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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Jesus Answers a Question - October 11, 2015

We've become quite accustomed to people asking Jesus a question in order to trip him up – to get him to say something that could be interpreted as blasphemy, as against the laws of God … or at least what the big powerful guys in Jerusalem had said were God's laws.

Usually it is the Pharisee's and scribes behind these encounters … although we should be careful not to paint them with too broad a brush. Even in the case of the Pharisees and the scribes, generalizations are dangerous and ultimately unhelpful. The Pharisee's are born into these priestly lives of power and once someone has power, their work often becomes how to maintain that power – like a politician who's primary objective becomes how to be re-elected rather than how to best represent the people who elected him or her in the first place. Jesus ministry is turning everything this culture understands about power on its head. And so, the Pharisees and scribes respond in a very human fashion, in the spirit of self preservation. They are desperate to protect their understanding of God's law and their jobs in overseeing that law. The problem is that this law by this time has become layered and clouded with human interpretation. Interpretations that may have started with good intent but sometimes ended up undermining the life-giving abundance of God's law with human-born rigidity and power plays.

Not too many Sundays ago, we remembered how the Pharisees and scribes themselves came down from Jerusalem and questioned Jesus about why some of his disciples ate without washing first, in accordance with the purity laws of some of the Jewish people. Instead of taking the bait, Jesus questions them on laws they've put into place that undermine Moses' commandment … God's law … to honor one's mother and father.  (7:6-7)

A little later, after feeding throngs of hungry people with a few fishes and loaves, after walking on water, after casting out demons and healing the sick, the Pharisees ask for a sign from heaven to test him.  “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” (8:12) And he walks away from them, leaving their question hanging there, starving for attention.

Just before this account we have today of Jesus' encounter with the rich man, the Pharisee's tried again with a question about whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. He answers them with a question “What did Moses command you?” (10:3), and we see the Pharisee's squirm as their answer reveals the common abuse by many husbands who tired of their wives for one reason or another and discarded them like trash, contributing to the growing number of women abandoned to lives of poverty, shame and impossible choices for survival.

Jesus often evades these attempts by those in power to trip him up by responding to their questions with his own questions

But this encounter we have today between Jesus and the rich man is different. For one thing, the man has a genuine question – not a bear trap in the shape of a question. The man runs up to Jesus as he and his disciples are on the Way and falls at his feet. He really wants to know. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks Jesus.

Jesus does respond to the question with another questions as he often does, but then quickly changes the direction and tells the man he already knows the answer to his own question … he is a man of privilege in this world, he knows the commandments.

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth,” he responds.

That's when Jesus does something new. He gives the rich man a direct answer. If this man, who unlike any other human being, has truly been able to keep all these commandments since his youth, he lacks only one thing.

And on a scale of one to ten, Jesus turns it up to about a 12 or 13 here. Give up all your earthy riches, Jesus tells him – and more than that – give it all to the poor.  The rich man's reward would be the treasure of heaven and he would be freed completely to follow Jesus, to walk the Way with him.

The rich man clearly feels the weight of this unexpected answer from Jesus. Our translation is that he is “shocked,” but it's more roundly translated as “became gloomy” or “clouded over.” So with his vision clouded by the lure of earthly riches, he walks away from Jesus grieving the impossible task that has been set before him.

We can imagine the looks on the faces of the disciples who witness this exchange. Jesus sees it and takes the encounter even farther into the realm of human impossibility with an analogy that is quite familiar today – it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich – someone who is weighed down in early treasure – to enter the Kingdom of God.

When I read about this man and imagine this encounter in my mind, I am reminded of a wonderful man named Phil, who I met on my internship. He is a devout follower of Jesus. He is active in his church and his community. He is  kind and compassionate. He seeks out opportunities to welcome others and learn about their treks through this life. He leans hard into our holy scriptures, listening for what it reveals to him about his own experiences as person of God's creation in this time and this place. Before retiring, he had made a decent living as a farmer of the rich soil in that part of the country, but he lived modestly. He was generous with his wealth, his time and his love.

On one occasion I visited Phil and his wife at their home and we had a little bible study together around their kitchen table. As we were talking, Phil – someone who I'm fairly certain could say “Teacher I have worked hard at keeping these commandments since my youth,” said that he worried that no matter how hard he tried to be a good man and a good Christian he was always afraid it wasn't enough … that he was somehow failing God.

I think maybe Phil worried about this because this Way is not an easy one, being a disciple of Jesus is not choosing the path of least resistance or the easy way out.

Jesus illuminates this for us today too. This Way that is leading us to Jerusalem and a cross asks us to place the love of God and neighbor above our own wealth, comfort and power. It calls us to be generous with what we do have and think of these gifts of God's abundance more in terms of the “we” than the “I.” Stories like the one we hear today have inspired people to give up everything they have for the sake of Jesus and those who are poor in body and spirit. We heard that in the story of St. Francis last week. Someone here may feel God is calling them to walk that path today.

We listen to these texts and try to hear how they inspire us to be more Christ-like in the world. Perhaps it invites us to look at people like the rich man and the disciples as Jesus did – with love. Maybe it calls some of us to a life's work that is more about what is good for our neighbor or our planet rather than work that is more lucrative, but places obstacles between God's abundance and God's creation.

And while God promises that all we may give up in order to go against the grain and be followers of Jesus will be returned to us a hundredfold in this life, Jesus also tells us that it comes with a cost in this life too. We may be mocked for these choices, even persecuted in some parts of the world. We may have to re-evaluate our relationships with people we love who ask us to act in ways contrary to Gospel-centered ways.

But God does not stop there. Because God in Jesus has directly answered the grieving rich man, my worried friend Phil, all of us gathered here. God walked for a short time here as the high priest who does completely understand our weakness, loves us in spite of it, and opened the door for us to enter the Kingdom of God. “Who can be saved,” the disciples asked of Jesus, picking up where the rich man left off.

That is the true question.

We remember and celebrate the answer each and every time we confess our failures and hear our sins are forgiven …. each and every time we come to the Lord's supper. The answer is all, all of creation has been saved in Jesus death and resurrection and all have been freed to upset the order of things in this broken and lovely world and, as the prophet Amos challenges us, to establish justice in the gate.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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