Grace Presbyterian Church
October 10, 2021, Pentecost 20B
In 2005 a new musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, premiered on Broadway, another in a then-novel trend of musicals based on movies instead of the other way ‘round. The movie in question had starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin as competing con men; the musical debuted with John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz in those roles. As the novice grifter introduced to Lithgow’s high-class world, Butz gets the big song; when Lithgow, having grown tired of this penny-ante grifter, exasperatedly asks “what do you want!!??” Butz responds by gesticulating around wildly and shouting “I want this!!”, and then breaking into his big number that sums up everything he has seen and now wants for himself. It is simply titled “Great Big Stuff.”
It’s not the worst summary of one of the seemingly chronic conditions of our world; humans see, and then humans want. For example, it’s a driving premise behind an awful lot of the entertainment that passes by on our various screens, going back at least as far as reality-show predecessors like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or opulent prime-time dramas such as Dallas or Dynasty. (Yes, I’m dating myself, but I know many of you know what I’m talking about.) Sure, the dysfunction of the characters of those shows counts for a lot of the alleged entertainment value, but so does the “great big stuff” those characters possess. We see, and then we want. That’s been a defining characteristic of humanity in general for a very long time.
It’s also worth acknowledging that the church has not been free of that inclination, in any age of its history. Just to throw out one example (perhaps given more recency by the release of the movie The Eyes of Tammy Faye), you might remember the televangelist Jim Bakker (the one with two “k”s in his name) being at least as interested in accumulating wealth as in preaching. He is, however, hardly the only example of such divided loyalty, and emphatically not the last.
Of course today’s gospel reading isn’t very hard to tie into this human predisposition. The man comes to Jesus and asks the question that sets off this encounter: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That phrasing is interesting in itself; to speak of “inheriting” eternal life might offer some suggestion of how the man has gained the “many possessions” we learn of a few verses later. Jesus’s answer is also curious. After the seemingly odd digression over being called “good,” he lists a few of the commandments and law. While many seem to get agitated about the man’s response that he “has kept all these since my youth” as sounding arrogant or prideful, given the examples Jesus gives it’s not that shocking an answer. Personally, I’ve never committed murder myself, and a lot of people can say the same, just to take one of those.
The story gets a little more interesting after that answer. It’s a bit of a jolt to read that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…”. That’s not a typical response in these encounters. At the minimum it seems that Jesus is taking this man at his word, and that this man is not one of those who will appear in coming chapters of this gospel who are trying to trick or trap Jesus with their questions. Jesus seems to believe this man is sincere in his searching, and one might also guess that Jesus knows what’s going to happen when he gives his final answer.
Let’s make sure we take in that whole answer: “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.” Notice that the mandate here isn’t just about selling off those possessions, but also using the funds gained specifically to help those in need, and then turning to follow Jesus.
We know of course what happens next. The man goes away grieving, “for he had many possessions.” What we don’t know is what happens after that. When the man goes away we don’t follow him; we are given Jesus’s words to his disciples about what had just happened. But we don’t know what actually happened to the man himself.
In fact there’s a lot we don’t know about this man. Mark doesn’t even give the extra details that Matthew and Luke add, whereby we often call this person “the rich young ruler”; in Mark all he is is a man who “had many possessions,” regardless of age or social stature. We don’t know the nature of his possessions or his “stuff.” It’s entirely possible, given the Roman Empire setting in which this takes place, that among the man’s ownings are slaves tasked with overseeing his many possessions. We don’t know if there is family involved. We don’t know how far this man has come to see Jesus.
But even more, we don’t know what the man does after he walks away grieving. For all we know, the man does exactly what Jesus tells him to do, sorrowing all the while. Maybe he’s one of those in the crowds that have accumulated around Jesus by the time he gets to Jerusalem. We tend to assume not, but we don’t know. What we do know is that he had a lot of stuff, and the very idea of giving it up was shocking and grief-inducing to him.
The “shock” part shouldn’t surprise us. We are hardly the first age to assume that great wealth somehow means that God has particularly favored a person. The “prosperity gospel” might not have been invented yet, but those living under Roman rule were certainly led to believe that accumulated wealth and power and status were marks of divine favor from some deity or another. The idea of having to give up those seeming markers of divine favor likely made no sense in the eyes of this man or of anyone else listening to his exchange with Jesus. The attachment to his “stuff” was so strong, and so presumed to be good, that Jesus’s words provoked a deep emotional reaction.
After the man walks away, we get the rather famous line about it being easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. It’s one of the more quoted and quotable lines from Mark’s gospel, but also one that is easily misinterpreted. Is it merely the fact of being rich that makes it so hard? Or is it something about the condition of having many possessions that is the problem?
In a technical sense it wouldn’t necessarily have been hard for the man to sell all his stuff, give it away to the poor, and then come follow Jesus. It might have been an involved process to be sure, but you have to guess that if the stuff was good stuff, there would be people happy to buy it. Giving it away to the poor, again, would not be hard; in Roman society there were going to be plenty of poor people around. The hardest part might be tracking down Jesus to follow him once all those financial transactions were completed.
No, it’s not necessarily a hard task to accomplished. Involved, maybe complicated, to be sure, but not hard. What’s hard, of course, is the very idea of giving up the stuff. We get attached to it. It has sentimental value, sometimes. It gets connected to some special event or memory in our lives or family. It feels like giving up the stuff is giving up the memory.
Hopefully this reminds us of the part of this passage that is trickiest for the non-rich among us: you don’t have to have many possessions to be owned, so to speak, by those possessions.
Our stuff becomes our security, our comfort, maybe even our identity in some cases. Maybe it seems harmless to us. We can certainly point to others who have more stuff and fancier stuff and more extravagant stuff than we do, and perhaps hide ourselves from our own attachments by doing so. But do we still run the risk of being so attached to our stuff, so owned by our possessions, that we miss the kingdom of God?
There is that last paragraph of story, where Peter (rightly, in this case) points out that these disciples really did leave behind all their stuff to follow Jesus. Peter, James, and John didn’t even wait around to sell their fishing boats to jump on board with Jesus. And Jesus does in turn tell the disciples that their forsaking has not gone unnoticed; their sacrifices won’t be forgotten in this age or in the age to come. But even then there has to be a precautionary note added, that even in that remembering and rewarding, there will be upsetting of the order of things – “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” If you’re doing all of this sacrificing and selling and giving things away in expectation of being big number one in the end, you’re still getting it wrong. The reward is following Jesus. The reward is entering the kingdom of God. Period. Full stop. End of discussion. Ladder-climbing and gain-seeking and currying favor to gain more importance? None of this is part of the scheme in that kingdom, in this age or the age to come.
We are left with, in the end, a fairly simple question in the wake of this gospel story, one that is nonetheless dreadfully difficult and challenging to answer: what do we “own” that, in fact, owns us? And how do we give it away and follow Jesus?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #35, Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty; #—, What Must I Do to Gain Life Eternal?; #687, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past