Have you ever tried to get ready to set out on a trip only to be interrupted over and over again? It can be very frustrating as the deadline approaches and some pressing need grabs our attention. There always seems to be a hundred things to do when we are about leave.
The Gospel lesson from Mark 10 was just such a time for Jesus. He is setting out on a journey and is stopped by a man with a pressing question. How tempting it must have been for Jesus to push the question aside or to tell the man that he should listen more carefully as he spoke. After all, there were other villages and other people waiting for Jesus; but Jesus, in his usually caring way, stopped and dealt with the man before him. Unlike our world, which is too often caught up in numbers and bigness, Jesus saw each person as a precious creation of God.
We can imagine that the man had perhaps been listening to Jesus teach. Why else would he have bothered to approach Jesus? He had probably been a part of the crowd that had listened to this new rabbi, perhaps amazed at the authority with which he taught, or at least the fresh approach that Jesus was offering on life and faith. But now that he saw Jesus about to leave, he wanted Jesus to get to the bottom line. What was the key part of these teachings that he could take with him and live a new and powerful way? He wanted to get to the heart of what the Gospel was about. He asks, "Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?"
Maybe the man was thinking, what more do I have to do? I'm a good person, I know the rules, the commandments, and I have faithfully kept them. I try to be a good neighbor, I try to do the thoughtful thing, but something is missing, something keeps me unsettled. What do I have to do? To be honest, he was probably looking either for a pat on the back for being a good person or a shortcut to a complete faith.
For we can't be sure that the man wanted anything else to do, maybe all the man wanted was some assurance--a word of praise for being a good, decent, law abiding person, to hear that in keeping the commandments all he had to do was to keep up the good work, that God was proud of him. But don't run up to Jesus and interrupt his journey if you don't expect to be challenged. In addition, I would give all of us the same word of caution. Don't go to God in prayer and not expect a challenge, a push to grow or change in our faith journey. And the risk, as for the man in the Gospel, is sticker shock for the soul. What we had understood as sufficient is only the beginning of something greater.
The point is not that the man had done anything wrong. In fact, Mark tells us that Jesus loved the man. After all, he was keeping the law; he was what we would call a good and decent man. Perhaps what Jesus saw was the potential for this man to join the ranks of the disciples, to take the next bold step on the faith journey.
First Jesus turned the flattery that the man had tried to get Jesus' attention with back on the man. He called him "Good Teacher." But Jesus replied, "No one is good but God alone." Jesus wanted the man to see goodness is not something to obtain, to possess, but rather a goal to seek. He was challenging this law abiding man, that he could never be good enough; he was challenging the man's pride. It would appear that Jesus didn't want him to repeat the same mistake of which he was guilty at the time of this encounter, thinking he had arrived.
Perhaps Jesus saw that prideful front that the man had as a feeling of being invincible, that he could be in control of his life and not entrust that control to God. See, the mistake is asking what he could do instead of asking God what God would do in and through him. For when Jesus got to the bottom line, with love and compassion, he told him he was only one step away; but the man couldn't take that step. He couldn't trust God enough to give of what he had been blessed with to those not so blessed and to follow Jesus.
An American tourist in Jerusalem met up with a monk. The monk offered to show him around the monastery of which he was a part. On their tour they came to the monk's room; the tourist noticed no TV or radio, only one change of clothes, a towel and a blanket. He asked, "How do you live so simply?" The monk answered, "I noticed you have only enough things to fill a suitcase; why do you live so simply?" To which the tourist replied, "But I'm just a tourist, I'm only traveling through." To which the monk said, "So am I, so am I."
Those things we think we must have, those things that we think we cannot live without--do we possess them, or do they possess us? I have noticed that yesterday's luxuries tend to become today's necessities.
Harold Kushner notes in When All You've Ever Wanted is Not Enough, "Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through."
Have you heard the story of the minister, while conducting the wedding service stepping on the bride' foot, realized his blunder and said, "I am so sorry, I know I hurt you. Why didn't you tell me I was hurting you?" Sobbing the bride replied, "I thought it was a part of the service." The challenge to the man was not to cause distress in his life but to change the focus of his life. It was not to create another thing to check off as done, but to free him from the dependency of things he could possess, to grow in his trust in God.
Our possessions, our wealth, our things can be obstacles between us and God. Whenever I travel by air and see how much luggage people take with them despite the fees, I remember what Jim Mullens in "Travel Tips" said, "If you want to get away from it all, don't take it all with you." But it is hard to let go of what we depend upon, to let go of what we think we need to trust in God's grace and providence.
There was once a trusting abbot who was taken aback by the spiritual progress of a young disciple. The abbot let the disciple live in his own lean-to down by the river. Each night he would wash his one robe and put it out to dry. One morning he was dismayed to find that the rats had torn his robe to shreds. He begged for another from a nearby village, only to have the rats destroy that one as well. He got a cat, but he found he had to beg for milk for the cat. To get around that, he got a cow; but of course that meant he had to have hay. He got the hay from the fields around his hut. He had to get workers to help. Soon he was the wealthiest man in the region. Several years later, the abbot comes back to find a mansion in place of a hut. He asked the monk what was the meaning of all this? "Oh Holy Abbot, there was no other way to keep my robes." The more we are wrapped up in ourselves, the further we move from God and what God wants of us. Every self-serving obligation prevents us from helping another, from being a part of the transforming of the world around us.
Remember the very beginning of Genesis, the story of the beginning of all creation, particularly the human race? There is a story of Adam and Eve and the snake. Eve is tempted by the snake to eat the one fruit that was forbidden. The promise was that if she ate it, she would be as wise as God. Of course, she sold Adam on the same idea. Since the very beginning, we have been looking for a shortcut, the easy way. It didn't work in the Garden of Eden, it didn't work for the man who approached Jesus, and it will not work for us. Another word of caution in this story of the talking snake is we should be very cautious about the source of the advice that there is an easy, not-so-costly way to completeness in our life and faith. Even to this day we try what we know is too good to be true. There is no other way around being faced with sticker shock for our soul. God doesn't want to be an afterthought in your life; he wants you to love him with all your heart, soul, and might.
To lead us to grow in our faith, God challenges each of us at the one point we cannot give up. The man who had approached Jesus couldn't let go of what he possessed in order to be possessed by God. He might have pleaded, "Why so much Lord?" Why not allow us to simply say a kind word instead of acting in compassion by helping another? Why not allow each of us simply to put our name on a list saying we are for God instead of actually being involved for God? Why can't God build his kingdom on good intentions?
Cannot the hungry feed themselves? Cannot the lonely care for themselves? Cannot the children and youth learn their faith from someone else? Cannot those burdened by life lift themselves up? We ask, "Why do I have to be involved? If I am already doing my part, why do I have to help do the part of another?"
The man who had felt so much urgency in asking Jesus for the insight he thought would be easy, the man who had just received "sticker shock" for his answer, probably walked away heartbroken with his head bowed in grief. He had come so close, but he had missed the opportunity. Imagine him looking over his shoulder as the little band walked away, through grief with envy, thinking, "I wanted so much to be with them, but I didn't dare take the risk of giving up all I have and trusting God."
As the man who couldn't let go to follow Jesus watched the little band walk down the road, he probably thought of how Peter, Andrew, John and James had all dropped their nets and followed Jesus, how Matthew had gotten up from his tax table to go, but he couldn't take that step of commitment. Don't let the "sticker shock" keep you from discovering the joy and peace that comes into your life by letting Jesus Christ be your Lord and Savior.
Have you ever noticed the more you have the greater the danger of being selfish, the greater the risk of letting God be in charge? When Jesus saw what was happening with the man who had been so eager and now was turning away, he warned the disciples of this danger. He warned them that it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And if you are listening to this sermon, you are probably among the rich elite of this world. So take warning that your possessions don't possess you. He spoke of it being easier of a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom.
We don't know what happened to the man who turned away from Jesus; we don't even know his name. If he had accepted the challenge Jesus gave him, he might have been there at Pentecost to stand with Peter, he might have written a Gospel like Mark or Luke, he might have been an evangelist like Andrew or a missionary like Paul, but he faded away in history because he could not take that final step.
And before you too are taken back by "sticker shock," listen again to the promise that Jesus makes to you and me. "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." Whatever holds you back from making a total commitment to God, let us be willing to deal with it and take that final step to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.
Let us pray. Gracious God, we are listening because we are eager. We all need more of your love and grace in our lives. Let us drop what holds us back from accepting these precious gifts. Let us find the courage to follow thee. Amen.