October 14, 2018 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture reading – Mark 10: 17-31
Sermon: “First and Last?”
Believe it or not, the Gospel reading you just heard is NOT about money. It may have sounded like it was, but that is not true. The Gospel reading was about putting God first – before anything and everything – and then receiving the eternal reward of God also putting you first. That is what this reading is about. It’s NOT a “money story.”
Now let me unpack the reading a little because it contains a lot, including an interesting reaction from the Apostles when the rich young leader goes away so upset after talking with Jesus.
First, we have an enthusiastic young man who wants to follow Jesus. Nothing wrong with that! Nothing at all! The church of the past, the church of today, and especially the church of the future desperately needs enthusiastic young people who want to follow Jesus. How can we assume that this young man was enthusiastic? Note the detail in Mark’s Gospel: the young man RAN up and knelt before Jesus. Other places in the Gospels describe various people APPROACHING Jesus or ENCOUNTERING Jesus or FINDING Jesus. Look hard, if you please, but you may not find too many who RAN up to Jesus. In fact, the only example I could find was when the demoniac ran up to Jesus from the graveyard and the demons in him identified Jesus loudly. I think we can rule out enthusiasm in that particular case…
So, this young man in today’s Gospel story was enthusiastic when he met Jesus.
The next item of note was his sincerity. He called Jesus, “Good Teacher,” and then was asked by Jesus about following the commandments. The young man was so clear and so good in his replies that the Gospel says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” The young man had convinced Jesus himself that he was going to be a very faithful follower. He answered the questions accurately and wisely, and his tone and attitude demonstrated that he was on the right track.
At this point, I wonder what the Apostles thought of this guy and what he was saying. Remember that these Apostles often said or did the wrong thing; in fact, just prior to this scene in Mark’s Gospel, the Apostles were trying to turn away parents and their young children from “bothering” Jesus. So, when Jesus rebuked them, they didn’t exactly reveal their accurate attitudes or sincerity.
So, let’s give this rich young ruler some credit for his sincerity.
Next, we have the problem and the reason this story is in the Gospel of Mark. If this young man had just joined Jesus, I wonder if this story would have even been included in ANY of the various Gospels. After all, without the problem, this is just another story of people who were enthusiastic about following Jesus. There must have been plenty of those folks…not much to make this particular guy so newsworthy…except for the fact that he is also rich.
Now we have the problem! Jesus saw what was in this man’s heart, and the love of God was not first; it was somewhere down the list. This man seemed to truly love God and wanted to serve him by following Jesus, but he was unwilling – or unable – to let go of his wealth and put God first.
And now we have one more problem: the Apostles’ reaction based on their incorrect understanding. Notice that the passage says the Apostles were “perplexed” by Jesus’ words. Why would they be perplexed? Don’t they understand that this rich young man wanted to hold onto his wealth, put it first in his life and in his heart, before following Jesus? Why didn’t they get this? Why were they “perplexed?”
It turns out that the Apostles believed an old custom about wealth and God. It seemed that in Jesus’ day, if a believer was wealthy, it was a sign of blessing from God. If a believer was poor, it was a sign of some punishment handed out by God for misbehavior or weak faith. To me, this makes little sense because of the unfair situation that most people in the Holy Land of Jesus’ day found themselves. They had to pay crushing taxes not only to the Roman Empire but also to their own local religious leaders, such as Herod. With all the unfairness around them, it staggers my imagination that the Apostles still believed that wealth meant blessing from God. Jesus bluntly corrected their belief by saying it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
I still can’t figure out why those Apostles then followed up Jesus’ comments by pointing out to him that they had each given up everything in their own lives to follow him. None of them were rich…not even Matthew, who was a tax collector; maybe Matthew wasn’t very good at it. But none of them was wealthy, so they didn’t have to worry about putting their wealth before God. They had none to interfere with their faith!
Jesus again saves the day by reminding them that with God all things are possible; if you put God first in your heart, God will put you first too.
In this particular race, nothing can be first except for God.
That means God has to come before money, before our possessions, before our homes, before our comfort, before our accomplishments, before ANYTHING and EVERYTHING.
If we can do this, then we will be saved. It is as simple as that.
Or is it really?
Let’s be clear, Christians: being rich or successful or having a nice home or having lots of friends or being content with our lives is NOT a bad thing; I can see why the Apostles believed that those who have it good are blessed by God. But it’s not a bad thing; the bad thing is when those so-called blessings are put first in your heart, well before God who blessed you with them. That’s the bad thing.
I once heard someone say that God must truly the poor the most because God made so many of them. So, it can be a little intimidating to hear that Jesus told the young man in imperative sentences – almost commands – to:
That was the only way that particular young man could be saved. After Jesus explained it, the young man went away very sad because he knew he could not do those five things.
But many others throughout human history have done it and have done it well. And it didn’t always depend on their wealth or their status. Others have clearly and bravely and unselfishly put others first; and when they have done so, others see it and know the real truth of being first or last.
In 2016, at the Olympic Games in Rio, New Zealand distance runner Nikki Hamblin and US runner Abbey D’Agostino were four laps from the end of the 5000-meter race when they collided. Both women went down hard on the track. The American runner jumped to her feet first – but stopped to pull the New Zealander to her feet also. Both women took off in an effort to finish the race.
But after going only a short distance, the American began to falter because her leg had been badly injured in the crash. So D’Agostino fell again and seemed to be too injured to continue. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder…it was Nikki Hamblin, the New Zealand competitor whom she had helped up a few seconds earlier. The American later told the press, “There was a hand pulling me to my feet and someone telling me, ‘C’mon girl…we’ve got to finish this race!’” Both women finished the race to the roaring cheers from the crowd and from the other competitors in the race…all of whom finished before Hamblin and D’Agostino, who finished tied for last.
By the way, neither woman had ever met the other before this extraordinary day in Rio. Yet both women put the other first – even at the Olympic Games, even with the whole world watching in disbelief – and both women demonstrated in a very concrete way what Jesus was saying to his followers so long ago.
A wise person once said, “You are only as happy as your least happy child.” As Christians, we are only as happy, safe, secure as the last happy, safe, secure member of the Body of Christ.
In the race of our lives, nothing can be first except for God.
If this is not so, then we will lose that race. But it is also up to us to help others along who might be faltering in the race of their lives.
If, however, we put others before ourselves…
If we put God first in our lives and in our hearts…
Then we will win the race, the big race, the one that really counts: the race to Heavenly glory to be with the One who loves us the best. And when we get there, to that wonderful finish line, we just might find all our fellow competitors waiting for us and cheering for us and loving that we made it too.