The Bible asks us to do some pretty hard things. If you disagree with that statement, I encourage you to go home this afternoon and read your Bible – especially the gospels - very carefully. If you’re not squirming, you may not be digging deep enough into it. If you don’t see Jesus in the pages of the gospels asking us to do things that are ridiculously difficult and contrary to our gut reactions, then you might be glossing over things a bit.
Jesus was a radical.
When I was in high school and college, those WWJD – What Would Jesus Do – bracelets were popular. I think you can still find them in some Christian stores or online. I never liked those very much. Something like that can be effective when you want a reminder of who you’re representing, but this particular fad seemed to just highlight the importance of doing the right thing to get into heaven. Which is totally contrary to what Jesus is telling the young man in Mark.
The rich man in Mark has been playing it all right – following all the rules. So he assumes that getting into heaven is about making sure he’s followed the right rule. Instead of pointing out all the stuff that he’s failed at when he has actually been trying to follow the law, Jesus gets to the heart of his weakness. This man who has everything he could need assumes that eternal life is just another thing that he can earn with hard work. But Jesus says, take all the fruits of your labors and rule-following and working and sell them off. They don’t matter. Jesus is definitely concerned about this man taking care of the poor with his excess, but he’s not just telling him to get rid of the extra for the sake of taking care of the poor or because there is something in that act that will put him over the edge in his quest to earn his way into heaven.. This wealth is what is standing in his way because it has put him in a place of assuming that he can simply work or earn or buy his way to heaven and that getting into heaven via merit based individual salvation – is the only thing that matters in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’s answer is not just shocking because of the extreme thing he’s asking the rich man to do. He isn’t just questioning the man’s wealth, but the value that he’s placed in the earning of it. “You can’t put your security in hard work and storing up possessions,” Jesus tells him before going on to remind him that that counts both in physical and spiritual circumstances.
The Old Testamant passage in the lectionary this week, which we didn’t read this morning, is from Job 23:1-9 and 16-17. I think it helps to bring some of this together, so I’m going to read it now.
This lament from Job has a lot of similarities to the Psalm from this morning. Job is feeling forsaken by God. Job was a rich man. Job was a righteous man. He had worked hard for what he had and he had faithfully followed God for his whole life. And one day, he lost everything. Ultimately, he did not curse God – in spite of his clear anger and despair – and God did restore him after a time, but it was not easy for him. It is a story that reminds us sometimes terrible things happen inexplicably to good, hard working people with great faith and if that faith is all about earning and tallies and doing the right thing, it won’t hold water – like the young man from Mark. Jesus says that the man must have the sort of faith that Job has – faith that even in the midst of inexplicable despair and lack of wealth, blossoms. The rich man in Mark has been relying on the wrong sort of faith.
Job relied on God and he is remembered for his faith, even after spending many many many long days questioning God, questioning his faith. Because ultimately, Job’s faith was in God and not in himself or his wealth or even in his own pious religiosity. Whereas when the young man leaves Jesus, he is disheartened that he cannot simply earn or merit or rule follow his way into heaven, for Job, it’s about the relationship – as real and gritty as it is.
This text about the rich man and his salvation asks us to look at how we value wealth, but more importantly, it asks us to look at how we view salvation. It asks us to look at what we mean when we talk about salvation and eternal life and faith in God. If we are simply trying to earn a ticket into heaven, we’re barking up the wrong tree.
Psalm 22 is an important Psalm. This is the Psalm that Jesus quoted on the cross. On the cross. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?!” It’s a conundrum for us because if Jesus is God, how could God have truly abandoned Jesus. It’s been generally agreed – even since the early church – that Jesus was, however referring to the entire Psalm. Just like if someone were to ask me how I went from total being a complete mess to where I am today I might simply say, “Amazing Grace” and just those two words would invoke the power of the entire hymn. When I mention that hymn, it’s like telling a story in two words. There is a journey implied by suggesting that hymn. Jesus and his historical peers would have known the Psalms as well as we know Amazing Grace. So when he quoted the first line of this Psalm, he was telling an entire story of sorrow and suffering, as well as faith and reliance on God who historically stands by God’s people. He was invoking the story of that whole Psalm, the whole back and forth wrestling with faith, with being in agony and sorrow to the point of feeling abandoned, all while remembering that God has been faithful in the past and God does not change.
In a nutshell. . . Jesus knows how hard this is. Jesus knows about this battle called faith. He knows how difficult it is to walk through inexplicable difficult times. He lived our suffering. Jesus knows how hard it is to put faith in God above everything else in all circumstances – prosperous ones or circumstances full of suffering.
Life with God is not about being prosperous by earthly standards. The Bible never says that God will bless the faithful with earthly wealth or possessions. Life with God is not even about saying the right magic words or doing enough of the right things to earn what I once heard someone refer to as a “golden train ticket to heaven.” Life with God is about faith in a god who transforms us – who changes who we are from who the world has beaten us into being into who God made us to be. And that takes relationship. It takes fervent seeking of Jesus above all else. God so cared about being with us that Jesus – God’s own self – came into history and onto this earth and experienced the very depths of all our suffering.
This is why, my friends, we do things like worship in a community, attend Sunday school, read our Bible on days that aren’t Sundays, pray, spend time in silence, practice the twin disciplines of simplicity and generosity. These are all ways that we set aside the distractions in order to focus on God. It’s hard to give up that much time. It’s difficult to make giving to the church and other charities a priority in our budgets. It’s a real pain in the neck to get up every Sunday morning and haul ourselves to church, let alone come here during the week for a bible study or a lunch or some other meeting or event. Especially when we know deep down that doing those things won’t make us any more worthy of heaven.
So thank God that we aren’t called to that sort of life because it’ll get us into heaven. Jesus gets us into heaven. And we find him here. Here in this place is where we meet with God. In the hours we snatch from other activities we might rather be dong, we find the Holy Spirit. In the painful generosity of giving up some object we really like for the sake of someone who really needs it, we connect with Jesus’ sacrifice on some tiny level. What a grace that our God is not a god of arbitrary rules and regulations, of hoops and red tape, but of relationship. As we sing our next hymn this morning and then enter into our time of prayer, let’s remember why we are here. Let us quiet our hearts and our earthly desires so that we can meet with God.