Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 10/14/2018

It’s been said that the only thing you can do with the story of the Rich Young Man and the call to sell everything and give to the poor, is to manage it, in other words, to finds ways to explain away what Jesus says and there are many such ways. For example, you can say that the call to give up everything was just directed at this one individual, it’s not directed at everyone except as an object lesson on acquisitiveness. Or you could say that what Jesus says is directed only at the rich and since all of us can think of someone richer than we are, we decide we’re not rich, it’s not directed at us so again, we’re off the hook. Or, we say Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant this literally because to sell everything and give it to the poor just creates a new set of problems with the rich man now turned into a poor man and thus dependent on others.

That’s a few ways around it and there are more and some, maybe even many, do have at least a degree of merit; they’re not all just efforts to get us off the hook. I think though, that maybe the best way to come closer to understanding what is going on in this story is to more or less analyze it verse by verse. Perhaps it’s just another effort to manage the story but keep in mind that the point of Mark’s gospel is to convey the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as it says in chapter 1, verse 1. Mark is about an invitation to faith, but with stories like this one today, it can sometimes seem to be more about the impossibility of faith setting a standard that no one can meet. If this is an invitation, the challenge is to find a way to open the invitation.

The story starts with the man running up and kneeling before Jesus and asking him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” To give him his due, we have to assume that because he kneels before Jesus and because he calls him “Good Teacher” that he is sincere and genuinely respectful. His question isn’t intended to test or trick Jesus like some of the questions the Pharisees asked; this man really wants to know what he has to do.

As Lutherans though, right away we should see the man waving a couple of theological red flags here, except while they’re red flags for us, for the rich young man, not having been raised Lutheran, they’re quite defensible. First of all, in calling Jesus “Good Teacher” we see that he doesn’t fully understand who Jesus is, but then again, why should he understand fully? No one else did either. Jesus plays with him a little bit here too, perhaps giving the man a hint concerning his full identity when he says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The man doesn’t get the God hint though; instead he drops the “good” and simply addresses Jesus as “Teacher” after that.

It’s his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” that should be the real red flag for a Lutheran; I can imagine Martin Luther being beside himself and wanting to go off on the man because of course for Luther, you can’t do anything; eternal life isn’t about what you do, it’s about what God has done for you. Again though, the rich man wasn’t steeped in Lutheran theology. The prevailing theology of his day while not being without grace, was primarily centered on observing the law of the Old Testament. It was about what you do.

Jesus acknowledges that law too; he doesn’t list all ten of the commandments, but enough of them to show their importance as a guide to good ethical and moral behavior and the man says he has kept all of them. To us that sounds like the height of arrogant self-righteousness, but again, in his defense, the prevailing wisdom of his time said that you could do it; you could keep the law. Jesus, of course, knows otherwise and that’s what makes the next verse so important. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Where we would likely respond negatively to the man’s apparent self-righteousness, Jesus loved him.

It’s then that Jesus issues the call to sell everything, give the money to the poor and then come follow him, leaving the man shocked and grieving as he disappears from the story, shocked and grieving at the impossibility of what Jesus asked. But it wasn’t just him; the disciples too were perplexed by what Jesus said because it didn’t make any more sense to them than it does to us and as he continued talking, Jesus just raised the level of confusion. “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.” Riches were thought to be a sign of God’s favor and blessing so for Jesus to suggest otherwise didn’t fit; it was a challenge to what they believed to be true.

Thoroughly confused and recognizing that Jesus has just upset the order of their world along with making faith seem impossible, the disciples ask the obvious question, “Who then can be saved?” What the disciples see is that if Mark’s gospel is supposed to be an invitation to faith, the invitation seems to be sealed up so tight that you can’t open it. It’s out of this impossibility though, that we get to the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God when Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” With that, the seal on the invitation to faith is opened and there’s hope where there didn’t seem to be any. That’s the gospel.

This text is a pretty good example of Luther’s theology. Luther had a very pessimistic view of humanity, perhaps overly pessimistic. Apart from the grace of God, he thought that human beings could only do that which was contrary to God’s will. In this story, the rich man with his self-righteousness and his sense of being dependent on himself rather than on God, is evidence of that pessimistic view. But it’s precisely at that point that Jesus loved him and what good news that is. Even when the worst of who we are is revealed, Jesus still loves us. I find great comfort in that.

It’s Jesus’ response to the “Who can be saved?” question that really gets at Luther’s theology. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Our efforts to justify ourselves, to make ourselves acceptable to God, our asking “What must I do?” those efforts do represent impossibility for us…but not for God because that’s when grace kicks in. By grace, in and through Jesus, the impossible is made possible.

Recognizing the impossibility of repairing our relationship with God by ourselves and instead, in faith trusting that God meets us in our impossibility and still loves us and…loving us, takes on our humanity in the person of Jesus…that opens the invitation to faith. By grace God accomplishes the impossible, restoring our broken relationship and making new life not impossible, but possible. For mortals it is impossible, but not for God.

Then, no longer seen as an effort to inherit eternal life, the rich young man’s “What must I do?” question becomes appropriate. It’s an effort to respond to the divine gift already given, an effort to grow in God’s likeness, an effort to be who God would have us be as people in relationship to God and to one another.

Maybe all I’ve done is to find another way to manage the story. In one sense it gets us off the hook in that it makes it about an invitation to faith, but in another sense it doesn’t because however we read it, there’s a caution about being possessed by our possessions. We can’t manage or explain away that part of it. We can only struggle with it as part of our response to the opened invitation.

There is one final angle on this that I want to leave you with though. This story is an example of Mark’s use of open endings in how he presents the gospel. The most obvious example of his use of open endings is the end of the gospel itself where the women flee the empty tomb of Jesus, saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. There are no resurrection appearances, no encounters with the Risen Christ like you get in the other gospels. The ending is left open but then you figure, more must have happened. Someone must have said something to someone because here we are, but Mark leaves it to the imagination of his readers to continue the story. You could say that we write the ending or perhaps the point is that there isn’t an ending; the story goes on.

Today’s story of the rich young man is another open ending, at least for him. We can read further and get to a more hopeful message, but as I said before, in verse 22, the rich man disappears from the story, shocked and grieving at Jesus’ call to sell everything. You wonder what happened to him and again we have the opportunity to write an ending for him.

I think he’s OK. I go back to verse 21 that says, “Jesus looking at him, loved him.” Doesn’t that make him a beloved child of God? I think it does, and with that identity, however the story played out, he’s OK. By the grace and love of Jesus, he’s OK.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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