by David Baer, February 14, 2016
Text: Mark 10:17-31
What crazy things have you done for love? Have you serenaded someone from below their window? Have you had your names written in contrails in the sky? Have you hauled someone across state lines to propose to them as they were preparing to leave the country? (That last one was me.) Today is Valentine’s Day, and maybe you’ve used it as an excuse to plan a special dinner or some other surprise. But what crazy things have you done for love? Have you moved across the country or the world to be with that special someone? Have you given up a career or completely changed your lifestyle because of a no less powerful love of a different kind for your own child? We do crazy things when we’re in love—in love with a romantic partner, with a child, with a vision or a cause. These are passions that remake us, that re-orient us, that turn us in a completely new direction.
That’s not the only way we make changes or decisions. There are times when you choose which home to buy, for example, by looking at how much the taxes are in each community, the rating of the local schools, the proximity to your job or your family. There are times when your decisions are calculated and rational, and often this is for the best. But most often we make decisions that are informed both by our reason and our passions. You wouldn’t buy that home in the perfect location, would you, if you didn’t feel something when you walked through the front door. We need reason. Reason grounds us. But passion is what moves us.
Our gospel lesson today introduces us to a man who is looking for eternal life. He’s a wealthy man, and so I imagine life looks pretty good for him. His basic needs are met—he has shelter and clothing and food, and he can provide for his family. He has savings—maybe a store of extra grain in case there’s a famine or drought—so he isn’t worried about life’s ups and downs. Maybe he even has enough to buy luxuries—exotic goods from faraway places, musicians and entertainers—things that ordinary people only dream about. But when life is this good, what becomes a gnawing preoccupation is the idea that it should ever have to come to an end.
And so perhaps he sought answers from religious teachers. There were the Sadducees, who ran the Temple in Jerusalem. They would have told him that this life is all there is, that if you want any kind of immortality, it has to come through children and grandchildren who carry on your name. Do your duty, they would have said. Offer sacrifices to God, and trust that God will bless you and keep your memory alive in succeeding generations. The Pharisees had a different answer. They would have told this man that a day was coming when God would raise those who had lived righteous lives to live again. They would inherit God’s kingdom. There would be no sickness, no death on that day—just abundant life for all God’s people. Keep the commandments, they would have told the wealthy man, so that you can have the hope of resurrection. The man seems to have seized onto this message, because he tells us that he faithfully keeps God’s commandments, and we have no reason to doubt him.
But that wasn’t good enough for him. If it had been enough, he never would have come looking for Jesus. But as it is, the man runs up, falls down at Jesus’ feet, and begs him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus gives the Pharisees’ answer first. (If Jesus is always fighting with them, it’s largely because they have so much in common!) But he’s already keeping the commandments. So what is he looking for? What’s missing?
Last month I got in touch with one of my colleagues to ask if she’d preach for me while I’m away this summer. She was really surprised that I was already making plans for summer vacation in January. What I told her was this: It’s not just the vacation that’s enjoyable, but the anticipation of it. Once you’re committed, once you know you’re going somewhere, you can think about what you’d like to do. You can check out restaurants and attractions. You can talk to others who have been to the same place and hear their experiences, and think about how you’d like to do those things yourself. And so the enjoyment of the vacation starts to creep back in time, right into the here and now. Your vacation isn’t confined to that one week in the future. In a certain sense, you’re already there. But you can’t have that anticipation until you’re committed—until you book the tickets (or until you book the substitute preacher, in my case). It’s that commitment that liberates you to fall in love with where you’re going, and to experience happiness right now as you look forward to being there.
Now, this wealthy man who comes to Jesus has seen all the travel brochures for the kingdom of God. He knows the route. He knows what it takes to get there, and he knows how good it is. But he hasn’t bought his ticket. He hasn’t fallen in love with it. And so Jesus asks him to do something utterly crazy. He appeals to this wealthy man’s passion and tells him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Jesus wants him to experience the kingdom right now. Look at the people who travel with Jesus—Peter and the others. Some of them are married, with families at home. They’ve left their jobs. They’ve left their kids. They’ve given up what little control they had over their lives, all so that they could be with Jesus. And yet they never seem to go hungry—that ragged little band always seems to find food somewhere. Someone has a loaf of bread, someone has a fish: they put their little pieces together, and Jesus blesses and shares them, and it is always more than enough. They always find someone to put them up for the night. When their clothing tears, someone else in the group always seems to have an extra outfit. For them, in this community, the kingdom of God is real and it’s here, not waiting somewhere in the far-off future. “Treasure in heaven” doesn’t mean you have wealth stored up in the hereafter. It means you measure your wealth in a heavenly, rather than human, way.
All the savings and security the man who came to Jesus had built up for himself could be swept away in an instant. He knew that—that’s why he came to Jesus asking about eternal life. And Jesus knew him—the story even says Jesus loved him—and saw that as long as he held onto those riches, he could never fully grasp the treasure in heaven—the wealth that comes from trusting God, and trusting the brothers and sisters God give you, to provide. But the man couldn’t do it, and so he went away genuinely sorry, stuck in his worry and his insecurity, unable to receive the freedom and peace that comes from anticipating God’s future kingdom the way Jesus and his disciples do, right here and now.
This is a story about wealth, and on that level it ought to give pause to all of us in this room. In comparison to Jesus and his disciples, in comparison to most of the people living on earth today, we’re the wealthy ones, and that wealth (however modest) gives us the ability to live separate lives. Wealth is one obstacle to having treasure in heaven, and it’s one we need to take seriously. Now, in this story, Jesus was addressing an obstacle that was personal and particular to this man, but the Bible is full of stories about how wealth can be a spiritual danger. We should all be in prayer over our relationship with wealth and possessions.
But I’ll bet more than a few of us identify with that man’s sense that there is something missing, with his search for a life laced with joy and abundance. And there are a hundred million ways fruitless paths for us to get stuck on—addictions, unhealthy relationships, career. What is it you need to sell, in order to have treasure in heaven?
I once came across the story of Eileen Morgan, a British woman who sold her three-bedroom home for almost $300,000, and moved with her two sons to live in an RV. You see, James, her 11-year-old had a passion for ballet. He’d been training as a dancer for the last 4 years, and he was finally accepted into a private dance academy. James received a scholarship, but his expenses over the next few years were going to run about $70,000, and the only way his mother could see to get that kind of money was to sell their home. “When you have a special child with a special talent you have to do everything to make it happen for them,” she said. Was James going to be the next Mikhail Barishnikov? Maybe, maybe not. But his mother’s actions demonstrate her joy, her hope for her son’s gift in an unmistakable way. This was passion, but it wasn’t crazy—it was a commitment that drew her forward with her family from the known and limited comforts of their home to the unknown and unlimited possibilities of their new future.
What crazy thing is God asking you to do for love, love of God, love of the new reality God is making? Jesus loves me, loves you, enough to ask of us nothing more or less than to transfer every last ounce of our faith and trust and security to God alone, to find that in giving up all that we want to grasp and hold, we have from God and in community with others all that we ever really need. And that is what you call treasure in heaven. Amen.