March 5, 2017
Challenged to Grow
As we continue through Mark’s gospel, again there are some wonderful passages we are having to skip over, so let me bring you up to speed from last week. We looked at the encounter the disciples had with Jesus on the mountain, when he was transfigured to shine brightly before them. God’s voice appeared in a cloud that enveloped them, and God said, “This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him!” That was a significant moment for Peter, James and John to have this vision of Jesus in all his glory.
But we can’t stay on the mountaintop. We have to go back down the mountain to encounter all the muck and problems of everyday life. How hard it must have been for the disciples to go from hearing the very voice of God to encountering a difficult problem beyond their capacity to help! A father came to them with his son, who was possessed with an evil spirit. The disciples tried to drive out the spirit, but they were unable to do it. The boy’s father asked Jesus to help if Jesus could. Jesus replied, “If I can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” Remember this statement, because we’re going to hear it again. The father replied, “I believe, but help my unbelief!”
The disciples had to face the limits of what they could do, just as this dad had to face the limits of his faith. The father of this boy needed help being strengthened in faith. Jesus told the disciples that this healing could only happen through prayer. Mark in sharing these episodes, implies we are no different. We too have limits; we too are challenged to stretch beyond what we know by faith and how to grow in prayer.
Mark portrays real people in his gospel, people who are just like us. The disciples have their issues – they argue about who is greatest, because they want to establish a pecking order in heaven. They try to put themselves on a higher plane by pushing down others who were trying to do good works in Jesus’ name. Jesus knows that temptation is an ever-present threat for them. It is especially difficult to think that one might do potential harm to a little child or damage the budding faith of one who is only beginning as a believer.
Mark reminds us that at all times we need to be vigilant against the presence of sin and be ready to take drastic measures to get out of its power. At the beginning of chapter ten, Jesus answers a question about marriage and divorce. Relationships can be messy, but there are consequences for dissolving a marriage. He blesses little children whom the disciples were trying to shoo away. More challenges to usual perceptions. So as we come to our passage for today, you can see that the hope the disciples received on the mountain at Jesus’ transfiguration has been challenged by gritty realities of everyday life.
Mark doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about money and economic issues. Our scripture for today is one of the few passages where he highlights temptations arising from wealth. Mark tells us this man ran up to Jesus, knelt before him and asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Matthew calls him a young man; Luke says he is a ruler, but the stories are the same. We get the impression he is a sincere man, even humble. He honors Jesus by calling him good teacher. He wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life.
Jesus reminds him of the commandments, especially those having to do with how we treat others. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false testimony. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother. If you watched the Oscars last Sunday, perhaps you were impressed with some of the acceptance speeches that were given. They honored their families and those who taught them well. This man replied to Jesus, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at this man, and Mark says that Jesus loved him. We don’t hear that comment in Matthew or Luke’s rendition of this episode. Matthew tells him that if he wants to be perfect, to sell his possessions. Luke simply writes that Jesus told the man he lacks one thing. Now we have Mark, who is sparse with his words, who gallops along in this shortest of gospels with action-packed narrative. But Mark wants us to know that Jesus loved this man.
We know we all lack certain character qualities. We are aware there are skills we do not possess. We are not perfect. But do we know how much we are loved, in spite of our failures? Do we realize that God sees the wrongs we do and still loves us? Certainly God wants us to repent and ask for forgiveness. God wants us to make good choices in morals and behaviors. But before we do anything, before we are ready to make any changes, we are loved. That’s an important piece we need to hear.
Jesus told this man, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It’s an interesting thing that Jesus told him to go, when we consider other times in this gospel when Jesus told people to go. Mark would often use this action word go as Jesus spoke following a healing, or when Jesus gave instruction before a miracle.
Jesus healed a man with leprosy in chapter 1; he told him to go and show himself to the priest because he was whole again. Chapter 2 – Jesus healed the paralytic and told him to take up his mat and go home. Chapter 5 – Jesus healed a man called Legion possessed by many demons; when he was healed, Jesus told him to go home to his family. Same chapter, when Jesus spoke to the woman who had touched his cloak and was healed, he told her to go in peace.
As a prelude to Jesus feeding the 5000, Jesus told the disciples to go and find out how much bread they had. Later on Jesus asked them to go ahead of him in the boat across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus walked on water as he caught up to the disciples. When Jesus healed the blind man, he cautioned him not to go into the village, but to return home. Are we seeing a pattern here? Jesus asked them to do something as a result of being healed. Jesus made a request of obedience before a miracle. Go.
No healing takes place in this episode. No miracle happens. Yet Jesus told him to go. Go sell your possessions, give them to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. Jesus wanted to heal him. This man’s hand wasn’t shriveled; he wasn’t paralyzed. But in another sense he was. His life was constrained by material goods that kept him apart from more fully knowing God. His stuff was an obstacle, because wealth and comfort had become more important to him than faith.
He could not let go, so Jesus could not heal him. The man went away sad, because presumably he wanted what Jesus had to offer him. He wanted to find eternal life. But for him, the price was too high. For him, riches seemed like a better way to find true happiness.
Remember that Mark’s gospel is all about discipleship and service, but this is an instance where one walks away from faith. The rich man misses the mark. If we were to read on in this chapter, Mark presents the story of Bartimaeus, a blind man who simply calls out for mercy. A rich man and a poor beggar are in the same chapter. The rich man turned away from Jesus’ invitation, but the blind man gratefully accepted it and followed Jesus down the road.
Let’s summarize a moment before we get to the final point. Know how much Jesus loves you. His love is not dependent on your good behavior, as much as Jesus wants that from you. His love is always going to be there. Two: Jesus makes requests of us – to do something as an outcome of faith. Go out because you have been the recipient of forgiveness and grace. Go in obedience as an expression of faith, and as you are faithful in a small way, it will lead to greater faith. Inversely, to decline Jesus’ offer is to lose an opportunity to grow spiritually.
The disciples were under the impression, along with a lot of us, that material wealth was a clear sign of God’s blessing. They were astounded by Jesus’ words about wealth and asked him, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “With man this is impossible, but not with God: all things are possible with God.” Wait, doesn’t this sound familiar? Everything is possible for him who believes. All things are possible for God.
Jesus said words to this effect several times throughout Mark’s gospel. Good things come, not as a result of a positive mental attitude not because God is waiting to become our personal miracle worker. God has no limitations, even if we do. Everything is possible for God. By faith we believe, by faith we pray. By faith we are saved, but this is God’s work in Jesus Christ, not ours. Be challenged today to grow in discipleship and service, through the grace of our savior, Jesus Christ.