28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 11, 2015

Proper 23 – Mark 10:17-31

Are you ever taken aback by your own ignorance or obliviousness?

Lately, I find this happening a lot. I thought this middle-aged stage of life would bring more certainty and wisdom but instead, more and more, I feel as if I know less and less. Here is a case in point: I was shocked by this whole Volkswagen cheating scandal, the extent of it, the brazenness of it, the fact that many surely were aware and complicit in it. Given Presbyterians’ solid view of sin this should not have surprised me, but it did. Then a friend who was recently promoted in a large corporation shared with me that she will be evaluated solely on whether or not she increases profit margins by a certain percentage. If she reaches this benchmark, she will be rewarded with a large bonus. If she doesn’t? Well then, zippo.

My first thought, given the fuzziness of gauging success in ministry, was: Wouldn’t it be great to know if one had met the goal or not? Wouldn’t it be great to know clearly what the goal is?! We preach and teach and visit and often have no clue if it makes any difference at all. (That’s why I think so many preacher-types have hobbies with definite outcomes, from knitting to brewing beer.) However, upon further reflection I thought: Wouldn’t it be awful for the only measure of one’s work to be the bottom line of dollars gained or lost? Isn’t there much more to all types of work than profit margins? What about the mentoring of employees, good customer service or making a quality product? All of those things might factor into the profitability of the company, but the means doesn’t matter, only the end. The company may find those worthy goals, but not ones that will be included in evaluating success or failure.

In a forehead smacking moment I thought, “No wonder people cheat!” Unless a person has a strong moral compass, or a company that creates one and holds people accountable to it, then the pressure to get to that magic number, whatever it is, must be overwhelming. No wonder reports on potential safety threats are silenced. No wonder employee benefits are cut. No wonder production is set up wherever it can be done the cheapest. If the only rubric for evaluation is the bottom line, then any means to meet that goal is justifiable – maybe not openly, but often in practice. I understand this is far from universal, but it is nonetheless pervasive.

Forgive my ignorance in not understanding this sooner. It isn’t that the church is immune to pressures to evaluate its performance based on statistics and it’s not that numerical data isn’t useful and important. It just can’t be the only or ultimate way we judge our life together.

This text from Mark asks us: What truly matters? What are our priorities? How do we evaluate worth and worthiness? Framing these verses in this way is important because even if we are preaching to mostly affluent, American congregations, there are some in the pews who have come hungry and have nothing but the possessions they have carried into the sanctuary with them. Thinking about this in terms of priorities and values rather than simply wealth and possessions makes a broader claim that applies to all of us, rich or poor.

In our cultural context, money and possessions matter a lot. They are symbolic of success, power, intrinsic worth, security, comfort and more. Beyond symbols, wealth actually grants power, comfort and some measure of security. Let’s be honest about that. If you have means you are much less likely to have one bump in the road create a devastating domino effect. If you have the money and your car breaks down, you get it fixed. If you don’t have the money to fix your car, you may lose your job due to your lack of transportation and in turn you may lose your home. Money matters in countless ways. Perhaps this is all the more reason followers of Jesus need to be careful about its influence and use.

The Good News of this passage is the fact that eternal life is not inherited, it is freely given by God through Jesus Christ. Verse 27 reminds us that God does the impossible: welcoming those who could in no way have earned their place in the Kingdom. (Remember the little children a few verses back?) God’s claim on us and God’s calling us “beloved” grants us all immeasurable value and worth; there is nothing that can add or take away from it. Many possessions – or utter lack of them – mean nothing in the eyes of God.

What would it be like to live this truth? Would there be less grief? Would we be more likely to go, sell, give and follow? Would we be more generous in every area of our lives? Imagine the possibilities for ministry if we let go of even a little of our possessions and all that we attribute to them?

I recently heard of a Presbyterian ruling elder who is wealthy but lives simply. He has made a habit of looking in the local paper at the foreclosure notices. If he sees a person listed he knows, he will go to the courthouse and pay what is owed. I know this not from him, but from someone who has benefited from his generosity. In the wake of his wife’s recent death, not wanting to wait for his resources to be distributed upon his own death, he has started sending out notes containing checks. The note says that he is sharing what is not really his and encourages the recipients to share whatever blessings God has given them. He sees everything as not his own but as God’s gift to him and acts out of that conviction.

That is the perspective Jesus is calling us to in this story. Don’t worry about inheritances. God has already given you everything. Enter the Kingdom by following the One who has prepared a place for you. Don’t let anything, no matter how seemingly important to you or the world, get in the way of accepting this unfathomable gift that is before you right now. Go, sell, give, follow the one who loves you and grieve no more. That’s the bottom line.

This week:

  1. The other lectionary texts this week include Job 23:1-17 and Psalm 22, both texts of lament. How can we incorporate lament into our worship? How do these texts relate to the story in Mark?
  2. Mark 10:17-31 has three related sections: the encounter with the rich man, Jesus interpreting of the encounter to the disciples and Jesus’ response to Peter’s statement. In which section do you most see yourself or your faith community?
  3. Consider how you would teach this text if you were leading a Bible study at a homeless shelter. How might that context shape your interpretation? What about to a group of wealthy business professionals. What difference do those contexts make in your understanding of Jesus’ instructions?
  4. Jesus looks at the rich man and loves him. Do you think this is significant? Why do you think the Gospel writer includes this detail?
  5. The rich man goes away grieved. What do you think he is grieving? Are there other examples you can think of where people have refused Jesus’ invitation to follow? What has kept them from doing so?
  6. What do you find most difficult to let go of in order to freely follow Jesus? Why?

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