Whoever You Are: First and Last – sermon on Mark 10:17-31

October 10, 2021

Have you ever held a garage sale? Somewhere in the process of getting all the items ready for the sale, did you ask yourself “How on earth did I accumulate so much stuff?” Our culture encourages consumerism – advertisers play on our emotions to convince us we really need something that, to be honest, we probably don’t need at all.

Mary Hunt writes a newspaper column called “The Everyday Cheapskate,” and she has a saying I really like. I think many of us could put it on our bathroom mirrors to read as we brush our teeth every morning:

“Want what you have, buy what you need.”[1]

She points out that advertising drives our desire to purchase things, by creating dissatisfaction with what we already have. We want more. We want bigger, we want better, we want newer.

So we buy what we want, instead of wanting what we have.

And this turns into a vicious cycle of spending, accumulating, and sometimes, debt. Friends, this is not what God had in mind for us at the beginning of Creation, when he placed human beings in a garden filled with good things.

In today’s passage, Jesus is still teaching as he and his disciples are on the road. He’s about a quarter of the way through his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and the teaching is getting more intense. This time, he talks about wealth.  We’re still in chapter ten, beginning at verse 17, right where we left off last week:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 

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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:17-31)

The young man runs up and kneels before Jesus. He calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” We have to think that he is absolutely sincere in his submission to Jesus’ authority. But the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” tells us that this young man has missed the mark. He thinks of eternal life as a commodity – something he can have for the right price, something he can earn by doing a good deed.

The truth is, we can’t do anything to ‘inherit eternal life’ – salvation is God’s doing, not ours. After all, an inheritance is something you receive as a gift, not something you earn. An inheritance comes from someone else. It’s beyond your control.

Just as Jesus reframed the question about divorce last week, he now reframes this question in terms of the Kingdom of God, rather than ‘eternal life.’ In fact, Mark only uses that term ‘eternal life’ twice in his entire gospel, and both instances are right here in the opening and closing verses of this passage. For Mark, the focus is on the Kingdom of God breaking into our earthly existence. When the Kingdom of God breaks in, everything changes.

To answer the young man’s question, Jesus starts to list the commandments, but he only names five. He adds ‘Do not defraud,’ but it’s not one of the 10 Commandments. It comes from later in Deuteronomy (24:14). However, it’s certainly part of the 613 rules known as “the Law.”

This young man claims to have been obedient to the Law his entire life. And yet, he can sense that obedience isn’t enough. The problem is that he’s only concerned about his own salvation. He has completely missed the point Jesus makes by naming only the commandments that have to do with how we treat each other.

J.D. Walt writes, “The law is never about compliance for my sake but obedience for your sake. The law is meant to train us to love in such a way that the law is no longer needed because it has become written on our hearts. It’s why the ‘Golden Law’ is to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That’s why when Jesus is asked about the Greatest Law he renders it according to the Love of God and neighbor.”[2]

So, Jesus looks at this young man whose priorities are all messed up, this guy who thinks he can somehow earn eternal life, or buy his salvation with good works, and Jesus loves him. “He’s the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark singled out as being loved by Jesus. … And this one dearly, uniquely loved person just walks away, ‘disheartened’ and ‘sorrowful.’”[3]

And why? Because of his many possessions. “This man doesn’t have wealth. Wealth has him … Jesus saw the poisoned fruit of his self interested life and he went straight for the roots of the idolatry that had come to define his identity: his wealth.”[4]

Now, it may not be wealth that frames your identity, but chances are good that each of us holds onto some marker, some name that tells the world how we want to be known. Maybe it’s a profession, or a political stance. Maybe it’s our gender or who we find attractive. Maybe it’s our position in society, or the particular organizations we belong to. But whatever it is, that identity has come to define us in such a way that it has become an idol in our lives.

Even the labels we attach to religion can be idols. Fundamentalist, Progressive, Evangelical, Methodist … We hold onto ideologies with such zeal that identifying ourselves with a particular belief system is more important to us than identifying with the self-giving love of Jesus. We may think we are being faithful Christians, but we are really just as self-centered as the man kneeling at Jesus’ feet.

We’ve got the right posture, but the wrong question. Instead of asking Jesus what we need to do to earn eternal life, we should be asking how Jesus wants us to be his representatives in this broken world. 

Now, the reason that young man went away sorrowful could be because he had decided not to give up his possessions, and he knew that decision would cost him the kingdom. But it’s also possible he did exactly what Jesus told him to do, and was understandably sorry to say goodbye to his wealth, and to the relationships connected to it. – The truth is, we don’t know what happened next in his story.

We do know that he realized the high cost of discipleship meant giving up everything that was important to him. It meant giving up his identity, to take on the identity of Christ, to follow Jesus and leave everything else behind.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 

This is the same “look” that Jesus gave to the young man when he loved him. It isn’t a random gaze. This is Christ’s penetrating stare into our hearts. The disciples are perplexed. The disciples get perplexed a lot in this gospel. So, Jesus says it again. He is still looking right at them, and right at us. “Children, how hard it is – and some ancient authorities add “for those who trust in riches” – to enter the Kingdom of God!” (v 24)

In those days, people saw wealth as a sign of God’s favor, and poverty indicated a life of sin. To think that the rich can’t enter the kingdom of God would have been unbelievable to everyone listening. Yet Jesus says, contrary to popular belief in that time, the rich are not “more blessed” and the poor are not poor because of their sinfulness.

We aren’t much different in today’s world. We follow rich celebrities on social media and ignore the poor among us, and when we do pay attention to them, it’s only to complain that they don’t get a better job or manage their money more efficiently.

And yet, Jesus consistently goes to the poor and the lepers and the sick to offer abundant blessing and healing. He challenges the assumption of wealth as a sign of God’s favor at every turn. Jesus teaches the exact opposite of what his disciples would have grown up believing.[5]

Again, J.D. Walt writes, “No one has any claim on the Kingdom of God. In fact, it’s impossible for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God on their own terms. … In the end this is not about divesting oneself of wealth but entrusting oneself to God. Wealth, like nothing else, can get in the way of this, which is precisely why our wealth must be entrusted to God—whatever that means and whatever it takes.”[6]

Entrusting yourself to God is a big step. But there’s an even bigger step you have to take first. It’s called repentance.

A few years ago a New York Times opinion piece[7] described a dilemma Christians face in our post-modern society. We’ve lost our God language. We’ve eliminated words from our vocabulary that pertain to the things of faith in God. Words like ‘repentance.’ We don’t know what it really means anymore. We certainly don’t talk about it with friends over coffee. But repentance is basic to every understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. And before you can repent from sin, you have to confess it.

Dr. Scott Kisker[8] is a United Methodist pastor who serves on the faculty of United Theological Seminary in Dayton Ohio, where he specializes in Wesleyan studies. Kisker explains the purpose of classes and bands – those small groups Wesley used to foster spiritual maturity. Kisker says that the whole purpose of bands was to give Christians a place to confess their sins to one another and be healed.

We like to frame our Connexion groups around an activity or a book study. The truth is that ‘book study’ was never the intended purpose of Wesleyan small group ministry. Small groups, or ‘bands’, were designed to give us a place to confess our sins to each other, to wrestle with our failures in the context of Christian community, to forgive one another, and be healed.

Just like the wealthy young man who knelt at Jesus’ feet, we may go away sorrowful when we are asked to dive this deeply into relationship with others. This kind of commitment is scary. It requires full disclosure, full surrender.

Yet, this kind of surrender is exactly what started a movement that became known as the Great Awakening, when thousands upon thousands of people in Europe and North America gave themselves fully to following Jesus together.

What would happen if we dared to band together in such a way? Can you imagine a time, in the not-too-distant future, when every person in Willmar, Minnesota calls Jesus Lord? Not just identifying as Lutheran or Catholic or Methodist – or “none” – but identifying with Christ Jesus and claiming him as Lord and Savior. Every single person in this community living as a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Can you see it?

That kind of Great Awakening might seem impossible, and it would be if we were to try to make it happen ourselves. It would be like a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle, or a rich person selling everything and giving it all to the poor. 

But for God all things are possible. The question we have to answer is this: will we walk away sorrowful from the opportunity to participate in such a major inbreaking of the kingdom of God in our midst? Or will we confess our sin to one another, repent, and surrender all that we are and all that we have to Christ’s mission?

Because, if we do that, if we surrender completely, and are willing to sacrifice everything important to us so we can follow Jesus, this is what Jesus promises:

“… there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (vv29-31)

Jesus wants to know, are you willing to put yourself last, so another can be first in the Kingdom of God? Are you willing to give up everything for the sake of the gospel, even to the point of suffering persecution? Will you confess your sin, and be healed? Are you ready to repent, to turn away from the way you’ve been living your life up to this point, so you can devote yourself to showing others the way to Jesus?

Image: Watts, George Frederick, 1817-1904. For He Had Great Possessions, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58462 [retrieved October 8, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxfordshire_church_photos/413448324 – Martin Beek

[1] https://www.everydaycheapskate.com/marys-perspective/want-what-you-have-buy-what-you-need/
[2] J.D. Walt, The Daily Text, https://us4.campaign-archive.com/?e=9bfd84c9a1&u=02db73c05fa1c7c5736358be4&id=55cbeb02b2

[3] Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3795
[4]  J.D. Walt, The Daily Text, https://us4.campaign-archive.com/?e=9bfd84c9a1&u=02db73c05fa1c7c5736358be4&id=55cbeb02b2
[5] J.D. Walt, https://us4.campaign-archive.com/?e=9bfd84c9a1&u=02db73c05fa1c7c5736358be4&id=55c2009e8c
[6] Ibid.
[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/13/opinion/sunday/talk-god-sprituality-christian.html

[8] https://www.seedbed.com/the-birth-of-the-band-meeting/

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