Jesus and the Rich Man

a sermon for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23B/Lectionary 28]

Mark 10:17-31

As the gospel-writers are telling us about the life of Jesus, we notice things start to take a very serious turn about halfway through. All the fun things he was doing in the beginning of his ministry—things like healing people and casting out demons and feeding large crowds—basically come to a stop and he gets heavy and stern. With somewhat severe tone he pulls his disciples aside a few times and predicts his suffering and crucifixion in Jerusalem and even scolds them now and then for “not getting it.”

We’ve been steadily reading through Mark off and on since January, and this is the part of Mark’s gospel we’re in right now. He knows what’s coming down the road, so it’s suddenly no more fun-and-games Jesus. Two weeks ago he told us in exaggerated terms about how to address the reality of sin in our lives by cutting of our hands. Last week he had his debate with the Pharisees on divorce and adultery, and today he gets very blunt about wealth. We were discussing all of this in our staff meeting this past week and somebody said, “It’s kind of like when you’ve already read your kid 3 stories before bedtime and they keep wanting another one, but at some point you’ve just got to put your foot down, stop reading stories, and turn out the light.”

Jesus and the rich man

This week Jesus kind of ends up putting his foot down on this man who runs up to him and wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life. We don’t know a lot about this man. We eventually find out he is wealthy and apparently has led a fairly upright life. Many of this man’s peers, and probably even the disciples, would have assumed his riches would have come as a result of his moral life, since a common belief back then was that God rewarded moral people with worldly wealth.

We also know he admires Jesus, calling him “Good teacher,” when he first approaches him. Even though Jesus basically rejects that term, the man must want to seek wisdom from him badly enough to walk up to Jesus on the road. He is a go-getter. Whether he’s inherited his money and managed to keep it or whether he’s earned it himself, he’s no doubt a confident seeker of the good life.

It would be nice for him if gaining eternal life were also something that could happen by checking off things on a list, by chalking up the perfect experience, by designing another spreadsheet. If he can just go do something—read another book, climb another mountain, achieve another goal, sign up for one more committee at church, he would be complete.


The problem for him is that he wants eternal life, and apart from Jesus that just can’t happen. Entering the kingdom of God must be done like a child, with trustfulness that allows you to stay near Jesus. Receiving the God’s life-giving mercy involves being like broken soil which takes in a seed and then nourishes it over time so that growth is sustained. Recognizing the grace of God’s presence and forgiveness is something that comes through a relationship with Jesus. It is not a transaction. It is an ongoing thing. It is more like a journey that the man must walk or a way of life that the man must adopt than a particular activity that he can add to his resumé.

What Jesus knows is that the fewer possessions and wealth one has, the easier it will be to undertake that journey and receive that relationship. We tend to think of money and property and financial resources as things that enable and empower us to do things. Jesus, like the prophets before him, typically see wealth as a hindrance to faith and as a barrier to understanding others’ suffering.

Just last week after worship I helped one man who came by the church looking for assistance. He met me at a nearby grocery store and said he needed a few things like laundry detergent and food staples to get him through a couple of days. He was going to be getting on a Greyhound the next day and said that they’ll kick people off the bus if they smell too bad. Now, normally I don’t do this but that day, instead of getting him a gift card and leaving, I decided to help him shop (the church has funds for this kind of thing) and so I took off looking for the detergent and the Hostess cupcakes he really wanted and let him pick out his food.


We met several minutes later in the checkout line, which was really backed up. So we made small talk for a while, and I learned he was a really kind man with an interesting story, somewhat of a vagabond. But because neither of us had been able to find a basket when we walked in he was standing there with his arms full, bottles and bags of different things perched precariously on top of each other. A bead of sweat dripped down his brow and formed on the tip of his nose, but with full hands he was unable to catch it before it dropped onto his container of chicken wings. I was still holding the detergent and something else for him.


When it came time for us to put our things onto the conveyor belt, there was this definite sign of relief at letting them go for a minute. I thought about how, for all I knew, this was all this man had—all of his food and worldly items were right there on the conveyor belt. I envisioned myself trying to hold everything I owned, my greedy arms extending out to fill the whole store to grab all my stuff at home. He had declined my suggestion that he get some fruit, I realized later, not because he didn’t like it, but because he knew it wouldn’t travel well.

Jesus calls this man who approaches him to travel well. To be nimble and unencumbered. Jesus doesn’t curse his wealth or chastise him for it, but Jesus knows the life of the kingdom he brings will require mobility, it will require freedom, it will require hands and feet free for serving and understanding what it’s like to be vulnerable. The man can’t handle that. He is shocked that eternal life will be a future without his many things, and so he turns away.

There is a lot of anxiety these days about the perceived decline of the church in the United States. Like most Christian denominations, our own, the ELCA, loses members every year. The percentage of people who claim to be affiliated with a church or who claim to attend worship regularly also declines with each subsequent year. People are turning away. So many times we in the church blame ourselves. We say things like our worship is boring or hasn’t supposedly kept up with changing trends. Some people suggest it’s because the church has been behind or tone-deaf on important social issues. Others have blamed the decline on becoming too much like culture.

To be sure, there are probably several factors for all of this change, many we have no control over. I never hear anyone, however, link the decline of the church’s membership to our society’s relative wealth. Personal disposable income in the United States has increased with almost every year since 1959. In fact, it has multiplied by almost four times since then, adjusted for inflation. What if the call to follow Christ and to join with his band of followers is simply being drowned out by a very consumerist society awash in options for how to gain and spend money? Maybe there are some connections there that we don’t even investigate. Even Jesus had a hard time convincing certain people to follow.


This man who approaches Jesus but then turns away finds it too difficult to release his goods onto the conveyor belt, so to speak. The fact of the matter is that the more buffered someone is by their affluence, social status, education, or race, the more difficult it will become for that person to look for hope and salvation in something else outside themselves, including in God’s kingdom.

Interestingly enough, we know something else about this man, something we know about no one else in Mark’s gospel. We know Jesus loves him. He is the only person we hear that Jesus specifically loves in the entire journey of Jesus, from beginning to end and there’s nothing to suggest that love is withdrawn as he turns away. All this is to say there is nothing he or we can do to make God give us eternal life or earn Jesus’ love. Jesus has brought us God’s kingdom and loved us even before we start to follow and he puts his foot down to go to the cross where he will lay the whole of his life down on the conveyor belt so that the rich grace of God’s love will come to all. Rich, poor, powerful, weak, well-connected, anonymous…Jesus has called us all into his kingdom, welcomes every single person into the journey.

And once we’re on the journey all kinds of worlds and new realities open up. We realize we receive each other as brothers and sisters, new family members who share the struggles and joys of life with one another.

We receive property! The individual homes where our Seedling small groups are meeting are real extensions of the kingdom’s ministry throughout the Richmond area, and the LAMB’S Basket Food pantry is part of our household too.

And it goes beyond Richmond! Just last week a staff member of Lutheran World Federation drove from Baltimore to Richmond just to meet with me after seeing how many contributions Epiphany has made to their work over the years. Our quilting ministry makes hundreds of quilts every year for distribution to their outposts, and most recently our Lent donation of $2000 for life-saving medical centers in South Sudan had caught her eye.


There was I was sitting in my office with a young, articulate millennial woman who kept saying things like, “our presence, our work in South Sudan is linked with IMA World Health, an international organization devoted to projects in earth’s most remote and poverty-stricken areas.” In fact, I was moved to learn from her that the money Epiphany gave went to helping alleviate diseases related to acute malnutrition primarily in children under 5 and pregnant or lactating women and aimed to help almost 100,000 people.

That is, of course, impressive, but the fact that she kept using the pronouns “we” and “our” instead of “they” and “their” was most moving to me. She meant that Epiphany was actually a part of that ministry—that we, through our fellowship in Christ, we have an outpost in the bush of Africa. We, through our faith and generosity, are a part of that group of disciples way over there. As Jesus promises, we have gained fields abroad where healing work is being done!

Jesus loves us and calls us into service to the world. God’s kingdom breaks in and through his grace we are made mobile, agile, ready to serve. He does put his foot down, oh so thoughtfully, to release us from the things that bind us, to put the first things last and the last things first. To give us more life that we’ll ever imagine.

What a serious turn of events in Jesus’ message, but what a amazing one for us! With God…all things are possible!


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



a sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22B/Lectionary 27]

Mark 10:2-16 and Genesis 2:18-24

There are so many technicalities when it comes to religion, aren’t there? Even for those who are good at making things simple, religious matters still somehow become barnacled over with all kinds of do’s and don’t’s. Some of the technicalities we come up with in church are a bit harmless, like which order the acolyte is supposed to light the candles in. We know it doesn’t really matter in the long run, but I’ve talked to a lot of 4th and 5th graders and their parents who are honestly worried they’ll get it wrong.

And things like this: just this week I got on an elevator in a hospital with a woman who instantly pegged me for what she called a “reverend.” I pointed to my white collar and said, “What gave you that impression?” But as we continued to talk I realized it was not my collar that indicated to her whether I was a reverend or, as she ruled out, a Roman Catholic Priest. As it turned out, it was the pants I was wearing. “I can tell you’re not Roman Catholic,” she asserted in all seriousness, “because you’re not wearing Catholic pants.” I had no idea what she meant. Apparently I skipped seminary the day they covered that! As I looked down at my dark gray houndstooth patterned slacks, I was just glad I still managed after all these years to pick out Protestant pants accidentally.

Protestant pants?

As funny as they may be sometimes, the technicalities of religion often seem frivolous and pointless and can be a real turn off for some people, especially to people who are distanced from organized religion. However, there are other kinds of technicalities that really demand our attention. We may not even think of them as technicalities in many situations, because they seem to deal with such harder questions and thornier issues. The farther along Jesus gets in his ministry he seems to get more involved in trying to navigate these types of technicalities. When Jesus finally leaves Galilee and comes into the region surrounding Jerusalem Pharisees approach Jesus about the technicalities of divorce and remarriage. Forget the type of pants the pastor is wearing—I want to know what God thinks about divorce? What does the faith community say about it, especially when a person remarries? What is allowed by Scripture and by God’s standards?

Having never personally been through a divorce, I want to speak with great care and sensitivity at this point. I would imagine these are the kinds of questions that can keep some individuals up at night, the kinds of issues that can gnaw at the gut and create real crises of conscience. Even long after the judge has granted her decision and the custody and financial arrangements have been worked out, many people years later still struggle with guilt and shame. And for people who, for whatever reasons, have remained in marriages that are abusive or irreparably broken, the specific, technical questions about how God looks at it—or what constitutes abuse and neglect, or what is right for the children—are probably ever in the forefront of the mind. In some Christian denominations, those who are divorced and remarried are no longer able to receive Holy Communion, a type of “technicality” that no doubt is tough to live with. And as a pastor who presides at wedding ceremonies, I can say that many of the marriages I’ve been a part of where one or both people are re-marrying have been some of the most joyful and life-giving occasions I’ve been a part of. But have I, technically-speaking, abetted adultery?

We may make light of things we consider technicalities, but suffering is real and in the end we must realize that for some people these questions are loaded. The issue with the Pharisees’ question is that they are re not really dealing with a real person in a real case of suffering at the moment—they mainly want to see if they can catch him saying something blasphemous. Jesus threads their needle, responding with a quick reminder that God’s law does allow for the dissolution of marriage. That is, technically-speaking, it is not against God’s law for a man to divorce his wife. They can look to Moses to find that out.


But then Jesus goes much further than the Pharisees and his disciples are prepared for: by quoting Genesis, he reminds them of the indisputable equality and mutual dignity of male and female. Jesus refers to both creation stories in Genesis to make his point—that male and female were created together, that they are fundamentally different but also equal, that in marriage they become one unit, that the family and subsequent generations of human beings are built on this relationship that God has ordained.

In fact, one popular song late this summer has helped drive this home for many of us. It’s a well-known song whose message is timeless, instructive. It has over 1 billion views on YouTube. From the beginning of creation, Jesus seems to say,  “Baby shark, do-do-doo-doo…Mommy Shark…Daddy Shark…” Mommy and Daddy shark—there’s no inequity mentioned there! It’s a harmonious shark unit.

But, you see, in Jesus’ time, marriage was mainly about the clever consolidation of property and power. Women didn’t have a whole lot of say in the matter. They were often like chits in a transaction as families formed alliances and did whatever they could to increase their social standing. Men, who had really nothing to lose from these situations, often used divorce to go from one wife to another and therefore to greater and greater wealth in society. This is why it can be tricky to read this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees at face value and think that it speaks the same to our situations of divorce and remarriage today.

Jesus points out that marriage is a blessed union intended for much simpler but at the same time much greater function than all of that. One couple in our congregation just recently passed their 67th wedding anniversary. The last few months, however, have seen each of them struggling with illness off and on. Those close to them have noticed that, without fail, whenever she becomes ill and requires a hospital stay, he soon starts to decline too, almost for unknown medical reasons. When she comes home, he starts to slowly improve. Then he falls ill and has to receive treatment in the hospital. She, left alone, can barely can get out of bed. While in many ways it is sad to see them struggle at this time, there is also an undeniable beauty in seeing how their well-being has become so tied to each other’s. Years of cooperation, forgiveness, and shared struggle have intensified their one-ness. We can see in real time that what God has brought together only death will be able to break apart. This is the vision for creation that God has in mind.


Since we’re talking about technicalities here, it is important to note that I did not technically choose these Scriptures for today. The Scripture texts we read in worship are from a lectionary, a cycle of readings that is laid out over a three-year period and this section of Mark 10 just happens to fall today. I can imagine it is a bit jarring to come into worship and hear about this debate about relationships between male and female on any week, but particularly after the week we’ve just had in American politics and the past year of #metoo movement.

Yet on the other hand, I’m glad that the Bible doesn’t only talk about things like which pants pastors wear (and just to be clear, it doesn’t). Life is full of these technically difficult and meaningful questions, and the Word of God always builds us up. And, as it happens, Jesus message to the Pharisees is only secondarily about marriage and divorce and adultery. Technically-speaking, they are really about power, who often has it, how it gets misused, and how God corrects that. Through time people—most often men—have used power to warp relationships like marriage. Pharisees and religious professionals have used power to categorize people as pure or defiled. Government leaders have used power to sow division and discord among the people they serve in order to seize more power. And all of us are guilty of misusing power to make the kingdom of God about rules we need to follow and rules in our hearts.


Jesus comes to teach us and show us with his eventual death that the kingdom of God is known by and in the absence of power over any other human. The kingdom of heaven is like an equally-yoked marriage, just past its 67th anniversary, or it’s first, where male and female treat each other with mutual love. As Jesus buts heads with the Pharisees and then in private explains this all to his disciples, he is probably searching for something he could use to show what he means by the absence of power.

Just then, some people start bringing him little children, which in Jesus’ day were people who had no power at all. Even lower on the social ladder than women, children could only depend on others to take care of them. Jesus’ own disciples are trying to move them out of the way. He becomes angry and annoyed. Even they aren’t getting it.  It is only in our human powerlessness that we can have access to God. And he takes the little children on his knee to prove his point. The kingdom of heaven is like that moment, Jesus, in love with our simplicity. It is only when we realize our weakness, when we come to terms with our brokenness that we realize just how near mercy has come to us.


Because, while there may be technicalities about religion and laws, there are no technicalities at all when it comes to faith, to God’s love for us. Jesus loves you…and the less power you feel you have, the less worth you feel you have in the world’s eyes, then the more God pulls near you. The more disposable you think you are, the more insistently God wants to remind you of your value, that you are just a little lower than an angel. The more broken you are, the more God wants you to know his forgiveness. In fact, he will die in order to get that point across. He will offer himself up after a sham trial in front of government officials who won’t know how to listen to him.

And then he will rise again—rise with strong arms that can reach out bless us all. That is the community of disciples we are to be, children on his knee. That’s the children’s sermon we receive in order to pass on to the world, wearing any kind of pants you want.

Thanks be to God, there are no technicalities there.


A-a-men, do, do, do doo doo do.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Wenzel Peter)


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.