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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - October 15, 2006

It starts like any number of stories that have preceded it in Mark’s gospel.  Someone rushes up to Jesus, falls or kneels at his feet apparently in need of some kind of healing or cleansing.  But this story takes a different turn at that point.  Instead of a request for healing, it’s a question about eternal life that is asked:  “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”   What starts like a conventional healing story becomes one of those stories that makes us squirm a little in our seats, because Jesus’ answer places his teaching in direct opposition to our entrenched values and our desire for material possessions.  For most of us it places us eyeball to eyeball with our own sin when we’d usually prefer to talk about someone else’s rather than our own. 

A couple of weeks ago with the text about cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyeballs I said that even people who want to claim a literal reading of the Bible don’t take that story literally.  Well, no one takes this one literally either because for many the idea of selling all your possessions and giving the money to the poor may be even less appealing than ripping out your eye, so our tendency is to want to soften it, to make it say something less bothersome.

It’s really a very clever story.  Mark introduces it as a healing story because the rich man in the story is in need of healing, he just doesn’t know it.  The result then, is that in the end, the healing doesn’t happen.  It’s a clever story because it effectively convicts just about all of us because it’s a story about the kind of possession that afflicts just about all of us; not demon possession, not that kind, but the kind where we are possessed by our possessions.  It’s clever because Mark kind of gently points an accusing finger that immediately puts us on the defensive and being on the defensive is a sure sign that this is about us and not about someone else.

The first line of defense we come up with is I’m not rich.  I’m not rich, this isn’t about me.  For a few people that may be true…but most of us are doing OK.  If you’d like an observation from someone not originally from here, the wealth in the UP is a little less obvious than it is in other places; that’s true, but it’s still there.  There are fewer of the big McMansion type homes that are found in other parts of the country, but how many people up here have a house in town, a camp, maybe a hunting camp along with all the toys that go with such places, the boats, snowmobiles, jet skis, three wheelers, four wheelers, you name it.  We’re doing OK.  We can pretend we live in some kind of depressed backwater up here, but like the rich man, we have many possessions and we like them!

The next line of defense might be that our context is very different from that of first century Palestine and some of that’s true.  They didn’t have to do the long term kind of financial planning we have to do.  Maybe we do have more possessions than we really need but we have to have some kind of equity to provide for some security so that we don’t become a burden to others sometime down the road.  There may be some validity to that, but it shouldn’t lead us to conclude that Jesus doesn’t really expect us to take this story seriously which can be our final line of defense; kind of like the cutting off body parts story, we decide we’re not supposed to take this literally. 

There may be some overstatement here in Jesus’ response but it is overstatement used to identify something that needs healing in all of us just as it needed healing in the rich man.  If going on the defensive is our final response, we wind up worse off than the rich man in the story.  He went away grieving; that at least indicates that he heard Jesus and knew something was wrong.  On the defensive, we go away in denial, self-satisfied, having convinced ourselves that everything’s OK.

If this is an unfulfilled healing story, is there something we can do to  make it have a happy ending?  For example, how about if the rich man recognized how much he had, went to Jesus, knelt before him, but instead of asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life,” what if he asked “what must I do without to inherit eternal life?”  That would seem to place the man more on Jesus’ wavelength wouldn’t it?  Perhaps; but I don’t think he would have been any less shocked by Jesus call to sell everything.  I doubt he was ready for that.  Even changing the question, I still think the story ends with the man going away grieving without having been healed.

The real problem here is his inability to see that he needs healing and that he needs it from the outside, that he can’t do it himself.  Even if he asks what must I do without, it’s still an I question.  He thinks he can do it.  But Jesus’ answer is that the rich man can’t do enough to earn eternal life and he can’t do without enough to earn eternal life.  The only way this story can have a happy ending for the rich man or for us is with the recognition that I can’t do it. 

As long as it’s about what we can do or not do, we go away grieving because we can’t do or not do enough.  Once we recognize that we can’t save ourselves though, as the writer of Hebrews says rather poetically, we can approach the throne of grace, with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  At the throne of grace the story has a happy ending, we receive the healing that we need.

Actually though, even as it’s written, the story already has a happy ending.  The disciples were as perplexed as the rich man concerning what Jesus said.  Remember, the prevailing belief of the time was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing.  The rich were seen as those favored by God; the poor must in some way deserve what they’re getting. 

When Jesus said, “How hard it will be for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” the disciples didn’t know what to make of it because they were thinking the same way as the rich man who posed the question; salvation must be about what we do and if it’s not, then what?  But Jesus ends this part of the conversation with the happiest ending we could ask for.  “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  That’s an ending that heals us and sets us free.  It doesn’t get much happier than that.

In a way though, I’m sorry I told you that.  This is a classic story of law and gospel.  Law and gospel is another one of those core Lutheran things; the law convicts us by showing us that we can’t possibly fulfill it; the gospel sets us free by placing us in the loving arms of God’s grace and mercy.  Using law and gospel as an outline then, in the perfect sermon I beat you up and tell you what miserable, sinful, hopeless wretches you are and then say, “But Jesus still loves you.  Amen.”  Law and gospel.

In this story of the rich man though, I think we have a text where the law should be allowed to do its work for awhile.  We don’t want to rush too quickly to the “Jesus still loves you amen” part which in this case is the “for God all things are possible” part.  It’s important to let the prophetic texts of the Bible have their say, to allow them to critique society and us as individuals, and have us take what they say seriously.  Skipping right away to “for God all things are possible” we miss a major teaching of Jesus concerning our possessions and our relationship to them, and our responsibility toward those who have less.  Maybe we’re not supposed to sell everything and give it to the poor, but there is a clear teaching here, one that ought to cause us to do some honest reflection without getting overly defensive.

So like I said, I’m a little sorry I gave you the happy ending, but it’s too late now, it’s out there.  But thank God for that happy ending…because, don’t kid yourself, it really could have ended another way.       


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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