Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 10th, 2021

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 10th, 2021

Proper 23

Holy Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
Rev. Phil Schmidt

In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit Amen.

In the year 1970 I was walking through a pubic pedestrian area when someone came up to me and asked: “Have you been saved?”

This question caught me off-guard. I wanted to respond by saying, “Don’t I look as though I have been saved?” Instead I asked him what he meant by the word “saved”? He explained that if I asked Jesus for forgiveness, believing that he had died on the cross for my sins, accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, then when I died, my soul would go to heaven where I would have eternal life. I told him that I was a Christian and a theology student, but he did not seem to be satisfied with this answer. He wanted to know if I had so-called “saving faith”.

This street missionary evangelist would have loved to encounter the rich young man who came up to Jesus asking him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The street evangelist knew an exact answer to this question. However, the answer which Jesus gave does not fit into any Christian belief system. He told the young man: You already know the answer: keep the commandments. Jesus specifically mentions 6 of the 10 commandments.

The young man is not satisfied with this answer. He had been keeping these 6 commandments ever since his Bar Mitzva, that is, ever since he was 13 years old. There must be more to it than that. Jesus responds by saying: sell all of your possessions, give the money to the poor and follow me. Jesus’ disciples are stunned. They ask, “Can anyone be saved?” At that time, prosperity was regarded as a sign of God’s blessing. If a person blessed by God with wealth and possessions cannot be saved, then can anyone be saved? Jesus answered: No, of course not; it is impossible. No human being can be saved, but with God, all things are possible.

This conversation between Jesus, the rich young man and the disciples is confusing. It does not make sense to us Christians living in the 21st century. When we hear words like “eternal life”, a “treasure in heaven” and being “saved”, we project onto this story twenty centuries of Christian history and tradition. We have a historic tendency to think that Christian faith is focused upon saving the souls of sinners from eternal damnation. No Christian community has ever believed that if you keep 6 of the 10 commandments, you will go to heaven.

But within the context of Judaism in the first century, words like “eternal life” and being “saved” were about life on earth, not life after death. Eternal life begins here on this earth. The focus is on what God is doing within human history to create a kingdom in which every life is sacred, in which each person experiences justice and dignity. Everyone can and should participate in the establishment of this new world.

Jesus does not want to ruin the young man’s life by forcing him into a life of poverty; he actually wants the young man to enjoy his life, but being rich was hindering him from being joyful, grateful and compassionate.

When Jesus said: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” he is not talking about a life in heaven after death. He is talking about participating in a global community (the kingdom of God), in which every single person has been freed from all things which enslave humanity – now and forever.

Wealth is one of those things which can enslave us. The effect of wealth on people has been studied empirically: for example, at the University of California in Berkeley and at the University of Virginia. In both schools the research results were practically identical. Studies about the effect of wealth have come to the following conclusions:

  • Rich people are much more likely than the rest of humanity to shoplift and cheat
  • The rich tend to be more aggressive, more impulsive and more uninhibited, which makes them more likely to commit adultery and be heavy drinkers.
  • People who drive expensive cars are more prone to run stop signs and cut off the right of way of other motorists. 
  • If you are about to go over a crosswalk, you can reckon that people driving inexpensive cars will stop for you, while half of the drivers of high-priced cars will ignore you, even after making eye contact.
  • The rich are the worst tax evaders – just think of the Pandora Papers.
  • The rich give proportionally less to charity than non-wealthy people.
  • They show less compassion and empathytoward suffering people.
  • They tend to be poor listeners.
  • They seem to have a hard time enjoying simple, everyday pleasures.
  • They tend to believe that they deserve their wealth, which lowers their capacity for gratitude and thankfulness.
  • The rich seem to be more susceptible to loneliness, which gives them a tendency to be self-destructive.

Andrew Carnegie, who was once the richest person on earth, said: „Millionaires seldom smile.“

These empirical studies of the effect of wealth indicate what Jesus was addressing when he talked to the rich, young man. There are, of course, many wealthy people who are humane, generous and compassionate, but the research about the contaminating effect of wealth is a warning to us, because all of us who live in Western civilization are extremely prosperous in comparison to most people who have lived on this earth.

The gospel of Mark says about the young person who asked Jesus about eternal life that “he had many possessions.” However, he lived in Palestine in the 1st century. In comparison to us, he was a wretchedly poor person. If the so-called rich person who confronted Jesus could have been transported to a typical household today he would have been astounded at seeing things like a refrigerator, a bathroom, clear drinking water coming out of a faucet, a heating system, electric lighting, glass windows and a telephone, which gives you access to immediate medical attention. In other words, the warnings of Jesus about riches are also relevant for us.

So, what can we rich people learn from this encounter recorded in Mark?

First of all, we should not worry about what happens after death. Nothing that we do will ultimately determine our eternal destiny. As Jesus said: No one can be saved; it is impossible. But all things are possible for God. If anyone enters into eternal glory, it is a miracle of love and grace. Our final destiny is entirely in the hands of God. So, we have nothing to worry about, because God’s love is unconditional and all-encompassing. He is the good shepherd who refuses to abandon anyone in the valley of the shadow of death.

Secondly, we should not overlook the first response of Jesus to the question: How can I gain access to eternal life? The 6 commandments which Jesus mentions are the key. Jesus leaves out the four commandments which regulate Israel’s special relationship with God; the other 6 are universally binding for all people. They describe the world community which God wants to create now and forever. God wants to create a global society in which there is no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no perjury, no fraud and no neglect of parents. These commandments can be summed up in one sentence: do not injure anyone.

The word “fraud” in this context seems to be out of place. The 10th commandment is usually translated “You shall not covet”, which seems to mean: do not allow yourself to have greedy and envious feelings. However, Biblical mandates are not about feelings, but about words and deeds which can be verified. “You shall not covet” has been interpreted by Jewish scholars to mean: you shall not swindle people out of things which they need for survival. Just imagine what the world would look like if there were no tax fraud anywhere.

In other words, Jesus is not looking for some extraordinary feat of self-sacrifice. He is confirming how important it is to live an ordinary life in a decent way. If we can just avoid harming people, that goes a long way toward being part of God’s kingdom – and there are a lot of ways to harm people in this age of social media, climate change and infection dangers.

If being wealthy has a corrupting influence on us, then we should consider doing more for the poor and the suffering, so that we do not lose things like gratitude, compassion, empathy, joy and cheerfulness.

A final thought: Jesus said to the young man: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus is perhaps telling the young man in a roundabout way that he is standing in the immediate presence of God, because Jesus embodies the goodness which God alone possesses. When Jesus invited the young man to follow him, he was inviting him to remain physically close to God. For us Christians, being close to Jesus, being close to the crucified and resurrected Lord, is the essence of eternal life. This closeness to Jesus has a physical dimension. That is why the Eucharist is so essential for us. With bread and wine we experience bodily the nearness of God’s eternal glory. Being intimately connected to God through Jesus can save us rich people from the contaminating effects of wealth and power.

So, may God help us to do those things which allow us to participate in God’s realm here on earth, which carries over into a future realm, in which there will be no tears on anyone’s face, no corruption, no mourning, no agony, no armed conflict and no death anymore. Amen.

Holy Gospel: Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus 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.”