Sermon: The Last Thing Expected

10.11.2015       Preaching Text: “When he heard this, he was shocked…” (Mark 10:22)

The moral of our story this morning from Mark about the “The Rich Young Ruler” seems pretty clear. It’s about the evils of money, right?

Well it is that, but it’s more than that.

First, money. From a Christian point of view i’s not at all unusual to view money as wholly evil, as I said. “Money is the root of all evil,” after all.

Then again, the proper rendering of the above phrase, from 1 Timothy, reads differently (from the NRSV): “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” One immediately sees a difference between the two sentiments.

The fact is, the early church was a collection of both rich and poor, itself a remarkable historical fact. For the rich were esteemed according to the norms of society, thought to be both virtuous and, yes, God-fearing. That’s why they were rich. They were blessed. That the rich would deign to worship and commune with those of lesser means was nothing short of revolutionary.

Of course, we modern Christians are most apt to think of the passage from the Book of Acts which reports on groups of early Christians selling all their possessions and sharing the proceeds with the church. And while this did happen in some communities, it was not the norm.

That said, there’s no question that money can be a serious problem. For, as Timothy points out, the love of it is a root of all kinds of evil and can lead otherwise faithful people away from God. In fact, money just may be the greatest threat to faith. Which is why Jesus talked about it more than any other subject.

Why the bother? Because not only does wealth typically garner respect and admiration from others, but it offers security.

We are, at root, radically dependent on God and interdependent with others. We are, by nature, vulnerable. As such, we look for ways to overcome the gnawing fear born of this existential susceptibility. And what better way to accomplish this than with the precious security wealth seems to insure?

Of course, deep down, we know wealth is a pale substitute for inner peace. But its lure is unmistakable in an otherwise dangerous and hostile world.

On the flip side, money is really no different than any human power. It can be used poorly or it can be used well. It can be used for profane purposes but for sacred ones as well.

In truth, money is merely a tool we use for chosen purposes. There are countless examples of people using money well, money that serves as a blessing to others. Nonetheless it is foolish to deny that the temptations of money too often lead people astray.

So, getting back to the rich young ruler, the hidden message we are apt to miss is that those with money in the Jewish culture of the day were perceived to be God’s faithful, poverty being a sign of God’s displeasure.

It is because of this, or so it seems to me, that the young man was so shocked. It was probably the last thing he expected. Here Jesus is, in telling him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor, rejecting not only the cultural norms of the day but its religious ones as well.

Jesus’ reaction is perhaps especially troubling considering how polite and deferential the young man was. He eagerly runs up to Jesus and, kneeling down, as a sign of piety and respect, refers to him as “Good Teacher.”

Jesus’ response suggests that, after looking deeply into the man’s eyes, and soul, despite all his outward sincerity and words of praise, Jesus finds his attitude maybe a bit too glib, not serious. “Why do you call me good?” he asks, penetratingly. “No one is good but God.”

Jesus then queries him about his religiosity. Has the young man kept the law, the commandments? To the letter, and from his youth, he assures.

As I say, what likely shocked the young man most was that he was a model citizen, faithful and blessed by God. He was the very embodiment of social respectability!

This past week in bible study we read a passage in 2 Corinthians that produced, if I was reading the tea leaves correctly, a bit of confusion, if not consternation. In arguing for the distinctiveness of the Christian gospel, Paul says, “‘Therefore come out from them (“unbelievers”) and be separate from them,’ says the Lord…”

This appears to go against everything we’ve ever been taught. After all, our task is not to separate ourselves from those around us, but to break down every wall that keep us apart!

Paul’s point, though, is rather simple and rings true: fitting in with the surrounding culture is not what the gospel is about. Rather, the church’s primary mission is to embrace the distinctiveness of Jesus rather than blending in with the ethos of the world. Only in this is the church capable of positively influencing the culture surrounding it.

Steeped in the unique and life-affirming revealed truths of God’s transcendent, supernatural Kingdom, the church stands as a counterweight to the surrounding secular culture. Again, its focus is not on accommodation to the world but the spiritual transformation of the world.

Jesus looked into the eye of the rich young ruler and “loved him.” But Jesus saw competing priorities, other loves, that were incompatible with his simple, salvific love.

It’s not just money, then, that can separate us from God, but anything that serves as a substitute. Fitting in with the ethos of the surrounding culture actually distances us from God, and from the deep, enduring peace only God’s love can bequeath.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer first came to America he was struck by the way the American church, especially Mainline Protestantism, acted as if culture is synonymous with the kingdom of God. I’m also reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s observation of how America saw itself as “a nation with the soul of a church.”

In some ways, the biggest problem the mainline churches face today is that we have allowed the distinction between church and state to collapse. Which is why, I think, the bible study group remained largely unmoved by Paul’s advice to the church to be “separate.”

Last Sunday I talked about Eugene Peterson’s “hyphen,” the “Jesus-and” Christianity which gets the gospel mixed up with other lesser values or pursuits – politics, education, even Buddha. To that list we might add “Jesus-and” money, status, worldliness, and, dare I say it, respectability, the tendency to ‘fit in’ with a seemingly harmless and anodyne culture.

A related problem is that we mainline Protestants no longer tend to see the church as the formative institution of society. We seek instead to perfect our nation or world, rather than first seeking to perfect the church, God’s leavening agent here on earth. For without a mature and vibrant church, society loses the one thing it most desperately needs, the spiritual and moral regeneration of heart and soul.

In the end, Jesus discerns that the greatest stumbling block for the rich young ruler, despite his respectability, is misplaced priorities. That Jesus recognizes this is, as I say, the last thing the young man expected. And maybe the last thing we might expect as well. Amen.