Sermon preached at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Wilmette, IL
Pentecost 20. Year B. October 10, 2021
Texts: Mark 10:17—31; Hebrews 4:12-16; Job 23:1—9, 16—17
As Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man came up to him and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. This story is told pretty similarly in all three synoptic gospels. But while Mark just calls him “a man,” although presumably a rich man since he had many possessions, Matthew makes him “a young man,” and Luke calls him “a ruler.” That’s how he came to be known as “the rich young ruler.” We aren’t comfortable with inconsistencies in the Biblical texts. For today he’s just a wealthy man.
However he might be characterized, there’s no doubt that he was sincere in asking his question because he kneels before Jesus and calls him a “good teacher.” Jesus, remember, is trying to get going on his journey, and he replied a bit testily (“Why do you call me ‘good?’ Only God is good.”) and simply threw the Commandments at him, which are randomly recited from the second table of the Law – the commandments concerning our relationship neighbor. The man responds that he has kept all these commandments since his youth.
Taken by the man’s sincerity, Jesus looked at him lovingly and said, “Okay, there’s one thing missing. Go, sell what you have, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the man heard this, our text says, “he was shocked and went away grieving, because he had many possessions.”
There are several issues here worth pondering. The man was obviously attracted to Jesus and he was sincere in his question. He was obviously a practitioner of his religious upbringing. Why was he not satisfied with that upbringing? He could have simply accepted Jesus’ answer as an affirmation of his devotion. He could have simply said, “Okay, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ll keep on doing it.”
But his evident disappointment communicated to Jesus that he felt that this was inadequate. That encouraged Jesus to say something more. But the something more Jesus told him was something he could not do. The fact that he walked away sad was also sad for Jesus.
How many of us could have done what Jesus asked of the rich man? Most of us also have many possessions which we find it difficult to give up. We discover that when we move. We may have retained objects shoved into closets and basements from several previous moves. We justified it by saying that we might need it sometime. I’ll confess that it took Mary and me a year to clean out our old stuff that we didn’t want take with us into our condo – a whole year! And on the day the moving van was being loaded, I was still making trips out to the dumpster.
We’re all hoarders. We acquire things and hold on to them for security. Look at how shelves in stores were depleted at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re reluctant to throw away stuff that represent our life’s journey, and we don’t want to part with our old life to embrace our new life. I think that was the issue here with the man who approached Jesus. He couldn’t make a break with his past life to join Jesus on his pilgrimage into the kingdom of God.
One who could and did make a break with his past life, in most dramatic ways, was St. Francis of Assisi. His break with his family of origin was so complete that he took off all the clothes he was wearing and, in the public square and in front of the bishop of Assisi, handed them back to his rich merchant father. (See the image above this post.) His action was so compelling that he won the sympathy of the people of Assisi, who had previously sided with Francis’ father against his rebellious son, and within a few years thousands of men had become Franciscans, along with all the poor Claires. Following the statement of the ancient church father, St. Jerome, Francis would be “naked to follow the naked Christ.” (See Frank Answers About Being Naked Before God.”)
When Francis wanted to provide a Rule for his growing community, he had a priest open the Book of the Gospels and read whatever passage he opened to. What he opened to and read was exactly what we just heard today from Mark 10:21: “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Well, said Francis, that’s the word God gave us. That’s the first item in our Rule. And thousands of would-be Franciscans did exactly that. Even Francis, who had exchanged the fine clothing of his father the cloth merchant for a beggar’s robe had kept a leather belt. He exchanged that for a rope.
During the late Middle Ages, many Franciscans emulated their founder by processing naked through towns as a sign of repentance. As our second reading from Hebrews tells us, God’s word is penetrating and pierces the soul. “Before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Being naked before God reminds us through our bodily experience that God sees us as we are.
Being naked before God also reminds us that if we would follow Christ we cannot cling to our possessions. Why? Because we identity with our possessions, sometimes too much. We must learn to identify with Christ and be defined by our discipleship. “Naked to follow the naked Christ” became a motto of the Franciscans. (There has been a growing interest in actually practicing naked prayer. See “Frank Answers About Embodied Theology.”)
Most of us aren’t going to become Franciscans. And even for Franciscans it has been a problem not to accumulate wealth, at least for their community. It is so hard to give things away and make a new start. Jesus himself said so: “How hard it will be for people who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples were perplexed by this, and Jesus reiterated it. “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.”
It’s been claimed that “the eye of a needle” Jesus was referring to, was a small gate within the big city gate that would require the camels to be unloaded of their goods (for customs, I suppose) than to get through with their freight. You’ve got to shed your stuff to get into the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ disciples were astounded and asked him, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responded, “For humans it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Here’s the good news, the gospel. We don’t have to do something to save ourselves because we can’t. It’s impossible. Think of the man who came to Jesus asking what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Why was he asking what he needed to do to claim his inheritance? An inheritance is a gift of grace that is given to us, not something to be earned, even by doing all the commandments. We always think we are justified by our good works. But we are justified by grace through faith.
Let me bring in here our reading today from Job. You’ve got to put this passage into the context of the whole story. Job has suffered a lot. His friends, who are conventional thinkers, think it’s because of something Job did or failed to do, and he should repent. We, the readers, know that Job’s suffering was not because of his unrighteousness. He was suffering because God allowed Satan, God’s prosecutor, to test Job’s faith. But Job is so sure of his righteousness that he’s willing to argue his case before God in heaven. He will justify himself on the basis of his righteousness and be acquitted. But as Isaiah said, “All our righteousness is like a filthy rag.” No, Job will finally by justified by his unwavering faith in God. The prosecutor will not have proven his case, and all the things Job lost will be more than restored.
So also Peter, always the one to state what was on everyone’s mind, points out that Jesus’ disciples have left everything to follow him: their work and property (and therefore their income), their families and friends. Jesus acknowledges this and says that they will receive riches and family a hundredfold in the kingdom, and eternal life in the age to come, although not without persecutions first in which their faith will be tested. But entrance into the kingdom of God is still a gift of grace.
Those who have embarked on the journey into the kingdom of God will verify that what they have received and what lays ahead is greater than what they left behind. We may continue to love our home of origin. A couple of weeks ago my siblings and I all got together after more than two years and rehearsed our memories. Interestingly our memories about home differed. But we can’t go home again because a new home awaits us. And we have found waystations on our journey to that eternal home that we have also loved and supported – the parish churches, for example, in which we have enjoyed worship and fellowship. But now we are in this parish with its worship and people and missions, and we are called on to support to St. Augustine’s.
The historical story of the Franciscans is a reminder that we continue to accumulate. The Franciscans gave away their silks and satins but kept their broadcloth and sackcloth. They sold their manor houses but kept their huts. They stopped eating beef and pork but ate bread and fish. So even resolving to give away possessions has its limitations. We can’t give away everything no matter how hard we try. The radical call to follow Jesus must still and always be heard so they we don’t get bogged down in what we accumulate along life’s way. But so also must we hear Jesus’ word that what is impossible for us is possible for God. We are justified by grace through faith. We don’t need to earn what God has promised us. We just need to get rid of what weighs us down now so that we can take possession of what is promised. Amen.
Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS