Proper 23B, October 11, 2015

October 12, 2015

Upward Mobility
Mark 10:17-27

10:17 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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 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.'” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 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!” 24 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! 25 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 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, 30 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

I can’t help but wonder what John D. Rockefeller thought about this passage of scripture. And I’m sure he did think about this passage of scripture because he was a faithful member of the Erie Street Baptist Mission Church in Cleveland, OH. I know this because I recently listened to an extensive biography about this man who died as the richest man in America in 1937.

I really didn’t know anything about John D. Rockefeller until I listened to that book about him, and it was interesting. Although, I really don’t think I would have enjoyed his company that much. He was much too austere for my taste. He wasn’t unfriendly, but he wasn’t particularly engaging, he never touched alcohol of any kind, he went to bed early, he worked long hours, and he didn’t socialize very much. He did appreciate bicycles and in his retirement he developed an obsession with golf, so he and I do have some common ground. And as I say, he was a devout Christian. He taught Sunday School throughout his life, and I wish I could have asked him how he understood this particular passage of scripture.

I’m not a rich man in comparison to John D. Rockefeller, but in comparison to my friend who lives at the Union Rescue Mission in Little Rock and who works at the nearby Kroger so he can eat and make payments on his six-figure student loan debt – I am a rich man. And this passage of scripture sort of grabs my attention in an uncomfortable way. I’m not sure how my financial portfolio would compare with the unnamed rich man in this passage of scripture, but I think I probably have more in common with him than I do with the desperate masses of people who came to Jesus hoping to be healed or fed.

Many – possibly most of the people who were drawn to Jesus were in some kind of desperate need. So many of them were sick or starving or ostracized, and they were looking to him to relieve their immediate needs, but this wasn’t the case with this so-called rich man. This man had the luxury to contemplate the meaning of life, and he came to Jesus with interest in obtaining eternal life.

I think it’s important to note that he didn’t approach Jesus with fear for his eternal soul. He wasn’t running scared for his soul, but he was looking for something more. He asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and I think he expected Jesus to give him some advice on how he might tweak his spiritual discipline a small amount in order to put him on the road to excellence, but that isn’t what Jesus did. What Jesus told him was far more transformational than he expected. Jesus told the man to go sell everything he had and to come back to join him.

Needless to say, this isn’t what the man expected to hear, and he couldn’t bring himself to do what Jesus suggested – which is unfortunate because we’re told that Jesus loved this man. Jesus didn’t tell him to go sell all of his stuff in hope of getting rid of the man – I’m thinking Jesus was probably happy to be approached by someone who wasn’t needing him to do something for them. Jesus saw great potential in this man, but it turns out this man was more concerned with maintaining his retirement plan on earth than pursuing eternal life in the kingdom of God.

This man was offered the opportunity to hang out with the living son of God, and he chose to hang on to his stuff. It was a sad exchange, but I don’t think anyone is surprised by his decision. I can imagine myself doing the same thing. It feels good to have financial security, and when you have financial security you don’t want to let go of it.

Prosperity is such a hard thing to deal with. I think the only thing harder to navigate is poverty. I heard a song with some great lyrics the other day. I googled the lyrics and discovered that the singer/songwriter is a guy named Chris Janson. I think his song addresses our troubled relationship with money in a beautiful way. He sings: Money can’t buy me happiness, but it can buy me a boat – and a truck to pull it…

I think it’s accurate to say that neither money nor poverty buys happiness. I also think most of us prefer to deal with the challenges of affluence over the challenges of poverty, but we don’t need to underestimate the power of financial security to limit the expansion of our souls. Jesus said: It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God. And this isn’t easy for me to hear.

One of the interesting things about John D. Rockefeller was that he had more anxiety about what to do with his money than he had when he was engaged in the process of building the Standard Oil Company, which provided him with all of his money. John D. Rockefeller had some powerful detractors and critics as he went about the business of creating a monopoly on the oil business at the turn of the 20th Century, but he was never really troubled by what people had to say about him. He was a true believer in what he set out to do, which was to create a monopoly that would create a standard price for oil and oil products, and while he had some slight misgivings on some of the things he had to do to create the company he basically believed he was doing the right thing for himself and for society.

He didn’t believe he was being disobedient to God in his work, but once he made so much money he had all of these people asking him for help, and he found that to be maddening. He felt like God expected him to use his money for the right things and not to invest it in the wrong things, and he was pretty tormented by all of the requests he got.

John D. Rockefeller found a nice alternative to selling everything he had and giving it to the poor – he set up a foundation. And that was sort of a novel thing to do. The Rockefeller Foundation wasn’t the first philanthropic foundation to be established in the country, but it was one of the first, and it was operated on a scale and in a manner that was unprecedented. I’m not saying this is the avenue to eternal life, but I think John D. Rockefeller could testify to the peril of wealth. His money actually created quite a burden for him.

I don’t believe this passage of scripture is an admonition for us all to liquidate our holdings and to give our assets to the poor. Now if you have had a personal invitation from Jesus to do that, and you know where he told you to report I encourage you to do as he said and to go where he said to go. But one of the last things we need is another desperately poor person in our community. This isn’t a universal instruction for us all to embrace poverty, but it is a universal warning about the threat of wealth. Affluence can easily become a huge spiritual obstacle. Jesus probably wasn’t exaggerating when he said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to go to heaven, but that’s not the only thing he said.

He also said that what’s impossible for people is possible for God. Once again I’m reminded that we don’t earn or finagle our way in to the kingdom of God. There are many obstacles to the development of our spiritual lives, and if we were on our own I think we would spend our lives banging against one or the other, but God continually provides us with opportunities for spiritual renewal. This rich man may have failed to seize the opportunity Jesus offered him that day, but that might well have been the beginning of his transformation.

Jesus said the first will be last and the last first. This rich young man didn’t go home feeling like he was first in line anymore, and that’s not all bad. It’s the experience of spiritual bankruptcy that often puts us on the path to spiritual transformation.

Yearning for more isn’t all bad. Maybe you think you only need enough money to buy a boat and a truck to pull it, but chances are, God will help you realize that there’s an even better place to be than on a lake with a yeti cooler. Jesus came to teach us to set our sights on the highest possible experience of life. Having some desire for upward mobility is a good thing – as long as you aren’t content to obtain mere financial security. We have a high calling. We are called to abide with Jesus in the Kingdom of God, and we should do all that we can to get there. Our invitation and our challenge is to tap in to the real richness of life. We all have our obstacles, but we all have opportunities as well, and by the grace of God we’ll take them.

Thanks be to God.


2 Responses to “Proper 23B, October 11, 2015”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    I have never been poor (yet) but the analogy you used between rich and poor is quite compelling. Again thank you with sharing your thoughts, never seems like a “sermon” to me.

  2. twmurray Says:

    Earl — thanks for reading my sermon and for the feedback. On another note, we had a potluck after church yesterday and I showed slides from my bike trip. I always think of you when I think of my trip.
    Take care,

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