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"Saying No to Jesus" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on October 14, 2018 by Kathy Miller

Mark 10:17-31

“Saying No to Jesus”

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

October 14, 2018

Here are a few things I read about this scripture this week.  One scholar said: “If this message does not take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we have either not yet heard it or heard it so often that we do not really hear it anymore.” And another said, “This is a passage that strikes fear into the hearts of all would-be Christians.”, which I understand, as it strikes some fear into the preacher who has to preach on it as well. 

This is Jesus sounding pretty radical and even for those of us who want to try and listen to everything Jesus has to say, we might find ourselves putting this particular story towards the end of our list of scriptures to wrestle with because it is tough stuff. The first will be last? Camels through needles?  Hard to enter the kingdom of God?  Sell all your possessions? It’s radical, shocking, troubling, confusing even. 

What do we do with the story of the rich, young man? We don’t know a lot about him except that he has a lot of possessions, and has kept all the commandments and seems to earnestly want the answer to his question about eternal life.  He is a person whose days are not filled with questions of how to put food on his plate or where he will sleep at night—and so he has the time to ask the big questions, the questions about the life that comes after this one.  We can only assume he honestly wants to do whatever it takes to earn eternal life as he presents himself ready to DO something, to follow instructions.  He is even willing to humble himself as he approaches on his knees. He isn’t looking for a handout.  Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, “Maybe the man hopes he will be asked to buy shoes for every man, woman and child in Palestine, or, better yet, to throw dustcovers over his furniture and put his furs in storage while he accompanies Jesus on his travels.”

And this is familiar to me, personally, and as I look around this sanctuary. Because like the rich, young man, most of us want to do good, to be seen as good, to be useful and earn the respect of others.  Like him, most of us want to earn our way, to do something, even if it is hard, and prove our worth. We know the value of earning our keep, of doing the right thing. 

But, for all the good, this man had done and could do, Jesus looked deep into his soul, and while it says he loved him, Jesus also saw the hard truth of exactly what the rich man really needed to hear…speaking the truth in love, Jesus said “Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, so you will store up treasures in heaven and then come, and follow me.” 

And what happens?  This man, this rich, young, commandment-following man, will be the only man in the New Testament to hear Jesus’ invitation to follow him, and say no.  Instead, he goes away shocked and grieving.  This distinguished young man is now distinguished in all of history as the one who walked away from Jesus. He was willing to do so many things to inherit eternal life, but this?  This is too much for him and his answer is no.

And I imagine we might understand his reaction.  I do.  But then what does that mean for me?  I don’t want to say no to Jesus.  I don’t want to end up like the rich young man missing out on all Jesus had to offer him.

What happens a lot when people read this story is that they decide that maybe this is just about this one man’s relationship to money, this is just his particular problem.  Jesus doesn’t mean this for all of us. We would like to conclude that Jesus isn’t saying all of us should sell all our possessions. I’d like to stand here and say that to you – both for your sake and mine.  But really, Jesus talks enough about money that that just isn’t a good conclusion for us to make.  Even if we conclude that Jesus doesn’t want us to sell everything, we still have to face the fact that Jesus is serious about calling our attention to our relationship with our money and possessions. 

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “As far as Jesus is concerned money is like nuclear power.  It may be able to do a lot of good in the world, but only within strongly built and carefully regulated corridors.  Most of us do not know how to handle it.  We get contaminated by its power, and we contaminate others by wielding it carelessly ourselves—by wanting it too desperately or using it too manipulatively or believing in it too fiercely or defending it too cruelly.  Every now and then someone manages to use it well, but the odds of that are about as good as they are of pressing a camel through a” … needle.

And this rich, young man was attached in unhealthy ways to his money.  We don’t know all the reasons he was – whether it was power or control or safety or prestige – but he couldn’t imagine a world in which he gave it up.  Most of us struggle with some form of this.  I don’t know what having enough money means to you.  But I know that it is a rare person who doesn’t have some connection to money that can take them down unhealthy paths if they aren’t careful.  We want to have enough and some of us want far more than that. Money can dredge up some of the worst parts of us. 

But it doesn’t stop there.  Beyond our personal relationship to money, Jesus is also concerned about the effects our relationship to money has on other people.  Preacher, William Sloane Coffin said, “When we are intent on being, rather than on having, we are happier.  And when we are intent on being, we don’t take away from other people’s being—in fact, we enhance it.  But when we are intent on having, we create have-nots—and invariably lie about the connection.”

When we let our relationship to money get unhealthy, when we are holding on too tightly to our possessions, we go about creating “have-nots.”  I’m not saying anyone here today wants other people to be poor.  But the “have-nots” are not just created by selfishness, though we have to be careful of that, but just as often “have-nots” are created by our own fear and anxiety.  “Have-nots” are created in our pursuing our own fear of scarcity – our desire to have “enough” for ourselves, though we almost never feel that we’ve reached “enough.”  We want enough to take care of our families, to save for emergencies, to live in safe neighborhoods, to send our kids to good schools, to retire well, to travel and be comfortable.  And we are afraid of what it means to be a “have-not” in our society – being a “have-not” means not only lacking material things, basic needs like a home, or food, or health care, but almost always it means being seen as less than, or being looked down on.  But the more we need to assure us we won’t end up a “have-not,” the more “have-nots” we create.  This anxiety can take us over in terrible ways, where our perceived needs become greater and greater, where we need more and more to comfort ourselves and to feel secure.  The philosopher Jacob Needleman observed, “Hell is the state in which we are barred from receiving what we truly need by the value we give to what we merely want.”  Too often, our accumulation goes this far—to create our own personal hell where we have confused our wants with our needs.  It is a slippery slope to go from fulfilling our needs to fulfilling all our wants – they easily become insatiable.

So, yes, Jesus is worried about money and possessions and our relationship to them.  He sees it in the young man and he sees it in us.  And if you had any reaction to hearing this scripture that wasn’t “ok, I guess I’ll go sell all my things right after church today,” then I imagine you, like me, have a relationship to money that will continue to need more examination. 

Because money and possessions are not the root cause of Jesus’ concern.  Jesus is concerned that if these things have too great a hold over us, we won’t be able to receive what Jesus is offering.  Jesus is offering eternal life.  And not just life after death, but an eternal life that begins right now, right here on earth.  The gift of eternal life is not just the heavenly paradise, it is also an earthly freedom – freedom from all the stuff that weighs us down, from all our fears and anxieties and insecurities, from all the things which keep us from knowing our true worth as a child of God.  

Jesus was asking a hard thing. The rich young man would have to give up being all the things he was used to being: wealthy, cultured, powerful, safe.  All the things that made him feel in control.  But, Jesus doesn’t ask a hard thing lightly.  He does it to offer something better – eternal life – which is one of the few things in this world which we cannot earn on our own—no matter how hard we work, how good we are, how many commandments we follow or how many prayers we pray—the gift of eternal life is only God’s to give. 

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “The kingdom of heaven is not for sale.  The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their riches.  The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift.  The catch is you have got to be free to receive the gift.  You cannot be otherwise engaged.  You cannot be tied up right now, or too tied down to respond.  You cannot accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it with.  You cannot make room for it if all your rooms are already full.  You cannot follow if you are not free to go.”

Jesus loved the young man it says—he didn’t condemn him or berate him.  Jesus understood that the man liked being rich.  And while it doesn’t make the man inherently bad—he was still a faithful, good man—it does mean that he wasn’t free to follow Jesus, wasn’t free enough to accept the gift Jesus was offering.

Whether it is money itself, or power, or prestige, or status, or respect, or safety and security, we all have things standing between us and following Jesus.  And it is scary and strange to let go of those things.  We have all kinds of things, good things, that we can point to—our family, friends, homes, our jobs, our retirement, our comfort—all reasons not to trust that if we let go of some of the things we’ve been holding onto so tightly that everything won’t come crashing down on top of us.  But ask yourself, is there room in my hands to grab a hold of what God is offering me?  Is there room in my life to follow Jesus’ call to a fuller, more meaningful life?  What is keeping me from really being free to go wherever God may call me?

To really be free, free of all that would possess us?  It sounds impossible.  It seems impossible.  As impossible as being given the gift of eternal life without doing anything to earn it.  To turn our lives over to God completely?  The truth is—it is impossible.  Impossible for any of us to do it alone.  But with God, all things are possible.  All things.  May we believe it, and may we ask God to help us to open our hands to receive in freedom what is being offered.  Amen.




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