On texts for Oct. 10, 2021 | Ordinary 28 | RCL Year B
Can anyone think of a gospel passage that better exemplifies the disconnect between Jesus’ teachings and the norms of our contemporary Christianity than the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who seeks guidance about inheriting eternal life?
I don’t say that to sound smug or to make you feel guilty. This is such a terribly difficult passage to sit with. On one hand, its crystal clarity rules out a lot of objections we might want to raise in our attempts to qualify what Jesus means. On the other hand, because it’s an atypical gospel story it stirs up valid questions about how we should situate it within the larger scope of Jesus’ teachings. Like those finger traps that squeeze you more tightly when you try to pull yourself out of them, this untamable passage has been ensnaring nervous preachers and congregations for a long time.1
Let me intervene here, Working Preachers. Before you start to freak out in front of Jesus like Peter does in Mark 10:28—“Why are you making all of this so difficult for us? Don’t you have any easier, more inviting things we can preach?”—consider how this story requires us to think about our roles and goals when we preach to a congregation. Reflecting on them might help our sermons steer clear of damaging fragile faith or offering theological excuses for greed. Moreover, they might set you free this week to preach with a new sense of humility, vision, and creativity. Maybe a preacher’s opportunity to contend with Mark 10:17-31 is more of a gift than we realize.
First, we should pay attention Jesus’ location in this passage and reflect on our own. Jesus is setting out “into the way” (eis hodon) when the rich man runs up to him in Mark 10:17. Of course he’s going to talk about what a challenge it is to “follow” him there. When has he ever spoken about it being easy on the way? He’s nearly in Jerusalem; we know where that way will lead (8:27; 9:33; 10:32).
Sometimes in our preaching we try to speak for Jesus. We assume it is our role to summon people onto the way with him. That requires us to present ourselves as though we are there, next to Jesus, as successful wayfarers ourselves. When a passage as severe as this one shows up in the schedule we can’t help but feel like frauds if we take that approach. The Markan notion of discipleship is about following and staying with Jesus—imitating him, bearing our own crosses—until the bitter and humiliating end. I don’t live like that, and I’m guessing you don’t, either.
You and I are beside the way, where our congregations are. We watch. We evaluate. We take a few steps in the right direction every now and then. Sometimes we hide in the bushes and hope Jesus has forgotten our pledge to follow him.
Our preaching should take its bearings from that—an honest appraisal of our location and role. This gospel text will do just fine speaking on behalf of Jesus before you even start preaching. Our sermons should reflect our situation as people struggling to be faithful to a calling to discipleship that demands everything from us (see Mark 8:34-38), with God’s help. Maybe if we present ourselves to our congregations less as leaders and more as fainthearted co-travelers then we all can share, together, a better chance of realizing some of the bountiful blessings Jesus promises to his followers (10:29-30).
Second, when a passage cuts as hard against the grain as this one does, we should think about our goals for a sermon, where we want it to take people and what effects it could have.
Any hack with access to a pulpit can use the story of Jesus and the rich man to decry the evils of capitalism, shame a congregation, or make everyone beg for mercy. Then you can swoop in and dole out forgiveness before sending people on their way. There are problems with those approaches, though, besides the fact that they’re both manipulative and boring.
Mark’s Gospel certainly depicts discipleship as a difficult road. Recall that this book was penned probably when Jerusalem was in ruins and the Roman military was bringing a bloody and religiously motivated rebellion to a decisive end. In that landscape of disappointment and confusion Mark told the story of Jesus in a way to reinforce an understanding of the church as an alternate, cross-shaped society that bears witness to a kingdom that cannot be perceived from ordinary points of view.
Will anyone in your congregation “go, sell what [they] own, and give the money to the poor” this Sunday? If someone does, that’s great. But probably no one will. Maybe a few of Mark’s original readers did. Does it matter? Christian faith is not the same as it was in the late first century. Don’t preach a sermon that aims for repristination.
Religions change along with their contexts (Thank God!). Of course, sometimes the changes are salutary and healthy (Whew!). Sometimes they are horrible (Help us, God!). But they change, and preachers need to think about how a passage like this one can speak to authentic yet flawed Christian faith in a different kind of communal setting living within a different kind of culture saddled with a different kind of economy and trying to live out a different kind of vision for what the future can hold.2
That requires creativity from a preacher. And bold, serious creativity, worthy of the high stakes and sacrifices the passage sets before us. What kind of vision does a text like this stir up in you and in the community you serve, given your core theological commitments? What does a story like this, with its evergreen warnings about wealth and its promises about the benefits of self-surrender, mean now, in your setting?
You have not been given this story to trick you or to trap you or to make you grovel. Wrestling in your preparations won’t be easy, for nothing is easy about this story. But you do have the opportunity to help a congregation imagine a new way forward, less enslaved to wealth, in greater solidarity with those who are poor, and closer to being on the way that leads to, among other destinations, eternal life. What a calling!
- My commentary on this passage from 2009 names several ways that interpreters struggle with it: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-4.
- By “vision for what the future can hold” I mean eschatology. But I try not to use that word without defining it.