Clearing the cluttered path to God
October 14, 2018
Today we hear more difficult words, both from Jesus and from Amos, about what is expected of someone who loves and trusts God and who follows Jesus. In our first reading, Amos takes aim at the economic system of the day, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the rich trample upon the poor. Amos implores the wealthy ruling class to stop taking advantage of the poor, and instead seek economic justice. He calls for a redistribution of wealth. If they can turn around their ways, he says, maybe God will be merciful to them.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus suggests to a faithful and devoted rich man that he should give away everything he has before following Jesus. Like Amos so many centuries before, Jesus also calls for a redistribution of wealth. But their purposes seem to be different. In Amos, the wealthy were using their power to oppress the poor. He spoke out against unjust behavior. In Mark, Jesus isn’t so much calling out the rich for bad behavior (indeed, the man before him is one who has followed the commandments all his life!). Rather, he is saying, “Your wealth is keeping you from trusting in God, and unless you trust fully in God, you can’t follow me.” So Amos rails against the system, and Jesus talks about more how wealth affects the individual’s life of faith.
Both messages are tough, and both are so contemporary. So, prepare to squirm a little bit! As you listen, consider what in your life keeps you from being able to fully trust in God.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever known in your heart that something was true that you really, really, really didn’t want to be true? Like, a decision you have to make that you don’t want to, or a realization that challenges you deeply? Some thing about which you’ve been saying, “No, no, I don’t want to believe that. It can’t be true. Please, tell me it’s not true, so that I can go about my day without my conscience battling me anymore.” Some thing where you are desperate to find something, anything, to tell you the opposite of the inevitable is true?
As I dug into this week’s Gospel, I began to wonder if this is how the rich man felt. He comes running up to Jesus and falls at his feet. He is in a hurry. This question is heavy on his heart, and he’s desperate to get it resolved. He doesn’t do like I might do, and hang out with Jesus for a while, hemming and hawing, until finally saying, “Hey, can I ask you something?” like I’m all casual about it, when really my heart is bursting to know the answer. No, he runs. And he falls. And he blurts out, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Did he already know the answer? After all, he has already been keeping all the commandments since his youth – which is more than I can say for myself, or anyone I’ve ever met! So, he must know there is something else. It must be nagging at him. And given his urgency, I wonder if he knew that something else was something that he would not particularly like to hear, and so he’d put it off too long, but now, he just needed to know the truth.
I’ve been in that kind of anguish – knowing what the right decision is, but not feeling brave enough to follow through with it, and so looking desperately for something, someone, to tell me I don’t have to do what I know I have to do. I can certainly resonate with the rich man in this story.
But Jesus doesn’t give him a pass. He tells him the hard truth, exactly what the man didn’t want to hear: “You’ve gotta get rid of everything,” Jesus says. “You are following commandments, that’s good, but your pathway to God is too cluttered with these things that are falsely promising you satisfaction, convincing you that your things can bring you into joy and life and autonomy and everything you desire. These things can’t, no matter how faithfully you follow the 10 commandments, bring you to that life. You’ve gotta get rid of them.” Jesus goes on, “You have all these things, but you lack one thing. You lack trust – trust in God. You trust in yourself. You trust in your things. You trust in your money. Your things and your money can do a lot – but they cannot bring you to God. They cannot bring you to eternal life.”
The man hears exactly what he feared was true. Mark tells us he is shocked – but is he? Did he really believe Jesus’ answer would be anything other than this? No. His shock comes from the sudden realization that he must accept that which he did not want to believe. And because of that acceptance of a challenging reality, he finds himself also grieving.
Grieving… what? Grieving the possibility of losing his things in which he had put so much of his trust? Or grieving that he doesn’t believe he can do what Jesus asks, and so he shall never inherit the eternal life he craves? Maybe, a bit of both.
I really feel for the rich man. I also feel shocked and grieved by such well-known but still difficult words as, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” and, “It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Over the years, I have tried to soften them for myself, maybe convincing myself that I am last in some things, so I’ll get my reward. Or, I’m not as rich as some other people. Or, Jesus meant this metaphorically, not literally. Or, I can help more people if I have means and am comfortable. Or, I’m doing the very important job of helping my family, my kids, to succeed. Surely Jesus wants me to be able to do that, to provide everything and more for them!
But if I really did take to heart Jesus’ words to the rich man, about giving away all my possessions in order to inherit eternal life, about how it didn’t matter how well I follow the commandments, I will still never get down the path to God as long as all my stuff is cluttering my path… If I really took that to heart, then yeah, I would be grieving, too. Because it is scary to think of giving up the security I find in my money and my things.
Some years ago, I sat next to a beautiful woman about my age on an airplane. She truly seemed to glow, she was so radiant. I noticed she was reading some theology book, so I finally got up the courage to ask her about herself. Turns out, she was on her way to an abbey in Ann Arbor to become a nun! We eagerly engaged in conversation about faith and life and ministry and the particularities of our respective calls. I asked about the process to become a nun. She was genuinely excited about the part where she gets to give away all her possessions and money. She oozed delight at the prospect. She could not wait to be rid of those shackles, to put her trust entirely in God. I will tell you – she is one of the most beautiful and joyful people I have ever met.
Could I be so joyful about that? I don’t know. I’ll be honest, I’m not really prepared to give away all my money and possessions. My guess is most of you aren’t either. So where does that leave us, those of us who, like the rich man, are grieved by the possibility of giving up everything that has provided us security over the years?
Well, maybe we can’t, for whatever reason, give up all of our money and things… but we do have the opportunity, as members of the church and followers of Christ, to give some small portion away each week. Although we don’t typically sign over our whole paycheck to God, the practice of giving to the Church is one way we can do as Jesus tells the rich man, getting rid of some of that stuff that blocks our path to God, and replacing it with utter trust in the one who gives us each day our daily bread. Every gift, every tithe, is an opportunity to say to God, “I trust in you, not myself or my own means. You, O God, are my provider. You give me daily bread. You. I put my trust in you.”
That is what this comes down to, after all. The reason Jesus asks of us such a shocking, astounding, and perplexing practice as giving up everything to follow him, is to show us that as long as these things are in our lives, we will be tempted to put our trust in them, rather than in God. It is a way to remember that in the end, what Martin Luther said on his deathbed was true: “We are beggars, this is true.” We are, each of us, poor. We do not have the resources to save ourselves, fix our own problems, or change the world. Only God does. Giving away our money chips away at our temptation to believe in our own abilities, more than we believe in God’s providence, to believe that we can, by our own efforts, achieve a spiritual life, a godly life, eternal life. News flash: we can’t. We are beggars, this is true, and only God, the provider of all things, our daily bread, can do this for us. When we give a buck here or there, but not so much as to affect our bottom line or even notice it is gone – that is no reminder that our trust and security rest in God. Self-sacrificial giving is what delivers this message to us.
It’s a challenging message. An offensive one, if we’re being honest. One that I know I have a difficult time hearing! So where does it leave us? I find hope and grace in two key phrases in this text. First, that Jesus loved the rich man. Before he asked anything more of the man, Mark tells us that Jesus “loved him.” Not, “judged him,” not, “condemned him,” not, “shook his head in disappointment.” He loved him. And even in our unwillingness to be generous and self-giving, Jesus loves us, too.
Second, Jesus assures us that he knows it is impossible for us. Not everyone is my nun friend on the airplane, joyful about giving away her stuff. Most of us struggle with this. We do find security in our stuff, and our money, and our riches, and it is terrifying to give that up. Yet still: even though it is impossible for us to inherit eternal life by giving up everything, it is not impossible for God. For God, Jesus tells us, all things are possible. Even loving a bunch of sinners like us. Even preparing a place for us in heaven, despite our quickness to trust things and money before God. Even making it possible for us to inherit eternal life – even that is possible for God. And for that, we can give thanks and praise – with our voices, our hearts, our wallets, our resources, with everything we have!
Let us pray… Generous God, you give us all that we could ever need, and we so often respond by trusting those things, rather than the one who gave them to us. Give us glad and generous hearts, willing to relinquish anything that would turn our trust away from you, our giver of daily bread. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.