Jesus says some pretty uncomfortable things in the gospel lesson for today. He says to a young man, “Go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” He says “How hard it will be for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
Over the centuries many good Christian folk, have tried to find ways of wiggling out of this passage. In the early church, a well-meaning scribe recorded Jesus as saying, “How hard it will be for someone who trusts in their wealth to enter the kingdom of God. A nice sentiment. But that’s not what Jesus says.
Along about the ninth century, the early Middle Ages, someone suggested that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” which was so small that a camel could only get through it if it crawled on its knees. So if you’re wealthy you can still get into heaven as long as you’re also humble. I’m afraid, however, that there is no evidence of an actual gate called the eye of the needle in ancient Jerusalem. It’s made up.
Later on, people suggested that Jesus was talking only to this man, the he as an individual placed too much faith in his wealth, and that Jesus’ statement therefore does not apply to us. Nothing in the text indicates that.
Then there is the Lutheran response. That this man is asking what he should do, when for Lutherans, we inherit eternal life because of what we believe, or rather, whom we trust.
That’s fine and we’ll get back to it. But I’m not at all sure the writer of the Gospel of Mark is that much of a Lutheran. Jesus in Mark certainly doesn’t act like a Lutheran. He is constantly yelling at people and running back and forth at top speed. Very un-Lutheran things to do.
I think, honestly, it would be better if we leave this question open. Maybe Jesus really does mean that we should give up all our wealth. And by wealth, I mean what most of us have. In this world, if you have a car, if you have air conditioning in your house, if you have a TV, prospects for Social Security, you are wealthy.
Go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor and come, follow me. Leave it uncomfortable. Because that discomfort is a gift. It reminds us that in the end we do not have a right to our wealth. No, our possessions are not ours by right because they are not ours at all. We have no right to our money because it’s not our money. It’s God’s money. God has entrusted it to us for some specific purposes: To provide for ourselves and our families, to fuel an economy where everyone has good work and a living wage, to allow for exuberance and the celebration of life, and to care for the poor. That’s how God wants us to use God’s money that God has entrusted to us.
Now, I need to let you know that there are several wealthy followers of Jesus in the New Testament. These wealthy followers exhibit three common characteristics. First, they are humble. They don’t think they are any more important than anyone else. Second, they are generous. They provide for others. Third, they are a little crazy. They are willing to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. Their own safety, the security of their way of life or culture are not their primary concern. The love of God is their primary concern.
Also, please notice what Jesus does not say. Jesus does not tell this rich young man to burn his wealth. “Burn it or it will devour your soul!” No he does not. Jesus does not tell him to bury it. “Bury it, for it threatens humankind!” No. Jesus says, “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
See what Jesus tries to do. He tries to reorient the young man’s mind from his own righteousness, from his own salvation to true salvation, true treasure in heaven. He reorients the young man from himself to the people around him who have the least power in his society. In this case, people who, no matter how hard working or smart they are, still can’t make ends meet.
Remember, this whole section of the Gospel of Mark that we have been reading for the last few weeks expresses Jesus’s concern for people who have the least power in society. Last week, Jesus addresses the reality that women in his day could be left destitute by divorce. He is concerned for them. Then he says “Let the children come to me, do not stop them for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Children had no rights outside the family in Jesus’ day. They were, in essence, possessions. The father’s possessions, specifically.
Jesus has addressed issues that affect women, children, and now the poor. And he requires us to do the same.
Mind you, we don’t all have to agree on how to act out that concern for people who have less power. Some of us may be drawn to direct aid. Food for the hungry. St Matthews Area Ministries, here in Louisville, ELCA World Hunger Appeal , which as several projects in the United States. Relief in disasters. Right now, ELCA Disaster Response is working with Lutheran Services, Florida, and Lutheran services, Carolinas to help with damage from Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael.
Others of us might think, “Direct aid is fine, but if you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. If you teach a person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.”
So the ELCA engages in many projects to teach better agricultural practices around the world, so people can grow more food. There are initiatives to provide microloans so people can start business in their communities. There are schools, to provide education. St. John is connected with West End School. One of our members is involved with the Nkosi School, an Episcopal school in Uganda, making connections between the children there and children here in Louisville.
Some of us will say, “The social and cultural and economic system keeps people down.” Lutheran advocacy addresses that. Here’s one example. There was a village in India where the status of women was particularly low, and they needed to build some latrines, to provide a more effective way to process human waste. Well, Lutheran World Relief taught the women how to build the latrines. So the status of women in the village rose.
Many different ways to care for those who have less power than we do. So depending on our background and education and family upbringing and so on, we may in our best and most faithful thinking pursue different ways of caring. That’s okay. As long as we care. We can’t be Christian and not care.
One more thing: Jesus concludes the gospel lesson for today with another prophesy that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
In this whole section of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is on his journey to the cross. This is where God meets us. At the cross, in our most broken, humiliated, least powerful places. At the places where we are most vindictive, craven, petty, this is where Jesus brings God’s love first. God’s love sweeps us up from there into God’s love for all people, including ourselves and our families and the wealthy, and, especially those who are last, who are outside, the women, the children, disabled, mentally haunted, chronically ill, poor. That’s grace. Thanks be to God.
This Gospel lesson for today is often called “That passage about divorce.” The second that word, “divorce” leaves anyone’s mouth, many people who have been divorced, or who are going through a divorce, or who think they might have to go through a divorce sometime soon, will begin to preach a sermon to themselves in their own minds. That sermon usually isn’t a very good one. It often has to do with feeling like a failure, feeling somehow inadequate, lacking in something, unlovable. That is not the sermon we are going to share today.
If you have been through a divorce, or if you are going through a divorce, or if you think you might have to go through a divorce sometime soon, you are not a bad person. You are a human person. Like all us other human persons, you are trying to make your way through life in this crazy world. We all need the infinite and unfathomable grace of God. That grace is close as breath, because God loves you.
That’s my sermon for today.
Now for a few details. The Pharisees come to Jesus with this question about loopholes. When can a man divorce his wife? Where are the loopholes where we can get out of the marriage contract?
Mind you, the Pharisees don’t care about marriage or even about divorce and they certainly don’t want to learn. They want to get Jesus in trouble. You may remember that not too long ago in the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist is arrested for criticizing King Herod and Queen Herodias. Queen Herodias had divorced her husband, Philip, with the express purpose of running off with Herod. After all, he was richer and more powerful. John the Baptist says this is not right. He gets arrested and eventually killed for it.
If the Pharisees can get Jesus to imply that he also thinks badly about this divorce for the purpose of remarrying for money and power, maybe Herod will have Jesus arrested too.
Jesus turns the situation around, though, like he so often does. He turns it around in two ways. First, he says “Moses gave you a loophole because of your hardness of heart.” Harness of heart indeed. If you were a woman in Jesus’ day and your husband decided to divorce you, you had only one option. You had to go back to your father’s family, live either with him or your brother. If your father was dead or your brother could not support another mouth to feed, you were on the street.
Jesus says it is harness of heart because back then and to a certain extent, now, women are placed in a desperate, sometimes destitute position when their husbands just cast them off as if they were nobody, as if they had no importance. Remember how we spoke last week about Jesus’s concern for those who have less power? Here we see two examples. His concern for divorce addresses the position of women in his day. His concern for children affirms children’s importance in a society that did not.
Jesus has turned the situation around, toward greater security for women in that time and place.
Secondly, Jesus re-orients the conversation from that of a loophole to into this wonderfully funny story from Genesis 2 about what God intends.
Let’s have a look at this creation story. God has made the Adam, the dirt thing. This is what Adam’s name means: dirt, soil, land. Theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza has pointed out that the Adam, (And it is always “the” Adam here at this point in the story Adam does not yet have a name.) The Adam is not said to be “male” or “female,” “Ish” or “Isha” in Hebrew, until the creation of Eve. He is still the dirt thing, the soil creature, until then.
And indeed this whole business about being male and female is a wonder. The Adam has maleness and femaleness in him. After all, the female is made from Adam’s rib, and the male is what’s left over. Some people wonder about this. “Am I male or female, or something else, I’m not sure. Other people feel in the depths of their souls that they are male, even though they were born female. And the other way around. Some people feel like they are female even though they are physically male.
What does it mean to be a male after all, or female. I can list you any number of men who I think show us all what it means to be a man. But they are very different from each other. There is not one single way to be a man. Same with women. We can point to many great women and say “That’s what it means to be a woman.” And yet they differ from each other. There is not one way to be a woman.
Nevertheless, maleness and femaleness seem to be distinct. A mystery, a miracle.
So, God has made this Adam, this soil person. As the text stands now, God has been seeing that all kinds of things are good. God makes light. God sees that it is good. God makes land. It’s good. Oceans, it’s good! Trees. They’re good! Now God made the dirt thing and God says, “It’s not good!”
It is not good that the Adam, the dirt thing, should be alone. This is true of all of us, whether we are married or divorced or single, we need other people somehow. We need friends, we need family of some sort.
So God says “I’ll fix it! I will make a partner, a helper.” Notice, God does not say “I will make a slave.” God does not say, “I will make a subservient being.” No. A partner is an equal.
Also, in our culture, a helper is often thought to be inferior. A helper cleans up the dishes after I cook. A helper puts away the tools after I build. But that’s not the kind of helper God is going to make. The Hebrew word for “helper” which is used to describe Eve in this passage, describes one other person more than anyone else in the Old Testament. That person is God.
Remember Psalm 122? “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord.” Same word as that used for Eve. Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Same word is used for Eve.
This is the kind of help where you have each other’s back in a fight. She has Adam’s back. Adam has her back. They are toe to toe.
So God is going to make a partner and a helper. God calls up out of the ground, first, maybe a kangaroo. The dirt thing says, “Really? That’s a kangaroo.” God tries a hippopotamus. Dirt thing says “Hippopotamus? No.” God tries an elephant.” “No.” A cow? A chicken? A goat? “No.” This is not working.
Notice, God does not make everything perfect in one fell swoop. God experiments. God tries new things. The animals are great but they are not a partner.
So God puts the dirt thing to sleep, and takes out a rib, and tries a new thing. God makes Eve. Her name means life, living. Now, this works. This is a partner, and equal.
In other words, women are not cattle, to be bought and sold like property. They are not animals to be used in whatever way a man wishes and then cast aside. Women are people who are to be treated with the dignity God gives everyone.
We are to treat each other with honor and respect, because we all have been made into the image of God. So if you have had a divorce, or are going through a divorce, or feel like you might have to go through a divorce soon, if you are happily married, or single and wish you were married, or single and perfectly happy about that, you are to treated with dignity, and we all are to treat ourselves and others with dignity too. And sometimes we don’t do that. But God’s infinite and unfathomable grace is still there for us, close as breath. God still loves us. That’s good news.
A bit of forewarning here, the sermon today may be about the closest we ever get to a fire and brimstone sermon from Pastor Andy. These difficult passages from Jesus about cutting off your hand or foot or whatever, can’t just leave them hanging. But keep calm, hold on to your seats, it’s uncomfortable, but I think we’ll get through okay.
This week’s Gospel lesson and last week’s Gospel lesson are of one piece, from on single teaching of Jesus. You may remember that last week, Jesus said that the Son of Man, that is, the one prophesied in Daniel to bring peace and justice to the world, the Son of Man would be killed, and on the third day rise.
This is how God works in the world. A couple of chapters before this, Jesus makes his first prediction of his death and resurrection, in which he says that we also must carry our cross if we are to follow him. In the chapter after today’s Gospel, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection again, and says “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In other words, Jesus comes to us at the cross. That’s where God meets us first, where we are most broken, most petty, most cruel most brutal, most craven. In the places where we are not pretty, where we would rather not be seen, God comes there first, confronts us there, and loves us, there.
From that love, we are swept up into God’s love for others. We are taken from our worst places and made into God’s servants. That’s grace.
But the disciples don’t get it. At the end of the day, Jesus asks them “What were you arguing about along the way?” The disciples don’t answer because they know.
In the same way, we don’t answer when we know. We are ten or eleven years old or thirty five or forty, and we know we are not supposed to jump on the furniture. We have been told this, clearly. But nevertheless, we jump from the recliner to the couch. And of course, as we jump, our foot hits the lamp on the side table by the couch, sending it crashing to the floor. And our Mom or Dad or spouse comes into the living room and says, “How did this lamp get smashed on the floor,” and we don’t answer because we know. We know we have been stupid.
Likewise, the disciples don’t answer because they also know they have been stupid.
All day on the road, just after Jesus has told them that he is going to be executed, the disciples have been arguing about who’s the greatest. Who’s the most important. Who comes first. Stupid.
So Jesus says “Anyone who wishes to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Servant.
Then he takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child as this, in my name, welcomes me. Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Jesus is concerned with welcoming children. This is an example of serving God.
Now, we need to know that children in Jesus’ day had no legal status. They had no value outside the family. Inside the family, they were loved and protected, most often. But outside the family, you could sell your ten or eleven year old child into slavery if they annoyed you too much by crashing the lamp to the floor. So young children were in many ways the least powerful people around.
In other parts of Mark, Jesus also shows concern for other people who are of least power—people with chronic illness, disabilities, people who tried and tried but could not make ends meet. People who had mental disorders, children.
Jesus says the way you welcome these kinds of people is the way you welcome me, and not just me but the one who sent me. This is what it means to follow Jesus, to welcome those who are least.
Now, in the Gospel lesson for today, John does not get it. It looks like he is trying to gain status in Jesus’s eyes, to increase his standing in Jesus’ circle. John says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t part of our group.”
Jesus says, “Do not stop them. No one can do a deed of power in my name and speak badly of falsely about me soon after. Those who aren’t against us are for us.”
In other words, Jesus doesn’t care if someone is part of “our group” or not. Jesus doesn’t care about our group, our party, our club, our clique. Jesus doesn’t care who’s the greatest. Jesus cares about servant hood.
People talk these days about identity politics. The idea that our politics are determined by our race, social class, education, whether we live in the country or city, whether we are old or young. That’s who we are, people say. That’s where all our decisions come from, people say. That’s where our votes come from.
But in the church, we are not, first of all, white or black, Asian or Hispanic. We are not, first of all, wealthy or working class, college educated or high school, city or country or suburban, old or young. In the church we are servants, first. Servants. That’s our identity. That’s the basis of our decisions and our votes. Servant hood.
Now, remember, Jesus still has this kid on his lap while he’s speaking. He says, “Whoever gives you a cup of cool water in the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
So we know what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to serve. Sometimes we ask, “Well, how much should we serve? Should we give ten dollars or a million? Should I give an hour of my time or my whole life?” Jesus does not play the numbers game like that. Jesus looks at the heart. Give a cup of cool water. We know what we are supposed to do.
Then Jesus talks about what we are not supposed to do. Jesus says, “If anyone causes one such little one” (Remember, he’s still got a kid in his lap) “one such little one who believes in me to stumble, it would be better if a millstone were tied to their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”
This is important. This is intensely, desperately important.
And now, with the child still in his lap, Jesus gets to the part about the hands and eyes. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. It’s better to enter heaven with one hand, one foot, one eye than with two hands or feet or eyes, to go to hell.”
Hell, here, is translated from the Greek word Gehenna, which means a place of fiery torment, but which originated and was still remembered in Jesus’ day as a physical location, a valley south of Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom, where in centuries before Jesus’ day, people sacrificed their children to the false god Molech.
Remember, Jesus still has the child in his hands.
Whatever else you may say about the eternity of hell and hell after death and so on and we can talk about that, it is also clear that hell manifests itself today, in this world. When we forget that we are servants of children, servants of people who try and try and can’t make ends meet, servants of people with mental disorders, servants of the least; when we, instead use them and ignore them for the sake of our own gain, we are like those parents who, in the valley of Hinnom, killed their children for the sake of gain.
That is the degree of intensity with which Jesus is commanding us to look out for the well-being of the least, the people who are less powerful than we are.
“Have salt in yourselves,” Says Jesus. It takes salt to be a servant. It takes salt to set aside your pride and check your ego at the door. It takes salt to call each other on our stuff. It takes salt, tangy grit, to be able to listen to someone else when they call us on our stuff, and to take it seriously. It takes salt to forgive.
Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace.” Remember, this whole conversation began when the disciples were arguing about who’s the greatest. “Be at peace.” It takes salt to be at peace, to be a community, to be a family. It takes salt to love.”
Jesus meets us at the cross. God comes to us. We don’t go to God. God comes to us at the most defeated, humiliated places in our world and our souls. God comes to us at the most brutal, petty and cowardly places in our world and in our souls. God confronts us and heals us there. God loves us there. And then God sweeps us up into loving others, into being servants of the least. That’s grace. Thanks be to God.