October 10

Jesus’ Second Favorite Topic, Paul’s Favorite Verb

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:17–27

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Jesus is setting out on a journey to Judea when he is interrupted by a stranger.  A man runs up to him, kneels at his feet, calls him “Good Teacher”, and asks him a question:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus responds:  ”Why do you call me good?  Only God is good, and you already know the Commandments.”  The man says, “I’ve been fulfilling these commandments for years.”  Then Jesus tells him to do one more thing, the one thing he hasn’t done:  he is to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor.  And when he’s done that, he can come and follow Jesus as a disciple.  The man, who is shocked and grieved by this answer because he has many possessions, leaves without further ado.  Then Jesus turns to the disciples, and tells them that it is very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, so hard that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  The disciples are perplexed, and disbelieving:  “Then who can be saved?” they ask.  Jesus tells them that for mortals it is impossible to save a rich person, but not for God.  For God, all things are possible.

Money is Jesus’ second-favorite topic in the Gospels.  He talks about it more than any other subject except for the subject of prayer.  This story of a rich man and Jesus at first glance seems to have a fairly straightforward point:  If you want to get into the Kingdom of God, if you want to follow Jesus, you have to give your possessions away to the poor.  But there are aspects of this story that are not straightforward, that reveal Jesus and those who come to him in new ways, ways that are very Markan in their upset of the prevailing social and religious norms.

First, we have noted before that in Mark, it is strangers, often desperate strangers, who recognize Jesus for who he is, who he is for them.  The man in this story is devout, following the commandments of his faith for years.  Yet something is missing.  He lives a good life, he is a good person, and yet whatever he means by “eternal life” eludes him.  He wants it so much, he must know what he must do.  And when he sees Jesus in the street, he runs to him and falls at his feet and recognizes him as “Good Teacher”.  Then he asks Jesus to teach him how to inherit – an interesting word – how to inherit that which eludes him.

Jesus responds by telling him he knows what to do, and the man responds that he has been doing all that for years, with the clear implication that he still does not feel that he has inherited eternal life.

And here is where things take a turn.  Jesus looks at this man and loves him.  It is Jesus who recognizes something about the man that he, Jesus, wants to encourage.  So, like a good teacher, he tells the man what he needs.  Eternal life is not inherited, like money or possessions from a family member.  If fact, money and possessions might get in the way.  In order to experience eternal life, this man will need to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, so that he will be able to receive a different, heavenly treasure.  And when he has done that, Jesus says, he can come and follow Jesus as a disciple.  The man is shocked.  What kind of answer is this?  It is not an easy thing even to consider, even to discuss.  He goes away grieving at the choice the Good Teacher has given him:  his possessions, or eternal life.

Jesus then turns to the disciples and lays it out for them:  it is very difficult for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God, to experience eternal life.  The disciples are at first perplexed.  They don’t even understand what Jesus is saying.  Then they are astounded – how can riches and all that comes with them be a problem?  If riches are a problem, who can be saved?  Jesus tells them they are right to ask that.  With mortals it is impossible for riches to be an unalloyed good – as Amos reminds us in our text this morning.   Only with God can riches be just a good, a way to the Kingdom.

Now Paul is not rich, even though he is a citizen of Rome as well as of Israel.  Instead, he has been raising money for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, and also is starting a journey from Corinth to Jerusalem to deliver that money.  After that he plans to go to Rome to invite the church there to sponsor his mission to Spain.  So before he leaves Corinth he writes the letter to the church at Rome to introduce himself and his work.  The letter centers on the fact that salvation and justification – or being in right relationship to God – both come through faith, faith  in Christ.  He urges the Romans to hold fast to faith in Christ, and not to the works of the law, and he makes the point that the freedom that Christ gives does not absolve believers from responsibility to others and does not absolve them from God’s law and God’s will.  Paul also writes that the journey from Jerusalem will be dangerous, as he is once more in trouble with the religious authorities of both church and temple.  So he doesn’t really know wen he will arrive.

And indeed it is a dangerous and time-consuming journey:  Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, and is taken in charge by the Romans.  He then undergoes trial by the Jewish religious authorities, took a journey to defend himself before the Roman governor, spent two years under the equivalent of house arrest, undergoes a trial and defense before the new Roman governor, and finally he appeals to the Emperor for a hearing, as was his right as a Roman citizen. Then, before he was taken to the Emperor, he had to defend himself before King Agrippa, and only after that was  he taken to the ship to begin the journey to the Emporer.

On that journey, there was a terrific storm, the ship was wrecked, and Paul spent three more months in Malta.  After another week or so Paul arrived in Rome, in the chains of a prisoner and in Roman military custody, but allowed to preach and teach without restraint for two years, and finally to meet the church to which he introduced himself in his letter.

Now even before he wrote to the church at Rome from Corinth, Paul’s life was one of adventure, conflict, and danger.  So it is perhaps not a surprise that Paul’s favorite verb is “endure”.  “Endure” derives from the Latin in durare, which means “to harden”, and “endure” itself means “to remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding”, “to regard with acceptance or tolerance”, “to continue in the same state”, “to keep doing something difficult, unpleasant, or painful for a long time”.

We can relate.  We have endured a great deal over the last year and a half, and counting.  Maybe not trials and shipwrecks, but certainly a degree of what felt like imprisonment and isolation for a very long time.  It almost made it worse to know that this was world-wide, that the pandemic made it so that there was no escape, no place other we could go.  We have also endured political upheavals, the fires and floods of global climate change, the present traumatic revelations of ongoing violent injustices to people already historically repressed for generations. Not to mention the deaths of loved ones, friends, and colleagues, economic instability, and inequality of access to economic and medical relief.  And there is no end to any of this in sight, as these circumstances have not changed, and don’t look to change any time soon.  It seems our endurance will have to continue for a while.  It is a hard state of being, to continue to endure.

The reason Paul can encourage us to endure so often is that he does not see it as an isolated action.  Its result, endurance, is produced by something, and itself produces something else, and that something else produces something else, and so on.  Endurance is part of a process in the life of faith, which reveals God at work in us in love, toward peace and grace and glory.  This process begins with suffering.

Suffering here is not something to be avoided – in fact, for many reasons even in the life of faith, it is unavoidable.  Paul even says that we can boast in our sufferings, knowing that it is in them that God works with us in the process of reconciliation with God, and so with the process of reconciliation with ourselves and with our neighbor.  Even if we are not at the point of boasting about our sufferings, as one of my mentors used to say, we should not waste them.  We can learn from them, explore them, find out what we want instead, let them produce the endurance that will keep us going over the long haul.

In faith, that endurance produces character – the particular combination of qualities in a person that makes them different from others.  And it is that kind of character – produced through endurance out of suffering – it is that kind of character in a person or group of people that produces hope.  This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into us by the Holy Spirit.  And God’s love for us is proven in the fact that Christ died for us even when we were still caught up in sin, died for us even when we were still God’s enemies.  And, now that we are reconciled to God, God’s love is proven through Christ’s life, which teaches us how to live through our sufferings to hope.

Which brings us back to our story of Jesus and the man with enough money to have many possessions.  One of the real challenges, even sufferings, of the last eighteen months or so has been to come to grips with the fact that money, or the lack of it, so definitively determined people’s experiences of this time.  To have money, or not, determined the kind of experiences that people had and so the kind of endurance that people had to develop.  Money, or not, even determined the number of choices that people had so as to retain some semblance of control over their lives.  Money, or not, even determined the ability that people had to live rather than die.

Now these disparate experiences of money and the power it can grant have been around for a long time.  Some of these tensions between different experiences around money and power from long ago remain with us this weekend.  Traditionally this weekend has been a time to honor and celebrate Christopher Columbus as an explorer/adventurer, and by extension to honor and celebrate explorers/adventurers in general.  These were people who had the money and power to travel here, to new places unknown to them, money and power to insert themselves into these new places and their new experiences, and money and power to insert themselves into the lives of other people to whom they were strange and who were strange to them.  These explorer/adventurers certainly had much to endure:  ocean voyages in wooden sailing ships about the size of this chancel were long, messy, dirty, prone to disease, plagued by storms and heat, and often boring when they were not full of peril.  We remember their courage to face their unknown in the face of hardship and danger.  And, there was the adventure, the new and different, the opportunity for gain of all kinds, and welcome when they returned home from what was to them a voyage of discovery in large measure a choice of a voyage of discovery to them.  The endurance required of the explorers/adventurers was of the kind limited to the conditions and length of the expedition.

Increasingly many people now acknowledge that the people and places the explorer/adventurers encountered were not “discovered” at all.  They were already here:  the people were indigenous to the places, were deeply settled in the places and had been for a while, and had highly developed customs and cultures and systems and networks and spiritual awareness.  As a result of this contemporary acknowledgement of these realities, many people feel it is appropriate to honor and celebrate these indigenous peoples, whose endurance developed to be very different from that of the explorer/adventurers, due to the many negative results of their encounters with the explorers/adventurers,  and whose endurance has had to last so much longer through so many more generations, and counting, of settler colonialism.  The Boston University calendar marks tomorrow as Indigenous Peoples Day, a Boston University holiday on which to reflect, to remember indigenous peoples with ceremony and celebration.

Now for us all, on top of the experiences of the last eighteen months, while it has been going on for a while, the recent Pandora revelations have underscored the fact that, world-wide, access to money – and thus access to power – is becoming more and more limited for more and more people, while more and more money – and thus power – is being hoarded by fewer and fewer people.  In our story today, the man with many possessions is shocked and grieving when he realizes that he has to make a choice – his possessions are getting in the way, and he cannot have both them and the eternal life he also wants so much.  We too are shocked and grieving, and there is anger and resentment too, as we are astounded at the increasing number and sweep of the choices we will have to make, at the hard allocation decisions around our possessions of resources, money, and time we will have to make if we are to live physically on earth as well as eternally in heaven, at the increasingly limited time in which we have to make decisions before important options are by definition off the table.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed, easy to feel as if it is impossible to do anything.  A good end to all this is not yet clear.

We do not know what the man with many possessions decided.  Nor do we know if Paul ever had the chance to appeal to the Emperor.  And, their stories are still stories of hope.  Jesus loved the man with many possessions, and taught him what he needed to do to attain what he wanted so much. Then Jesus invited him to companions and provision and more things to learn and do with Jesus and companions, and a life of faith and yes, eternal life, after he had done that one last necessary thing.  And while the man went away shocked and grieving, he did not dismiss out of hand the idea of selling his possessions for the poor and following Jesus.  He may have started on the way to changing his mind about what was really important, and about what he thought he knew about the world.  He now might see new possibilities for himself and others, and act on them.

As for Paul, he had not only endured and survived, but had come to see the life of faith in Jesus as a process, which reveals the love of God for us in all our circumstances, from suffering through to the hope that does not disappoint.

We can take these stories to our hope too.  This last Friday on the PBS Newshour there was an interview with the great African-American dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones about his latest work, “Deep Blue Sea”.  At the end of the interview he noted that “Art … might not take away all of people’s pain, but it might do something else, which is just as good:  give people a context in which they can endure.”  Art does indeed do that,  and, even more for us as believers, it is faith that gives us the unifying context for all the others in which we can endure.  Faith in Jesus, who loves us and recognizes what is important in us and will encourage us.  Faith in Jesus whose life embodies the Gospel and who through his life teaches us what is necessary for a life that is both earthly and eternal.  Faith in the love of God for us even when we sin or are confused, the love that supports us in our suffering, endurance, character building, and hope – all the circumstances of our lives.  Faith that God’s love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, will also lead us to make good decisions, even about money and power, so that we can endure to meet our challenges even in our time, with grace and flourishing.  So may we hold fast to our faith, and so keep faith with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and all of creation.  For with God, all things are possible.


-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

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