Monday, October 23, 2006

Mark 10: The Rich Young Ruler (wealth, poor, poverty, kingdom, following Christ, simplicity)

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday in Pentecost
Mark 10:17-27
Fr. Lee Nelson

The story goes that a little boy had gotten his hand stuck in his mother’s prized Ming-dynasty vase. It had been a gift to her grandmother by her grandmother, and so on and so forth through the generations. It was by all accounts priceless.

No flowers had ever been displayed in it – not to anyone’s recollection anyway.

It had never, ever been anything more than a prized family heirloom, a priceless treasure, and therefore, the children were never, ever allowed to touch it.

After all, the very presence of the vase in the house had raised the homeowner’s insurance burden fourfold.

Of course, his mother was away for the weekend, and had left charge of the house to his father, who was out mowing the lawn when the little boy came running out into the front yard, dragging the vase behind him.

The father immediately tried just about everything he could think of – pulling, jerking, hot water, olive oil, motor oil and Goo-gone, but nothing seemed to work.

Loading all the kids into the family minivan, they headed to the emergency room, where after waiting the obligatory four hours, they finally saw a doctor.

The doctor peered down at the catastrophe before him, the vase wrapped in bubble wrap to protect it, and of course, the boy looking comical with his new and unnatural appendage.

“Well, it seems to me that we only have two choices,” said the doctor, after assessing the situation.

“Choice number one: we break the vase with this hammer.”

The little boy shuddered.

The father nearly passed out.

“Choice number two: we amputate the hand.”

The little boy shuddered.

The father knew exactly what must be done.

“Well, the choice is clear, hand me the hammer.”

“Wait!,” screamed the little boy, imagining the look on his mother’s face when she returned home.

“Would it help if I let go of this quarter?”

[PAUSE] [Fr. Nelson holds up a quarter.]

In this hand, I hold a quarter.

In this hand, the Kingdom of God.

In this hand, I hold wealth, and status, and upward mobility, and the keys to my car, and my house, and everything else that isn’t the Kingdom of God.

In this hand, I hold the pearl of great price, discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ, I hold following Him wherever He may go.

In this hand – I hang onto what is familiar, what is safe, what is pleasing to me, what brings me happiness.

And in this hand – I hang onto salvation, that which is wild, and untamed, which will cost me my life, and bring me great joy.

In this hand – I hang onto a Gospel that is easily digested, that only transforms what I let it, a Gospel that is neat and tidy and does not require much of me.

And in this hand – I cling to a Gospel that is messy and bloody, that transforms everything about who I am, a Gospel that is costly and untamed and requires my whole life.

I use these hands to illustrate the very dilemma that frustrates the rich man in the Gospel of Mark.

With his right hand, he grips tightly his money, wealth, notoriety, and image as a benefactor. He enjoys his place in society, he gives to the Temple, he gives to the synagogue.

In his left hand, he desires eternal life, he keeps the commandments – about this, by the way, Jesus does not challenge him, he does not defraud anyone, he honors his father and mother, he observes the Sabbath, he does not commit adultery.

He is, by all accounts a moral man. But is that enough?

Who knows what he had hoped to hear when he asked: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Probably, he wanted to know what the requirements are, and in this, he might as well have asked “Teacher, what is the bare minimum that I must do to inherit eternal life?”

He is asking: “What is the checklist?”

Rather than telling him what he has, Jesus tells him what he lacks, saying “one thing you lack.” The Gospel of Luke, changes this line to “if you would be perfect.” But, the point is the same – this man is incomplete. In order that he may lack no more, he is told to sell everything he has and give to the poor. That’s not usually something you hear. You don’t hear things like: because you lack something, get rid of everything.

But, you see it is not possessions that he lacks – what he lacks is discipleship, he lacks the obedience and submission of being a “student” of Jesus.

What he wants is to be able to hold the quarter in his right hand – his possessions, his status, his wealth, while at the same time grasping eternal life.

He would like to have both.

He would like to have Jesus and 30 pieces of silver.

He would like to have Jesus and his possessions.

You see, the way of a disciple is a way of simplicity and obedience, the disciple following Jesus wherever He goes. The disciple must be unencumbered by wealth and possessions. He must forsake everything – even his own family to follow completely and perfectly. The disciple cannot hang on to the quarter with one hand and Jesus with the other. He must cling to the Savior with both hands.

The rich man wants to follow Jesus – but only periodically, and only insomuch as being a disciple does not interfere with the rest of his life.

Yet, at some point following Jesus requires letting go of the hand with the quarter – the hand with the possessions and the wealth, and the safety – and clinging to the Lordship and Mastership of Jesus – and clinging to Him only – with both hands.

We have committed the great sin in the Church of being somewhat moderate on this point. We have said that if you are interested in being a disciple of Jesus, you are more than welcome to keep your status in the community, your house, your cars, your investments, your possessions. We have done this with the rationale that being a Christian is either a primarily moral enterprise or a primarily spiritual enterprise, and we have exempted the monetary and civic character of the individual from the scrutiny of the Gospel.

We have essentially said that you can have one hand in the Kingdom of God and another in the Kingdom of this World, and be more or less living out Christian vocation.

The problem with this line of thinking is that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this World – the left hand and the right – are not compatible. – they are fundamentally opposed. And, what winds up happening to the Christian is that he winds up being stretched out.

He pursues the intimate knowledge of God and of His Son, while at the same time being in pursuit of wealth and status. He longs for eternal things, for treasure in heaven, while at the same time attempting to satisfy himself with material gain.

The great problem comes when the Kingdom of this World fails to satisfy – when the right hand is dropped – and the Christian must lean on the left hand, only to find that what he is left with is a rather dull and unchallenging Jesus who doesn’t say things like “go, sell what you own.” He’s is a domesticated Jesus – a Jesus who is there for you when you’re down and who says nice things about you.

He is not Lord. He is not Savior. He is mass-market cute.

And the only hope for Jesus and His Church is that some of you get that and sell everything that you have, give the money to the poor, and follow Him and Him only.

There. I’ve said it. I know you were waiting for it, but now I’ve gone and said it.

That’s right – for some of you, following Jesus in completeness will mean you can’t live in your house anymore. You can’t drive the car you drive. You can’t wear the clothes you do.

Note that I say some.

What we find in the Scriptures are some very rich people who don’t have to sell everything in order to be complete disciples.

We can look to Zachaeus. We can look to Joseph of Arimathea, to Lydia, and then to the great saints – Elizabeth of Hungary, Margaret of Scotland, and King Louis of France – all of them unimaginably wealthy, yet generous, and kind, and hospitable. They are those camels who have managed to get through the eye of the needle.

But what that does not mean is that you can be attached to your possessions and Jesus at the same time. You can’t be. Idolatry is idolatry. But, what it does mean is that wealth comes from the Lord Himself and it is to be held in His stewardship. That means that that big house is not yours, it’s His, and so you had better start using it like it’s His.

It means that car is not yours, it’s His, and you had better start driving it like it’s His.

It means that your bank account must be governed by the Lord Jesus rather than by the principles and ideals of the Kingdom of this World.

But, for some of you, I daresay many of you, your possessions and wealth may be the very things which keep you from discipleship, from grabbing hold of Our Lord with both hands.

You might say to me “Father, my possessions and wealth are not my gods. I’m fully capable of keeping things in perspective.”

To you I ask one simple question: “If the Lord appeared to you in a dream, and asked you to sell your house and everything in

“Would you do it?”

Or, would you, like that little boy – hang on to the quarter, the baubles and the trinkets, and walk away grieving, dragging behind you a very expensive vase? [pause]

We must never forget, my beloved brothers and sisters, that we were bought with a price!

That the cost of our salvation is high! And that Our Lord paid it! And He extends both hands to you! And you withhold one?

May we not be so cold to Him!

Our Lord gives us His very self, that we might live with Him, and yet, all too often, it is our materialism which stands in the way, which stretches us out between two hands.

And so, it becomes clear that our attitude towards material things must change in order for our attitude towards Jesus to change, so that we might love Him and trust Him more.

Letting go of our attachments in this world frees us to be disciples.

Let me suggest some more practical ways of giving over our possessions to the Lordship of Christ?

I offer you an acronym: SIMPLE - S. I. M. P. L. E.

The S stands for Smaller. Does your house have rooms that are unnecessary or exist merely for show? Is your car more about status than about transportation? It might be time to downsize. Consider selling what is unnecessarily big, and giving the difference to the Church or another worthy charity.

The I stands for a big word – Inconspicuous. This means getting rid of things which are meant to draw attention to us. Perhaps you have some clothes which have as their most important attribute the drawing of attention.

The M stands for Minimal. This means decreasing the number of a possession, perhaps all the way down to one. To one TV, one set of golf clubs, one dvd player, one computer, one set of dishes, etc. Or it can mean decreasing the number to what is actually necessary. Perhaps you only need 7 shirts instead of 25. Perhaps you only need three pairs of shoes. Stuff all the extra into garbage bags and take it to GRACE.

The P stands for “Paid-For.” This means buying things that you can pay for, not things you can afford. There is a subtle yet important difference between the two summed up by over 1.6 trillion dollars charged on consumer credit cards by Americans every year. Consumer debt is little more than a subtle form of slavery and as Our Lord says “No one can serve two masters, he will either love the one and hate the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

The L stands for “Lose it!” A major part of simplicity is getting rid of things entirely. It is very healthy to go through a bit of purging from time to time. Are there things you haven’t used in a while? Are there things that have become idols for you? Are there things that eat away at your time? All of these are candidates for the “Lose it” method.

The E stands for “Employ it.” This means using what you have. Once you’ve gotten rid of all the excess, it is important to use the things you do have, but again, not according to the principles of this world – but as members of the Kingdom of God, using what we have under His rule.

So, in review, possessions should be small, inconspicuous, minimal, and paid-for. Possessions no longer useful, or possessions that are occasions for sin should be Lost and possessions retained should be Employed.

Friends, if you desire freedom, freedom to follow Jesus, simplicity is the way.

One of the great saints of the Church, Teresa of Avila, had this to say:

“He who has God has all things: When we have God, Who is infinite, we will want less or even nothing extra.

God alone suffices: God supplies everything we need, but not necessarily everything we want. Learn spiritual simplicity by adoring Him and His Blessed Simplicity.”

This is where we get to heart of matters.

God wants us to love Him from the depths of our souls. He wants us to positively adore Him. When we are busied by what we possessed – it makes us impossible to love, adore, and be possessed by Him.

We are like the boy stuck in the jar for the sake of a quarter.

We need only let go to be free.

If you would be perfect: “Learn spiritual simplicity by adoring him and His Blessed Simplicity.”



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