Sermon: October 14, 2018 – Mark 10: 17-31
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church – Rev Greg Wooley
There’s not much that I remember from High School chemistry classes, but I do remember the way we were taught difficult concepts, which I thought at the time was very clever and still do.
First time through, we would be given a set of examples in which everything worked out beautifully – all the math worked out, no complications. Then we’d be given slightly more complex chemical equations, but still, everything worked out nice and smooth. By this time, as students brand-new to this endeavour, we were feeling pretty good about our scientific and mathematical abilities, wondering why anyone would need to do a Master’s or Doctoral degree in these areas since it all works out so easily.
The following year, we were given another set of examples. After a bit of review, we took those principles that worked 100% of the time the previous year, applied them to a new set of problems… and got the wrong answer. It literally did not add up. How could this be? Well, the year before we were just getting the basics – we’d not been told anything about how heat changes things, or how catalysts work, or any number of other factors in the real world that disrupt the world of easy answers. The first methods we were given were not wrong, but we had not been shown the whole picture. This method of instruction, known as “spiral learning” or “the spiral progression approach” keeps returning to the basic concepts and adding more complexity as the student’s maturity and understanding and skill level grows. Whether this method is still broadly used or has been supplanted by other methods, I cannot tell you, but forty years later I remember liking how it worked from the learner’s standpoint. The first information we had been given set the basics, and as more complications were added we were introduced to advanced concepts that helped us meet the challenge. The core knowledge helped us to see that there was much more that we needed to learn.
As I read through the encounter between Jesus and the young man traditionally called the “Rich Young Ruler,” I see a similar process at work. I picture the Rich Young Ruler (RYR) having the same confidence I remember myself having, after acing grade 10 chemistry: he’d mastered the first set of lessons placed before him, teetering on the edge of perfection in his own mind He didn’t know everything yet – hence his visit to Jesus for additional mentoring – but may have thought that stepping over the threshold, from “doing really well” to “eternal bliss” would be accomplished by performing another task that was similar to what he was already doing.
As a reader, 2000 years later, we have the benefit of being able to step back from this encounter to see the various elements. In summary form, it goes like this:
v.17, RYR: “Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?”
- 18, Jesus: “Why do you call me good? no one is good except God alone,” and continues his reply to RYR with a list of commandments.
- 20, RYR: “Teacher, ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commandments”
- 21, Jesus: “You need only one thing: Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.”
- 22, RYR cannot bring himself to do this and goes away, gloomy.
This may seem to be the end of the action, but the disciples have witnessed it all, so…
- 23-25, Jesus tells them the analogy of a camel going through the eye of a needle to describe how difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.
- 26, the Disciples, shocked, ask: “who, then, can be saved?”
- 27, Jesus: “This is impossible for humans, but not for God; everything is possible for God.”
Then, in a final bit of denouement, Jesus and Peter set all this in the context of the sacrifices they have already made, and where that fits in the Kingdom of God, ending with Jesus’ reminder of how things work in the new realm: “many who now are first will be last, and many who are now last will be first.”
Take a look at how this encounter unfolds between Jesus and RYR. Right at the beginning, when RYR addresses Jesus as “good,” Jesus steps him back from that, saying “only God is good.” At that point, Jesus could have fast-forwarded right to the end, and told RYR what he told the disciples, that we don’t “save” ourselves – that’s what our gracious God does.
So why didn’t Jesus just say that? Because Jesus was and is an amazing master of the teachable moment. Whether we call it spiral learning, or just an astute reading of the person before him, Jesus met RYR where he was, and saw the lessons-in-between that needed to be learned. The good news for us today, as we present our wonderings to Jesus, is that God-in-Christ receives us in exactly that same way, accepting us as we are and helping us, step by step, to go deeper, and learn more, and be fuller disciples, and come closer to the very heart of God.
Church consultant Kennon Callahan has written a terrific series of books about effective Church life. He asserts (pp.78-79) that there are four “foundational life searches with which we all wrestle…the searches for individuality; community; meaning; and hope.” As I flip through memories of pastoral contacts through the years, I think this does mostly sum it up. The yearnings that we bring to Jesus will likely be in one of these categories: who am I? who can I connect with? What does this all mean? How can I have hope? And whichever big question we are asking, we are heard, by one who meets us where we are.
As for RYR, his question was at somewhat of a crossroads between these: the meaning of life and hope for life beyond life, coupled with his individual responsibilities. And since he attached it to the question, “what must I do?,” Jesus answered with a task list. You start, by living the kind of principled life outlined by the commandments – do not steal, do not bear false witness, and so on.
As the RYR would know from his Jewish religious training, these commandments aren’t just rules, they are indicators of relationship. One of the ways that show you are in relationship with the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the god of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, is that you know and follow the rules & principles inherited through the ancient scriptures. Much in the way that farm families understand that in order for the family to work properly, you have to get up at 5 AM to start your chores, these rules aren’t so much “if you do these you will get rewarded, if you don’t do these you will get punished”; it’s more like, “you know you are loved unconditionally, you know you belong at a deep, deep level, but this whole family system is going to go so much smoother if we base our days on these basics.”
Jesus does a pre-test with RYR by asking if he has lived by a few basic commandments – lesson number one – and RYR happily reports yup, I’ve done all these, what’s the next one, teacher? And with this question, Jesus sizes up the next “teachable moment.”
In that time and place it would not have been hard to spot a rich person. Fine clothes, healthy skin, well-rested, probably travelling with an entourage. So Jesus plays a hunch: this kid is probably really attached to his stuff. This kid probably figures that everything he has accumulated is a sign of God’s favour. This kid probably figures that eternal life – actually a rather uncommon notion in that religious system – will be a continuation of that bounty, i.e., “you CAN take it with you.” So Jesus tells him to sever that unhealthy attachment: give up all your stuff…and turn it into benefit for someone else.
Now, I do not think that this was Jesus’ final answer. While the scripture reading in Mark implies that if RYR were to do this, he would gain free admission to eternity, I don’t think that’s the door Jesus was pointing him toward. Jesus tells RYR that divesting himself will get him where he wants to go, but in that same sentence says “come and follow me.” That is, “point yourself in the right direction, then come on the journey where you will learn the rest of the answer”. Like the student who re-learns the same lessons over and over again, but each time with more variables and greater depth, Jesus continually invites us to look again, learn again, love again, each time going deeper or, in some cases, revisiting earlier lessons we may have forgotten. So Jesus says to RYR, and to us, to take a look at our lives, at those attachments that are stronger than our attachment to God’s holy, active, transformative love, and to invite the Divine to help re-order that. Allowing ourselves to be released from those attachments won’t “save” us, but if we aren’t able to “let go”, we won’t be able to “let God”. While “sell your belongings and give the proceeds to the poor” wasn’t the final answer to what RYR needed, it was a necessary step to be taken at some point; and let us make no mistake about this, all of us need to hear that call to generosity as followers of Jesus, no matter what OUR attachments are. That step, of replacing materialism or other misplaced energies with a true concern for others, makes it possible for the next lessons to be learned.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the vivid camel-and-needle illustration that Jesus uses. While it could very well be that Jesus is simply being absurd here, I’ve always liked the explanation that in old Jerusalem, there was a long-lost gate commonly called “the eye of the needle.” A person could get through this gate easily enough, and an unladen camel could shimmy through it, barely…but a camel fully laden with goods could not. You had to take all that stuff off and deal with it separately, for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle. While there’s no guarantee that this was the connection Jesus was making here, it sure fits, doesn’t it? RYR wanted to know how to pass through the gate, and Jesus said “it’s easy – just leave your stuff behind.”
This passage begins, with RYR referring to Jesus as Teacher. Ponder with me for a moment, what it means to view Jesus as this kind of expert teacher – tutor, mentor, and let’s add “Saviour” – who is able to read how much we understand, what we do not understand, the ways we are hurting or fearful, and to meet us in that very place at this very moment. Ponder with me what it means to view our Spiritual journey in that “spiral learning” sort of way, coming at the life lessons we need to learn over and over again, each time equipped with the things we have learned along the way, the gifts and abilities of our fellow learners, and the wisdom of the ages . Ponder with me what questions and yearnings we need to bring to Christ our mentor, in determining our next steps as a congregation as we seek to share Christ’s inclusive mission in the programs of our Church and as we seek to encourage the community around us to be a place of broader support and love, for our indigenous neighbours, for the LGBTQ community, for anyone who may feel marginalized or left out. Ponder with me, what it would mean to understand that the life we live here and now and eternal life are one and the same thing, that opening ourselves to the profound love of God in this moment is participation in God’s great big everlasting agenda of love for all.
RYR, unfortunately, was not yet able to learn the next lessons of his journey and went away full of possessions, but devoid of joy. I hope that he was able to give it another try later on, and release his life into the care of his loving God, once life had taught him a few things. And on this Sunday of yearnings and wonderings, I end not with an answer but with a question: What are the next steps, the next lessons, the next wonderings, that Christ calls you to on this day?
Callahan, Kennon. Preaching Grace. SF: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.