A good man and an earnest question

Dr. Dorothee Benz

March 4, 2012

First United Methodist Church, Boulder, CO

Mark 10: 17-27

The audio version of this sermon is available on the FUMC Boulder website here.

I don’t know about you, but I have always been haunted by this scripture passage. It’s on the short list of texts where I hope Jesus didn’t mean exactly what he said, but I’m never quite sure.  I do know that the story of the Rich Young Ruler is impossible to dismiss: It appears in all three synoptic Gospels and it ranks among the most famous of biblical stories.

The words “rich young ruler” don’t actually appear in the text. I am not a biblical scholar (in fact, I am not at all a professional preacher either – you’ve been warned), so I don’t know when this story acquired that name, but it does us a disservice in some ways. We hear “rich young ruler” and we think, “that’s not me.” We might think, “I’m not rich,” or “I’m not that rich.” Many of us think, “I’m not young” (I know my knees think I I’m not young and that I should act my age and stop climbing mountains already). And probably none of us here identify as a “ruler” – though if you changed that to “manager” a few of us, myself included, would identify with it.

But those words, rich young ruler, aren’t in the text, and if we put that familiar label aside and listen to the man’s story, and imagine who he might be in our own time, he starts to sound a lot more like many of us.

Allow me to update the story for you.

Imagine the scene: The teacher is leaving. His lecture is done, the Q&A is over, he’s in the parking lot packing up his car, getting ready to head home. And a man comes running up to him, out of breath. He has a burning question on his mind and he didn’t get called on during the discussion but he just knows he must catch the teacher before he leaves town.

He kneels down – he’s a huge fan, he has tremendous respect for the teacher – and he asks: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He’s a good man, and it’s an earnest question.

Now, we need to step back for a moment from our 21st-century parking lot to 1st-century Palestine to understand the words in this question. When we hear the words “eternal life” many of us think of an afterlife, going to heaven after we die, something separate from this life. But that is not at all what it meant in Jesus’s time. Rather than being a temporal idea, something about some future time, eternal life as Jesus spoke about it was about a quality of life – about knowing God, a life lived connected to God, a richer life of purpose. It isn’t separate from this life.

The phrase “eternal life” is used interchangeably with “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” throughout the synoptic Gospels. It is about living into, establishing the kingdom – the reign – the dominion – of God and doing it now. In that way, it is about living into and working for God’s vision for the world. This is most explicit in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So the man’s question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a question about what it takes to be part of the kingdom, what it takes to do the work of the kingdom, to have that richer, purposeful life, to work for God’s vision in the world.

He’s a good man, and it’s an earnest question.

And Jesus says to him, “you know the commandments: ‘you shall not murder.’”

And the man thinks, “OK, I’ve got that one. Check.”

“You shall not commit adultery.”

“Well, I’m no Newt Gingrich. So, check.”

“You shall not steal.”

“There was that time I really wanted to steal my little brother’s baseball mitt. But I didn’t. Check.”

“You shall not bear false witness.”

“Not always easy, but at the end of the day it’s just not right denigrate anyone else’s reputation or make false accusations about them, even if you don’t like them. Yeah, check.”

“You shall not defraud.”

“I’ve always been an honest businessman. Main Street, not Wall Street. I’ve paid my employees fairly, never cheated a customer or sold those cheaper widgets that break too quickly. Check.’

“Honor your father and mother.”

“Always. When Dad got sick, I was in the hospital every day, and when he passed away, we had Mom move in with us, even though we didn’t have a lot of extra room. Yes, check.”

And then he thinks, “phew!” and says to Jesus, “I have kept all these since my youth.”

It’s not a cocky response. He’s not saying, “Hey, look how great I am.” After all, the very fact that he’s there in the parking lot with that question, “what must I do…” indicates that he has doubts that he’s doing enough.

But he’s good man. He’s lived an upright life; he’s done right by his family, his neighbors, friends, his employees, his customers. He coaches Little League, he organizes the annual charity dinner for the local hospital, he goes to church every Sunday.

He’s serious about his faith. That’s why he’s there with that question. It’s an earnest question.

And Jesus sees all that. Mark says “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus doesn’t discount any of what the man has done when he says this next thing to him:

“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.”

It’s not that what the man has done is bad, it’s just that Jesus is saying there’s more. If you truly want to experience eternal life, if you want to be part of the kingdom, to build the kingdom, to do God’s work in the world, there is more; and this is what it is.

Our good man is shocked. He’s devastated. And he goes away, the story says, “grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Can you imagine?

Give up everything? I could increase my pledge, he thinks, maybe even tithe. But everything? And if I give everything away, how will I live? What about my family?

And what does it mean, “follow me?” I thought that’s what I was doing.

This story is about many things, including the undisputable bias against economic wealth that runs throughout the Bible.

But it’s about other things, too.

Now I don’t know if we are all supposed to literally sell everything.

I do know how the Rich Young Ruler feels when he hears that, though. Because I have many possessions, too, and as much as I want to follow Jesus, I know right now I am not giving away everything I own. I can’t bring myself to do it. Or at least not yet, I won’t say never.

But I want to sidestep the question this morning of how literally to take this directive and focus instead on another dimension of the message in this story.

At its core, this story is about reflection and self-assessment, and then about encountering judgment from a higher power that leads to deeper reflection and self-assessment.

The man asks how he’s doing spiritually. He takes stock as he reviews how he’s lived up to the commandments Jesus lists. And then he is issued a deeper challenge; and through that he comes to recognize how much more he has than he realized, how much more he could give, and how very hard it would be to do it.

At its heart, this is a story about recognizing privilege in our lives.

I want to suggest to you that the most useful way to understand and apply this story in our lives is not to focus only on literal economic wealth, but to think about currencies of power and privilege throughout our lives – whether that be economic power we have, institutional power or status that we have through a position we hold at work or in the community, or social privilege that we have because of our race or sex, our ethnicity or sexuality.

What Jesus is calling us to do in this story is to look deeper at everything we have, at how exactly we fit into the many social structures we each are a part of, to recognize the various dimensions of privilege and power in our lives—and to understand that following him means putting all of that into play.

Being a part of the kingdom of God, doing the work of the kingdom means holding nothing back. If it is God’s intent and desire that no one be excluded, that no one is inside or outside or better than or worse than, that the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed of this world are to be welcomed and defended, then we cannot be a part of it if we insist on holding onto our own privilege and power. We must be willing to risk our privilege if we are serious about seeking eternal life and working in the service of God’s plan for the world.

To say that this is difficult is an understatement. And the Rich Young Ruler, our good man, has plenty of company among those who are unwilling or unable to give up what they have in the service of God’s kingdom.

The white person who remains silent when her neighbors are talking about “those illegals” at the block party, even though she knows her silence means they will think she agrees.

The up-and-coming manager who crosses the picket line because the CEO sent a memo saying all non-union workers were to report to duty as normal, even though he knows that crossing that line means the strike will be broken and the workers won’t get the healthcare their families so desperately need.

The United Methodist bishops who say they are opposed to the church’s prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people but then say that they are “obligated” to uphold the Book of Discipline, the UMC rule book that codifies that discrimination, and to prosecute anyone who violates its unjust provisions.

Jesus is speaking to them no less than to anybody else when he says, go, give up what you have and follow me. Risk your institutional privilege and stand with the oppressed. Refuse to perpetuate the lies and laws that label gays and lesbians “incompatible with Christian teaching” and bar us from ministry, from marriage and even from membership in the church at the discretion of a pastor.

That is the work of the kingdom.

Those bishops, like the Rich Young Ruler, have (so far) walked away, grieving. I’ve been in numerous meetings with my own bishop and have read enough statements and letters from the Council of Bishops and individual bishops to know that “grieving” really is an apt description. Without fail, they express their sorrow and anguish at the “situation” and the pain it has caused so many people. They are stuck in their grief, they cannot move the work of the kingdom forward; it is so very, very hard to give up that institutional power, to risk their privilege.

In the story, after the man goes away grieving, Jesus piles on with one of the Bible’s most famous one-liners: “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.” As if we weren’t already feeling like this was impossible. Indeed, disciples had the same reaction. “Then who can be saved?” they ask one another.

If the story ended here, it would be a bitter tale about our inability to give up power and privilege for the pursuit of justice. And most of human history confirms this dark narrative.

But it’s not the end of the story.

Jesus says to his disciples, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Do you believe that? Do you believe that God can inspire mortals to great acts of daring for human freedom?

I do.

Because that dark narrative of history is interrupted time and again, in big ways and small, by another narrative, one about the irrepressible struggle for truth, for justice, for freedom.

Martin Luther: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” All things are possible for God.

The U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, arguably the most inspiring chapter of our nation’s history. College students risked their education to challenge segregation; they risked jail; they risked their lives. Church leaders upended the expectation that they keep the black community in line, and their homes and churches were bombed and shot at. White allies gave up their safety to sit side by side with black sisters and brothers on the freedom rides. Yes, all things are possible for God.

The Civil Rights movement is eloquent testimony to how God moves in the world inspiring people to majestic heights of courage and sacrifice and love.

God is there, too, making all things possible, with every conscientious objector, with every whistleblower who risks her job to expose unsafe work conditions or financial improprieties.

And God is here, now, in the United Methodist Church, making a new and wonderful thing possible. Throughout the country, in 13 annual conferences, over 1,100 United Methodist ministers have become part of regional marriage initiatives to extend their ministry to ALL couples, gay and straight, and offer weddings to ALL couples on an equal basis. They are willing to risk their jobs and their careers to offer pastoral care to those our denomination has labeled as less than.  Yes, all things are possible for God.

Where our bishops are stuck in their grieving, unable to risk their privilege to stand with LGBT people, these ministers have found the divine inspiration and courage to refuse to discriminate; and in doing so they are breathing new life into the church.

The question for all of us is, What things will we let God make possible in our lives?

Where are the places we are called to recognize and risk the power and privilege we have to do the work of God’s kingdom? Is it in the PTA? The city council? At work? Is it at First United Methodist Church of Boulder? The Rocky Mountain Annual Conference?

In the end, it boils down to two earnest questions:

Do you want to inherit eternal life?

Do you believe all things are possible for God?