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Sermon: The Rich Man and Peter

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA on Sunday, October 14, 2012.

17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23); Year B (RCL): Amos 5:5-7, 10-15; Ps. 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10-17-31


            Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.


There are two major figures in today’s Gospel passage from Mark.

First there is the rich man who goes away sorrowful.  He cannot accept the invitation of Jesus, who tells him to sell what he owns, give the money to the poor, and then follow him.

The other is the apostle Peter.  He has done precisely the opposite.  Peter says to Jesus, "Look, we have left everything and followed you."

            These two figures stand as book-ends to our lesson for this morning.  We can see them as contrasting ways of life, and contrasting attitudes. 

If we set these two side-by-side, we might tend to think of polarities.  There should be a good guy and a bad guy.  Peter is the good guy, and the rich man is the bad guy.

            But these two men do not fit our polarities well.  The rich man is, in fact, not bad at all according to standards that we all share.  He keeps the commandments.  He does not kill, steal, defraud, or hurt anyone in any way.  He's the kind of person we want as a neighbor or colleague.  He's the kind of person we want to deal with in business.  He is the model of a respectable person.  We might even want to be that person.

He is also pious and polite.  This man kneels before Jesus, addressing him as the Good Teacher. 

            Approaching Jesus with his question, it does not seem that he comes with cunning or deceit.  From all appearances, his question arises out of curiosity or perhaps some unease about his own spiritual condition, and there is nothing wrong with asking if either of those is the case.  He asks the question, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

            The dialogue does not go well.  Jesus tells the man he has come up short: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

            We might wonder why Jesus would treat this man that way.  The most likely reason is that the man appears to think that he can deal with God the same way he has dealt with others in this world.  Regardless if his wealth came through hard work, shrewdness or even inheritance, it doesn't matter which.  In any regard, he thinks eternal life is something to gain, as surely as one gains riches.  It's something you secure for yourself.  So what must I do?  What's the trick?  He turns to Jesus for some ‘insider trader’ information.

            In responding, Jesus meets the man on his own terms.  If you seek a technique or a recipe, here it is: Go, sell all that you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me.

This response is met with a shocked and sad farewell because the text tells us he had many possessions.  The rich man becomes the poster child of what Jesus will go on to say, when he says: "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God."

            Wealth and the kingdom are hard to match up and negotiate.  We can get the idea that both our identity and our worth as human beings are tied up with our wealth--or the lack of it.  And so we have the expression, "How much are they worth?" 

The rich man's security and identity were tied up in his possessions.  He was known as a rich man, an important man, a man of worth, a man of quality.  He could get most anything he wanted; or at least he thought so.  To obtain eternal security should be a possibility for a person of such standing.  His only question is: How does one go about getting it?

            The same ways of thinking flourish today wherever one's wealth is thought to signify one's worth.  This is a secular version to the quest for eternal life.  That is to say, the good life, and even fullness of life, depends on what we have.  Salvation comes by the accumulation of wealth and possessions. 

A saying goes, it's not wrong to be rich, but it's dangerous.   I know, of course, that's a risk most of us would be glad to take.  Often times, in response to the question, “Can I get you something?” I will reply with “A Million Bucks?”  I don’t know if more riches than I have already would change me for good or bad, but I might like to find out.  We have the idea that, if only we had more wealth and possessions, we would be better persons.  We would surely be more generous.  Right?

But facts stand against us.  Certainly, the wealthy give more away in actual dollars, but often it is the poor who are most generous in proportionate giving.  So think about that.  If you and I had more than we have already, would we actually be more generous?  It’ is hard to tell.

Simply reading this text, what Jesus demands of the rich man is not directed to any of us, except as we understand that whatever our level of income and assets, we are among the wealthy of the world.  When we ask big questions in our time, like how to inherit eternal life, we might get a response from Jesus like this:  Stop looking to heaven and imagining all kinds of wondrous things that you might have. You can do nothing to inherit eternal life.  It is a gift, pure and simple.  It is Grace. 

Jesus might continue there are things you can do from the perspective of God's eternal kingdom right now.  You can look at human needs close by, use what you have in ways that bring relief, and follow as a disciple.  You can work for justice in this world, a world of haves and have-nots, in which the divide between the haves and have-nots has increased dramatically in recent years.

            A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report in 2010 declared there were 925 million people undernourished in the world, representing almost 14% of the estimated global population of 6.8 billion, with nearly all the undernourished living in developing countries.  In plain numbers, almost 1 in 7 people in the world are hungry. Something is terribly wrong.  Even in the U.S., over 14% of households live with food insecurity.

We talk a lot about being public leaders of a church in mission.  We often leave that word “mission” open to various possible meanings, and we should.  But certainly a church in mission should promote economic justice.  Let us never forget the prophetic books, such as Amos, whom we hear from today.  Amos, a simple farmer, took on a materialistic nation, issuing a call to see both the moral and social collapse and political corruption of the northern kingdom of Israel.  It was a call for repentance to return to the standards of behavior that God had commanded.  Amos’s teaching provides a useful Old Testament illustration of embracing concepts of both social service and social action, which are essential components of a genuine Christian social concern.  As our church sign out front says, “Buy Pumpkins – Help the World!”   

But returning to the Gospel, the other person we heard about is the apostle Peter.  We think, of course, he's the good guy in all of this.  But it's hard to ignore the fact that Peter is flawed as well.  Some of you may have read about my own encounter with Peter in the latest Almond Tree.  There is some haughtiness in what he blurts out on behalf of himself and the other disciples: "Look, we have left everything and followed you." 

Here, Peter gives Jesus an opportunity to make a statement every bit as radical as the one he made to the rich man:  “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, brothers 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.”

In this story, we have a description of the earliest followers of Jesus, people who actually did all this.  They left home, family, and occupations to follow Jesus in his ministry.  As a community of faith, they received in return a hundredfold of what they gave up.  They found themselves bound together in new households, with new siblings, parents, and children--not by ties of blood, but through ties of faith. 

And there was a downside to it all.  They also experienced persecutions.

            The church of all times and places is really a household of brothers, sisters, parents, and children in the faith.  It is this Body of Christ which circles the globe and spans generations, the sexes, ethnicities, races, cultures, and socio-economic levels.  There is no other community quite like it to shape us, school us, and discipline us into being the people that God is fashioning and creating us to be. 

But therein also lays our challenge.  Our experience does not always match our understanding of the nature, constitution and functions of our church.  As soon as we begin to describe the church, we see that we have an assignment.  The challenge is ever before us to catch up to what we claim we are and what we are called to do.

What Jesus said to the rich man tracks with this call to action. 

So, we have two figures before us, three if we consider Amos as well; the rich man, who cannot give up what he has to follow Jesus, and the other is Peter, who has given up everything and has followed him.

Who are you?  Who am I?  We are neither.  We’re not the rich one who is asked to give up all they have.  We are not Peter, one of the original twelve, who had a prominent role in founding the church.  But Peter plays a special role for us, providing that opportunity for Jesus to talk about important matters.  In contrasting the two, Jesus shows us how to talk about faith centered in God, lives that are given to following Jesus himself, becoming brothers and sisters, and accepting one another. 

The Gospel began with a question: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  In the end, the Gospel holds the promise.  Jesus promises eternal life to his disciples.  All this finally says to us is: Seeking to obtain eternal life, like striving to acquire numerous possessions, is a dead-end street.  Nothing will work.  We cannot bargain with God. 

Eternal life is a pure and undeserved gift from God that we receive when we have nothing to offer.  And since that is so, we can turn our gaze from heaven and stop wondering what awaits us there.  Instead, we can turn our eyes to this world, and follow Jesus wherever he takes us.

And who knows?  Maybe that rich man actually came back after he went away.  Maybe he did end up following Jesus.  Maybe we can hold that out as our own model.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Oct. 18th, 2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
I just finished reading your sermon from yesterday. All I can say is WOW! Especially when so much is happening today in the political arena. You are absolutely correct - we can not buy our way into heaven. Jesus did that for us when he said :I go to my father's house where I will prepare a place for you and I will come and carry you home." What a gift.

By the way, what is the "Almond Tree" ?

Love, Dad

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )