THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
First and Last
On Thursday of this week, an unusual but timely news story caught my attention.
Throughout the week, I had been reflecting on Jesus’ instruction to the rich man in Mark: to give up everything he had to the poor in order to follow Him.
Then on Thursday, as I was settling into my office and catching up on the news, I saw this heading:
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ Star Chow Yun-Fat Plans to Give His Entire Fortune to Charity.
And then the subheading: The Hong Kong movie legend says he only spends $800 HKD, which translates to $102 USD, per month.
With my curiosity peaked, I clicked on the story. The first thing that met me was a photo of a face I do not think I’ve seen since 2000 when I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at my hometown movie theatre in Nakusp, BC as a 13 year old.
Even though I had not personally seen or heard any news coverage of Chow Yun-Fat for eighteen years, the face was unmistakably familiar.
Longer, greyer hair.
A few more wrinkles around the eyes.
But it was that same kung-fu master who flew across the bamboo forest all those years ago.
There was something else about that face though.
It was serene.
It was the face of someone completely at peace.
At peace with his accomplishments.
At peace with his decision to give his entire $714 million USD fortune to charity.
At peace with his commitment to buy second-hand clothing and ride public transportation for the rest of his days, as he has apparently been doing since we first saw him on the big screen eighteen years ago.
The article included just one quote from the man himself: “[I just want] to be a happy and normal person.”
Don’t we all?
Aren’t we all on our own journey in seeking happiness, truth, and hope?
This morning in Mark’s text, we met another man, who was on his own journey in seeking hope.
Though Mark, Luke, and Matthew disagree about who exactly this man was; whether or not he was young; whether or not he was a ruler; they all agree that he was rich.
This rich man approached Jesus and said:
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20
He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Immediately on the heels of this interaction, Jesus teaches the disciples the iconic lesson about the camel and the eye of the needle:
“Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
If you do some research into this text, particularly into the history of interpretation, you will find that Jesus’ words have—for two-thousand years—been poked and prodded, dissected and reassembled, theorized upon, and otherwise explained away, all in attempt to avoid the bluntness of its meaning.
A young child could easily read this text and come to the conclusion that:
- Jesus instructs the man to give up his wealth,
- The man goes away disappointed because he doesn’t want to give up his wealth, and
- The point of the camel and the eye of the needle is that camels don’t fit through the eyes of needles!
A camel is a great, big animal! It’s taller than you or me, it’s as long as a car; it has a hump! Needles are very small. Do not overthink this. J
For all of its bluntness and clarity though, there are entire libraries written by those seeking to avoid its truth…
Well…the man was really disheartened because he also didn’t keep the law as he promised.
Well…the business about the camel and the needle just means that the rich must have an awful lot of faith to make it happen
And worst of all:
Well…when Jesus said “eye of the needle,” he was talking about a narrow gateway in Jerusalem that went by that nickname. It’s hard to get a camel through there, but not impossible.
Friends, there is no such gate. Archaeologists have never found evidence of one.
There is no softening of the lesson.
There is no hidden meaning.
Jesus wants us to loosen our grip on our possessions.
Now, so far I’ve said that it is a poor treatment of this text to say that its simple meaning is not meant to be taken simply.
I will also say that this text—and Jesus’ other instructions about possessions—have been sadly misused the other way:
Too often churches have preached to, and convinced their members that money and possessions are too sinful to keep and they would all be better off by handing them over.
That’s not what I’m saying either.
I’m not that kind of preacher and this isn’t that kind of church. I don’t have designs on a gold-plated Mercedes or a private jet. I don’t mind flying in what prosperity preachers Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis called the “the tube of demons.” I’m actually looking forward to taking the Air Canada “tube of demons” to see my national church colleagues on Wednesday.
If we want to be faithful in following Jesus, if we want to be faithful in looking straight at this text and others that tell us to loosen on grip on the things of this world, if we want to avoid the easy scam of disowning our temptations so that some slick preacher can buy another private jet, we have help.
Any time we are dealing with faith,
Any time we are dealing with Jesus,
Any time we are dealing with the Gospel,
We need to remember one very important thing:
It’s not about us.
Following Jesus is not about us.
It’s not about our righteousness, it’s not about our unrighteousness. It’s not about our attempts or our failures to obey. It’s about what God does with and through us. Our strengths as well as our weaknesses.
I don’t know if Chow Yun-Fat is a Christian. I don’t know if he believes in God or Jesus Christ. I don’t know if he prayed night and day in order to give up his fortune, but one thing I can assure you is that his decisions do not reflect negatively on us. Any time we see someone living out the Gospel, whether intentionally or not, the point is not to compare ourselves and feel worse. The point is to see what is possible and try again.
If a rich man can give up all $714 million of his hard earned dollars, perhaps can learn to loosen our grip just a little.
The greatest hope we have (in this text) comes right in the middle. It’s something so quick and so simple that we can almost miss it if we’re not careful:
[The Rich Man said] “Teacher, I have kept all these [commandments] since my youth.”
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…”
Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him.
This is the difference between Christ and us. This is why we need Christ. This is why Christ came to save us from our Sins that we might inherit eternal life.
Jesus loved the Rich Man.
Jesus loved the Rich Man who He knew would fail to give it all up.
Jesus didn’t despise his unrighteousness.
Jesus didn’t hate his lack of discipline.
Jesus didn’t hate his love for his possessions.
The rich man might have loathed all of these things about himself, but Jesus did not hate even that in the man. Jesus loved him.
And maybe that lesson is even harder to accept.
A moment ago, I spoke about all the ways that interpreters and commentators have attempted to bury the meaning of this text. Perhaps it’s not so much that they were embarrassed about their lack of faith; their lack of ability to follow Jesus’ instruction. Maybe it was that they were ashamed to be lacking faith and still be loved by Jesus.
It’s hard for us to be loved through our flaws.
It’s hard for us to hear the Gospel, to see how far short we fall, and to be assured that we are still loved by God.
This is one of the paradoxes of the Gospel that is most upsetting in our lives: God’s justice is not our justice.
If God were “fair” we would get everything we deserve and nothing we don’t.
If God were fair, sinners would be punished and the righteous would be elevated. Full stop.
If God were fair, God would never show us Grace in our most broken moments.
We have each felt like that Rich Man at some point in our lives. Aware of our own failings, but loved by God and each other despite them.
And we’ve also been on the other side. We have stood before someone we love and continued to love them despite their failings.
It’s like that, dealing with people we love.
It would be more “fair” if we stopped loving people who failed us.
Likewise, it would be easier on us to lie to people we love and tell them they haven’t actually failed.
It’s easier to lie. It’s easier to soften. It’s easier to save their feelings or to tell them that they don’t need to make any changes. But it’s not loving to do these things.
Love means telling the truth. Love means breaking hearts. Love means sending others away grieving. Love means witnessing to God’s truth even when it would be so much easier to water it down or ignore it all together.
We each are in various stages of repair.
We have each been found by God in our sin and are being redeemed by the pleasure of God’s will.
And God loves us every step of the way. God knows us and loves us where we are and God has no intention of leaving us there. He has great things in store for us.
God loves us enough to tell us the truth. And that is a rare thing in this world.
The truth that He won’t give up on us nearly as quickly as we give up on ourselves. (and remember that Jesus is not the one who sent the man away grieving).
The truth that even though we have invested so much of ourselves into the things (the possessions) of this world; those things are not what truly matters.
It’s been said that “comparison is the thief of joy”
Whether it is the comparison of our own possessions with another’s
Whether it is the comparison of our own apparent righteousness with another’s
Or, whether it is the comparison of our own ability to receive Grace with another’s.
Through Mark’s text, we are invited into another comparison: the comparison between the Rich Man and the Disciples.
What is really the difference between the rich man who went away grieving and the disciples who continued to follow Jesus?
Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Mark reminds us time and time again that the disciples are not some special class of believer.
In Mark, the disciples are always the last to understand Jesus’ teachings.
In Mark, it is always the stranger or the one in need who gets it, while the disciples remain confused.
Keeping to form, Mark uses these 2 words to describe the disciples in the text we have read this morning: perplexed & astounded.
The disciples are not better believers than the rich man.
The disciples do not have something the rich man does not.
The disciples do not differ spiritually from the rich man in any significant way other than one: they have been called to follow Jesus.
It’s not about them. It’s not about their decisions. It’s not about their righteousness. Jesus chose to have 12 follow Him and he chose those 12. That’s it.
This is important to remember as we move through a world that tempts us with comparisons.
Comparisons of possessions.
Comparisons of wealth.
Comparisons of righteousness.
If today’s Christians are Christ’s modern-day disciples then we must remember that we are still on the road with Christ. And that that is OK.
Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the disciples almost never give a correct answer to Jesus. They are rough. They are still being formed. They are as much in need of His teaching as anyone, probably more so.
The one thing that separates them (that separates us) from anyone else in the world is that they are chosen to try to follow Jesus. And if you are seated here this morning, then bless you because you too have done your part to try to follow Jesus.
I say to you: please continue to have faith. Jesus loves you in your effort. Failures and all. Weaknesses and all.
Partly because I had so much fun telling stories last week, I’d like to conclude this week’s reflection with a story about the kind of faith-in-the-way-Christ-sees-us that I’m talking about:
There is a Professor of Religion at Southwestern College in Kansas named Dr. Jackson Lashier. Dr. Lashier is a brilliant scholar and author and teacher, a very impressive man. All the more impressive because he lives with a serious disability that affects his health.
One day Dr. Lashier was giving a lecture on the subject of heaven and was answering questions about heaven from his students:
Will our dogs be with us in heaven?
How old will we be in heaven? As old as we were when we died or do we get to be whatever age we want?
Will we still be married in heaven?
And so on.
Finally, one student asked from the back of the class “Will you still have your disability in heaven?”
Though it was not asked overly loudly, the personal nature of the question made it ring out in the room and cause everyone else to fall silent.
Dr. Lashier paused for a moment in thought.
“Yes I will, and it will be the most beautiful thing about me.”
I would add that in Christ’s eyes, it already is.