The collect and readings for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B, may be found here. The following sermon is based on Mark 10:17-31.
The man in today’s gospel has plenty of stuff but something is missing. His life is full but he is empty. Despite his acquisitions and accumulations he is searching for more. He’s acquired wealth but not the life he wants. There is an urgency about the man in today’s gospel. He doesn’t just go to Jesus. He runs to him and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He is looking for the life that only God can give. He’s heard about it since his youth. It’s the story told in scripture. It’s the life promised to his and our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s the life that drew the Israelites through the Red Sea and into the wilderness. Like those before him this man is seeking the promised land. Despite his wealth, being good, and doing all the right things he just can’t seem to get there.
I suspect most of us know what it is like to be the man in today’s gospel. There are moments in life when we sense that something is lacking. That inner restlessness, emptiness, and longing tell us there is something more.
We could each tell our own version of the man’s story. It might go something like this. “I’ve worked hard. I have a good education. I say my prayers and go to church. I am a good wife, a loving father, a successful businessperson. I volunteer in the community. I have a nice house, two cars, and a dog. My children are cute and bright. I have all I need. By all measures I am a success. I’ve done everything I was supposed to do and yet…. Something’s still missing.” We echo the man’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus’ answer creates a dilemma for the man. It leaves him stuck in the middle. Jesus and the way to eternal life stand in front of him. Behind him are his wealth possessions. Within him are a sense of accomplishment and a nagging emptiness.
It is too much for the man. He’s shocked at Jesus’ answer. That is more than he is willing to spend. He went away grieving.
Authentic spirituality, the way of Christ, is always about letting go. Jesus has already told the disciples this twice. He will tell them a third time right after today’s gospel. Three times he tells them that he will be killed and put to death, the ultimate letting go, so that he might be raised to new life.
Letting go is the answer to the man’s question. Think about it. What’s necessary for inheritance to happen? Death. In order for an inheritance to happen someone must die. That someone is the man. Jesus is asking the man to let go of his life, to die, so that he might inherit eternal life. That’s the way of the cross. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. The issue is the man’s willingness to die not the size of his bank account.
Do we really think Jesus is so offended by wealth that he excludes the wealthy from the kingdom of heaven? Do we really think Jesus is telling the wealthy to buy their way into the kingdom by selling their stuff and giving the money to the poor? So now the formerly rich, the excluded, are now poor and included and the formerly poor, the included, are now rich and excluded! That makes no sense. That is not what this gospel is about. Jesus, St. Mark says, loved this wealthy man.
This gospel is more about life than it is money, though the two are not unrelated. Jesus is being descriptive not prescriptive. Jesus is not telling us what we should do with our wealth. He is describing what our wealth does to us; how it traps and possesses us, denying us the life we most want. If you do not think of yourself as wealthy consider this. An income of $25000 per year places you in the wealthiest 10% worldwide and just $5000 puts you in the top 15%. (See Globalrichlist.com) Perhaps we should be shocked. Perhaps we should grieve.
That we usually hear this text as being all about our money, our wealth, reveals just how easily we confuse our wealth and possessions with our life. That’s why it is so hard “for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” I think that’s also why Jesus answered the man by talking about money. Too many of us are looking for what a friend of mine described as a “hearse with a trailer hitch.” We want to take it all with us.
We don’t get to do that. Someday we will leave behind the life we have created for ourselves, the possessions we have acquired, and the wealth we have accumulated. It might be next week, in five years, or thirty years. Or we can choose to make it today. That’s what Jesus asked of the man in today’s gospel. It is what he asks of us.
We can choose this day to let go, to die before we die. It means that we allow our spirit to rise above ourselves. We don’t take ourselves more seriously than we take God. It means our life is to be found in Christ not in wealth and possessions. We live from a security other than savings and insurance. Our primarily investment is not in our retirement but in our neighbor. Ultimately, it means we do not create our own life, we receive life, we inherit it. We are not owners of our life but stewards and caretakers of God’s life in the world, each other, and ourselves. We are free to possess without being possessed by our wealth.
Christ alone makes it possible to let go, to die. We surrender all that we are and all that we have and find that we now lack nothing. We have inherited all that Christ is and has. The life we sought is now the life we live.