Reading Ramblings – October 11, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: 20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2015

Texts: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 3:12-19; Mark 10:17-22

Context: God’s people are held accountable for how they treat others, their willingness to share the blessings God has given them with those who for whatever reason have been deprived of those blessings. Failure to do so holds the threat of leading us little by little away from the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives to a place where we can no longer hear him calling to us and leading us, where we can seek to justify our sinfulness as righteous and place ourselves beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 – God speaks strong words of warning to his people regarding their treatment of one another, particularly their treatment of the disadvantaged and marginalized. Such behavior will not go unpunished, and God’s people are no exception. Verse 13 sounds like a warning to those who would seek to justify or excuse their behavior. Their is no such thing! Rather, we are to seek good rather than evil, justice rather than corruption. This is pleasing to God and an appropriate Christian witness.

Psalm 90:12-17 – The first 2/3 of this psalm testify to the steadfast and eternal nature of the Lord, compared with our fleeting lives. God existed before humankind or any of the rest of creation. He holds our lives and days in his hands. So we are to remember that we are mortal, and allow this knowledge to sink in and govern our lives on a daily basis. We are to place our trust and hope not in the work of our hands or the accomplishments of our civilizations, but rather in the promises of God, particularly his promise to return and dwell among us.

Hebrews 3:12-19 – The danger of sin to the follower of Christ is not the sin in and of itself, per se. Our sins have been forgiven through the blood of the crucified and resurrected Son of God! But sin does hold harm in that it may harden our hearts against God’s Word, leading us to prefer the sin and seek to justify it, rather than fight against it and pray for forgiveness and deliverance. Paul then compares our situation to that of the Israelites who fled Egypt under the Lord’s power and protection, only to die in the wilderness for refusing to trust that same power and protection. They hardened themselves against what He directed them to do, and it led to their physical deaths. They did not experience once again the power and protection of God, as their descendants did. So we who follow Jesus must be ruthless in calling sin, sin, and relying on the forgiveness of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a means to root out that sin which is embedded in us, rather than growing comfortable with it to the point we can no longer acknowledge it as sin.

Mark 10:17-22 – This passage has caused much consternation and worry in the 2000 years since Mark recorded it. Jesus is en route to Jerusalem for his crucifixion and resurrection. The young man comes to him earnestly – kneeling in acknowledgement of Jesus’ status as a rabbi (not, most likely, in recognition of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah). He addresses Jesus with the formal respect that is appropriate. Unlike the Pharisees and other opponents of Jesus, the man comes not to trick Jesus but rather is sincere in approaching Jesus.

The man we are told later is wealthy. He is also devout, and claims to have fulfilled the commandments since his youth. We might chuckle at his pride here, but how many of us easily rattle off our accomplishments in our faith and life, as though these were somehow adequate or complete in the presence of the Son of God? Regardless of his self-assessment as being righteous by Jewish standards, the young man does not have peace. Despite his attention to the Law, he does not rest confidently in his right relationship with God.

He worries that there is something else that he ought to be doing in order to merit God’s eternal favor. Again, we might be tempted to marvel at his pride, yet by Jewish understanding he was not boasting. Favor with God was understood by many to result from doing the right things and not doing the wrong things, a theme the psalm picks up on and even the Epistle lesson echoes. The man assumes that the key to his salvation and eternal life lies within his grasp, and is a matter of him doing or not doing something particular. How many Christians cling to this mistaken notion as well, depriving them both of mercy for others as well as peace in their own hearts!

As such, Jesus has to strike at the center of the man’s false assumptions by asking him to do what none of us likely would be willing or able to do if so confronted – give up his wealth and follow Jesus. Who of us would be willing and able to sell our home for Jesus? What if our pastor asked us to do this, someone we respect and admire (hopefully!), but not someone we recognize as divine? We should hesitate to condemn the man before examining ourselves to see how we would react. The man’s focus is on himself rather than those around him, but this is not really the main issue. The main issue is one of believing that we are somehow sufficient in and of ourselves to earn salvation, to merit God’s good favor. The error is in believing we can ever have done enough, and that it is even possible for us to do enough. When we are honest with ourselves, we are confronted with our selfishness and our inability and unwillingness to truly sacrifice deeply and completely. We want the reward of a saint and martyr without the discomfort and suffering.

Jesus’ instructions to the man are given in love. He wants the young man to see his misunderstanding about how the favor of God is gained. It is not given as due pay for our faithfulness, but rather we must receive it as a little child (the previous section of verses, which is NOT accidental!), as one who recognizes that they have done nothing to deserve it and rely fully and completely not on their own works but on the grace of God.

As such, the Church has understood that Jesus’ instructions to this man are not a universal command to all of his followers. While there have always been Christians who felt this calling to renounce worldly goods, whether in monastic community or just in living out their Christian walk, this is not an injunction against material goods. It is rather a strong warning that our attachment to our worldly goods is deep and strong and therefore a constant danger to us. It is more than this, though. It is a clear demonstration that we are all guilty of having a limit to our willingness and ability to obey God. The frequent references in Scripture to care for the poor and the disadvantaged pair with this warning. It is only in receiving God’s blessings with an open hand, ready to share them and pour them out into others’ lives as quickly as God pours them into ours can we hope to avoid the snare of greed and selfishness.

The man goes away sorrowful, and we can pray that, as word of Jesus resurrection spreads, he comes to a better understanding of what is required of him and what is granted to him. We too must humbly receive the grace of our heavenly Father while opening our hearts and hands to those who need our help. This can take many forms, whether it is care for someone in our family, our church community, our neighborhood or workplace. It also takes the form of caring for those who are even far removed from us, such as the current refugee crisis. We must take seriously the suffering of others and seek honestly and prayerfully how God would like us to be of use in tending to the needs of others.

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