Proper 23B Sermon (2021)

Proper 23 (October 9-15)
Texts: Mark 10:17-31;
Heb 4:12-16; Amos 5:6-15


Jesus, looking at the man, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. . . ; then come, follow me.”

I just read the only instance of the word love in the entire Gospel of Mark. Of all the characters in Mark’s Gospel, including the many who do choose to follow Jesus, why does Mark reserve the word love for only this one man, who is ‘shocked and goes away grieving’ at what Jesus asks of him? This is also the only story in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus invites someone to follow him and gets turned down. We are told that it’s because the man is wealthy — “for he had many possessions,” Mark tells us. The original Greek could also be translated as “he had lots of property” — in other words, he was typical of wealthy people in those days in controlling huge plots of land on which many poor folks worked. He was the kind of landowner that the average person loved to hate. Yet only for this man does Mark record that Jesus loved him.

Jesus goes on to say tough words about rich people to his disciples (which we’ll get to later), so I’ll ask again: why does Mark squander his one use of the word love on a rich man? Why? Because Jesus truly came to launch the kingdom of God, to which he lovingly wants all people to enter, including this rich man. But Jesus also knows the hurdle this man must clear in order to enter it. Sure enough this man turns down the invitation and walks away in sadness. Jesus is sad, too, because the coming of God’s reign into this world is a wondrous thing, and this man will miss it. The obvious reason he will miss it is because he walks away and doesn’t follow Jesus to consequently witness its arrival.

But there’s another less obvious reason this rich man will miss it that has to do with the politics of God’s reign — which Jesus makes crystal clear after the man leaves. Jesus states three times how hard it is for rich people to enter God’s kingdom. The last time he makes a joke of it, by bringing together the largest known animal in the Middle East, the camel, with the smallest known aperture, the eye of a needle. The man will miss the coming of God’s reign, then, not just because he doesn’t follow Jesus, but also because he refuses to give up his wealth — to which Jesus emphatically makes clear is a disqualifier: Wealthy people simply cannot get into God’s kingdom with their wealth intact. Impossible. So Mark tells us that Jesus loves this man because he wants everyone to enter the kingdom of God, and yet he knows it will be nearly impossible for this wealthy man to enter God’s reign. The only way is for Jesus to ask him something very difficult: namely, for him to give up his wealth so that he can enter the kingdom.

What’s going on here? In our old Lutheran frame of the Gospel, “justification by grace through faith,” this sounds like “works righteousness,” doesn’t it? This man has to give up all his wealth in order to get into heaven? How is that grace? Right? It’s works righteousness. It’s requiring that he do something in order to be saved from going to hell.

What’s going on here is our old Lutheran frame of the Gospel. When I was here last, I proposed to you that our children and grandchildren are mostly missing from church because our main message is missing the mark with them. We have focused on salvation as being about the afterlife. Our children and grandchildren are facing a world with many serious crises. They are craving a message of salvation that helps them face the difficult issues of this life. So I proposed to you that a better place to start with framing the Christian Gospel is with Jesus himself.

The Good News that Jesus himself announces right from the beginning of Mark’s story of Jesus is, “The kingdom of God is at hand!” This morning’s passage is all about the coming of God’s kingdom. It begins with the man asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It ends with Jesus promising his disciples that they will not ‘inherit’ but simply receive wealth a hundredfold “in the age to come, ‘eternal life.’” In between, Jesus mentions the “kingdom of God” three times in saying how tough it is for wealthy people to enter it.

Let me build on what I proposed last time by helping us to reframe that key phrase, “eternal life.” When we hear that phrase, we imagine ‘going to heaven when you die.’ We are learning, with the help of recent biblical scholars, that that’s not what Jesus and his followers heard. For one thing, they spoke Aramaic, not English. But I’m not just being cute here. What recent scholars are telling us is that the more likely phrase that Jews talked about a lot was, “ha-olam ha-ba.” It’s kind of fun to say; say it with me, ha-olam ha-ba. And a more direct translation of the Hebrew into English would be something like “age to come.” The problem is that Jesus and his followers spoke a dialect of Hebrew, called Aramaic, and the original New Testament had to translate from the Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek. So they chose to translate ha-olam ha-ba into a Greek phrase which we translate into “eternal life.” I don’t think the writer of Mark’s Gospel liked that translation much, because he uses the Greek phrase only twice in his Gospel, both in this passage. Moreover, he tips his hand with the second instance: “in the age to come eternal life,” he says. Do you see? The Hebrew ha-olam ha-ba means “age to come.” So I think Mark is also trying to tell us what “eternal life” means.

Here’s the bottom line: when Jews like Jesus talked about ha-olam ha-ba, the age to come, they were contrasting it with this present age of sin, the age of injustice and corruption. So the Good News that Jesus came to proclaim but not so much about “eternal life” in the sense of the afterlife, but about the coming age of God’s reign — coming into the world to transform the present age of injustice and corruption. This is more in keeping with Jesus’ version of the Good News as The kingdom of God is at hand!

When I was here at Bethania in each of the last two months (July 11, Proper 10B; and August 15, Proper 15B), I proposed to you that instead of using Paul’s language about “justification by grace through faith,” we could use other strong themes in Paul that are more in keeping with Jesus’ Good News about the coming of God’s reign to end injustice and corruption. Two of these themes we’ve had this summer. In June (June 13, Proper 6B), we read from 2 Corinthians 5 about God launching nothing less than a new creation in Jesus Christ, one which issues forth in a ministry of reconciliation for his followers. Why a ministry of reconciliation? Because at the heart of our injustice and corruption is an Us-vs-Them thinking which keeps us divided, with Us trying to control and dominate Them — or to be liberated from Their domination and control.

In July (July 18, Proper 11B), we read from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, that, ‘Christ is our peace, creating in himself, through the cross, one new humanity in place of two, in place of all our ways to be divided.’ Here, we see more directly why it is impossible for a rich person to enter God’s reign with all his or her wealth intact. Why? Because in God’s reign all our divisions must go away. This includes the division between rich and poor. God’s reign will no longer see rich folks who have more than they need and poor folks who have less than they need. In God’s reign all people will have just enough so that there’s no longer divisions which create situations of injustice and corruption. Jesus asks the rich man in today’s Gospel to give up his excess wealth in order to be able to enter God’s reign, where there’s no longer divisions between rich and poor.

Is this utopia? Perhaps. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. We’re now two thousand years and counting since God’s reign entered the world through Jesus. But we do see glimpses of it right from the beginning, even in Jesus’ own ministry. In Luke’s Gospel, for example, the story of the rich man not accepting Jesus’ invitation comes at the end of chapter 18 and is followed immediately afterwards by the story of Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector who does accept Jesus’ invitation. In fact, he doesn’t even need to be asked. Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ home and Zacchaeus simply blurts out his response of giving his wealth away. We read:

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house. . . .” (Luke 19:8-9)

Amazing! Isn’t it? While the rich man in the previous story fails to get it, Zacchaeus surely does. And notice Jesus’ response, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation isn’t something we have to wait for in the afterlife. Salvation is something we can do today as we understand what God’s reign means and begin to do things that help us enter into it.

We glimpse this big time, too, in the story of the early church. In Acts 4, for example, we read:

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:34-35)

The entire early church community was behaving just as Jesus asks the rich man to do! And why? Because in God’s reign humankind is in the process of becoming one new humanity in place of all our divisions. In Galatians 3 Paul says that if we are baptized into Christ, then there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. With today’s Gospel we see another pairing: there is no longer rich or poor.

So what happened? Why have our glimpses of God’s reign coming into the world become so rare? I propose to you that Christian history, especially after it allied itself with the Roman Empire through Constantine in the Fourth Century, has become mostly like the rich man in today’s Gospel reading. We have too many possessions and so we walk away from the invitation to enter God’s reign.

But let’s end with Good News this morning. Just like Jesus loved this rich man who turned him down, he continues to love and forgive us, so that it’s never too late to become more like Zacchaeus. And I think we now are finally living in a post-Constantinian time for the church. The terrible World Wars of the last century, and especially the Holocaust, have begun to help us to see the horrific evils of empire. Jesus let himself die at the hands of such an empire so that he could forgive us for it and begin to help all people be liberated from its evils — to enter instead into the reign of God, where all our divisions and brokenness begin to be healed.

Let’s end with a quick glimpse of where we might see God’s reign at work today. One of the bright spots during the years when the church was allied with empire was St. Francis of Assisi. He was born more than 800 years ago into a wealthy Italian family. He later renounced his wealth, like Zacchaeus and lived a holy life in keeping with God’s reign in Jesus Christ. The date we celebrate his birthday is October 4th — this past Monday. And, sure enough, the current pope, who has chosen Francis’ name, hosted a wonderful celebration at the Vatican. Invited to the festivities was a person who I personally admire, one whom I seek to emulate in my own discipleship of Jesus. His name is Rev. Dr. William Barber II, from North Carolina, who sees himself as a successor to Martin Luther King, Jr. His Moral Monday marches to the North Carolina state legislature is a movement that spread to state capitols. One of my seminary classmates, Pastor Wayne Miller, became bishop in the ELCA’s Metro Chicago Synod and was arrested at one of Barber’s Moral Monday protests. Rev. Barber has since taken the mantle of Dr. King’s last project when he was assassinated, the Poor People’s Campaign. Several summers ago I participated in protests at the Michigan State capitol on behalf of the Poor People’s Campaign — a very important experience for me, as one who is still new to living into Gospel as the coming of God’s reign. On Monday, Pope Francis celebrated St. Francis by renewing his call to end global poverty, and he invited Rev. Barber as keynote speaker, who said:

The church must have a prophetic moral outcry and must help foster another way of seeing the world. A movement with poor and low-wealth people, moral religious servant leaders, and academic social advocates must push a penetrating moral imagination.

With the unconditional love and forgiveness of Jesus, may we have our moral imaginations so pushed! Jesus continues to invite us into God’s reign by living into a politics of leaving behind the division of rich and poor. We are invited to step into nothing less than one new humanity. As St. Paul proclaims, “Anyone in Christ: new creation! Everything old has passed away! See, everything has become new!” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, October 10, 2021

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