19th Sunday After Pentecost October 7, 2012
8, 430, 425, 532
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Today we turn our attention to the Gospel account of Mark, chapter 10, beginning with the 17th verse:
Now as [Jesus] was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.’” And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.” Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”
In the name of Jesus Christ, whose Word assures us that godliness with contentment is great gain, dear fellow-redeemed:
If I’ve heard this once I’ve heard it a hundred times, and you probably have heard it too: “I’m not interested in going to church—the only thing those people care about is separating me from my money!”
It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way since so many churches nowadays do seem to focus almost exclusively on money and fundraising. To make matters worse, a new business model seems to be emerging among evangelical mega-churches in which the pastor himself owns the church. The preacher himself—usually a charismatic personality—owns the church, runs it like a business, and makes big profits whenever member offerings go up. We don’t do anything like that here, of course. In fact, I’d be astonished if anyone ever accused our church of trying to “separate people from their money.”
We don’t want to separate you from your money, but the Lord does! And I’m not talking now about stewardship, the money you contribute to church. Rather, I want you to look at something broader, and examine the role that money plays in your whole life. Jesus had a lot to say about this—mostly about the risk that money and riches pose to your spiritual well-being.
In our text for today we meet someone who seemed to be the ideal young man in every respect but one: he loved money more than God. Our Lord wants to keep us from suffering his fate. So in a good sense—in a beneficial sense—we can say that “THE LORD WANTS TO SEPARATE YOU FROM YOUR MONEY” He wants this I. In order to free you from the crippling service of self, and II. In order to set you apart for an unencumbered service of Christ.
In the account for today, Jesus was approached by a crippled man. “Wait a minute!” you say, “I don’t remember any crippled man in this story.” In fact the young man who knelt before Jesus seemed a fine figure of man. The parallel texts in the other Gospels tell us that he was wealthy and of such good reputation that he had already, at his young age, been made a ruler of the synagogue. A devout young man, a churchgoer, lots of money, respected in the community—what’s not to like? Sounds like the kind of fellow most of us would like our daughters to date. But there was something desperately wrong with this young man. Something hidden and unseen in his heart that was crippling him spiritually.
The question he asked Jesus indicated his problem right away. “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” [v.17] Which is a little like asking, “What highway do I take to get to Hawaii?” There’s no highway you can take to get to Hawaii, and there’s nothing you can do to inherit eternal life. That’s not how you get there! Clearly the young man didn’t get it.
So many in our day do the exact same thing this man did. They just don’t get it. God has already told us how to inherit eternal life, right here in the Bible. It’s been here all along! But they can’t be bothered with the Bible, they bypass God’s Word and want to do something themselves in order to be saved.
But Jesus won’t allow us to bypass God’s Word. What does He do with the young man? He snaps him right back to the Bible. Jesus said, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.’” [vv.18-19]
Jesus laid whole mountains of God’s Law before the man, summits impossible to scale! These are requirements that no one can keep—that we haven’t kept. But that didn’t phase this young man for a second: He answered and said to Jesus, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.” [v.20]
Now there’s a good Pharisee talking. Because, you see, he was satisfied with his outward appearance, with a superficial keeping of the Law. This only goes to show that the man didn’t understand God’s Law at all. He didn’t understand that lust in the heart is as damning as the act of adultery. He didn’t understand that hatred in the heart is as bad murder, that coveting is as bad as stealing. He still didn’t get it. As a famous cartoon character once said, “Son, I keep pitching ‘em and you keep missing ‘em!”
Finally, Jesus found it necessary to confront the young man with his sin in a way so obvious that not even he could fail to see it. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.’” [v.21] It’s clear what Jesus was doing, isn’t it? For the sake of the man’s own eternal salvation, Jesus wanted to separate him from his money in order to free him from the crippling service of self.
People will do extreme things, sometimes shameful things, when there’s a possibility that they might be separated from their money. I knew someone a long time ago, a nice person. I would have said “a person of integrity.” Well, a situation came up in which a lot of money was at stake, and this person was confronted with a choice: do the right thing and lose the money, or do what we both knew was a dishonest and unethical thing and get the money. Long story short, the person did the wrong thing and got the money. After that I was actually a little embarrassed whenever he and I met—I was embarrassed and ashamed for him because he had demonstrated so clearly that money was more important to him than integrity.
That was the rich young ruler’s problem too. He knew what was right, he knew that what Christ was telling him to do was the right course for him, perhaps the only course that would save him. But he wouldn’t do it. Our text says, “He was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” [v.22]
The man arrived at Jesus feet eager and happy, wanting to inherit eternal life. But he went away sorrowful. What happened? What was it that made him sad? He hadn’t lost a nickel yet. No one had kicked him out of the church. When he woke up the next day he would still be the same respected young man of whom everyone was proud and to whom everyone looked up. Only one thing was different. He knew now that he wasn’t right with God. After all of Jesus’ gentle probing he finally saw that, from God’s point of view, he fell far short. It couldn’t be more obvious if Jesus had painted it on a sign in letters six foot tall: he did not love God above all things. It was painfully evident, even to him, that there was at least one thing he loved more than God—money.
In this young man was fulfilled what Jesus had said in the Parable of the Sower: “Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19).
I’m not surprised that the young man was sad. Self-knowledge can be a devastating thing, especially when what we learn about ourselves is something ugly and shameful.
What about you and me? Theoretically, I think all of us would say that our Christian faith is the most important thing in our lives. I think all of us would say that we would be willing to make any sacrifice, give up anything else in our lives in order to preserve that saving faith. That’s the theory, anyway. But what a sad day it is when you have to make a choice in your life and you choose wrong. How ashamed you feel when you look back and realize that when you had a choice to make between God and something else, you chose something else.
That’s when God’s Law convicts us like it did that young man. God’s Law is a little like your bathroom scale. You dieters know what I’m talking about. When you know you’ve been “bad”, when you’ve been overindulging for a period of time, you tend to avoid stepping on that scale, don’t you? Why? Because you know what it’s going to say, and you know you’re not going to like it.
Some people avoid listening to God’s Word for the same reason. They know what they’re going to hear if they do listen, and they know they’re not going to like it. It’s painful! It hurts to be brought face-to-face with the realization that you are in fact a sinner and that you’ve fallen far short of God’s requirements. It hurts to face the fact that money may have played too big a part in your life as well—that a preoccupation with money and getting more of it has often distracted you from following Jesus as you should. Have you at times allowed a personal obsession with finances to put your very faith at risk? It can happen! The danger is there! Paul tells Timothy that “…those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
It’s hard for us to hear God’s Law. But it’s a lot better than the alternative! “If we but knew it,” wrote one theologian, “that dark night of the soul when the Law convicts us of sin is one of God’s greatest gifts. Far better to confront our sin now and repent, than to go blithely on without repentance and later be cast into Hell.”
And that’s the reason Jesus reached out to this young man and tried to bring him to repentance. He wanted to save him. In love, He wanted to separate him from his money, the thing that was crippling him and keeping him from forgiveness and eternal life. This is the same thing the Law does for us, guarding lest we be enticed by money and begin to love it, and our money starts to cripple us spiritually.
But you know, God has another, more positive reason for wanting to separate you from your money. He has glorious things planned for your life. In your life as a Christian He has joyful work for you to do and a love of money would just hold you back. You see, the Lord wants to set you apart for an unencumbered service of Christ
Jesus said “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” [vv.24-25] Would you ever try to thread a camel through the eye of a needle? No. That’s one of those things that’s so obviously impossible that no one would even attempt it, and that’s how impossible it is for someone who trusts in money, rather than God to get into heaven. “The disciples were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, ‘Who then can be saved?’” [v.26]
About now you might be feeling just as astonished and discouraged as those disciples did—feeling like you are an even worse than that young man was, like it is impossible for you to be saved.
You say, “Lord, I’m a wretched sinner, and my past is filled with mistakes and shortcomings. There are plenty of times when I trusted money rather than God. There are plenty of times when I focused on my finances and forgot about my Father in Heaven. Is it possible that even someone like me can be saved?” Fear not! For Jesus says to you today, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. [v.27]
You say, “But Lord, I’ve broken your commandments, not seven times, but seventy times seventy times seventy. Sometimes I’m so disgusted with myself. How can I possibly stand with the righteous on Judgment Day? How can I possibly inherit eternal life?” My Christian friend, don’t be afraid! For Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.”
In fact, not only is it possible, but when you come before God in repentance, confessing your sin and seeking His pardon, He cannot turn you away. He cannot because by the very blood of His Son He has promised to forgive your sins. When did He make that promise? At your Baptism. Peter says, “Baptism doth also now save us!” (1 Peter 3:21 KJV). At the baptismal font you entered God’s kingdom. There He washed you in the blood of His Son and freed you from the punishment and control of sin. There at that font He set you apart, He joined you to this tiny, elite group, the Christians, the members of the household of God. And that’s one of the reasons why the Lord wants to separate you from your money. It is to separate you from the evil love of money and seductive influence of money so that you can be set apart for an unencumbered service of Christ.
What do I mean by “unencumbered”? We had a church softball league in my previous parish. I could hit pretty well, but I wasn’t a very fast runner. In fact, when I ran the bases my teammates would often holler, “Unhook the plow!” That’s a vivid mental picture, isn’t it? Well, you know, there are a lot of Christians with that problem. They are hooked to the plow of their money! They could be running like the wind, they could be doing great things for Christ if it weren’t for that constant preoccupation with money slowing them down and holding them back.
It needs to be said, too, that money isn’t necessarily evil all by itself. If the Lord has blessed you with an abundance of it, then by all means thank Him for it, and use it responsibly. Use it in God-pleasing ways—to support your family, to support the work of the church and the preaching of the Gospel, to extend the kingdom of Christ. But do be on your guard, won’t you? If money gets to be a plow, unhook it! Don’t let it slow you down and hold you back. Respect God, not money. Love God, not money. Trust in God, not in money. Serve God, not money. Remember the words of Christ, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
The account of the rich young ruler is a sad one because it’s a bad news example. This is what happens when things go wrong and money gets in the way of faith. But what if it had ended differently? What if, when Jesus told the young man to sell all he had and follow Him, what if he had smiled at Jesus and said, “I’ll be right back!” How wonderful that would have been!
My Christian friends, Jesus is saying the same thing to you today. Just like that young man, the Lord wants to separate you from your money—in a good sense. He wants to free you from the crippling service of self and set you apart for an unencumbered service of Christ. He wants to empower you, through the mighty working of His Holy Spirit to make good choices, to put faith where it ought to be—above everything else, to lay up treasures not on earth, but in Heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.
May God grant to us all the strength of faith so that, no matter what sacrifice He may ask of us for Jesus’ sake, we can smile and say, “I’ll be right back!” Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked “KJV” are taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version, Cambridge, 1769.