Wealth, Freedom, and Faith


A sermon on Mark 10: 17-31

The disciples tend to get a reputation for always missing the point, but I have to say, I really appreciate their honesty in this story. If 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, “then who can be saved?” Seriously! They are just being real. The scale of camel to needle is so absurd that it would make anyone want to throw up their hands… or to explain it away.

In the Middle Ages an interpretation sprang up that claimed Jesus was talking about a gate into the walled city of Jerusalem, a gate called “the eye of the needle.” According to this theory, the gate was unusually small, so small that camels had to be unloaded in order to pass through it. They couldn’t carry anything extra with them. It was inconvenient for travelers to enter the city this way, but not impossible.

So, under this interpretation Jesus’s mini-parable offers its own formulaic solution to the camel-needle problem: just unload the excess and you will be OK. You actually can make it through the eye of the needle!

There are two problems with this interpretation.

First, there’s the problem that the story of the Eye of the Needle Gate is just made up! There is no credible evidence that such a gate actually existed. The first reference to this idea isn’t until the 9th century.[1] Of course, that doesn’t mean the idea has died. A quick google search will find you many more hits that elaborate on this theory than those that point out the lack of real evidence.

And that doesn’t surprise me, because we WANT the tidy explanation, don’t we? We want the formula of “just unload the excess.” We want something to DO – some way to ensure that we have done enough to qualify as “good.” (And, to be honest, we’d probably prefer it if that “something” does not require completely impoverishing ourselves. Getting rid of the excess, that’s OK. At least it sounds a whole lot more palatable than thinking we have to shrink our wealth from camel size down to the size of a needle!)

But the second problem with the Medieval interpretation is even more essential. Because this interpretation completely misses the point of what Jesus is trying to teach the young man. The young man comes to Jesus in search of assurance that he has done enough! That by DOING all the things he has been taught he has, in fact, mastered the formula. That he is a good person.

But the young man’s question, and then his response to Jesus enumeration of the law, reveals the crisis of trying to earn our way into God’s favor. The man comes to Jesus with a severe appeal born of anxiety. He calls Jesus “Good Teacher” – acknowledging that Jesus has something to teach him about goodness, something that the man knows he needs. He has kept the law from his youth, he has done everything he knows to do…. but still he feels like something is missing. That subtle voice inside nags at him… telling him that he’s not good enough.

So he asks: what else is there to do? I’ve DONE everything I’ve been told!

Jesus understands the underlying error behind this question, so he responds by telling the man to do... something that he CAN’T do.

It’s not that NO ONE could sell everything and give it to the poor. Some saints in the church (and in other faiths, for that matter) have done just that throughout history. But this young man can’t. He has many possessions, or maybe it’s more accurate to say he is possessed by many things. He can’t let go, so he goes away grieving. That little voice inside has been vindicated. “You see, I told you. You’re not good enough.”

It would be a pretty defeating story if it were not for one unique detail. Mark tells us, before Jesus offers his impossible challenge to the young man, that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). WE are probably all used to hearing that Jesus loves us. It’s one of the first church songs we teach our children: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” It’s something we might be tempted to take for granted. But in the gospel of Mark, this rich young man is the ONLY person singled out as being loved by Jesus. [2]

So, if Jesus loved him? Why did he set the young man an impossible task? Why did Jesus tell him to do something he couldn’t do? It seems so unreasonable. So un-loving.

Until we realize that love is not content to let us stay trapped in the lie that we can earn God’s approval. We have to confront the impossibility of our own perfection, in order to accept that we have to trust in God.

“For mortals it is impossible,” Jesus says, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27)

Jesus’s goal in calling the man to do something he can’t do is NOT to condemn him. It’s not to set the bar so high (or to set an expectation of poverty so low) that he can’t reach it. Jesus’s goal is to FREE him from the trap of thinking his value comes from his own goodness. Even more than his wealth, the man needed to lose his self-sufficiency.

Because self-sufficiency is a lie. - On one level the man already knew it, or else why did he come to Jesus in the first place, seeking something more – but it is a lie that is so hard to let go of.

That’s why, as our Hebrews reading tells us, the Word of God is like a sharp, two-edged sword, cutting us open, exposing our hearts. The cut hurts, but without it we can never be free. We can never let go of the lie that we have to prove our own worthiness. We can never be healed by the truth that we are loved… in our naked, broken, imperfect realness, we are loved.

God’s word pierces us to cut away the sources of false security that hold us captive – the things that promise to guarantee our goodness, or our superiority, or our safety. It doesn’t have to by money. It can be lots of things. Nationalism. Patriarchy. Partisanship. White supremacy. Transphobia. The list goes on.… It includes any lie that promises that we are better than “others” and that we have to protect that superiority to prove our own worth…

We have to LOSE all those things, we have to stop trusting them, so that we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness,” knowing that we WILL “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16).

Each of us probably has several such sources of self-sufficiency that we need to have cut away (I know I do). At the same time, I understand why money is the one highlighted in this gospel story (and in many others) Wealth is a powerful captor, and not only – or even primarily – because of greed. Many people are willing to share from their excess.

But money’s deeper hold takes the shape of fear.

The need to ensure that we have enough for our needs, and for our families.

The anxiety of all the “what ifs” that make us cling to the security of financial resources.

It’s easy to trust God until we aren’t sure we can pay the bills… then the Word that calls us to trust God in all circumstances cuts deep. It exposes how much we are really putting our trust in whatever meager wealth we have had.

That’s why, throughout the history of the church, believers have always been looking for ways to explain away the call to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…” (Mark 10:21). It’s just too scary. That’s too much trust. If we give away everything today, then what happens tomorrow?

Jesus’s challenge to the young man is not ultimately about money – that’s just as symptom (important though the symptom is) – it’s about trust. It’s about faith that GOD is the one who meets our needs.

Today, and for three more Sundays in October and November, our church will be exploring the stewardship theme that Giving is a Means to Grow our Faith. And we are staring that exploration THIS Sunday, with THIS gospel lesson because it’s important to understand that the point is actually about our FAITH, much more than it is about our giving.

We are calling this a Stewardship FOCUS, not a Stewardship DRIVE because its purpose it not to make sure we can make budget next year. (Although, to be honest about how the Word cuts me open, I cannot pretend that I don’t get anxious about that kind of thing. I need this sermon as much as anyone here.) But it is NOT our calling to make budget. It is our calling as Abiding Peace Lutheran Church to GROW FAITH. And God will be faithful to provide the resources we need to do the work to which we are called. I don’t know if that ministry will look like we expect or want it to look, but God will be faithful to give us what we need.

So our task in this time of Stewardship focus is not to raise money, it is to reorient ourselves – both individually and as a community – in our relationship to money so that our faith can grow. So that we don’t go away grieving as the young man does because we are too scared to actually trust God. But rather, so that we can listen to a word that cuts us open, exposes our brokenness and need, and then calls us to the throne of grace with the promise that we will find mercy and grace to help in time of need.

Jesus know us. He knows our fears. He knows how much we want to prove our own goodness. He knows how much we need to be freed.

He knows all that, and looking at us, he loves us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] http://www.biblicalhebrew.com/nt/camelneedle.htm

[2] Sarah Hinkley Wilson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3795

The following resources also contributed to preparation of this sermon:

Brow, Tim. ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters for Oct. 14

Juel, Donald. Mark, A Master of Surprise (Fortress Press, 1994)

Koester, Craig R. Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16. (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3796 )

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