This Week’s Lectionary Sermon

This sermon reflects one of the texts for the week using the Revised Common Lectionary. To see all the sermons for Year B or any other year, go back to the menu and select that year. The Sundays are listed in ascending order (Advent I is at the bottom).

Caution or Compassion?

Mark 10:17-31…Proper 23B

One of my daughter’s favorite books as a child was called Dance, Tanya.  It was about a little girl whose older sister was a dancer.  Tanya wanted to be just like her.  Her mother bought her a tutu, and she danced all around the house most afternoons.  She watched her sister’s dance practices, dreaming of the day she would be old enough to be a dancer too.

But when Tanya finally reached the age she so longed for and lined up with the other girls in their little leotards and ballet shoes, and the music started, her steps were out of sync with the others.  She was so earnest, and she tried so hard, but she couldn’t make her moves line up with that rhythm.

Through the course of the story, we empathize with poor Tanya, an aspiring dancer who can’t feel the beat.  But then, her family discovers something by accident.  After her sister’s dance recital, when the family gathers to celebrate, they play music, and Tanya begins to dance with joy.  She finally starts to feel the music, and she experiences for the first time what it is to dance with the music, not focusing on her feet, but on the wonderful melody that delights her.

She had to let the music take over.

A man came up to Jesus one day and asked him what it looks like to be worthy of God’s favor.  What does it take to be good enough?  He knew the right steps.  He had been to confirmation.  He knew the Law backward and forward.  He had obeyed God religiously for many years, but somehow, it all seemed forced.  Something was missing.  When he heard that this great teacher was nearby, he decided to see if Jesus knew what he was doing wrong.  He made a show of asking Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  As if he didn’t know.

Ah, Jesus said, you don’t understand.  Real life, eternal, meaningful life is not about being “good.”  It is about believing God’s love is for you, and then surrendering everything in your life to his control, his authority, his purpose for you.  You have to let the music take over.

This man was trying so hard.  Jesus loved him for trying so hard, but he was missing the point.  “You have left out the command to love, my friend.  Purge your life of the wealth that is getting in the way, and give to the people who need it in order to survive.”

He had found this man’s Achilles heel.  He liked his money more than serving God, right?  But it is not just a love of riches that is a problem.  Back then, if somebody was wealthy, it was assumed that they were being blessed by God for living right.  Wealth equaled worthiness. Good (wealth) comes from good, and bad (poverty) comes from bad.  Nobody thinks like that today, right?  We do.  We do.

The man’s righteousness—thus his identity—was defined by his possessions.  People thought he was righteous because he was rich.  And he strove to live up to the reputation, keeping the Law carefully.  If he gave it all up, he would no longer enjoy the respect of others.  He would look like a fool too.  He couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Was it the money, or the carefully selected furnishings of his house, or his investments for the future, or his reputation that was the sticking point?  I suppose it doesn’t matter, because he decided to keep things as they were.

This could be a sermon about giving to the poor.  That is always a good idea, but this time it is not my point.  It could also be a sermon about legalism vs. grace.  Also a favorite topic you might have noticed in my preaching.

Instead I’d like us to think for a moment about the stance of the rich man.  He was a cautious man.  Very, very cautious.  He only invested his money in mutual funds, so he didn’t take big financial risks.  He hired only the most carefully screened workers, so he didn’t have to worry about theft or laziness.  He ran a tight ship.

He was careful about his own behavior too.  He kept the Sabbath day holy.  Six days did he labor and do all his work, but the seventh day was a Sabbath to the LORD his God.  In it he did not do any work, nor did his wife or his children, or his manservants nor his maidservants.  He didn’t worship idols (that was an easy one), and he didn’t “smoke, chew, or go with girls that do.”

He was no “fuddy duddy” though.  He liked a good time.  He entertained friends.  He gave alms to the poor when he went to the Temple to pray.  He was pretty generous, in fact.  Nobody could say he was “generous to a fault,” but he gave as much as the next person, maybe more.

But he was cautious.  And Jesus seemed to poke at his caution as if it were a bad thing.  In fact he seemed to ask him to “throw caution to the wind” in favor of compassion.

The rich man’s cautious life was an achievement, if you think about it.  A spotless record is not easily earned.  There are reasons we display trophies and merit badges.  They don’t give those things away for nothing.  But compassion is kind of the opposite.  It has nothing to do with working hard enough.  Compassion is a way of life that doesn’t worry how much you give, or if you are giving in exactly the right way.  It worries about the person who needs your care.

Maybe the rich man was not focused on flaunting a perfect record.  It could be that he just didn’t want to be embarrassed.  Didn’t want to feel any shame, ever.  Never step outside the lines, or get too close to them.  Shame is a powerful motivator.  If you are very, very careful and don’t do anything wrong, nobody can ever blame you for anything.  And you can convince yourself that inheriting eternal life is the life God has for you.  That this careful, hermetically sealed life is real life.

I wonder if Jesus came to give us life in a broader sense of the word eternal.  A life that is limitless in its meaning, its joy, its possibilities.  A life characterized by loving one another because we want to, not because we have to.  A life of gratitude to God for all the gifts.  A life of generosity so that everyone else can taste and see that the LORD is good.  It’s a life of prayer that expects God to challenge you, because it is a life stretched wide by trust and generosity.

It makes sense, then, that when asked about inheriting eternal life, Jesus changed the subject.  This man was using the language he understood, but his language could only describe a world that was rather small.  Jesus pointed to a door that opens into a much more expansive life.  Have you noticed that?  When people asked him questions, Jesus often changed the language about the subject.  In the debate about divorce, he refused to talk about what was permissible but instead talked about being faithful, because faithfulness is kingdom language.  When he embraced the children in spite of his disciples’ impatience, he said the kingdom has to be received like a child.  A kingdom not inherited, but “received,” as one given.

In the story of the rich man, Jesus wanted to talk about treasure in heaven and entering the kingdom of God.  This is not about going to heaven when you die.  In the gospel of Mark, Jesus has been saying that the kingdom of God is at hand.  It is here, now, within reach.

Compassion is a kingdom value.  Entering the kingdom of heaven is possible when you care about the needs of other people.  This is not something you achieve like wealth or a ticket to heaven.  It is about opening yourself up to the risky business of following Jesus.  It is about the expansive, anything-is-possible life as God’s beloved, who loves those whom God loves and cares about what God cares about.

We see signs of this life—God’s kingdom—wherever God’s people are making hospitals out of shacks, congregations out of soup lines, peace out of conflict.  If we’re going to get our friend to Iowa City for treatment, we have to find somebody with a car that can get that far.  We have to find money for gas.  If we’re going to send the kids on a mission trip to Mexico, we’d better start baking cookies.  If my neighbor is going to get through his grief, he is going to need to eat properly, so I’ll make him something tasty and nutritious.  The kingdom of God is creative and resourceful.

But caution is not creative.  Because it is focused on staying inside the lines, it does not look around for people to help.  Consequently it doesn’t really know where to go for help when help is needed, because what has been practiced and perfected is caution.  It is a way of hoarding your life to keep it free of risk, messiness, bad appearance.

It is a small way to live. It is its own kind of poverty.  When you lack compassion and concern yourself only with protecting your possessions and your reputation, it doesn’t matter what your bank statement says.  You are poor in spirit, according to this story.

The tragedy is sad enough if you close yourself off as that rich man did.  Too bad he wouldn’t know what it is to follow Jesus, to know the joy of giving, of even suffering for the sake of someone besides himself.  A greater tragedy still is that many people die from our cautiousness.  They literally die.  It costs time and money to insulate yourself, time and money that can be used to help people who are desperate.  Mother Teresa said it this way: “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

If the rich man’s story didn’t get your attention, that statement ought to do it.  It got my attention when I saw that quote posted on the wall at the Urban Immersion center where I took a few high school youth a few years ago.  Those students learned a lot about poverty that week, and how hard it is to lift yourself out of it without somebody else’s help.  But eventually the effect wears off.  You see the poor, you try to help, you do it for a while, and then you think “what’s the use?” and you give up.  Maybe.  Maybe you don’t give up, but I have given up too many times.

As God’s kingdom people, we are compassionate.  We welcome to our fellowship those whom the world has otherwise called undesirable.  That is a dangerous invitation, marked by profound love that flows from God.  It might lead to something new, unfamiliar, even risky.

“When the outsider is accepted, the community is changed.” I know that change is scary, and that is why caution is so popular.  But caution is not the way of the cross.  Compassion is the road sign pointing the way.  It opens us to the presence of the most vulnerable, and when that happens, “we receive a fuller experience of the presence of God.  This ministry responds to the call to trust that through acts of love, life is received…in hoarding and turning inward, death reigns.”[1]

Crafting this kind of community is not a choice we make as Jesus’ disciples.  It is because we are his disciples that this is what we already are.  Jesus poured out his compassion for us in our great need, our shabby efforts at righteousness, our pitiful attempts at achieving eternal life.  He sees our own poverty in our apathy toward the poor.  He gives us his compassion, his forgiveness, his own life.  We can’t keep it to ourselves; we have to share it freely, carelessly, joyfully.  It is the life we are given as God’s people, grateful inhabitants—not just inheritors some day, but inhabitants—of God’s kingdom, where compassion is not the exception.  It is the rule.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Mark A. Olson, The Evangelical Pastor, Copyright (C) 1992 Augsburg Fortress, page 44.