Sermon based on Mark 10:17-31
How do you change a negative into a positive? Now I am not discussing mathematics and changing negative numbers. Rather, I was thinking of something entirely different. Parker Palmer, an author and educator, in a book about discerning our vocations, discusses what he calls the Rosa Park Decision. Link
Rosa Parks is that famous African American activist who on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, rejected a bus driver’s order to relinquish her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger, after the whites-only section was filled. That action helped encourage what became a pivotal event in the civil rights, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Parker calls this “the Rosa Parks decision. She essentially said, ‘I'm no longer going to behave on the outside as if I were less than the full person I know myself to be on the inside.’” Or to put it another way, “How do people find the courage to bring inner convictions into harmony with outer acts, knowing the risks involved?”
When the police came to Rosa Parks on the bus and informed her that they would have to put her in jail if she did not move, she replied, ‘You may do that.’ It was that moment something clicked according to Palmer, a very polite way of saying, ‘How could your jail begin to compare with the jail I have had myself in all these years by collaborating with this system that has treated me as less than equal?” What happened to Rosa Parks is where all of us need to be. Palmer wrote: “They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside.”
That question on vocation posed by educator and author Parker Palmer came to mind, after reading today’s gospel reading, where a would-be follower --- identified only as a rich person --- approaches Jesus, whom he believes to be have some insight regarding the kingdom of God.
This man seems to be interviewing for a job and even has an impressive resume. He seems to be looking for a place to live out his beliefs. According to what we read, Jesus looks at this guy and likes him --- a lot. In fact, the text says Jesus loved him. Jesus would love to have him --- let’s call him Jose --- join the team. And why not? Jesus would be smart to add this discipleship candidate. Our congregation certainly would!
All indications are that he is young. He’s reverential ---- he knelt before Jesus. Jose we are told follows the Law of Moses, so he’s religiously observant, indicating that he will pass his background check, has no criminal record and is an upstanding citizen. And --- need we forget --- he’s a potential angel investor, a wealthy person with financial resources to fund Jesus’ mission!
With that impressive resume, Jesus gives Jose the good news: the job is his. All he must do is donate 100 percent of his possessions and give them to the poor --- not 5 percent or 10 percent, but 100 percent. Then, Jesus adds that once Jose has disposed of his possessions, he can then, return and follow. The opportunity is his. He has found a place to live his values!
But we are told that Jose, alas, is “shocked.” Now some of us probably can see this coming as Jesus had recently posted a memo about picking up the cross and following. Nonetheless, we may be surprised as much as Jose, because in the past Jesus had not explicitly demanded that level of sacrifice. Was it perhaps because the other disciples, other than Matthew the former tax collector come from more humble beginnings, being fisherman and all for example.
Regardless, Jose we are told is genuinely disappointed and went away not upset but grieving. He just can’t do it. Jose turns away and we never hear of him again in the gospels.
Palmer says when Rosa Parks refused to stand she was putting into harmony her true self, undivided. Parker Palmer suggests what ultimately changed for Rosa Parks was that she was not longer willing to put up with the punishment she knew she would receive by remaining in that seat with what she was doing to herself on the inside.
But what about Jose? Does that explain what happened to him, divided between what he voiced, the language he used, the right things he said, and what was in his heart? Let us go back to the text --- notice at least six things: Jose wants to “inherit” eternal life. Jesus gets a little touchy about being called “good.” And then for us Lutherans this whole thing about, “entering” the kingdom of God is all about what we do --- not what we believe --- is grating. And in this era of President Trump, Jesus says it is difficult for the wealthy to get into the kingdom of God. And although Jesus doesn’t really explain this comment, Jesus does say that “for God all things are possible.” Then of course we have that famous line often misquoted where Jesus says that “many” --- not all!!! --- who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
So, let’s take a closer look at these six statements.
First, Jose --- who in Luke is called a “ruler” (18:18) and in Matthew is called “young” (19:20) — wants to inherit eternal life. This is a good thing. How can it be a bad thing? But Jose is not sure what he needs to “do."
Overall this gives us a positive image of Jose. He runs up to Jesus. He’s eager and excited. He kneels before Jesus right there in the road, in public, in broad daylight. He doesn’t seek a midnight meeting with Jesus as did Nicodemus. He’s bold, self-assured, reverential and respectful.
Jose must have been encouraged when Jesus began to rattle off portions of what is known as the second table of the Ten Commandments, which pertain to one’s relationship to one’s neighbors. Jose was probably feeling, “Yes! I got this!” He tells Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” (v. 20).
But Jesus somehow knows that there’s possibly an obstacle which has such a strong hold on this young man that he’ll not be able to commit to this life of following Jesus; this journey of combining heart and life.
Second, Jesus gets a little touchy about being called “good.” Why? Jesus might have been trying to dampen this young man’s enthusiasm. “Hold on for a second! Don’t call me good.” And citing Jewish tradition which reserves the title of “good” for God alone, he reminds Jose that eternal life is all about God. But, still, Jesus’ response seems odd, and the young man might not have understood the point Jesus was making --- just like we, too, don’t always understand what the Lord seems to be saying to us, this challenge of faith in our heart and on our lips.
Third, “entering” the kingdom of God is all about what we do — not what we believe. This is the conclusion we might come to when reading this passage. Again, for us Lutherans that is distributing because it is God’s grace alone that brings us right before God, but this reading is a good reminder that what we do --- does matter. For the rich man, his failure to do the one thing that would demonstrate his faith in Jesus revealed this disconnect. Jose didn’t even try.
By asking Jose to give his possessions to the poor --- an ultimate expression of his ability to keep the second table of the Ten Commandments --- Jesus reveals that Jose cannot keep one of the commandments from the first table, that is, the prohibition against idol worship. His possessions where his idol and when it came down to it, that was the truth.
Rosa Parks knew that she was equal to anyone else but was being treated as subhuman. Today, we come to find out who Jose was. Jesus’ command unerringly zeroed in on Jose’s exclusive source of well-being. His most important sense of self came from the status, power and security his affluence afforded him. Not faith in God. It was the fact that he was privileged, and Jose is exposed. He is an idol worshiper and his idol are mammon. Jose ultimately cannot give up his privilege for the promise of being made whole.
Fourth, Jesus says it is difficult for the wealthy to get into the kingdom of God. Jesus’ suggestion that Eli impoverish himself also flies in the face of the common understanding --- even currently --- that blessings are a sign of divine favor. Jesus says it is no such thing.
Jesus’ command not only shocks the man, but it stuns those who cling to the standards of first-century faith at the time of Jesus. While there was no scriptural prohibition preventing Jews from giving away all personal belongings, it was expected that no one give more than one-fifth of one’s personal property. This ensured that no one would not be reduced to poverty --- thus becoming another candidate for charity them self.
But note that although Jesus says it is hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God, he does not say it is impossible. It’s difficult not because there’s anything inherently wicked about being rich, but because the love of wealth so often makes it difficult to be our true selves. It could be because they don’t know who they are apart from their wealth. Do we know we are children of God adopted into the family of God by Baptism?
Fifth, Jesus doesn’t really explain himself to the disciples, but only says that “for God all things are possible.” In fact, that the wealthy or the powerful enter the kingdom of God is nothing short of amazing. For us Lutherans of course, that is something we know well because it’s mindboggling that anyone is allowed into the kingdom of God! It’s only by the love, grace and mercy of God! Jesus’ final words reveal where we place our confidence: “For God all things are possible.”
Lastly, Jesus says that “many --- not all!!! --- who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (v. 31). Jesus reminds his disciples --- after Jose has arisen from his kneeling position and left, unhappy and grieving --- that a little humility, any humility, goes a long way. Or as Parker Palmer suggests: “every journey, honestly undertaken, stands a chance of taking us toward the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need,” if we only are honest. For example, what if Jose instead of walking away had simply said, “Jesus help me, for I cannot.”
How can today lesson help any of us who perhaps are in the same boat as the wealthy young, man. I suspect none of us is fully ready to deed everything over to this church and come live in this building to do mission and ministry all day, every day. Perhaps that is why we honor such people as Rosa Parks! Nonetheless the truth is eternal life is found only in the Way with Jesus. This young man’s failure to follow through on Jesus’ final demand reveals that all his language did not reflect his heart and was governed more by possessions and position than by a true thirst for justice.
Now let us be clear, the wealthy man’s shock and sadness are not a judgment of his worth in the kingdom to come; they simply reveal his inability to accept the call of Christ that is before him. Jesus still loved him. Rather, he has missed the opportunity for a true blessing, to be whole.
God's demand is for all our heart, mind and soul not because God needs anything, rather so that we be made whole. We are broken people. Recognizing how far we are from God’s desires but even more so trusting in the only thing that carries us, Jesus life, death and resurrection. May we grow each day into whom God has called us to be. Trusting in the grace we have received so that we act on the outside in a way that does not contradict the faith and truth that we are saved by the cross, adopted into God’s family and blessed. Amen.