21 Pentecost B18—10/14/18
Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Mark 10:17-31
Pr. Scott Kramer
My wife and I just finished watching a three-part Public TV series called “The Miniaturist.” Set in 17th-century Holland, it’s the story of a wealthy businessman named Johannes Brandt who’s made his fortune trading sugar. As the story opens, Brandt chooses a young woman from the country named Petronella as his bride. Soon Petronella learns that this is a marriage of convenience, for this powerful man she married is gay. Although she is of course devastated, over time Johannes and Petronella develop a deep love for one another. It’s not sexual or romantic. Instead, they discover that they have more in common with each other than they do with the people all around them.
In fact, they find that they are willing to sacrifice everything—including their personal security—for the sake of love. When his enemies learn of his sexual orientation Brandt is forced to flee for his life. Before he does, however, he says to Petronella, Everyone we know longs for love as we do. But you and I are different. For them, security is more important than love.
As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 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.
Two different rich men, two different choices. The sugar merchant Johannes Brandt eventually was caught, tried and executed. The man who approached Jesus, on the face of things, apparently lost nothing. Our Christian faith, however, would frame it differently. By Christian standards, the man who was executed gained everything because he chose love. The man who approached Jesus lost everything, because he chose security.
Do we really have to choose? From the time we’re very young we’re taught that we can have it all. Reasonable people speak of “balance.” In this case, isn’t it just a matter of finding a balance between love and security?
Well, you decide. The rich man leaves Jesus, shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions. He understood, probably better than we do, that no, we can’t have it both ways; minute to minute, day to day, over the course of a lifetime, a choice is required. Jesus put it this way when he turned to his disciples and said,
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth/privilege/security to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “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.”
So far, this story may not hit home. It’s about a man with great material and monetary wealth. You yourself may be on fixed income, or trying to manage house and car payments, planning and saving for children’s education. But this story is not just about the 1%. It’s about money and wealth, but money is nothing more than a symbol of security. Our craving for security takes many forms. One of my pastor friends this past week said, “I can write checks. I can give money away. The hard part for me is not so much giving away money. It’s giving up my ideas and beliefs!” Security takes many forms.
There’s a lot at stake in how we hear and interpret this story, for Jesus is talking about nothing less than what he calls the kingdom of God. If we were all to write down a definition of “kingdom of God,” I suspect most of us would say something about the life to come. But the kingdom of God is not about “heaven and hell.” It’s just this: The deep conviction of being completely loved and forgiven, whether in this life or the life to come.
Now, think about that. The person who is secure in the knowledge of being absolutely loved and forgiven has the deepest security. In fact, Jesus says, the person who is fully convinced she is loved and forgiven can give her life away. Security is about saving our lives, hanging on to what we have and getting more. Love is about giving our lives away. As Jesus puts it, “Those who save their lives will lose them. Those who lose their lives for my sake will save them.”
How hard is it to let go of our many needs for security for the sake of love? Impossible, Jesus says. Like a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle. But we can over a lifetime become better at choosing love over security. It’s been said that Christian faith is about developing the ability to ask better questions. The rich man who approached Jesus asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a security question! “How can I serve?” “How can I save others?” Much better questions! These are love questions.
God so loved the world that a son was given. It is impossible for human beings to fully imitate that kind of love, to give up on security and enter the kingdom of God. But to the extent that we recognize our addictions to security, there is hope. As Jesus says, for God all things are possible, and God can use whatever glimpse of the kingdom we embody for the healing of the world.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? The rich man in today’s story, like many Christians today, saw his faith as a path to security, personal salvation, life insurance for the life to come. Jesus shocked and disappointed him by declaring that Christian faith is not about personal security, either in this life or in the life to come. It is about a life lived fully here and now for the sake of love.
The kingdom of God, Jesus taught, is at hand. It’s as close and as real as your hand! And we catch glimpses of and celebrate that kingdom breaking into our world wherever we see it. For example, the death penalty was outlawed in Washington this past week. Some will say that the loss of State-sponsored murder represents a loss of security. Maybe it does. But wherever human beings choose to oppose harming or killing other human beings, we offer a glimpse of the kingdom of God and faithful obedience to the only law that matters in the end—the only law that works: the law of love.
Everyone longs for love. But every day we declare to God, ourselves and the world what we long for most—love, or, security. How we use our time, how we use our money, how we vote—it’s these things that reveal the priorities of our heart, and to what extent our deepest desire is the kingdom of God.