What do you need to give up?

Pentecost 20

Mark 10:17-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who gives us all that we need. Amen.

Years ago I bought a book titled Poor in Spirit. It is filled with stories written by people living and working among the poor – both in the United States and in the Third World. The stories are varied – one tells how powerful it is to hear the mullah call the faithful to prayer before dawn and to greet and be greeted by everyone saying “God be with you.”  Another writes of the presence of God in the barrenness of the desert. Yet another tells of a baptism in the cow shed to demonstrate to others that one can be a Christian and not abandon one’s culture.

Today I’d like to share the story called “My Mother’s Blessing”. It tells the story of a young African who is brought up by his mother after the death of his Father. Mother and son become very close – she buys and sells fish and he prepares their dinner while he waits for her to come home at night. There are other children – daughters who have left home – but in this culture it is the son who is expected to care for the mother as she ages. It is difficult therefore for the son to confide to his mother that he has felt a call to become a member of a religious community and hard for his mother to accept his sense of vocation. She tries to dissuade him from this course of action but eventually resigns herself to the situation and does not mention it again.

The day comes for the son to leave home. His mother is old and frail; she knows that they may never see each other again. “Come,” she says, “Let us make our last offering to God.” She suggests that they say The Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed and ten Hail Marys. Then, in a strong and confident voice she blesses her son: “All belongs to God and returns to God. Who am I to oppose your calling? Go! The greatest riches are not on earth. And thanks be to God for having chosen you.”[1]

Another title for the book could have been: “The greatest riches are not on earth.” A common theme of the stories is a deep trust in and a dependence on God that is not determined by the storyteller’s physical, material or emotional situation.

In today’s gospel we have three stories that are ostensibly about wealth – the rich man, the eye of the needle and the benefits that result from giving up everything to follow Jesus. It is easy to draw the conclusion from these that Jesus is demanding those who follow him to give up all their possessions and abandon everything to follow him. This section of the gospel can have a way of making us feel uncomfortable – none of us has taken the radical step of abandoning everything in order to be a disciple of Jesus.

I can’t speak for you, but I know that compared to those who live on one dollar a day I know that I am among the rich. Jesus’ encounter with the rich man leaves me wondering whether I too should sell all that I have and give it to the poor. The saying about the camel and the needle forces me to ask: how rich do I have to be to be unable to fit through the eye of a needle. Peter’s question brings me back to the rich man – how much does Jesus expect me to give up in order to be a disciple?

The gospels have a great deal to say about how we should use our resources. Jesus’ example and teaching urge us to care for the poor and the outcast. The beatitudes make it clear that the values of the Kingdom are not the values of the world: “blessed are the poor” we are told. There have been thousands if not thousands of thousands of Christians who have abandoned comfort and wealth to serve Jesus or to serve others. That said, it is important that we understand today’s gospel in its context. Is Jesus saying that the only way to follow him is to abandon everything?

I have found a small commentary by Paul Achtemeier[2] helpful. The wider context  of the gospel makes it clear that it is our attitude to our relative wealth, rather than wealth itself that is a problem.

Over the course of the last few weeks this has been a constant theme. We have been reminded not to compete but to be as a child, we have been exhorted not to hurt one of these little ones and told that unless we welcome the Kingdom as a child we will not enter it. Throughout this section of the gospel, Jesus has been trying to help his disciples to understand that the Kingdom is a gift, a gift to those who do not and cannot deserve it. Dependence on God and on God’s goodness is the primary criterion for entering the Kingdom of God.

It is within this context that we have to understand today’s gospel which, as I have said, consists of three distinct parts. First of all, the rich man comes to Jesus with a problem. He already keeps the commandments but he knows that something is missing – he knows that simply following the rules is not enough. Jesus’ response is radical and disturbing. He instructs the man to sell everything and to follow him. The man is a good person but he his wealth is more important to him than his relationship with God. He will have to give away his self-reliance if he is to achieve the relationship with God that he seeks. For the time being at least, this is more than the rich man is prepared to do.

Jesus’ conversation with the rich man does not establish a criterion for all people for all time – that would be to introduce a new rule, a goal to be reached. It would have the opposite effect and make us dependent on ourselves not God. Jesus’ conversation with the rich man establshes a general principle – nothing (wealth, achievement) should come between ourselves and God. Our confidence and hope should be in God alone.

Jesus continues this reflection – inheritance of the kingdom is not something that relies on any kind of achievement including wealth. Just as we cannot earn our way into heaven so we cannot buy our way into heaven. Inheritance of the kingdom, entry into eternal life is God’s gift to us and unless we can accept it as a gift, we like the rich man exclude ourselves from its benefits. The disciple’s question, “Then who can be saved?”, demonstrates just how difficult it is for human beings to give up their striving and rely on God. We find it so hard to accept that attaining the kingdom does not depend on our own efforts but on the free gift of God. Like the rich man we want to know what we can do, what rules we should obey in order to be saved. Like the disciples, we want to achieve it on our own merits, we like measurable goals, benchmarks that can be reached. Trusting in God’s love for us, does not provide enough certainty. We like to think that there is a certain standard against which we can measure ourselves. Giving up our need for certainty, trusting in God is both the hardest and easiest aspect of our faith.

Yet as Jesus goes on to say, if we can let go of our need for certainty and security the reward will be a hundred times more than anything we can imagine in this life or in the life to come.

What do you rely on more than God and how hard would it be to give it up?

[1] Lepetit, Charles. Poor in Spirit: Modern Parables of the Reign of God. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1989, 61.

[2] Achtemeier, Paul. Invitation to Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark with Complete Text from the Jerusalem Bible. New York: Image Books, 1978.


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