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Sunday, February 18, 2018 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
The Story of the Rich One
Lenten Sermon Series: Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
You are the giver of all good things. . . .
We are takers, who take from you,
day by day, daily bread,
taking all we need as you supply. . . .
And then taking more. . . .
Turn our taking into giving . . .
giving as he gave himself up for us all.
A preacher friend of mine once told me, “Every time I hear this text, I think ‘I am so far from living like Jesus wants me to live.’” When you hear this story, do you feel that way? I do. “Go; sell everything you have; give it to the poor; come and follow me.” Every time I hear Jesus issue the four-part challenge to the man with the money, I quickly take a personal inventory of how much I don’t do those things, certainly not fully and consistently, and always I conclude something similar to my friend: I am so far from living like Jesus wants me to live.
We are not sure exactly how the rich man felt, but Jesus’ response to the earnestly asked question seems to have caught him off guard. It did not seem to be what he expected at all. After all, he is the one who sought Jesus out. Jesus did not walk by that man and call out to him “Follow me.” Rather, Jesus just walked by, and the man chased him down. But not only did the man run after Jesus, as soon as he caught up to Jesus, before the man said a single thing, he knelt down at Jesus’ feet.
Now, I must admit to you that I have always skipped through all of this initial part of the interaction. As someone who does not have to worry where her next meal is coming from and as someone who, in relation to most folk in the world, has more than enough, I skip this first part of the conversation between Jesus and the rich man because I know what Jesus is about to do. I know he is going to make some pretty stark pronouncements about the extreme difficulty rich people have as they try to live into God’s topsy-turvy, “first will be last and last will be first,” “blessed are the poor and the meek,” “if someone strikes you turn the other cheek” new order.
So because I always know what is coming my way, I’ve typically skimmed through this initial encounter of the rich man kneeling and Jesus noticing. Let me hurry up and hear what Jesus has to say about money, knowing my stomach is going to grow all anxious. But then I can skip to his words “with God all things are possible.” And once I get to that part, I can remember that because of who God is, even my salvation is possible, even yours.
This year, though, David Lose, a pastor and former Lutheran seminary president, stopped me in my tracks when he suggested the following: “What if this scene is [actually not some kind of liberal altar call but rather] a healing story?” he queried.
[First,] did you ever notice that all the people in Mark’s Gospel who kneel to Jesus and ask for a blessing either have some dread disease or are demon possessed? And [second], almost every time Jesus orders someone to go, like he does this guy, it’s [always] in relation to a healing. So what if this guy, this rich man, isn’t just pious and looking for assurance—[remember, he does claim he had fulfilled all the commandments since forever. Rather] what if this man is sick, heartsick, and somewhere deep down he knows this, [so he] seeks out Jesus with his question about heavenly entrance exams because the man knows that whatever his appearance on the outside, whatever his faithful and pious life, he’s still missing something, something important, something that matters, something worth doing, something that’s a matter of life and death.” (David Lose, “Curing Our Heartsickness,” www.davidlose.net, 5 October 2015)
Thus, at its base, might this be a healing story?
Now before we explore that interpretation further, let me say outright what some of you might be thinking: I am fully aware that this different slant on this text, this concentration on how the interaction unfolded, this emphasis on the man and his kneeling posture, none of that addresses head on the wealth question raised by this story. I have to say that out loud, because as preaching professor David Buttrick put it himself, “There is no doubt that Jesus was profoundly concerned over money.” Sixteen out of thirty-eight parables talk about money and possessions. In the Gospels, one out of every ten verses talks about money, 288 in all. The whole of scripture offers 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions (“Statistic: Jesus’ Teachings on Money,” www.preachingtoday.com). Even here in this story Jesus himself proclaims, “It is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s social order!”
Yes, we can certainly talk about all of these money passages, even our passage today, from the viewpoint that it is actually our attitude towards money that matters, rather than the concentration of the wealth itself. We can certainly focus on seeing the main issue as the temptation of letting our possessions possess us. All of those very North American strategies are often used, used by this preacher herself, but as another friend of mine once tossed out in relation to this exact discussion, “That ain’t what the brother said”—the brother being Jesus.
Rather, Jesus said outright how difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter into the kingdom of God. That’s exactly what he said. And whether that makes you happy because the rich folk are finally getting what’s coming to them, or if that statement makes you mad, don’t send me an email. Take it up with Jesus. I just need you to know that I am quite aware that by changing our exegetical lens to see this as a healing story rather than as a story of confrontation between Jesus and many of us in here today could be seen as a cop-out, and perhaps it is. But that is my disclaimer.
I am willing to sit in that hypocrisy, because I am still struck by the exegetical suggestion that this conversation between the rich man and Jesus is extremely similar to other healing stories in scripture. Two other parts of their interaction build that case for me. The first is when Mark writes that Jesus looked at that rich man and loved him. This is the only time Mark records Jesus expressly conveying love. That is striking to me. Why did Mark feel it was necessary for us to know that Jesus’ posture towards this man—a person who chased after him until he could kneel at his feet—was a posture of love? What did Jesus see in him that caused his love for him to move into the spotlight?
The second reason I am swayed by this interpretation of the encounter as a healing story is because of how Jesus then began his response: “There is one thing you lack,” he told the rich man. Lack? My guess is that no one had ever told the rich man he lacked a single thing in his entire life. Lack? It was almost a foreign concept to him, a different language. If he ever thought he lacked something, he’d just go out and acquire it. No one had ever told him he lacked anything before. But Jesus did. Why?
Again, I’m going to paraphrase David Lose: Maybe Jesus sees that all this guy has—his knowledge of the law, his perfect piety, his abundant wealth—all that has distorted his sense of himself, distorted his sense of God, distorted his sense of his neighbor. Jesus sees all that. Might that be, then, why Jesus tells him to divest? Does Jesus give him that command so that this seeking, heartsick man can really learn to live by faith in God and in solidarity with neighbor for the first time in his life, which would be like having, when you think about it, treasure in heaven (Lose, “Curing Our Heartsickness”)?
Jesus looked this heartsick man in the eyes and realized that all of this man’s knowledge, his sense of piety, and his abundant wealth—things the man considered his achievements—were actually keeping him from being able to fully live as a disciple, in part because all of those achievements offered him a false sense of security, a false sense of superiority, a false sense of wholeness. Until that rich man was willing to let go of all of it, all of those achievements solely on which he had built his identity, his whole life—until he was willing to give that all up, he would be unable to be healed. He would be unable to authentically follow the One in whom his identity was truly found. Perhaps what that rich man lacked was the ability, the trust, the faith to remember to whom he actually belonged and how that belongingness needed to impact the decisions he made in his life. Since he lacked that, he was not freed up enough to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.
As we move into this season of Lent together, I’ve been wondering what we, like that rich man, lack. What is keeping us from following Jesus with our whole hearts, our whole selves? How do we need to be healed this Lent? If our interpretation of this encounter as a healing story is true, “then Jesus might just be doing the same thing to us even now. That is, Jesus might be looking at us with love and, perceiving the deep heartsickness in each of us, actually asking something of us, giving us something to do, something to give up or away, somewhere to go” (Lose).
Are there things or ways of being that we are so afraid to let go of that we, like the rich man, might rather choose to just walk away sad and leave the possibility of faithful discipleship, the possibility of our healing, behind? Might that “thing” be our wealth or material goods? For some of us, it very well could be. After all, we have worked hard. We’ve achieved a lot. Some of us have made decisions that kept us away from important family events or important moments with friends so that we could really excel at our job, so that we could provide what we feel is honest security for those we love.
As a result of that, for some of us, our net worth has become the primary thing that gives us worth, the primary way we measure our life’s value and meaning. Thus the idea of divesting ourselves of any of it, never mind all of it, sounds terrifying. So even if our hearts break as we walk away from Jesus, so be it. We’d rather be heartbroken and well-off, instead of healed. Are some of us quite similar to the rich man himself? Is that what we lack, what is making us heartsick?
Or might the thing that is holding us back from our healing, the thing that is making us heartsick, be our strong partisan worldviews? Have we become so entrenched in our way of thinking, only listening to those who are on the same page, writing off as ridiculous anyone who feels differently, that we are now primarily defined by our partisanship? We are a liberal or an independent or a conservative first; disciple, second? Is it how we vote that primarily defines us these days?
We see examples of this temptation all the time: Just look at the complete standstill on any kind of honest debate or conversation about gun control—even after this week. Though most of those in elected office claim to be people of faith, regularly offering thoughts and prayers for the victims, they are seemingly unable to lay down their partisanship and figure out how to arrest this nonsensical violence. Even the conversation itself appears to be completely taboo in the halls of Congress. So is it our partisan identity that’s keeping us from fully being a disciple, from being healed?
Those are just two possibilities. Perhaps it is neither of these things that are making you heartsick but something else completely. Maybe its fear or grief or anger. Perhaps its guilt or the inability to forgive. I don’t know what it is for you. What I do know, though, is that Lent offers us the time to figure it out if we want to. If we put ourselves in the position of the rich man, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, seeking our healing even if we don’t know how to ask for it, what does Jesus see in us as he looks at each of us with deep love? What lacking does he perceive in us?
What is making us heartsick, unable or unwilling to follow him with our whole selves, our whole lives? Once that becomes more clear to us, if Jesus were to say to us, which he does, “Now, go and get rid of that so you can follow me,” are we able to let whatever it is go? Or do we join the rich man in walking away from Jesus, full of deep grief, full of heartbreak, but nonetheless still choosing to stay stuck, still choosing to stay the same?
Perhaps we ought to just skip ahead to my favorite part again—everything is possible for God. Even our healing. Even our salvation. Even our liberation. But still, this Lent, I invite all of us to ask ourselves what it is that Jesus would perceive that we lack. What is it that keeps us from living fully in God’s new order, in the reign of heaven?