The Rich Man and Peter
Text: Mark 10:17-31
"Seeking to obtain eternal life, like seeking to acquire any other possession, is a dead-end street. Nothing will work. We can neither bargain with God nor manipulate 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."
Text: Mark 10:17-31
Chapel of the Incarnation
October 14, 2009
Arland J. Hultgren/
The Rich Man and Peter
Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
There are two major figures in the passage we just heard from the Gospel of Mark.
First there is the rich man who goes away sorrowful. He cannot accept the invitation of Jesus, who tells him to sell all that he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow him.
Then there is the apostle Peter. He has done precisely the opposite. As he says to Jesus, "Look, we have left everything and followed you."
These two figures stand as book-ends to our lesson for this morning. They represent two contrasting ways of life, and two contrasting attitudes.
As soon as we set these persons side-by-side, we tend to think of polarities. There should be a good guy and a bad guy. Peter is the good guy, and the rich man the bad guy.
But the two men do not fit our polarities well. The rich man is, in fact, not bad at all according to the standards that we share. He keeps the commandments. He does not kill, steal, defraud, or hurt anyone in any way. He's the kind of person that we would like as a neighbor or colleague. He's the kind of person we would want to deal with in business. He's the paradigm of the respectable person.
The man is also pious and polite. He kneels before Jesus and addresses him as the Good Teacher.
When he comes to Jesus with his question, it does not seem that he comes with guile or duplicity. 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 that he has a deficiency: "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 may wonder why Jesus would treat the person standing before him that way. The most plausible reason is that the person seems to think that he can deal with God in the same way he has dealt with others in the world. He has become wealthy either by inheritance or by his own cleverness and hard work. It doesn't matter which. In either case, he thinks that eternal life is something to gain, just as one gains wealth. It's something you secure for yourself. So what must I do? What's the trick? Surely Jesus can give him some kind of insider information.
In his response, Jesus meets the man on his own terms. If you are looking for a technique or a recipe, here it is: Go, sell all that you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me.
The result is a sad farewell. The 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 lack of it. And so we have the expression, "How much is he worth?" And I understand that there is at least one dating service on the internet for persons of "quality," that is, persons who make millions per year. I have not tried to access that site, but I have heard that there is a problem. The gender balance is way off. There are more men of quality than women of quality. Not enough women to go around. How sad that is!
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; at least he thought so. To obtain eternal security should be a possibility for a person of such standing. The only question is, How does one go about getting it?
And so the same ways of thinking flourish today wherever one's wealth is thought to signify one's worth. There 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.
As the saying goes, it's not wrong to be rich, but it's dangerous. I know, of course, that
that's a risk most of us would be glad to take. We have the idea that, if only we had more wealth and possessions, we would be better persons. We would certainly be more generous.
But the facts stand against us. According to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last spring, the most generous people in America are the poor. The poorest fifth of our population contribute 4.3% of their income to charitable organizations. The highest fifth give only half that--2.1% . People in between those two groups give about 3%. To be sure, the wealthy give more away in actual dollars, but it's the poor who are the most generous in proportionate giving. So let's think about all that. If you and I were to have more than we have already, would we actually be more generous? It is hard to tell.
By the simplest, plain reading of the text, what Jesus demands of the rich man is not directed to any of us. But whatever our level of income and assets, we are among the wealthy of the world. If we are going to ask big questions in our time, like how to inherit eternal life, we might get a response from Jesus like this: Stop looking up to heaven and imagining all kinds of wondrous things you might have. You cannot do anything to inherit eternal life. It is a gift pure and simple.
But there are some things you can do from the perspective of God's eternal kingdom while you are here. 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, a world in which the divide between the haves and have-nots has increased dramatically in recent years.
Just two days ago a report from a coalition of religious, human rights, and development groups declared that right now--in 2009--more than a billion people around the globe are undernourished, which is 100 million more than in 2008. And that is so in spite of record grain crops worldwide. Something is terribly wrong.
Back in 1986--over two decades ago, and when any 23 year-olds among us were born--the US Conference of Catholic Bishops produced a document called "Economic Justice for All." Then in 1999--a decade ago--the ELCA passed a social statement on economic life called "Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All." But the goals envisioned in these documents seem to be farther away than ever.
Of these two documents, the Catholic statement is much stronger. It's a resource for all Christian churches. It makes five main points:
-The economy exists to serve the human person, not the other way around.
-Economic life should be shaped by moral principles and ethical norms.
-Economic choices should be measured by whether they enhance or threaten human life, human dignity, and human rights.
-A fundamental concern must be support for the family and the well-being of children.
-The moral measure of any economy is how the weakest are faring.
We talk a lot about being public leaders of a church in mission. We tend to leave the word mission open to various possible meanings, and we should. But surely a church in mission promotes economic justice. We should never forget that the books of the prophets, including Amos, are still in our biblical canon.
Besides the rich man, the other person we heard about is the apostle Peter. Our first thought is that, of course, he's the good guy in all of this. But it's hard to ignore the fact that he's a flawed person as well. 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."
By saying that, 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.
Here we have a description of the earliest followers of Jesus, persons who actually did all this. They left home, family, and occupations to follow Jesus in his ministry. As communities of faith and Eucharistic celebrations, they received a hundredfold of what they gave up. They found themselves bound together in new households, having new siblings, parents, and children--not by ties of blood, but ties of faith.
And there was a downside to it all. They also experienced persecutions.
The church of every time and place is a household of brothers, sisters, parents, and children in the faith. It's a body that circles the globe and spans across the generations, the sexes, ethnicity, race, culture, and socio-economic levels. There is no other organization 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 lies our challenge. Our experience does not always match our ecclesiology. 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.
So we have two figures to look at. One is the rich man, who cannot give up what he has and follow Jesus. The other is Peter, who has given up everything and has followed him.
Where are we? Finally we are neither one. We are not the rich man who is asked to give up all he has. And we are not one of the original twelve, like Peter, who had a particular role in founding the church. But Peter plays a special role for us, providing an opportunity for Jesus to talk about important matters. These are faith centered in God, lives given to following Jesus himself, being brother and sister with one another, and accepting one another as brothers and sisters.
The first part of our text contains a question: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
The last part of our text contains a promise; Jesus promises eternal life to his disciples.
All this finally says to us: Seeking to obtain eternal life, like seeking to acquire any other possession, is a dead-end street. Nothing will work. We can neither bargain with God nor manipulate 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. Amen