The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost (B)
“Who Then Can Be Saved?”
October 21, 2018
Sermon Text: Mark 10:23-31
St. Paul writes in his 2nd Epistle to Corinth, chapter 5, verse 7, that we walk by faith, not by sight. Which may cause us to ponder the alternative: what would it mean to walk by sight, not by faith?
If we walked only by sight, then all that would matter would be what we could lay our hands on and enjoy right here and now. We struggle with the implications of this in many different ways almost every day. We could trade in our car for a nice shiny new one now, or we could have a little more in the retirement account for later. We could take the really great vacation now, or we could have a little more money saved up in Junior’s college fund for later. We could have that great-looking burger and its 60 grams of fat now, or we could weigh a little less later on. Every day we make choices between what we want now and what we hope for later on.
If we walked only by sight, then we would always gravitate towards what makes us feel happy and secure right now. And because this sight is something that we always have, then that means that we are constantly being tempted. A little more money will buy me something that I want to enjoy right now. More money will buy me more security for the future. Enough money and I won’t have to get out of bed at a ridiculous hour every morning. I won’t have to sit in traffic that I don’t enjoy. I won’t have to do some things I may not want to do. I won’t have to work around people who I may not like. I won’t have to do all these things just to hold a job and make sure that I’ve got food to eat and a place to sleep. If I walk only by sight, then I live by the equation money = happiness and getting more money is my only real goal in life.
The ironic thing is that even sight tells us that this is nonsense, if we look hard enough. I’ve been in the office pool for the MegaMillions for the past couple of weeks, mostly because it would be unbearable to see everyone around me win while I didn’t because I didn’t put in my two dollars. And every time I get in these things I imagine what it would be like to win and I remember what Mark Cuban said. Mark is the bombastic owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He became a multi-billionaire after growing up in a working-class family. So he knows what it’s like to go from nothing to billions of dollars. And Mark said that he had learned that, if you are already a happy, healthy kind of person a lot of money will buy you some things that you want and help you do some things you couldn’t do otherwise, but it’s really only going to make you just a little happier than you already are. And if you are an unhappy person, all the money in the world is going to do nothing to solve your real problems. And history bears out Mark’s story. The list of lottery winners is mostly filled with people whose lives were eventually ruined by coming into that much money. Even sight tells us that money does not = happiness.
Or to put it another way, suppose you won the MegaMillions on Friday and suddenly came into a billion dollars. And then suppose you came to church this morning and received Word and Sacrament. What would be the highlight of your week? Where is your real treasure at? Of course, there would be a couple of reasons why Friday would be memorable. The first would be that it would be new, instead of something that you’ve done just about every week for years and years. The second would be that you would be the only one who hit the jackpot, it would be exclusive, instead of something that you shared with everyone who came here this morning. For both of those reasons winning almost a billion dollars would feel extra special. But the real contest in your soul would be between your sight, which would grab on to all the money and do whatever it wanted to with it, and your faith, which would rest in the treasures given here, eternal treasures, which cannot be destroyed by either moth or rust. The treasures given here grant you the greatest blessings that you will ever receive. You could have in one hand the winning lottery ticket, and in the other hand the invitation to receive Jesus Christ as He comes to you in Word and Sacrament to strengthen your faith, forgive your sins, and grant you the gift of eternal life. Which is greater?
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus goes one step farther than this. He does not say that the riches of the Kingdom of God are greater than earthly riches. What Jesus says is that earthly riches are actually a barrier to both the eternal blessings and the earthly blessings of the Kingdom of God. To be a rich man is more than just meaningless as a way to heavenly blessings. Being a rich man actually produces obstacles that block the Lord’s blessings.
This was a fundamental paradigm shift in the traditional Jewish worldview. The Jews of Jesus’ time were not as blatant and crass as the so-called Christians who preach the Name-It-And-Claim-It gospel today. This crowd teaches the heresy that if you don’t have everything you want then there is something seriously wrong with your faith. You had better pray more and pray harder and triple your faith all by yourself and just in general get your act together so the Lord will bless you. But the Jews of Jesus’ day did hold a world-view that said that if you were in good standing with the Lord, then in general you will be taken care of and be healthy and be accepted by society around you. And, to be fair, this world-view did come out of the Old Testament. We in the Christian Church think of the Lord’s blessings primarily in spiritual terms – forgiveness, heaven, eternal life. But in the Old Testament the Lord’s blessings primarily centered around what one of my Old Testament professors called the three K’s – kids, crops, and cattle.
Think of Job, for example. What did Job lose that made him feel abandoned by the Lord? Kids, crops, and cattle, plus his health. What were the great blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants? Yes, it was the promise of the Messiah. But for them, on the ground, day-to-day, the thing that they understood was that the Lord’s blessings centered around the promise of land, the promise of a nation, the promise of lots and lots of kids and grandkids and the promise of a bright future on earth.
For a Jew, earthly blessings were signs that the Lord was with you. To be sure, they did make room for someone like Jeremiah who was made an outcast and suffered greatly for the sake of the Lord and His Word. But the Jews certainly did not center their world-view on a Theology of the Cross where sharing in the sufferings of the Messiah was the highest calling for a child of God.
So, when Jesus ponders aloud, “How hard it will be for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God,” the disciples see that as taking the class of people that they think will be the first ones in the pearly gates, and saying that they will not get in. The disciple’s natural thought is, “If the rich cannot make it, then no one can.” “Who then can be saved?”
This is the point at which this Gospel lesson becomes incredibly complicated. If you took a random stack of commentaries on the Gospel According to St. Mark, and read what each one has to say about this portion of Scripture, you would find that each of them spends some amount of time explaining why all the other commentaries are slightly out of focus in what they consider to be the main point of the text. So, in all humility, I will now take my best shot at finding the main point, making sure that everything I preach aligns with what the Small Catechism teaches as important so that I am remaining faithful to whole Word of God, even if I do wind up being slightly out of focus on the main point of this one text.
It seems to me that there is a shift in the text here, one that returns us to the original main point of the text that comes right before this one. You may remember this text: it was last week’s Gospel lesson and sermon about the rich young man who approached Jesus and asked how he could inherit the Kingdom of God. The point of that lesson was that the young man was resting not on his riches in particular but upon his own merits in general. His love of his wealth was really just a symptom of the deeper problem that he thought that he was basically OK as he was. He was not looking for conversion or regeneration. He just wanted a few good works assigned to him by Jesus to do to put up in his trophy case with all his other goodies to make himself even better in God eyes than he already was. Kind of like a baseball team that is loaded with pitching and goes out and gets another great pitcher just in case somebody gets hurt. Jesus sees right through this for what it is, and He uses the man’s single greatest weakness, his chief idol, his love of earthly wealth, to expose his false reliance upon what he has and what he does instead of what the Lord gives and what the Lord does.
And in our text for today, after commenting again on this one false god of the love of money, Jesus returns the focus back to the general problem of self-reliance of any kind. “How hard it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” “Well, if being so blessed as to have received all that wealth from the Lord isn’t enough to get you in, who then can be saved?” Jesus returns to the big picture. It’s not about anything you have or anything you can do, be it wealth or good works or great talent or having the most brilliant of minds or being the best-looking or anything else about you, what you can do, who you are, or what you have earned or stored up for yourself. With man this is impossible, for any of you. But with God, all things are possible, for all of you, for any of you, from the highest to the lowest, all things are possible with God.
Jesus is really just teaching a good-old fashioned Lutheran lesson about Law and Gospel. I always teach the confirmation classes about diagramming sentences because it’s the simplest, most basic way to distinguish Law and Gospel. A sentence always contains a subject, the thing that is doing the action, and a sentence always contains a verb. And a Law sentence is a sentence in which we are the ones doing the action. I love God. That’s good. It’s a good sentence. But it’s Law, because I am the one doing the action, and the Law cannot save and so we do not rely on it. Jesus loves me. That’s good. That’s a great sentence. And it’s Gospel, because it’s something that Jesus is doing, and my salvation rests entirely on the truths of the Gospel so we better get real good at thinking in terms of Gospel sentences, because that’s the way we should speak to ourselves, and that’s the way we should talk to each other.
That’s all that Jesus is teaching His disciples here. It’s just that simple. If you’re looking at yourself, then you’re in the realm of the Law and you will find no hope of salvation there. But with God, not only are all things possible, but all things are certain. When we look at what Jesus did for us, what Jesus does for us, what Jesus will do for us in the future, we are given the certainty of our salvation just as simply and easily as we confess the historical and future truths of the Second Article of the Creed.
That’s why Luther considered the Second Article of the Creed to be the heart of the Catechism, because it’s packed with Gospel sentences, and upon the truths of those Gospel sentences our salvation rests: Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, Jesus was crucified, Jesus died, Jesus was buried, Jesus descended into Hell, Jesus rose again on the third day, Jesus ascended into Heaven, there Jesus sits upon the right hand of the Father, and from there Jesus shall return to judge the living and the dead. All Gospel sentences, with Jesus doing all the action.
This is a lot for the disciples to take in, and it would have been best if they had just sat quietly for a while and let all this sink in a little bit. But Peter, as usual, feels the need to speak up and say something. “See, we have left everything and followed You,” he blurts out. I’m not sure what this sentiment has to do with anything, since Jesus has basically just told the disciples to get their eyes off of themselves and what they’ve done. But Jesus, as always full of compassion and grace, has a tender word for Peter and the rest of the disciples. Lest they spend undue time mourning the wealth, opportunities, and relationships that they have left behind in following Christ, Jesus takes their eyes off what they lost and fixes them on what they have gained.
“No one who has left behind anything for My sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will fail to receive 100 times as much right here on earth, and also eternal life in heaven.” There is an entire other sermon to preach on just these two verses, but allow me to sum up: whatever you have here on earth, that you have apart from Christ, is not really yours, anyway. It is slipping through your fingers and you will spend all your time and energy hopelessly trying to hold on to it for as long as you can before it is gone. But the things you have in Christ, those things that Christ has given to you, those things are yours forever.
I have known people – and I can think of one couple in particular, who were young and beautiful with three wonderful children and two good jobs and lots of money and a gorgeous house that they spent five years building together and they had it all – or so it had seemed. In truth it was all slipping through their fingers because they had left Christ behind. It turned out that he beat her on a regular basis and they went through an ugly divorce and they lost everything just like that.
And, on the other hand, I have heard stories of people locked away in prison cells, in solitary confinement, for years because they would not stop talking about Jesus when their government told them to. And there they sit, in prison, seemingly forgotten both by God and man, seemingly having lost everything, but they sit there in their potentially lonely prisons and they rejoice in the brothers and sisters that they have in Christ all over the globe that no one, anywhere, will ever be able to take away from them. And no one will ever separate them from their Savior and from His gift of eternal life.
Whatever you have without Christ is already gone. Whatever you have in Christ can never be taken away from you, because it is a gift of the Gospel, it is God’s work that no one can interfere with. Sight lies, because it fixes our eyes on the things that we see that are slipping away, and it fixes our eyes on what we have done by ourselves, for ourselves. Faith tells the truth, because it fixes our eyes both on the hidden realities of what we see around us and upon the realities of the Kingdom of God to come. We walk by faith, not by sight. How hard it will be for anyone to earn their way in to the Kingdom of Heaven by their own merits and accomplishments and wealth. Who, then, can be saved? With Christ, your salvation is a certainty, because it depends upon Him alone. Amen.
The Rev. Richard Bellas, St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL
October 21, 2018