October 26, 2015

It Takes Something From You, Too


Text: Mark 10:21: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing;...’”

Last night I went to a benefit concert. The idea of a benefit concert, as you know, is that you pay money, and you see a show, and at least a part of your money goes to support a worthy cause. You may feel good about that, but the fact is that you pay the money to see the show, and you expect in return for your money that there will be some kind of entertainment put on for you.

In that sense, going to a benefit concert is not all that different from any other ticket you might buy. If you spend money to go to the theater, you expect to see a play. Maybe you are also supporting the non-profit corporation that is the business entity that puts on the play, but you expect a show.

And if you are paying tuition at a school, as many of you have done and some of you are doing, you expect something in return for the check that you are writing. Yes, you may be supporting a charitable entity called a school, or a college, or a university, but you expect something for your money. An education, say, or a certificate, or a degree, or a credential of some kind.

We make payments like this pretty much every day of our lives, in some way. They are transactions, pure and simple. We make an exchange of value for value. We pay our money, and we expect in return whatever it was we bargained for—entertainment, or health care, or education, or groceries, or whatever it is we’re paying for.

Of course money is not the only form of value that we exchange. We willingly choose to give our obedience to the laws, or our time to the team or the club, because we believe in doing so we will receive something that we value in return. We will receive a well-ordered, peaceful, stable society, or we will receive a sense of association with other people who share our interests in hiking, or table tennis, or bridge.

All of these—whether they involve money or something else, time or effort or self-restraint—all of these are exchanges of value for value. All of them are transactions. A transaction is giving something in exchange for something else. We make transactions every day, in a thousand ways, and we bring to them a finely calculated sense of value; we know just what we are giving, and we know just what we expect to receive in return.

Jesus is setting out on a journey. It is not just a trip for a three-day weekend. When we hear Mark’s gospel say those words this morning—“And as he was setting out on his journey...”—that is Mark’s too-subtle way of announcing what in other Gospels is the hinge of the whole story: The moment when Jesus determines that he is going to Jerusalem.

There’s something very powerful in the fact that here in Mark’s gospel this key moment in the whole story is not even about Jesus, but instead about one of us—about someone who comes to Jesus hoping what we hope for, hoping to get right with God.

In the bible my parents gave me for Christmas years ago, the one with all the words of Jesus in red type and the helpful subheadings that told you what the following section was supposed to be about, this little story was titled “The Rich Young Ruler.” I never knew quite why; nowhere does the story say that the man who approaches him is young.

But even so I liked that idea; I liked because I was young. I wasn’t even the ruler of my own bedroom, because my mom kept telling me I had to make the bed and pick up things, but even so it made me feel as though the story was an example of Jesus talking to someone like me.

What Jesus sees in this man is that his relationship with God is a transactional relationship. He observes all the rules. He is keeping his end of the bargain. He wants eternal life; he wants to be in the right kind of relationship with God.

And he wants to think that what that means is the same thing it means to get an education, or a basket of goods at the grocery store, or the services of a landscaper. He wants it to be a transaction. I observe the rules; you give me eternal life.

And the story tells us something profound at this juncture in the story. The text says: “Jesus, looking upon him, loved him...”

What is that love? What has Jesus seen to bring about this response? Does he see the possibility in this young person? Does he see the tragedy of the approach he is taking to a relationship with God? Does he perhaps see both?

What is that love? Is it pity? Is it hope?

In lots of places today this story will be preached as a warning against materialism. It will be preached as a message about the things that we really give our love to that stand in the way of our having the relationship with God we are meant to have.

The easy way to caricature that is to talk about our love of stuff, our love of the possessions that the rich young man is advised to sell.

But of course some of the things we possess aren’t material; they are things like our commitments to things like our reputation, or our ambitions, or our social standing, or to causes that we would readily justify as important and worthwhile.

All of us, no matter how poor we may think we are, are wealthy in that way. All of us are wealthy in commitments to things that make up our ideas of ourselves, our identity, the things we claim to be.

And what Jesus is teaching that wealthy person is something he is also setting before us in our own wealth; that the problem is the whole idea of approaching our life with God as a transaction.

This is not supposed to be about our trade of rigid observance of the laws for eternal life with God. It isn’t about exchanging our good works, our donations of money and time and effort to good causes, for God’s approval. It’s not even supposed to be about trading all the money we’d realize from selling all our stuff for eternal life with God. 

What Jesus is trying to teach that young man is that his whole approach is wrong, because he is approaching it as a transaction. And what God wants is not a bargain. God has no interest in a transaction. We have nothing of value that God wants.

What God wants is not the observance, and it’s not the stuff. What God wants is the man. God doesn’t want an exchange. God wants a relationship.

The rich young man turns away in dismay because his whole approach to how he wants his relationship with God to work ultimately fails to get him what he wants. It’s not that he’s not willing to sell his stuff; it’s that he’s not willing to give up his idea of an arms’-length, transactional relationship with God.

But that isn’t what God wants. The whole idea of it fails to grasp at a fundamental level the relationship we actually have with God, whether we know it, or like it, or not.

What God wants with us is a relationship, not an exchange. God wants all of us.

That doesn’t mean we all have to run off to the monasteries and the convents. It means we have to rethink our whole idea of what our life is, what it means, and realize that we don’t get to set the terms for how we will make that relationship work. We are God’s—in the possessive sense, not in the plural sense. We belong to God.

The amazing thing in this whole story is not that God won’t deal with us on the terms we want. The amazing thing is that God wants to be in relationship with us at all. When the Bible tries to describe how we stand in relationship with God, the images that it uses to describe us are images like children, or when it’s not so good like sheep, or when it’s really not so good like worms, or chaff, or worse.

We don’t really expect to have a relationship with things that belong to us to begin with. But that is the offer, the opportunity, the hope that God extends to us. And to receive that offer we need to get rid of the idea that we can trade something for it, and accept that what God wants isn’t what we have, but who we are.

To make that work will take something from you—not something you can write check for, not something you can trade, but something you can only offer by making a sacrifice—a sacrifice of our expectation of an exchange. There’s nothing we have to trade that God needs or wants. What God wants is a relationship—a real relationship—with each and all of us. Amen.