MARK | PART 6: EXAGGERATING THE IMPOSSIBLE
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Heb 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
The Boston Red Sox baseball team finished last in 2012; Bobby Valentine, a very unpopular manager, was fired, and John Farrell was hired to lead the team in 2013. That year, to everyone’s surprise, they won the World Series. Alas, in 2014 (and 2015) they again finished last; The Red Sox went from last to first, and then from first to last…
Jesus says, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first,” and Jesus, I think, indeed is talking, indirectly, about baseball, and the see-saw movement of its winners and losers, because the standing of sports teams is much like the standing of a man in his community. The better you perform, the higher your rank. A winner’s status comes with rewards that a loser is denied, and (unless you are a Cubs fan) losers want to be winners, that is, until they lose hope.
We can all probably remember, as kids, not wanting to be the last person chosen by a team in a pick-up game, or in high school, not wanting to be passed up for the lead part in a theater tryout, or as an adult, not wanting to scramble for work because we got laid-off at the job. We take pride in being seen by others as successful; and in Ancient Israel, as most everywhere, the rich man is seen as a winner, and the poor man as a loser, because, as is said, God favors the righteous with wealth.
This is why the disciples are perplexed when Jesus says, “how difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples understand that nothing greater than the Kingdom of God can be gained from this life, but Jesus refutes the commonplace wisdom that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to get in. Jesus says, if you are rich, getting into the kingdom will be for you impossible.
Jesus makes use of a parable, to exaggerate the impossible: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Camels are called ‘ships of the desert.’ They can be as tall as seven feet high and weigh as much as 1,600 lbs, so the picture of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, which is so tiny, I (for one) can’t see to thread it, is, well… absurd. It’s also, is it not, humorous, like picturing that same camel dancing in a bushel.
The saying by Jesus is similar to another, that draws attention to the sharp scholarly distinctions made at a famous Talmudic academy: “Perhaps you are from Pumbeditha, where they draw an elephant through the eye of a fine needle.”[i] Paradox exaggerates, but its image of absurdity, when explained, is a showing of truth. Humor, I think, softens the blow, and gives us a little breathing room. Paradox is its caution.
If we are poor, if we have no bank accounts, no pocket change, no home and nothing to eat, and we hear what Jesus says about being rich, we will be hopeful. If we own a little property, if we have savings accounts, if we have wills for leaving our possessions to our family, then we may be challenged by what we hear. We are down-to-earth, practical, well-meaning, hands-on people. We are glad to have scraped together some savings. We want to look after our families, and we don’t want to be any trouble to others. If we have to ask for help, we feel like losers, because we can’t manage on our own.
And what if we are wealthy? Jesus isn’t going to give us the heads up to keep our money; Jesus isn’t going to say its ok to be wealthy, as long as we don’t get attached to it. We all know, with money, the problem is, we want it. We want to buy everything we need, and then we want to buy everything we want, and then we want to squirrel away everything we have left over. And we can’t do this while carrying out the Great Commission. All of our thoughts will have turned to money. And unless we are delivered from the compulsion to get more money, we may now and again make charitable donations, as long as they are tax deductible, but we are not giving our lives, so that others may have life.
Suppose we had sayings like this: For every hour you labor, pray for a day…For every dollar you earn, give away two…When your cupboards are bare, your stomach will be full. Are these not paradoxical? Theophylact explains: “One ought not to hold on to riches, that is, to keep them in one’s possession, but instead one should use them for what is necessary.”[ii]
Jesus is on his way to the cross, and we are walking with him. Then a young man comes running toward us. “Good teacher,” he says, and kneels on the ground before Jesus. We have never heard or seen anything like this before. We can tell he is wealthy, and we think he means to be respectful. Then he asks, “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” The question, like his actions, is unusual. Is it a riddle? Jesus enumerates for him the second tablet of the law’s commandments, and the young man answers, “Master, all these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus then embraces him.
Now, if you know anything about riddles, you will know they never get answered, at least until some trial, some hardship, or the impossible, even, has been undertaken. Jesus does not mention the law’s first tablet. How can obedience to love and the accumulation of wealth be reconciled? With the Great Commandment in his heart, Jesus follows the protocol of the riddle: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
I think we don’t stop often enough to admire the disciples who walk with Jesus. The disciples have put their family and social life behind them. They have no earthly possessions. They are doing the very thing the young man finds impossible. And Jesus invites the young man to join them, to become one of his disciples.
Material wealth – of any meager amount – is habit forming; we get addicted to our possessions and our money, our comfort and security. Wealth unsettles our minds and gives rise to anger and desires. What we need, if we are rich, is a recovery program, and that’s just what Jesus offers us. Wealth is just as destructive as alcohol, drug addiction, and gambling; wealth is an illness, evil because it separates us from God; it is death, demonic possession, a mental illness that deranges us. But God offers to deliver us from its power, so that it no longer enslaves us, and give us the strength, instead, to be free.
The idea of liquidating one’s assets to join a community is found in the Qumran manuscripts, in the Community Rule scrolls: for the Essenes “despise riches” and “surrender their property to the order.” The early church held a similar view of property.[iii] Jesus, however, doesn’t ask that money be given to himself or his disciples; he asks that the wealth be distributed to the poor.[iv]
Let’s face it: Most of the time, we just don’t want to do what God tells us to do. “Do not lay up for yourself treasure on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” Jesus says (Matt 6:19-20), and “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24). Mark tells us that the rich young man goes away sorrowful, disheartened by what Jesus says, “for he had great possessions.” The disciples think Jesus has just said no one can be saved. Theophylact says, “it is not the same for those with many possessions as it is for those with few, for the fetters of many possessions are stronger and more terrible.” And, “one who has cast off the wealth of his sins to the demons is he who is able to follow Christ.”[v]
The disciples are confusing the Law and the Gospel. What Jesus has and is saying is this: people can’t save themselves. The impossibility lies, not in salvation, but in the efficacy of human effort. – “No one is good, except one God.” – “Then who can be saved?” – “For God, everything is possible.”
Today’s collect is beautiful: “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works….” The collect is a prayer for justification and sanctification,for the grace through which we are saved and the grace through which we do good works; the prayer recognizes that without grace, we can do nothing, and with grace, everything is possible.
Jesus is on his way to the cross, and we are walking with him. The rich young man “went away grieving” “his face clouding over.” He can neither make himself righteous or become a disciple. The cost is too high. He is attached to the status that comes from being rich and “law-abiding.” He is successful. A place at the head of the table is always made for him. He cannot choose heavenly treasures over earthly treasure. He cannot walk with Jesus, but Jesus will make his walk for him.
Scripture convicts us. This is why Paul in Hebrews calls it a two edged sword: we are killed by the law. Are we not first among sinners? When we read aloud our Bible, we can hear God speaking through it. The Word of God is alive, and when we read aloud, we hear God speaking outside of us. His word pierces us, it gets inside us, it cuts through our soul and our spirit, our joints and our marrow, our thoughts and the intentions of our heart. The living word of God is sharp and active; we are exposed by it. The rich man is sorrowful not because of his wealth but because he has heard the word of God – the judgment of God – and the word has cut to the bone and left him naked.
Riddles seem to have no solution, which is why we ponder them. The lives we thought we were living, the righteous ones, we now see for what they are: loathsome. This is what Jesus understands, and why, moved by great compassion, he passed through the heavens and came to live with us. The same Word that convicts us, justifies us; He has experienced what we experienced, and he has undergone the temptations that we undergo. Through it all, his love for us is unchanging.
Two rabbis from Pumbeditha were analyzing the interpretation of dreams. “R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: A man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts, as it says, As for thee, Oh King, thy thoughts came into thy mind upon thy bed (Dan 2:29). Or if you like, I can derive it from here: That thou mayest know the thoughts of the heart (Dan 2:30) Raba said: This is proved by the fact that a man is never shown in a dream a date palm of gold, or an elephant going through the eye of a needle (because he never thinks of such things).[vi]
What shall we do that we may inherit eternal life? “Hold fast our confession,” for our God – our high priest – sympathizes with our weaknesses. The least among us, the unrighteous, will be saved. Jesus will lift us up, and we will have our room in the heavenly mansion. The joy that awaits us, the abiding joy, is far greater than any joy we have yet known. In the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be no poverty, sickness, or hunger.
[i] Jacob Jonsson, Humor and Irony in the New Testament (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1985), 110-111.
[ii] Theophylact, The Gospel According to Mark, 87
[iii] see Acts 2:42-47.
[iv] Craig A. Evans, Word Bible Commentary, Vol 34b.
[v] The Gospel According to Mark, 86
[vi] Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55.