Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Child-Like Faith

October 4, 2012

Mark 10:17-31

 This is probably one of the best-known stories in the Gospels, although maybe not one of the most loved.  It’s a challenging narrative.  We probably can’t help but to see ourselves in the place of this man and ask ourselves, “What would we be willing to give up to follow Jesus?”

 We might know this fellow as the “rich, young ruler.”  Matthew’s Gospel tells us he was young, and Luke’s Gospel tells us he was a ruler.  A “ruler” probably meant that he was a synagogue ruler, or possibly a judge, both of which would be very prestigious positions, especially for a young person.  In the world’s eyes, he has it all:  Youth, wealth, respect, power, influence.  

 But he knew something was lacking.  He came to Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?”  His very question tells us so much about his mindset.  He thinks of his relationship to God first and foremost in terms of achievement.  Whatever he lacks, surely he can achieve it!  He’s already achieved so much.  What’s one more thing to add to the list?  

 Jesus says, “Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.”  If goodness is something that belongs only to God, then we should not throw the word “good” around casually.  We should not use it for flattery.  Maybe this young man was used to being called “good.”  But if only God is good, then he must be lacking something.  His righteousness is not complete.

 Well, since he’s thinking in terms of achievement, Jesus turns to matters of achievement.  “Obey the commandments.  Do not murder or lie or steal or commit adultery.  Honor your father and mother.”  

 All of these commandments deal with personal relationships.  And all of them are things that are, by and large, outwardly visible.  They are things other people could see in a person.  Jesus doesn’t even mention the commandment against “coveting,” because there’s no way to measure that outwardly.

 “I’ve done all these things since I was a child.”  Probably that would mean that from the time of his Bar Mitzvah, the time when he became accountable in society’s eyes for his own behavior.  Was he being perfectly honest about that?  We don’t know. 

We know God considers the thoughts of our hearts as well, but as for the outward keeping of commandments, maybe he had kept them all.

 And Jesus loved him, loved him enough not to let him go.  “You lack one thing:  Go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and then come and follow me.”  

 John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, said that living a good Christian life is a matter of keeping three simple rules:  1.  Do no harm.  2.  Do good.  3.  Love God.  This fellow’s problem is that he was only one third of the way there.  He was okay with “doing no harm.”  But “doing good” was more difficult.  It was more difficult to go out of his way, to cost himself, to do good to his neighbor.  And he loved his wealth more than he loved God.  

 Upon hearing this, his face fell, and he went away very sad, for he had much wealth and was unwilling to part with it.  Wealth, and all that it represents, is a serious obstacle to genuine faith.  “How hard it is for the rich to get into the Kingdom of God.”  

 This amazed his disciples because the common wisdom of the day was that wealth equaled favor with God.  If a person was wealthy, that must mean that God really liked them.  Surely they had the inside track on the Kingdom.  But in reality, wealth creates many challenges.  

 First, if we are wealthy, we are more likely to be self-reliant, to see all the answers coming from ourselves, not from God.  Think about that common piece of American idealism:  We pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We don’t need help from anyone.  This young man had already achieved great wealth.  He’d already achieved a prominent position in society.  All he could do was think about achieving one more thing, eternal life.  

 Second, if we are wealthy, we are more likely to be comfortable, secure in our current condition.  Why would we bother to look forward to something “out there” in the distant future, in heaven, when things are looking pretty good right here?  Wealth fixes our hearts firmly in this world.  If it’s true that you can’t take it with you, and we like what we have here, then why would we want to leave?  

 And finally, if we’re wealthy, then we have more choices when it comes to things that we can put in the place of God to fill the emptiness within us.  And I think that’s an

appropriate thought for our society.  We have so much stuff and entertainment and pleasures that we can put in God’s place to make ourselves feel “full.”  

 Not too long ago, I saw a show on the History Channel about the history of photography, which is an interest of mine.  And they talked a lot about George Eastman, the founder of Kodak.  He dropped out of school at the age of 13, when his father died.  But from his humble beginning, he built the world’s leader in photographic technology.  He became fabulously wealthy.  But the story of his death is sad.  He had an opulent dinner party for famous people in his grand estate.  When it was over, he went upstairs and shot himself.  He left a note saying, “Why wait for death?”  All the wealth in the world couldn’t replace emptiness.

 I found a quote about modern American society that I really liked, “We know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”  Wealth can’t buy meaning, and it certainly can’t buy eternal life.

 Jesus said, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.”  

 Now you may have heard an explanation of that saying.  According to an old story, there was a gate in the wall of Jerusalem called, “The Needle Gate,” and it was the only gate left open all night.  It was too short for a person to come through it riding on an animal.  If a wealthy man, with his camel laden down with goods, arrived after dark, the only way he could enter the city was to take everything off the camel and try to force it through this narrow, little entryway.  

 It’s a lovely story.  The problem is it’s not true.  There was no such gate in the wall of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.  The expression was simply a way of saying something was impossible.  It’s impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.  

 Why?  Because of all the things that wealth represents:  Power, status, achievement.  It’s only by renouncing those things that we can enter the Kingdom of God!  Think back to verse 15 which we heard earlier.  Unless we become like a little child, we cannot enter the Kingdom.  In Jesus’ day, children had no power, no status, and what could they possibly achieve?  You cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless you become powerless, without status, and unable to achieve it.  You can only enter it by grace.  You can only enter it by receiving it as a gift of God.  That’s what the rich young ruler was unable to do.  He couldn’t see salvation as a gift of God.  

 There’s a wonderful story about St. Francis of Assissi.  Francis’ father was a wealthy cloth merchant who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps; to have wealth and status.  But Francis wanted Jesus, so he renounced wealth.  He stripped himself of all the vestiges of wealth and status he had.  Literally.  Literally he took off his clothes, and ran off into the hills of Italy, butt naked, to become a monk.  You might get some strange stares if you take Jesus’ words that literally, but the idea is there.  We come to God with nothing, and are clothed only by the righteousness of Christ received by faith.

 Then Peter speaks up.  “What about us, Jesus?  We’ve given up a lot to follow you!”  And he was right.  At least some of the disciples had left “respectable” careers to follow Jesus.  

 So Jesus assures him of God’s reward.  God will repay us 100 times over for all we’ve lost.  Jesus seems to focus especially on the loss of relationships:  fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children.  For many people, becoming a Christian means losing relationships, even family relationships.  But what we find is a new family of relationships, the family of God.  

 And persecution, too.  Jesus wasn’t in the business of sugar-coating everything.  To follow him might mean the loss of comfort, acceptability in this world. But it also means gaining eternal life.  

 There’s a book I read some years ago called “The Treasure Principle.”  The author’s point is that this world is passing away.  And if we understand that, then it only makes sense to use the treasures of this world to gain treasures that last for eternity.  And that’s what Jesus was challenging this man to do:  Use the treasures of this world to honor God and serve his people, not to hoard them for oneself.  Because to do that is to lose them in the end.  Only by giving up the things the world clings to, power, status, wealth, achievement, can we have the thing God gives.  

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