The Theology of $elf

This sermon is the third in the series of sermons on the Rich Man, but this time in Mark’s Gospel. I preached on the passage a third time when it came up in the lectionary (the previous two times in a preaching course). I preached it almost a year after I wrote the other two sermons. I’ll leave it up to you to see the differences.


As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”

He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.”

When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Mark 10:17-31, NRSV

In case you didn’t know, the economy isn’t in good shape right now. The politicians tell me it’s worse than ever and it’s everyone’s fault so long as it’s not theirs. Things are getting better — little by little — but it has not been speedy and it will not be fast. We’re adjusting to a new way of life with a lot less borrowing and a lot more saving. In the meantime, the transition is anything but pleasant.

It’s so unpleasant, I think, because it feels so futile. It doesn’t seem like we have a lot of say in how things go. On the one hand, our voice and our vote don’t seem to matter. We can’t often oust congressional incumbents. We can’t make our legislators work together. We can’t hope to match the money special interests, corporations, lobbyists, and think tanks put into engineering not just elections but politicians. Even the people we like are subservient to a broken, crooked system. And on the other hand, the economy, if we leave it out of the hands of the politicians, falls into the hands of another elite few — and we definitely  don’t even get to at least feel like we’re electing them. These bankers and brokers run a manipulative and abstract system that I can’t even hope to understand. They play with our retirements and our futures like it’s pocket change. They guide the price of goods and gasoline, impacting our lives in ways in which we have no input. They’re privy to languages and levers to which you and I simply have no access.

So what do we do when one of those people walks up to Jesus? I’m going to be straight with you. I’m not going to lie to you or hide what I think from you. I have a lot of difficulties with this passage. I want to get mad. I want to start flipping tables and be all self-righteous about it. I want to get angry. I want to get mad. I want to get mad at the banks that collapsed our economy. I want to get mad at the politicians who let them. I want to get mad at the people who continue to have — and have more and more — at the expense of those who have not. I want to get mad when every time I want to talk about things like poverty, racism, injustice, or oppression, people call me a socialist. I want to get mad when, as Archbishop Hélder Camara said s well, “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” I want to get mad when we talk about wealth, prosperity — money.

But that’s not what Jesus does.

That’s not what Jesus does. Sure, elsewhere we get to see Jesus flip some tables, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, Jesus looks upon this man and loves him. I told you, I’m not going to lie to you this morning. There are days when I get so frustrated, I want to join the Occupy Wall Street crowd in protest against the imaginary money markets that dictate our lives. I want to hate the people who get their kicks and giggles — and paychecks! — from gambling with our future. I want to hate the people who got us into this mess, whether they’re bankers or politicians.

But that’s not what Jesus does.

Jesus loves him.

How can he do that? How does he do that? Jesus can do this because Jesus understands the fundamental flaw in my anger and resentment. My anger and resentment are based on the idea that worth and significance comes from the zeroes and dollar signs on a paycheck, the bills and coins in my pockets, the stuff that I have. My outrage stems from the idea that material success is what matters. They made my material future different than I want it to be, and that’s a direct affront to my identity.

And that’s what I’ve always been told. We all grow up in this culture of the “American Dream,” don’t we?, that we must be successful and materially prosperous, with a beautiful spouse, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence. We’re told we’ve got a ladder to climb and that all our lives are about us getting to the top of our available ladder. We’re inundated, flooded, with advertisements showing us what we “need,” what “completes” us, what helps us climb up a few more rungs of that ladder.

It’s either that or we’re classified by our possessions and monetary value. Mitt Romney calls us the 47% or we’re told to rage against the 1%. We are the 99%, right? We are all the “middle class.” We need to tax everyone who isn’t us. We’re either hard workers or victims, we’re either dependents or job-creators. We are defined by our money, our stuff.

Jesus understands in this passage that there’s a profound problem with this identity. To put it simply, this sense of identity isn’t recession-proof. It’s not depression-proof. It’s like when a man builds a house on sand and when the waves come, when the storm comes, and when the winds billow against that house it’s going to fall — and great is its fall.

So, no, Jesus understands that the identity, the self, the totality of this man is not what we’ve been told. There are two principle errors the passage here points out. First: piety and religion. This man followed all the rules. He was religion’s poster boy. H did everything right. But that wasn’t it. It’s not religion on its own that gets you to eternity. Eternal life doesn’t come to dwell in you simply because you follow the rules. Second: money. The man’s possessions, his stuff — he can’t leave it. It’s too integral to his sense of himself. He can’t follow Jesus if he has to lose his whole self. And he probably feels that way because he’s been taught just like you and me. But that’s not how it works! So Jesus tells him that he has to give it up.

Now Jesus loves him anyway because he knows where worth comes from. True worth comes from God. True worth comes from knowing God loves you and that God loves you — period. God does not love you just because you are. God does not love you in spite of who you are. God loves you — God loves you because you because you are who are. God loves you. There’s nothing you can do to change that. God chose to make you and God actively chooses to sustain you. God loves you. Period.

And it is out of this love that God invites us on a journey with God. That’s where the other aspect of Jesus’ command to the man comes in. The man is not just supposed to give up his stuff to embark on some special adventure of self-discovery. Giving it up isn’t primarily for him. Why? Because in this asking us to be a part of this journey, Jesus is asking us to see the world in a different way.

You see, the good news, the Gospel, is not just that Jesus died for our  sins and we can have a personal relationship with God. That is it. That’s a crucial part of it — it’s central. However, the good news, the Gospel, too is that the world isn’t the way that we thought. The Incarnation — God becoming flesh with us — and the Resurrection show us that the whole universe, the cosmos, is different than we once thought.

Can I make that concrete? Can I make that a little clearer? Well take the example in this passage. Jesus says:

“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Isn’t that a different vision of how the world works? Take this example, too:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:20-21)

Or this:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:3-9)

This is a radically different conception of the world than the American Dream. This is a radically different world that we are presented by our politicians. This is a radically different world than the one advertised to us. Is it true?

I think Jesus invites the rich man, and us, you and me, into a journey in which we make this true in our midst. The kingdom of God is within you. Look around you, have you not received these, your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons? Have you not received this place — your house? Have you not received each others’ houses and fields as to who has need, just as it says in Acts 2? That’s the journey Jesus is inviting us to.

He isn’t just welcoming us into a new way of seeing the world but into a new way of acting in the world. We’re here to be family to each other and to our neighbors. We’re here to share with and support one another with our stuff — our stuff that’s not our identity but a part of the world, a tool that we use to help enact this kingdom of God Jesus is talking about.

That’s why it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven! When we enter the kingdom, we kind of have to stop being rich. Our stuff instead of defining who we are is a part of us available for God’s use among us. What we have is God’s for each other. Now, that’s a different way of looking at the world, but it’s the glimpse of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus wanted this man — and now he wants us —to see. It’s a vision of the world that’s recession-proof, it’s depression-proof. It’s like when a man builds his house upon a solid rock and the waves come, the storm comes, and the winds billow against the house … but it stands, because our hope is built on nothing less.

Let us pray.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s