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Possessed by Our Possessions -- or by God?

"Certainly our material things and our desire for money to buy more things have a hold on us today, perhaps more than any other time in history.

"Jesus preached that redistribution of wealth and acts of justice were more in line with God's reign than the accumulation of wealth."

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

There is a well-known story about the monkey who was going along a path. As he takes a turn in the road, he sees an iron cage. Inside the cage on the ground is an apple. Excited to happen upon this afternoon treat, the monkey just barely squeezes his hand through the iron bars. After grabbing the apple, however, the monkey is no longer able to remove his hand from the cage. Never thinking to release the apple from his fisted hand, the monkey believes himself to be trapped and caught. His excitement turns to sorrow.

The gospel text tells about a young man who did not want to let go of his apples. He approaches Jesus with the grandiose title "good teacher" and asks him what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. After Jesus corrects the young man by saying that God alone is good, Jesus tells the man that he must follow all the commandments. When the young man tries to convince Jesus that he has followed all of the commandments, Jesus looks at him, loves him and responds with a radical challenge: All you need to do is go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come and follow me. Go, sell, give to the poor, come and follow. These are the five things the young man was not able to do.

The young man's response of sadness and sorrow instead of anger and indignation indicate that he was sincere in his searching. Perhaps the response he was hoping for was a blessing or an affirmation and a pat on the back: "Good job!" or "Keep up the good work!" Instead, Jesus challenges him, but he challenges him while loving him. Now perhaps Jesus was demonstrating tough love, but love for this young man meant releasing him from his captivity. Holding on to his possessions kept the man trapped. In essence, he was possessed by his possessions and held by his holdings. The good news is that Jesus loves us and calls us to be freed from that which keeps us in bondage to ourselves. All we have to do is let go of the apple and trust in God.

What are those things you find most difficult to release? Apples come in many different colors and sizes. What is it that is keeping you in captivity? So often our need to be liked can paralyze us. Trying to please everyone reduces discipleship to shallow niceties. Perhaps the young man in the gospel was expecting a polite exchange and that is why he uses such grandiose flattery on Jesus. He was wanting, and could in his day, expect affirmation for his lifestyle. It was common in his day to interpret wealth as a sign of God's blessing. But Jesus surprised him. Jesus preached that redistribution of wealth and acts of justice were more in line with God's reign than the accumulation of wealth. This was not a nice thing to say and certainly did not increase Jesus' popularity. It only served to bring him closer to the humiliation of the cross. We too are called to follow on this way to the cross.

Certainly our material things and our desire for money to buy more things have a hold on us today, perhaps more than any other time in history. This is evident, if nowhere else, in the world of the web. In August, PC World magazine's nomination for Best Site on the web was e-bay -- the auction site on which more than 4 million items are bought and sold on a given day. Evidence is also found on U.S. money, on which appears the phrase "In God We Trust." The reality is that the god we trust is money. Juxtaposed with addictions to e-bay and the god of money, we hear Jesus' call to "Go, sell, give to the poor, come and follow."

In addition to wanting to be liked and to hold on to material things, it is difficult to let go of dependence on self. It is no accident that we read about children in Mark 10:14-16 and in the following verses we hear about a man with many possessions. The contrast is quite striking. First, the children are models for receiving the reign of God and immediately following. The man with many possessions is the first one who does not heed Jesus' call to follow and be a disciple. The difference is in the level of trust and dependence. Children are dependent and must trust their parents and others to care for them. Someone who was wealthy, however, experienced a great deal of independence and did not need to trust anyone except herself. Being a part of the reign of God in the gospel of Mark means trusting in and depending on God alone -- not in trusting in and depending on oneself.

In the Crossways Bible study on Wednesday evenings, Harry Wendt, the author of the materials, uses different illustrations to communicate different concepts. The symbol for sin is a stick figure with an arrow in the shape of a circle over its head. This circular arrow suggests that sin is when one is turned in on oneself. Sin is being caught in the endless cycle of dependence on self. The question posed by the young man in our gospel text -- "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" -- exposes the cycle of sin with which we are very familiar. He was depending on what he could do rather than on what God does.

To free us from our bondage, Jesus died for us. Once and for all the endless cycle of sin was broken. Each and every day we remember that through our baptism, we have been called and given radical challenges like the young man. We have died to bondage to self and we are freed for love to our neighbors. God gently, and sometimes not so gently, works in our midst, unclenching our fists and releasing all the apples that keep us trapped.

Our grip is loosened from wanting to be liked at all costs. Our hold is released from dependence on ourselves. And, most radical of all, we are freed from being possessed by our possessions. With the prodding of the Holy Spirit, we are able to hear anew the good news that although "For mortals it is impossible, for God all things are possible." Amen.


Rev. Beth Warpmaeker is the Faith Formation Pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN.  

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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