21st Sunday after Pentecost

  1. Pentecost 21.21 “Salvation: Impossible” Mark 10:23-31

Our Gospel today picks up exactly where we left off last week—with the rich young ruler going away sad after Jesus told him he had to sell all his stuff and give to the poor in order to be able to follow Him. Jesus and the disciples are watching the young man make his slow, sad exodus when Jesus goes, to start our Gospel today: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

An even happier thought than I ended with last week occurred to me (I love a happy ending!): we usually take the rich young ruler’s sad exit as a refusal to follow Jesus. But you could read it another way:

Biblical scholars tell us the rich young ruler’s departure means he couldn’t part with his great possessions—because they were so great and awesome that he loved them more than Jesus. But maybe that’s not the problem at all? Jesus does tell him to go away, sell his stuff, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow him. Now the NKJV and ESV tell us his sadness was because he had great possessions (which sounds to our ear like a qualitative judgment—his possessions were so cool, so awesome, he had to choose his stuff over following Jesus). But, the NRSV translates the Greek as many possessions, which is actually a more literal rendering of the Greek πολλα which suggests the difficulty wasn’t that he wouldn’t get rid of his stuff because of its great quality, but rather the problem is quantitative: the rich young ruler had so many houses, boats, businesses, hedge funds, endowments, cars, watches, vinyl record collections, high end stereo equipment, golf clubs, country club memberships, hand made Italian loafers, and bespoke Saville row suits, it would be months, maybe years getting it all sold off, the money distributed to worthy charities, and by that time, would Jesus be long gone and impossible to find?

He might also have been shocked Jesus would demand such an arduous process as a condition of discipleship. Didn’t Jesus write that beautiful hymn “Just As I Am”? He did, right? Demanding absolute divestment as a condition of membership is not what I envision as taking me “Just As I Am”…?!

So, when Jesus says: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” He may simply be saying: “Wow, I really love that guy, but it’s going to take forever to sell all that stuff. I mean, the accounting and tax issues alone are going to be massive. He’s going to need an army of tax lawyers, but then that would be adding to his stuff, instead of subtracting! What a mess! Wealth is such a burden! Can anyone really shake it off, this side of the grave?”

And the disciples are perplexed (amazed, but not in a happy way!) at this saying. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded at this one and said, “Then who can be saved?” Because really, who can divest himself or herself of everything they own? How would you ever eat your lunch, for example, after you’ve bought it, because now you own it, and if you have to give away everything you own to follow Jesus, I don’t see how you’re ever going to get lunch. Do we have to beg for everything? Can we wear clothes?

To quote the great sage John McEnroe: “You cannot be serious, Jesus!” But Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” At this moment, they’re probably thinking: “we’re all going to have to join the rich young ruler in going away from Jesus—because we’ve got a whole lot of divesting to do!”

But Peter says, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.” Which is to say “We’re good, right?” Jesus replies, cryptically (neither, to my ear, a Yes! or No!): “Truly, I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, bothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

So, Pastor: what do you think? Has Peter really fulfilled this condition the rich young ruler is struggling with? Has he left everything to follow Jesus, or does he still own some stuff?

Great question! I think that ownership’s the problem here, not mere possession. You can enjoy nice things as a beggar. Ownership isn’t really a matter of deeds, trusts, legal documents, sales receipts, eminent domain. No. Ownership is a state of mind, a way of being in the world. As Woody Guthrie (originally) sang of his roaming and ramblings: “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ Sign was painted said: ‘Private Property’/ But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing/ God blessed America for me.”

The rich young ruler was too literalistic—didn’t read enough sci-fi, Murakami, or Luther! He didn’t have to physically go and sell everything, take care of the tax issues, find good charities, and make sure he didn’t have a legal claim on a single thing. He could simply declare: “I’m with you, Jesus.” And spiritually walk away from it all, hot on Jesus’ heels. If someone took his Audi RS7 and drove it like it like they stole it, he wouldn’t care. If the keys were in it, he might still drive it himself, sometimes, seeing it’s all a gift. Everything belongs to God and is ours only as beggars after all; and beggars are happy to share, they don’t own a thing(!), but enjoy all the world’s bounty as gifts to the undeserving.

This is what Peter did. Jesus called him to follow. Peter left his boat right at the shore and followed. He didn’t say goodbye to his wife or kids or sell the boat. Later, after the Resurrection, Peter, having denied Jesus, figures he’s out of the club, goes back to Galilee and miraculously finds his old boat and fishing gear pretty much where he left it and goes back to fishing—‘till Jesus calls him to follow him, again—which Peter does. All the way to the cross.

That state of being beggars after all, vagabond beatniks with eyes only for Jesus, is a a matter of Faith, a state of Grace! At Jesus’ word, you can enter that state; and you don’t need lawyers or accountants to verify it. But, at any moment, you could grab onto something as trivial as your turkey sandwich and say “mine!” And, at that point, you are out of the club, no Christian at all, pagan through and through…(!)

But that’s impossible! No one can manage that! Correcto! A reviewer of one of the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible films responded to the complaints: “But you can’t climb a building with suction cups or fight off 20 machine gun toting maniacs with a knife”: “Well, it’s not called “Mission: Very difficult, but doable!” it’s “Mission: Impossible!”

So it is with eternal life. It’s impossible for us to keep faith, ourselves. Auden was right: “it’s almost the definition of a Christian that he knows he isn’t one!” Salvation is not very, very difficult, but possible if you join a good church like the LCMS. It’s Salvation: Impossible!

And when we give up on achieving IT, by hook or crook (or sincere piety 🙂 we are right where Jesus wants us. In His Name. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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