Blessed are the merciful, for the will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:7-8).
The following is the text of a sermon delivered at North Broad Baptist Church in Rome, Georgia on October 10, 2021
Sermon Text: Mark 10:17-31
Jesus and the Rich Man Come to a Fork in the Road and Take It.
History will remember the legendary New York Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra, not as much for his baseball skills as for his uncanny knack for making nonsensical remarks that somehow make sense anyway. For example, he offered this guidance: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
That brings to mind a famous scenario in the life of Jesus. At a fork in the road, he begins a journey, says Mark, a journey to Jerusalem. To the Holy City. The city that kills the prophets. The city where all hell will break loose until the authorities kill him. And on the outskirts of that city, all heaven will break loose, although only a few will discern it, the few who take up their crosses and follow him.
There at the same fork in the road, another man takes it too. A very good man, a man with an intense conscience and eagerness to get it right. Mark does not name him, but he could be Adam, which means “humankind” or “every man,” every person, you, me.
Trying to claim salvation as a rightful property
Recall that we first meet Adam in scripture when he blows paradise by disobeying God’s protective orders not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve committed the original sin, not because they wanted decadence but because they wanted to get it right without God’s help. They wanted to know what they needed to get their lives so right that they could claim Paradise as their rightful property, not the free gift of the One God upon whom they utterly depend.
So right at Jesus’s own fork in the road, Adam arrives and takes it. Jesus and the rich man, Adam, meet there after already long, arduous journeys. On Jesus’s part, of course, he spent his first three decades helping his Dad in the carpentry business, then suddenly exploded on the Palestinian cultural scene with wonderful healings, prophetic teachings, and a band of twelve disciples. On Adam’s part, he made all A’s in Hebrew school, saved his pennies, and established an impeccable financial portfolio while making a fine reputation as a philanthropist, doer of good deeds, and rock of the community. He did everything right.
So there at the fork in the road, he boldly strides up to the wonder working prophet and puts it all on the line. Once at the fork in the road, he takes it.
At last his moment comes to cash in. For having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, having disciplined himself and worked hard and done very well in every respect, he can now lay claim to the ultimate prize, the final reward that makes it all worthwhile. Of course, he does not rudely demand it. Rather. he humbly poses the question, the answer to which he knows, or at least thinks he knows: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Then like a teammate joshing around in the dugout, Jesus plays along. As Mark tells us, “Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This remark, of course, sets the man back on his heels since he is taking this fork in the road confident in his own goodness, and here the one with authority to certify it denies being good himself. That is no joke to him. Yet, Jesus playfully continues, “You 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.’”
So while the one journeying to his death banters playfully, the other trying to take a fork in the road on the way to Paradise grows more gravely serious: “Teacher, I have kept these since my youth.” While few of us would be so naive as to suggest that we met God’s expectations perfectly all our lives, let us face that all of us, at that fork in the road, fully expect that we have done well enough for a pass to heaven. And like the rich man, we miss the point.
The Shock: Give It All Away
Let us examine closely the text of Mark’s climactic verse on the encounter between Jesus and the rich man. It reads,
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions (Mark 10:21-22).
When we, Adam, read this, we mentally italicize, “Sell what you own, and give the money (away).” This shocks the rich man. It shocks us. It shocks the disciples, who cross-examine Jesus a few moments later with the astonished question, “Then who can be saved?” Some of the disciples own much, some little, but none so little, none of us so little that the thought of totally clearing out our money and property as a condition for salvation fails to appall us.
The interpreter can rightly moralize that Jesus knows that we do not own our stuff; rather, our stuff owns us. Thus, following Jesus means radically consenting to God’s ownership of us. So yes, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Discipleship requires spiritual detachment from all that competes with God, not impossible while we still have our homes and 401Ks and toys, but very difficult. As Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And we all have wealth. If we are honest, like the rich man when he walked away, dejected, we know that we lack the intestinal wherewithal to accomplish this. As Jesus said, we can only hope in knowing that nothing is impossible with God, who loves us.
I hope you listened closely for the past minute or so, because I just summarized the usual sermon on this story of Jesus and the rich man. But let’s shift the italics a bit. We will find yet another challenge, and perhaps, good news.
The Invitation: Meet Christ Among the Poor
What if we italicize, “Give your money to the poor?” We read, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” Reading with this emphasis, Jesus challenges us to more than giving to the United Way or Salvation Army, fine as that is. Jesus invites us to draw nearer to him in people and predicaments we might prefer to avoid. After all, Jesus is himself poor and lowly, and from that lowest place he saves us. As Paul said of Jesus,
though he was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
The poor Christ, the divine man, to whom the devil offered the world, chooses radical poverty, chooses to descend, not only to abject economic poverty, but to the lowest power position in the world, abandoned, scapegoated, utterly vulnerable, and executed shamefully.
This poor Christ we meet again in his Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25, a parable depicting the very judgment day for which the rich man and you and I want to claim that we earned an inalienable right to salvation. Hear the joyful welcome to the saved:
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:34-40).
After hearing Jesus command, ”Sell all you have and give it away,” Adam, all of us, reel in shock and cannot hear the next words, “Give the money to the poor.” Or if we could, we would not feel much better, would not hear the joyful invitation packed in those words. But in calling us to give it all to the poor, Jesus just says, “Follow me,” in another way. He gives the inside straight on where to find him: among the poor, not only economically but socially, emotionally, politically. It is as if he says, “Befriend the vulnerable, the scorned, the afflicted, the suffering in every way. Eternal life begins with me, and I am there, among the lowly.”
Jesus Loves the Rich Man
But let us shift the italics one last time to get even closer to the heart of the matter: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” We read, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” Where Jesus and the rich man meet, Jesus delivers the shock as an act of love. How can this be love?
It is love because Jesus looks at him and sees his hunger, his thirst, his loneliness and nakedness and sickness and imprisonment in a life so compromised, so unfree in his worldly identity as a successful man and in his blind dependence on his stuff and servants that Jesus can only feel the dearest, deepest compassion for him. Not the cold judgment of an angry, distant god, but the broken-hearted sympathy of the same God who looked upon the slave nation Israel, heard their groans and cries, and set them free.
The man, Adam, comes to a fork in the road and takes it, cashing in, he thinks, on the winning ticket to a penthouse in heaven. He walks away to God-knows-where, home perhaps, where a servant draws his bath, the wife plans a party, and the kids do their homework. Or perhaps he finds a lonely place and just stares. Maybe afterward he will find a bench in town and watch the people he had always been too busy and too big to see.
If you want to find Adam, look at your own life. If you feel restless, and you try to give of your time and talents but it never seems nearly enough, and if you pray with the consolations and desolations that come with the hard work of freeing yourself from your stuff to love God and God’s poor children more, then chances are you already took the correct turn at the fork, unawares.
And if you wonder if there is any point to all this in a world that rewards material success and measurable outcomes and seems strangely deaf to the music of love that your life plays, remember that after Jesus and the rich man met at the crossroads, Jesus took his turn, too, towards death. Death for you. Whom he loves still. And nothing is impossible for God.