Sacrifice and Salvation 10/14/18 (Proper 23B)

TEXT: MARK 10:17-31

I need to start out by saying this: today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark is jam-packed with details and ideas and lessons. There’s no way on earth that I can address them all in the span of one sermon. So I’ve picked out a few ideas to talk about, and in three years when this passage comes up again, maybe I’ll pick out some different ones. Or maybe I’ll return to one of these ideas and explore it more fully. This sermon is, for better or worse, a little bit jumbled and a little bit scattered. I ask your forbearance, and also invite you into a spirit of curiosity as we bounce from one idea to the next.

Section One: The Rich Man…and Us

He was devout: he had kept all of the laws of Judaism for his entire life.

He was respectful: he not only deferentially referred to Jesus as “Teacher,” but also called him “good” – a designation Jesus will declare is appropriate for God alone. This man was equating Jesus with God.

He was sincere: he was asking the question so many people of faith ask: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And finally, he was rich: “he had many possessions.”

That’s all Mark tells us about the man. Matthew adds that the man was “young,” and Luke that he was a “ruler,” but Mark just says he has a lot of things. We don’t know how he acquired his many possessions. We don’t know his relationship to the poor of his community. We don’t know his career, his family or marital status, or his favorite hobbies.

Just this: he was devout, respectful, sincere, and rich.

He asks his question, and Jesus responds by telling him to go, sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor, and he will have treasure in heaven. Then he will have treasure in heaven.

I don’t actually know what Jesus means by “treasure in heaven.” A mansion to live in for eternity? Or maybe something more along the lines of forgiveness or healing or eternal love or peace? It’s an interesting question to consider, and one whose conclusion we must reach on our own, for Jesus doesn’t elaborate.

All we know is that in the context of this conversation, treasures in heaven are intricately related to giving everything away to the poor.

At this point, we might feel a little uncomfortable. We might want to distance ourselves from this dialogue between Jesus and the rich man. We may be quick to point out that lots of people are richer than we are. Lots of people have more and are more stingy with their money. Surely his situation is different from ours, must be more extreme, can’t really be like our daily lives. We’re not the 1%, after all!

But let’s face it. We, too, have too much stuff. No one in this sanctuary this morning is pushing their belongings around in a shopping cart or living in a tent in the desert without enough food and water for the day or even having to choose between our own medication and a meal for our kids. Consider: warehouses for personal junk has become a $38 billion industry in the US. One in 11 Americans pays for space to store the material overflow of the American Dream. [1]

We have too much stuff. We would do well to divest ourselves from some of it – or maybe even most of it.

But…all of it??

While we can’t entirely dismiss Jesus’ command to give away our possessions, I think we can also recognize that sometimes Jesus speaks hyperbolically. That is, he sometimes exaggerates the truth to make a point. Think about it: he instructs his followers to pluck out their sinful eyes, cut off their sinful hands, put a millstone around their necks and throw themselves into the sea, and so on. He probably doesn’t mean those things literally. He’s making a point: in these cases, he’s saying do whatever you have to do in order to live in right relationship with self, others, and God.

While I do believe that God really does care what we do with our money, perhaps Jesus is being a little bit hyperbolic when he says the rich man – that is, each of us – must give away all our possessions. He’s making a point.

I suspect that, at least in part, the point is this: true discipleship is hard. It requires painful sacrifice.

Now to be fair, we must remember that Jesus doesn’t require more of his disciples than he does of himself. After all, this interaction with the rich man happens as Jesus and the Twelve are on the road to Jerusalem – a road that leads him to great suffering and a terrible death. Sacrificing some objects, no matter how difficult, pales in comparison.

But it is hard. Just like the life Jesus lived was hard, so too is being one of his disciples, whether in the first century or the twenty-first.

Section Two: Earning Eternal Life?

Let’s return to the question that opened the scene: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What must I do?” The man is hoping that there is a formula to earn entry into what we call “heaven.” Jesus does give him some stuff to do: follow the commandments, give everything away. But if we read the passage as a whole, not stopping with those instructions, I think we discover that Jesus isn’t only giving the rich man a to-do list. There’s something more going on.

After the man leaves, shocked and grieving, Jesus says to his disciples, “Children, how hard it is 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.” The disciples, the text tells us, were “greatly astounded” and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

In other words: no one can possibly earn their way into heaven. God isn’t counting up our good and selfless deeds, weighing them on the heavenly scale, and making sure they add up to enough to purchase a ticket to eternity.

The man’s question is misguided. Eternity isn’t up to us to earn. It’s up to God to give.

Section Three: Inheriting Eternal Life

That very point – that God gives eternity to us, which we sometimes call salvation – is also embedded in the rich man’s original question, even though he doesn’t realize it. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Having dispensed with the notion of doing – earning – a place at the heavenly banquet, I believe that Jesus is (without directly saying as much) focusing on the crucial word in the man’s question: inherit.

What must any of us do to inherit anything?

Nothing. Unless you count waiting as “doing something.” All we can do is wait for someone to die.

In order for us to inherit his kingdom, Jesus has to die.

And he already did that, on the cross at the end of the road he was walking when the rich man approached him.

To put it simply: we aren’t called to do anything to earn our salvation. We are called to be in relationship with Jesus. Yes, that relationship means that we will sometimes be called to some painful sacrifices, but those sacrifices are merely a result of that relationship. They are not a way to buy our salvation. Salvation comes from God, who gives it as a free gift. We are the ones who inherit that gracious gift of salvation.

Section Four: Love

Why would God give the gift of salvation so freely? The answer to that question, too, is embedded in this passage.

When Jesus answers the man, he looks at him and loves him. This rich man is the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark whom Jesus is said to love personally. His difficult words are not meant to drive the man away; Jesus speaks this hard truth because he loves this man.

And, I suspect, he says them because he hopes the man will actually do what he’s saying – if not to the hyperbolic extreme which Jesus is describing, at least to the point where he sacrifices enough to be able to follow Jesus whole-heartedly. One student in a Bible study led by Methodist Bishop William Willimon, when discussing this passage, said:

Jesus seems to have a lot of faith [in the rich man]. He demands something risky, radical of him. I wonder if Jesus knew this man had a gift for risky, radical response. In my experience, a professor only demands the best from students that the professor thinks are the smartest, best students. I wonder what there was about this man that made Jesus have so much faith he could really be a disciple. [2]

Love is believing the best about the one who is loved. Jesus loves not only that man, but each of us, and believes we can be disciples, even though it’s hard.

Section Five: A Story About Healing

Finally, let’s make note of how the man approaches Jesus. He kneels before him. In the Gospel of Mark, the only people who kneel in front of Jesus are those who are asking him for healing – for themselves or for someone else. Is this rich man asking for healing? And if so, from what? Scholar David Lose says:

[W]hat if this guy isn’t just pious but sick, heart sick, and somewhere deep down he knows this and so seeks out Jesus with his question about heavenly entrance exams because he knows that whatever his appearance on the outside, whatever his faithful and pious life, he’s still missing something, something important, something that matters, something that’s a matter of life and death. [3]

While being a disciple is hard and requires sacrifice, and while it also requires the time and energy and love of real relationship, being a disciple is also about healing.

Which may lead us to ask: from what do we need to be healed? What is it that’s preventing us from receiving the fullness of God’s love and grace? Or what is missing in our lives that would lead to full and whole-hearted relationship with God in Christ?

Section Six: To Sum Up…Until Next Time

I told you there was too much in this passage to get it all sorted out. But let’s sum up what I’ve said this morning.

1. We all have too much stuff, and God cares what we do with our money.
2. Discipleship requires sacrifice.
3. We can’t earn our place in heaven.
4. God’s grace – and God’s grace alone – is the source of our salvation.
5. Love – Jesus’ love for us and our love for Jesus – is at the heart of it all.
6. The challenging and sacrificial path of discipleship results in our healing.

In the end, as difficult as these words of Jesus may be, as much as we may resist the demands he places on us, there is a lot of Good News in this story: namely, God’s grace saves us, God’s love enfolds us, and God’s mercy heals us.

Thanks be to God.


[1] Patrick Sisson, “Self-Storage: How warehouses for personal junk became a $38 billion industry.”

[2] William Willimon, “The Peril (and the Promise) of Being Met by Jesus.”

[3] David Lose, “Curing Our Heartsickness.”

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