Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 24)
October 21, 2018
Text: Mark 10:23-31
The reason it is so difficult… impossible, even… for the rich, or anyone, to enter the Kingdom of God is the same reason the rich young man went away sad in our Holy Gospel last week. That is the human heart’s obsession with idols, be it mammon, as in the case of the rich young man and the vast majority in the prosperous West, or whatever other idols to which we dedicate our fear, love, and trust. The trouble for the rich, and for us all, in matters of salvation, is not our possessions, but our heart. Our Lord makes the shocking statement in our Holy Gospel: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23; ESV). And when the disciples express their amazement, Jesus expands the statement to everyone. Not just the rich, but “how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 24), period! In fact, it is just as possible for the rich, or for you and me, to enter the Kingdom as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle! Now, how possible is that? It’s not. And Jesus has the disciples and us just where He wants us, with the question on our minds and in our hearts and on our lips: “Then who can be saved?” (v. 26).
Don’t pass by that question so fast on your way to the Lutheran answer. The Lutheran answer is right, but it lulls you into a false sense of security. The point is, with man it is impossible to be saved. Jesus says as much. “With man it is impossible” (v. 27). It is the first half of the verse, but it is an incredibly important first half. Nothing you can do, nothing that you are, nothing that you possess can gain entry into God’s Kingdom. You are wholly disqualified by your sins. Even if you are a “basically good person.” Even if you are “an exceptionally good person,” like the rich young man from last week’s text. Remember, he could say after the review of the Ten Commandments that “all these I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20). He’s a pretty good guy. But in the command to sell all his possessions and give it all away to the poor, Jesus exposes the young man’s heart problem. He can’t do it. Not joyfully, anyway. He goes away sad. Because his riches are his god. Now, I’ll be you dollars to doughnuts the rich young man was a very generous giver to the Synagogue and to the poor. But Jesus told him to give it all. And that meant to reject every last thread of the earthly security he thought the money could buy him and rely upon God alone. So he’s rich. He’s morally blameless. He’s the best of the best. But in and of himself, he’s still outside the Kingdom. With man it is impossible. He cannot be saved. And neither can you. No matter how much you have, or how much you don’t have. No matter how much you give to the Church or to the poor. No matter how blameless your conduct. No matter how you vote. No matter how respected in the eyes of all your peers. You may be the best of the best, but in and of yourself, you cannot be saved.
And that is why your Lutheran answer that you’re so eager to jump in with is so important. It’s actually Jesus’ answer. With man it is impossible, but what? But “not with God. For all things are possible with God” (v. 27). You have to have both sides of that coin for this to be the splendid Gospel that it is. With you, there is no possibility of being saved. You must come to the bitter end of yourself and your own resources. You must be utterly lost and damned, so that your whole salvation is entirely in the pierced hands of Jesus Christ. All things are possible with God. Even your salvation. Especially your salvation. That is His great mission, His greatest act of love. The Father sends His Son. He gives Jesus. He gives Him into death. For you.
And see what happened there. The very richest, God Himself, becomes the very poorest, the despised corpse on the cross. He gives up all and He gives it away to the poor. Which is to say, He gives it away to you. All of it. All of His riches. All of His righteousness. All of His life. His creation. His very Kingdom. All things. It’s all yours. And you don’t deserve it. No matter how much of an upstanding citizen you may be. Still, in your heart, you have rejected God. You have rebelled. You have chosen your own way. He doesn’t do it because you’re worthy of it. He does it because He loves you. And He loves you, not because you’re so gosh darn loveable. He does it because He is good. It is His nature to be good to you. It is His nature to have mercy upon you. It is His nature to give, and to give it all, for you. The Gospel that all things are possible with God, including and especially your salvation, is only Gospel when you see it up against the utter impossibility for you to be saved apart from His saving you in Christ. But when you do see it, you are forever changed. Once a rebel against God, rejecting His Kingdom, His righteous reign, now you are captivated by the God who loves you so much and to such an extent. That is to say, you have faith in Him. The Holy Spirit creates that faith by this very Gospel. The Spirit is active in preaching to do this very thing, to take you captive to Jesus Christ.
And when that happens, suddenly your use of wealth, your use of “stuff,” and your whole disposition toward your wealth and your stuff, changes. What once was an idol, mammon, becomes now a tool for use in the work of God’s Kingdom, for Gospel proclamation and for providing for the needs of your neighbor. It becomes a tool by which you can love your neighbor concretely. You can be generous. Scandalously so, as your Lord Jesus was scandalously generous with you to the point of death on the cross for your forgiveness and life. That’s the kind of giving, that’s the kind of love we’re talking about here. It’s as scandalous as our Lord’s command to the rich young man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor.
Now, this takes practice. We’re still in the sinful flesh, even we who have been ultimately liberated from that flesh by the Holy Spirit’s work in the Gospel and in our Baptism. We still have to deal with old Adam in this life. So our habit is to cling to our riches, our stuff, for all we’re worth. Thus there is a battle within you, a struggle for who has control over your possessions. Christ in you, the new creation in you, wants to use everything at your command in such a way as to bring glory to God and to love and serve your neighbor. But old Adam wants to hoard it up. He’s a miser. Whenever you’re miserly, that’s a sure sign old Adam is in the driver’s seat. Kick him out, and nail him to the cross. Kill him, every time you see him. That is to say, repent. And that’s not just a theoretical kind of repentance. You know what kills him every time? When he says keep it for yourself, give it away then and there. That’s what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. That’s what it means to crucify the flesh. Do the very opposite of what your flesh desires and demands. That is repentance. And of course this will hurt. I’m not gonna lie. You won’t like it. It hurts to be crucified. But remember this: Crucifixion always, ALWAYS, ends up in resurrection. Good Friday always gives way to Easter. And as you kill old Adam by giving your wealth away, a certain deep and abiding joy will displace the pain. That is Christ emerging and arising within you, rejoicing to live before God in Christ’s own righteousness and purity credited to your account by faith, and producing the fruit of faith, which is works of love.
Well, then there’s Peter. God love Peter, because he’s always saying the things we want to say, but we don’t, because we know they’re wrong. “Lord, what about us? We’ve left everything. We did what you said.” There certainly is a little bit of the rich young man syndrome in Peter: “all these I have kept from my youth.” We never really get over this struggle with self-righteous, pharisaical old Adam, in this life. Not even Peter does. Then again, if anyone can say this, Peter can. He and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee did leave their boats and their nets, their family members and fishing business to follow Jesus. And what is at the heart of Peter’s assertion? “We are doing the right thing, aren’t we, Lord? This is all worth it in the end, isn’t it? Because we’ve gambled everything on it.” There is an uncertainty here that is very human and endearing, even if it is sinful. Because that’s our worry. If we are generous with our wealth in the Name of Jesus… or if we’re called upon to give it up in faithfulness to Jesus, as certain florists and bakers have been in recent years for refusing to do gay weddings… or if we lose friends on Facebook for confessing Jesus, or real relationships with our loved ones because they reject us on account of Christ… or if we’re called to be martyrs, to spill our blood, to die for Jesus… It is the right thing, isn’t it Lord? This is all worth it in the end, right? In other words, you won’t forsake us, will You?
And Jesus answers, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5), or as He says to Peter: No one who has lost everything for the Gospel will be left destitute. I will not forsake him. I will provide for all his needs. I will feed him. I will clothe him. I will set him in a family, my people, my Church. Yes, there will be persecutions. That is so important for us to recognize, that even as Jesus is going through the list of things He will provide a hundredfold for those who have lost, He adds, “with persecutions” (Mark 10:30). But that’s okay. That’s actually part of the reward. Because all the loss, including what is suffered in persecution, is ultimately repaid beyond our wildest imagination in the age to come, which is to say, in eternal life, in the resurrection, in the new creation. And that is why this is all worth it. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). And who can save both body and soul in the resurrection of the dead, and will do it, because that is His promise.
Beloved, how difficult it is for you to enter the Kingdom of God. With you, it is impossible. But not for God. With God, all things are possible. Even your salvation. And even getting you to pry open your wallet now and then to help out your neighbor in need, and not to worry if God is going to hold out on you for the first time in the history of your life because He suddenly thinks you’re being too generous. With God, this is how the impossible becomes possible and even certain: Jesus gives it all up on the cross. He gives it to the poor. He gives it to you. And now you live and you reign with Him. I’d call that a miracle. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.