Sunday, October 14, 2018
© The Rev. Dr. James Campbell
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
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.”
I am not naturally a morning person. My body wakes up slowly. And it’s best, I’ve been told, to just leave me be until that happens. I once had a college roommate who told me that I scared him to death first thing in the morning. A seminary friend once referred to me as a “box of hate” at an 8 am class. And then she gave me this ceramic cereal bowl with the words “Good Morning Grumpy” painted in bright red letters around the rim.
Most of the folks in my life eventually get the clue and leave me alone until I am fully awake. There was, however, one recalcitrant person who refused to learn that lesson. He was my roommate one summer when I worked at a church camp. And every day at about 6 am he would wake up happy just to be alive and insisting that I be happy too. He would jump out of bed and start to clean, slamming drawers, and whistling happy little tunes. It was all I could do not to grab him by the throat. This all came to a very unpleasant climax one morning when I was jolted awake by the intense smell of bleach and my roommate singing, in full voice, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!” It was 6 o’clock in the morning and he was mopping under mybed, and singing. Well all the sugar in the world was not going to help me get his medicine down. I don’t remember exactly what I said to him, but the next day, he moved out.
So, that song is not my favorite. Yet its appeal is that is relays a certain truth. I do like my medicine with some sweetness to it. I do want bad or difficult news somehow couched in sweet, non-offensive language, and delicately delivered.
But apparently Jesus never heard of a spoonful of sugar. For three weeks now, we have had to endure some of Christ’s most bitter pills. Two weeks ago, we listened as Jesus warned that those who would harm the little ones in this world are in danger of hell. Last week, although it was not the topic of my sermon, the lectionary Gospel lesson of the day was about divorce. And this week, Jesus takes up the subject of money. And if we ever needed anything to be sugarcoated, surely it’s talk of money.
Mark says that Jesus and his disciples were setting out on a journey, when suddenly a man ranup to Jesus and knelt before him. “Good Teacher,”he said breathlessly, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, a faithful Jew responded to this other faithful Jew by saying: “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.” To which the man replied: “Teacher, I have done all these things since I was young.” - “You lack one thing,” Jesus said. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mark reports that when the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked at his disciples and said: “It is so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.”--“Who then can be saved?”the disciples wanted to know. Who indeed?
For centuries, pastors and theologians have tried their best to sugarcoat these hard words of Jesus. One ancient scribe actually rewrote verse 24 to read: “How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God.” That’s a little more palatable for us. We know that we shouldn’t trust in our money. The problem is that’s not what Mark wrote. Further, a 9thcentury interpreter invented the idea that a camel going through “the eye of the needle” was not a sewing needle at all, but instead a reference to a low gate in the wall that surrounded Jerusalem. And the camels could only get through the Eye of the Needle Gate if stooped and unladen. So, said this interpreter, Jesus’s real point was that the rich should humble themselves and get rid of any unnecessary baggage in order to get through the gate into the Kingdom. That, too, is a very nice theory, but archeologists say that no such gate ever existed. Other parsers of the Bible have suggested that Jesus never really meant this man to give up his money, but simply wanted to expose him to the futility of trying to keep the law. But that’s an argument from silence, and that’s never a good way to start.
So, what’s the point here? The point here is the same point of every story in this book. These stories are our stories, humanity’s stories, not because all of the details are the same, but because the path to spiritual transformation is always the same. We have to let go in order to grab hold of that which is eternal.
For thisman, it was his money. And so Jesus asked thisman to relinquish his wealth and to give it to the poor. But apparently Jesus didn’t ask this of every rich person he met. For example, the Gospel of Luke reports that some rich women helped to fund the ministry of Jesus. Presumably he did not ask these women to give all of their money away – because for them their wealth was not their spiritual problem.
Our culture places a very high priority on getting ahead. We love a self-made person. Our heroes are the rich and famous. That is a classically American trait. And I think that a great deal of this cultural obsession with wealth is based in fear. We grabbed hold of things because we are afraid. Even when we know that this is wrong, even when our possessions own us, we refuse to let go because, we imagine, that the cure will be more painful still.
In an episode of HBO’s morality tale The Sopranos,Carmela, the wife of mob boss Tony Soprano, goes to visit a therapist. Carmela lives a life of luxury, but she is haunted by the way her husband makes his money. And so, she seeks out a therapist in the hope that he will give her pity and absolution. The therapist is an old Jewish man who listens patiently as Carmela, with tears, pours out her heart. She tells him everything. Finally, he speaks. “You must leave your husband. You must renounce this lifestyle supported by blood. You must take your children and flee. Only then will you know any real happiness.” Carmela is thunderstruck; first that he, a therapist, would offer any advice. And second, that he would offer this advice without any sugarcoating. The viewer sees a range of emotions pass over her face: first disbelief, then anger and then a profound sadness as she decides that this is simply too much to ask, even though it would give her the very thing she seeks. And she walks away sad.
Jesus is like that old Jewish therapist. He will not sugarcoat those things that will actually set us free. And his words can be sharp, but they are never cruel. Mark says that when the rich man told Jesus that he had kept the commandments from his birth, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus loved him enough to tell him the truth.
In the same way, Jesus listens to our stories, to our excuses. He looks at us and loves us and tells us the truth.
We don’t really know how this story ends. Maybe the rich man went away and never thought of Jesus again. Or maybe he went home and mulled it over for a while. Maybe his desire for eternal life pushed him to confront those things that stood in his way. Maybe he remembered the look of love in Jesus’s face, even as Jesus spoke those difficult words. Maybe, after thinking about it for a while, he went out to look for Jesus again. And maybe, just maybe, after thinking about it for a while, we will too.