jesus, it is a look of love in every case. For the rich person, for everyone and everything that Jesus sees around him, including the broken social political circumstances of this world, and finally for Jesus’ followers even in our frustration and struggle to understand this impossible way of Jesus; Jesus looks on us all, in love. Do we hear that? Do we see that? Jesus’ look of love, as what he asks of us is as impossible as a camel going through the eye of a needle!
Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” And Jesus’ response is that no one who has left everything “for his sake and the sake of the good news,” will not receive a hundredfold all these things, but in ways that are of greater worth, and also! with persecutions, because this way of Jesus in the world, leads to persecution, because it all seems as impossible and frightening to the world as a camel going through the eye of a needle!
Finally, isn’t this impossibility our ultimate hope? In Job’s complaint about an absent God, in the Psalmist’s cry of being forsaken by God, in Hebrew’s assurance that despite a word that pierces, cuts to the bone and lays us bare, we have hope in one who has been tested as we are.
As impossible as it seems, God looks upon us as Jesus does, in love, and claims the impossible is nothing! Everything is possible to God. God alone is good. Even the good of our following Jesus on this way that he has set out for us and for our and the world’s salvation, today and for eternity, as impossible as it is, as impossible as a camel going through the eye of a needle, nothing is impossible with God. And that changes everything, changes us and this world, for God’s good!
– Changes how we see our many possessions and how lightly we hold on to them and how easily we share them, especially with those in need.
– Changes how we respond to Jesus’ invitation to follow, today and every day, because eternal life begins now, in our response to Jesus’ loving invitation and challenge, and living God’s love and goodness for all, now and for eternity. It’s as possible with God as a camel going through the eye of a needle. Let it be so.
In all our relations. Amen.