This week, as I was reflecting on today’s Gospel text in preparation for this sermon, I saw an episode of a TV show and a movie where a character in each story had to sacrifice the thing that they loved most in order for their evil plots to move forward. In the first season of the show “Once Upon a Time” that aired on ABC until recently, the Evil Queen had to kill the thing that she loved most in order for her curse upon all of the fairy tale characters to work. She thought at first that it was her favorite horse, but when killing the horse didn’t get the curse to work, she discovered that what she loved most in the world was her father. And yes, she killed her father so the curse would work. Vengeance was more important to her than love. A similar thing happens in the movie “Avengers: Infinity War”. As the bad guy, Thanos, is collecting infinity stones in order to carry out his evil plot, he discovers that he cannot get one of the stones he needs, the Soul Stone, without sacrificing the thing that he loves most. Gomorah, his adopted daughter who is trying to stop him, is gleeful because she thinks that Thanos doesn’t love anything. But what she discovers is that Thanos does, in fact, love her, and he kills her so that he can possess the Soul Stone.
While I hate to make a connection between stories where characters kill the person they love the most in order for something bad to happen and the story that we hear today, when Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions, I think that there is a connection to be made. In the case of the TV episode and the movie, love of someone stands in the way of the bad guys getting the thing that they want the most. In the case of the rich man who runs up to Jesus, love of stuff is standing in the way of his inheriting eternal life. And as we hear this story, we should be squirming in our seats in discomfort, because which one of us does not love the stuff that we have? For example, I have a lot of books. Those of you who have been in my office or my apartment will know this: I have books everywhere. Believe it or not, each of those books has some sentimental attachment to me. The books that I have in my study contain knowledge that I may need for the work that I do as your pastor. And each of the books that I have in my home contains a story that has some sentimental meaning for me; that spoke to me at some point in my life, and that I remember fondly. If Jesus asked me to give up all of my possessions, there would be some things I could get rid of quite easily, but I think my books is what I would have the hardest time with. And when I hear this story, I wonder if all of those books are standing in the way of my relationship with Jesus.
That, I think, is what Jesus was trying to say to this man and to his disciples: not that we all need to give up all of our possessions, but rather, what are those things standing in the way of your relationship with God? If you look at other stories in Scripture, Jesus does not demand that each person that he meets give up all of his or her possessions. In the Gospel of Luke, for example, when Zacchaeus, he of the short stature, says that he will give away half of his possessions, Jesus does not tell him he should give all of them away. Instead, Jesus tells Zacchaeus that on that day, salvation has come to his house. So the question becomes, what’s going on with this rich man in Mark’s Gospel? Why is he different from Zacchaeus, who was also rich? And this is what it comes down to: the nameless rich man is an observant Jewish man who has done all that he can to keep the commandments. And yet, he still feels like something is missing, which is why he asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus looks at the man and sees that all of his possessions are keeping him from living a fuller and closer life to God. And that’s why Jesus tells the man to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and to follow him. And the man goes away, grieving, because he has many possessions. We don’t know whether he eventually decided to do what Jesus said or not. We are left to wrestle with that question, and to wrestle with what we would do in that situation, and to wrestle with how God is calling us to use our possessions.
And so, again, I don’t think that Jesus is necessarily telling us to give away all of our possessions, too, although there have been many examples throughout history of both men and women choosing to do that. St. Francis of Assisi is one; Mother Theresa another. But I do think that Jesus is asking us to examine our lives and to see if there is something that we love that is standing in the way of a fuller relationship with him. Mark Allan Powell opens his book, Giving to God, with a story that he acknowledges is probably the equivalent of an urban legend, but one that illustrates this point well. There was an ancient people group who lived in what is today known as France called the Gauls, and they were a very warlike people. Christian missionaries came into the area and converted many of these Gauls to the faith. However, when they were baptized, the converted warriors would hold one arm out of the water as the rest of their body was dunked into the water. That way, when the next war broke out, the warrior could say, “This arm is not baptized!” and go off to fight the battle.
What is that arm that is “not baptized” for you? What is that part of yourself that you are keeping close to you so that you don’t have to surrender that part of your life to God? For many of us, that answer could very well be money. What are some of the justifications we use for not giving more money to the church? One of those might be, “We’ve had a large sum of money left to us by someone in their will so the church doesn’t really need more of my money.” Or, “What Jesus really wants is my heart, so it doesn’t matter how much money I give as long as I give a little something.” Or, “I don’t like what the preacher keeps preaching in sermons so I’m not going to give to the church until she’s gone.” All these things are as if we are waving our wallets in the air and saying, “My wallet isn’t baptized, so I can do with it what I will.” And it is in this way that money becomes more important to us than doing God’s will, and it stands in the way of a closer relationship with Jesus.
Jesus said to his disciples, and he says to us, his 21st century disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” Now, you may be thinking to yourselves that you’re not rich. By American standards, no, most of us in this room are not rich. We watch our budgets very carefully. When we have unexpected large expenses, we either add to our credit card debt or we beg the company to whom we owe the debt for some kind of extended payment plan. Some of us live paycheck to paycheck. But here’s the thing: when we compare ourselves to people around the world, those of us who classify ourselves as the 99% in America would be classified as the 1% by people in other countries. And so, it is good for all of us to examine the relationship we have with our money, and to ask ourselves how God would have us use that money to help others around us who are in need.
Now, here’s the good news. The disciples, upon hearing Jesus’ camel through the eye of a needle remark, look around and ask, “Then who can be saved?” Perhaps they recognize themselves in that statement, although Peter claims a little bit later that they have left everything to follow Jesus. But Jesus tells the disciples that, even though by human standards it is next to impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, it is different with God. For God, all things are possible. This is part of what that means: we’re going to mess this up. We can examine our relationship with money and decide that we can give some more, but I guarantee you that there will be some opportunity that we will miss, or an instance where we decide that we can’t give when we really could have. But that doesn’t mean that we will miss entering the kingdom of God, because with God all things are possible. Our entry to the kingdom of God is not dependent on what we do or don’t do, thanks be to God! It is dependent only on God’s love for us and God’s forgiveness of us for the times that we miss the mark, and that love and forgiveness never fails.
Martin Luther wrote, “If you are rich and see that your neighbor is poor, serve him with your possessions; if you do not do this you are not now a Christian. This is what we are to do with all our possessions, both spiritual and material.” All that we claim that we own in fact is not ours; it all belongs to God. We are merely stewards, or caretakers, of God’s creation. And that means that we are to share what we have with others, so that all may be fed and clothed and live the abundant life that Jesus came to earth to give us. So, what is it that is standing in our way of a closer relationship with God? Let’s examine ourselves, ask forgiveness for the times that we have failed, and seek, with God’s help, to use our possessions to benefit others and in so doing, catch glimpses of the kingdom of God here on earth. Amen.