I would like to say two things before I begin my sermon this morning. First, I will be taking two weeks to deal with this particular text from the book of Mark. (Mark 10:17-31) The whole text should be read together, but it would take far too long to preach on its entirety in one setting, so we will cover it in two sermons.
The second thing I would like to say is that I am reworking my sermon in light of the events in Paris at the end of this week. I actually had my whole sermon prepared last Tuesday before I went hunting, but if I would have preached it, I would have run the risk of seeming unconcerned or deaf to the events in our world. The other danger is to preach something before having enough time to think things through; however, as I thought about this text, I think it had an awful lot to say about what happened in Paris, in Kenya, and in Lebanon these last few days. And so, we begin.
I would like to begin with a few words from Martin Luther. Some of you recognize his name as the man who kicked off the Reformation in 1517 when he nailed 95 Thesis to the doors of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. The Reformation caused great upheaval in the church and society at the time as many assumptions were questioned and overturned. The Lutheran church carries Luther’s name, and he is still considered an important person within our ranks. One of the things Luther wrote was called the Large Catechism. It was a book intended for pastors and parents as they sought to delve deeply into the life of faith and pass it down to children. In the Catechism, Luther wrote at length explaining the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed. It is to the 10 Commandments that we turn.
Luther wrote the following as he expounded on the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God...you shall have no other gods before me.” Notice that the Scripture does not deny the existence of other gods. No, there are many types of gods, but we are called to follow the right God instead of all the false ones. Luther tried to help us in this endeavor:
A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.
Now, what does this have to do with the recent attacks in Paris and other places? Just this:
You see, Christians do not have their hands clean when it comes to matters of history. Christians have had their own episodes when we committed atrocities and mass murder. If you study history, you remember the Crusades and you also remember the Inquisition. I would like to submit to you this morning that the reason Christianity engaged in these things is because we were worshiping the wrong god. We certainly were not worshiping the God who took on flesh and died proclaiming forgiveness for His enemies and blessing those who persecuted Him. So, what god were Christians worshiping: the earthly, temporal power of the Church.
You see, during the Crusades, Islam had taken over the Holy Land, and kings and popes believed that territory belonged to the Church. It was thought that we had to establish the Church in these places and govern and rule. Christianity must control these lands, and so, we marched off to war to conquer. We slaughtered thousands of innocents in the process–not because we were worshiping Jesus but because we were worshiping the earthly kingdom. We were worshiping the kingdom instead of the King. We were bowing to a false god.
In much the same way, ISIS and Al Queda are not worshiping Allah. They are worshiping the caliphate. You know what I mean when I say caliphate? It is the idea that Islam should reign over the entire world. It is the Kingdom of Allah, so to speak. And if something threatens your god; if something stands in the way of your god; you will do whatever it takes to remove that threat. So, if in the caliphate only Allah can be worshiped, women have little to no rights, and homosexuals should be killed, a society which teaches religious tolerance and equal rights for women and homosexuals is a threat. It is the enemy, and it must be removed. Hence, the bombings and killings.
Of course, if such bombings and killings happen to France or even to us in the U.S., the response is always bombs and borders. Whenever we are attacked, we counter the threat by killing, bombing, and bullets, and by establishing boundaries to prevent such people from encountering us. After 9/11 in our own nation, we went on the offensive by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and we enhanced our airport security and tried to close much of our borders.
Christianity offers a different response. True Christianity does not seek to use bombs and borders, but instead looks to the heart. It seeks to go after the false gods and convert people to the true God–even if we are rejected, much like Jesus is rejected in our Gospel lesson. How does it all fit? Let’s turn to the text, work our way through it, and try to bring it full circle.
Mark tells us that a young man runs up to Jesus, kneels, and says, “‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This question and the actions of this young man are not innocuous. What this young man does is actually flabbergasting. First off, the young man kneels before Jesus. This is an act of submission. This is an act of subordination. The young man is showing extreme deference to Jesus. There are very few throughout the Gospels who show such deference and humility. The second thing that the man does is call Jesus “Good Teacher.” We may think nothing of such a comment today, but in that time, doing such a thing was unheard of. Yes, you heard me right, no one called any teacher–or really any person–good in Jewish society. Let me read to you what Craig Evans says in the Word biblical commentary, “There are no examples from the first century or earlier of anyone being called “good teacher” as we have here.” Think about that. No examples anywhere of a teacher being called good. Why? Mark Edwards in his commentary states this, “Rabbis welcomed any number of titles, but only rarely was a rabbi addressed as “good teacher” for fear of blasphemy against God, who alone is good.” Rabbis emphasized that God alone was good. No good Jew would call another man good. It didn’t happen. Which makes this young man’s comment very, very interesting.
Which is why Jesus responds in the fashion He does. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks. “No one is good but God alone.” Now, there are a couple of ways to take Jesus’ response. There are those who try to emphasize Jesus’ humanity and say that here is evidence that Jesus never claimed to be God. Jesus clearly is telling the guy that He isn’t God and shouldn’t be called good. That is a possibility; however, I’d like to suggest that this doesn’t fit with the rest of the text. In fact, I think a much better reading–true to Mark’s Gospel and the rest of this story is the following: Jesus is warning the young man to watch his words because the man may not like the consequences of where this conversation ultimately leads. Because if Jesus truly is good, and if God alone is good, well, then this young man just called Jesus God. And maybe that’s the point of this story. Let’s continue.
Jesus continues with His response to the young man’s question, “19You 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.” I want you to note that these generally come from the 10 Commandments. The only one that is a little different is the command, “you shall not defraud.” One could argue that this is similar to you shall not covet, but it could also recognize God’s preference for the poor and that one should not accumulate wealth by defrauding the poor. In any fashion, each of these references picks up on the later commandments. Please note that the first three commandments are missing from Jesus’ reference. Again, this is important. Why?
The young man responds to Jesus, “Teacher, all of these I have kept from my youth.” Note that the man did not call Jesus “good” this time. Maybe the man knows that Jesus skipped a few commandments. Maybe this made the man a little uncomfortable. I don’t know for sure, but I do know that this man is confident in his response. He truly believes he has kept the commandments that Jesus outlined, and here is the kicker, Jesus does not disagree. Jesus is moved by this man’s testimony.
As we have gone through the Gospel of Mark, we have seen Jesus become incensed at the Pharisees and scribes and teachers of the law who are huge hypocrites. We see Jesus become extremely angry with them for acting like they are holy and righteous–for thinking that they follow the commandments and are holy. Jesus calls them hypocrites and liars, but Jesus does not do this to this young man. In fact, we are told that Jesus looks at the young man and loves him. There is no confrontation of hypocrisy. There is no condemnation of self-righteousness. Jesus accepts this man’s answer as honest and true, and the word for love affirms this as the Greek word is a derivative of agape–or unconditional love. Jesus loves this man and his honesty.
But Jesus isn’t going to let this young man go away unchallenged. Jesus is not going to let this man think that he has it all together. This young man may have commandments 4 through 10 down, but there are three more commandments, and arguably, they are the most important ones. Jesus has allowed the man to escape the external sins of action, but now it is time to delve down to the man’s heart. It is time to get down to the root of what makes this young man tick.
Jesus says, “You lack one thing; [or dare I say, there is one commandment you are missing], go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
The Greek is priceless in its description here. The Greek literally reads, “The young man’s face fell, and he went away grieving because he had many estates.”
Do you see what Jesus did? Do you see how Jesus delved into the heart of the matter. The young man who had come to Jesus was following all the external commands. He was upright and righteous in the community. He was seen as genuinely a good guy. He was kind. He was generous. He didn’t sleep around. He honored his parents. He did all the things he was supposed to do, but his heart was idolatrous.
Jesus, in effect, cut through all the external things. Jesus cut through all the good things this guy was doing, and Jesus took a laser focus on what this man was living for. It turns out, this young man was living for his wealth and the status he received as a wealthy man. Wealth and status was this man’s god, and Jesus confronted that god. Not only did Jesus confront that god, He offered the young man a replacement. What is that replacement? Jesus said, “Follow me.”
But it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t enough to convince this young man to walk away from everything and follow Jesus. He just couldn’t do it. So, is there hope for this young man? Is there hope for his salvation? Is there hope that he could follow Jesus?
I think so. For this encounter happened before one very important event. It happened before the cross. Why is this significant?
Let me ask you this: most of you here this morning have had a significant other in your life. Most of you have been deeply loved by this person. Most of you deeply love this person. Even those of you who are widowed understand this. Did you change yourself for this person? Did you continue to be the same person you were after you were loved by this significant other? Of course you changed. Of course you became different. When you are loved by a deep and lasting love, you change because you want to show that other person how much you love them. You want to please them. You want to honor them.
When we understand that Jesus loved us with this kind of love, it changes us as well. When we understand that Jesus went to the cross and died for us when we least deserved it, it changes our hearts. When we understand that Jesus gave Himself for us, died in our place, and reconciled us to God when we were still sinners, it draws us away from our false gods and sets our hearts upon Him. We are deeply changed, and it changes the way we look at others.
We see that Jesus loved us when we were still enemies toward Him. And so we love our enemies. We see that Jesus blessed us when we persecuted Him, and so we bless those who persecute us. We strive to win others over just like Jesus won us over. With great love and a firm conviction that He is God.
Now, there are those who after such atrocities say that the reason Paris and 9/11 and Kenya and Lebanon happened is because of firm conviction in God. They will say that such conviction leads to hatred and killing. But it simply is not true. All of us know who the Amish are. We know they have a firm conviction and belief in God. But, you have never heard of an Amish terrorist, have you? No. Why? Because at the heart of their belief is a man who proclaimed peace and non-violence. At the heart of their belief is Jesus, and they have embodied that belief.
This is what we too embody. This is what we too grasp. We grasp that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved by Him.” We are grasped by this love, and we are grasped by a desire to bring that love out into the world. We are compelled to go out and share Jesus with others so that their hearts may be changed. May we be willing to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with even our enemies, and may we be willing to face rejection just as Jesus faced rejection. Amen.