Pentecost 20 B: Curing Our Heartsickness

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I don’t know about you, but as I kid I found these verses just terrifying. And, to be honest, my reaction as an adult hasn’t changed all that much. Here they are, just to focus our conversation:

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘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.’ And when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

“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.”

So here’s why these verses freaked me out as a kid. As the fourth of five kids in a pastor’s family, I definitely was not the richest kid at school. This was painfully apparent each fall when we’d go back-to-school shopping and skip past the sports stores that sold Puma, Nike, and Addidas sneakers and end up at Thom McCann. Do you remember Thom McCann? At one point it was the largest retail shoe store in the US, known for quality leather shoes at an affordable price. But when it came to sneakers, Thom McCann produced knock-offs of the poplar shoes that we could afford. And so each fall I’d arrive at school with shoes a lot like, yet painfully different from, the sneakers most of my friends were wearing.

At the same time, though, my mom grew up in India the daughter of a missionary, and you can only sit at the supper table protesting the lima beans in front of you and listen about the starving children in India so many times before you realize that compared with almost any other part of the world, you are, in fact, quite well off.

Did that mean we were going to hell? Truth be told, I didn’t want to give up all I had. Knockoffs though they might be, my Thom McCann specials still beat showing up at school barefoot, and the thought of selling them so that I could send my lima beans to India was grievous indeed. And frankly it didn’t help much to have Mark point out that Jesus loved this rich man. If that’s love, I thought, I don’t want anything to do with it.

Later, of course, I would learn that one didn’t have to read this passage literally. Turns out there’s a pseudo-historical approach where the eye of a needle is really this small door in a larger gate into Jerusalem where the camels would have to be unpacked before entering in. (I call this pseudo-historical because, as it turns out, there is no such door; this was a fiction of the nineteenth century in order to spiritualize the passage.) Nevertheless, it’s a popular interpretation. No wonder. As I learned in Inter Varsity while at college, what Jesus really meant was that we needed to unburden ourselves of whatever might be keeping us from relying on God. That might be wealth, but it might not be, and I preferred to focus on the spiritual things that might be keeping me from the kingdom rather than the material.

Later, still, I learned there was a more excellent way yet to read this passage. All I needed was some good old Lutheran theology which I picked up in seminary. Here I discovered that Jesus really didn’t mean what he said at all. This wasn’t about wealth, not really; it was about our absolute inability to merit salvation and our utter dependence on God’s mercy alone. To be honest, that interpretation still appeals to me, because as long as I keep my mind on my sin and God’s grace, my wealth hardly enters the picture at all.

But to tell you the truth, every now and then I wonder if I wasn’t a little closer to the mark when I was a kid. I mean, I think God really does care about what we do with our wealth, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Jesus does want us to sell what we have and care for the poor. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think anything we do will win us salvation. The theology I learned in seminary – no matter how badly I’ve misapplied it over the years – is still right: salvation is ours by God’s sheer mercy alone. I mean, good Lord, there’s not much any of us can do to inherit anything except to wait for the one who owns what we want to die, and when it comes to eternal life that happened on the cross. And so there is nothing for us to do, nothing we can do, to secure our heavenly home. Jesus says the same: “for humans it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

But what if this scene isn’t the liberal version of an altar call but instead is a healing story. Did you ever notice, Dear Partner, that all the people in Mark’s gospel who kneel to Jesus and ask for a blessing either have some dread disease or are demon possessed. And almost every time Jesus orders someone to go, like he does this guy, it’s in relation to a healing.

So what if this guy isn’t just pious but sick, heart sick, and somewhere deep down he knows this and so seeks out Jesus with his question about heavenly entrance exams because he knows that whatever his appearance on the outside, whatever his faithful and pious life, he’s still missing something, something important, something that matters, something that’s a matter of life and death. If this is the case, then maybe Jesus really does love him. Maybe Jesus sees that all this guy has – his knowledge of the law, his perfect piety, his abundant wealth – has distorted his sense of himself, and of God, and of his neighbor. And so maybe Jesus tells him to divest so that he can really live by faith in God and in solidarity with neighbor for the first time in his life, which would be like having, when you think about it, treasure in heaven.

If this is true – and I’ll admit that it may be as much a stretch as the other readings – if this is true then Jesus might just be doing the same thing to us even now. That is, Jesus might be looking at us with love and, perceiving the deep heart sickness in each of us, actually asking something of us, giving us something to do, something to give up or away, somewhere to go. Now don’t get me wrong: this is not about our salvation; we are saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake alone. But what if it doesn’t end there? Or better, what if, in one sense, it only starts there. That is, what if God isn’t only concerned about our eternal destiny but also cares about the life we enjoy here and now, with each other in God’s creation.

My goodness, but if that’s true, then maybe God’s gift of salvation can actually free us to do something: to love each other, to care for God’s people and world, to share the good news…right here, right now, wherever it may be that God has placed us. Not from any hope of winning God’s favor, but rather from a spontaneous kind of basking in God’s favor.

But of course that’s hard. Deep down we’re too scared (and often as a result too selfish) to do that for long, too scared and selfish and insecure and competitive and controlling and judgmental…and so many other things to boot. Because when push comes to shove, I have to admit that despite all the theology I’ve learned over the years I haven’t changed much since I was a kid. I mean, I still don’t feel like giving up all I have, especially now that I can buy whatever sneakers I want, eat at restaurants that don’t even have lima beans on the menu, and still send a little money to the World Hunger Appeal to help those starving kids in India.

Which is why Jesus comes and makes these demands, naming whatever idol we’ve created and asking us to give it up, throw it away, for the sake of our neighbor and ourselves.

What is it Jesus is asking of you and your congregation right now, Dear Partner? I have no idea. That’s something you and your people will need to figure out? But, if you’re anything like me, when you hear his voice first you’ll freeze, terrified that you’ve been found out, and grieving all the plans you’d made for the perfect life. But then you’ll hear him speak again, uttering a word that binds only to set free, that wounds only to heal, that kills only to make alive again. You’ll hear the voice, that is, that tells the truth: with humans, it is impossible, but with God, all things – all things, then and now – are possible.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord for this gift of grace…and for you and your call to proclaim it. Blessings on your preaching!

Yours in Christ,