Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We return this week to our journey through the gospel of Mark, doing our best to see Jesus through the eyes of those who encountered him face to face. So far we’ve considered the perspectives of his family and his disciples, his hometown crowd and the fan club that followed him around from town to town. Most recently we looked at the outsiders Jesus spent time with, those who because of poverty or because of contagious diseases, for instance, lived at the margins of society in that time.
Today’s stories put us at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, inviting us to consider how Jesus may have looked to the rich and famous. We’ll start with the two famous gentlemen we’ve just read about: Herod and Pilate.
The Herod of Mark 6 is not Herod the Great, in other words not the Herod who spoke with the wise men who came from the east shortly after Jesus’ birth, in Matthew 2. That Herod called for all children two and under in Bethlehem to be put to death out of fear that Jesus would one day overthrow him as ruler. This now seems to be Herod Antipas, one of his sons, since we’re 30 years or so years later now that Jesus is an adult. But we quickly learn that this particular Herod Junior has borrowed a page from his father in his inclination to kill those who get in his way. Here the trouble causer has been John the Baptist, who had the nerve to call him out on his sexual misconduct, and whose head was requested on a platter by his partner in crime. Mark fills us in on that back story in the verses that follow the portion we read this morning, Herod giving the object of his desire just what she asked for, by ordering John’s grisly execution.
Our focus today, though, is on how this Herod saw Jesus. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, that given the alternatives being proposed at the time (could Jesus be Elijah, or another prophet of old, or maybe John the Baptist?), Herod immediately concludes, “John the Baptist, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” You don’t need a degree in psychology to infer Herod’s guilt had a part to play in that particular identification of Jesus. Knowing what he did was wrong, you get this sense he’s feeling haunted by John’s ghost, come back to seek some kind of vengeance. (Shakespeare’s MacBeth clan having had nothing on the 1st century Herods when it came to things like putting your enemies to death.)
While we’re on the subject of famous characters and power plays, what do we learn about Pilate’s view of Jesus in Mark 15? Over in John’s gospel we’re offered a bit more dialogue between the two; Mark’s account (true to his usual form) is sparser in detail. We do find Pilate asking Jesus “Are you King of the Jews?” so we know that label had reached him, along with the “other accusations” of the chief priests (v.3). Jesus answers cryptically “You say so.” So Pilate asks again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” When Jesus still won’t speak up for himself, we’re told “Pilate was amazed.” And just beyond the portion we read aloud today, we’re given a couple more insights into Pilate’s view of the matter. Verse 10 says “he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over.” And he even asks the crowd demanding Jesus be crucified, “Why? What evil has he done?” So we know Pilate doesn’t think Jesus is guilty of a capital offense. Still, the worked-up crowd has him worried, so he decides to release Barabbas instead and have Jesus flogged and crucified. There’s clearly a disconnect between how Pilate actually sees Jesus, and what he does to him, to satisfy the crowd. A disconnect that has led many to wonder how that decision may have haunted Pilate over the years.
However else famous, powerful men like Herod and Pilate may have seen Jesus, it’s clear he made them nervous. He refused to play by their rules. He attracted big numbers of followers and haters. In other words, he needed to be managed. We don’t have much in the gospel of Mark detailing what they thought of him, but what we do have is telling. You can almost see the thought bubbles above Herod and Pilate’s heads: “Who is this guy? Just how big a threat is he? How quickly can I get rid of him?”
The rich man in Mark 10 was clearly a much nicer guy than either of these two more famous characters. The text tells us he ran to Jesus and knelt before him, demonstrating how eager he was to meet him and how impressed he was by what he’d heard of his wisdom. We have every reason to suppose this rich man was sincere and well-intentioned, that he was telling the truth about keeping the commandments, that he honestly wanted Jesus’ advice for how to inherit eternal life. But when Jesus tells him to give away all that he has in order to gain treasure in heaven, he can’t bring himself to do it.
I read commentaries this week that were quick to point out his reluctance was due to a widespread expectation among Jews in that day that wealth was a sign of God’s favor. That Jesus’ words here flew in the face of what this man had been taught his whole life by the Jewish community in which he’d been raised. Hmm. Isn’t it interesting how quickly we can distance ourselves from a text? Making it about those poor benighted souls in another tradition, or way back when, and how completely they misunderstood what Jesus was about? As if modern day Christians would obviously know better than to see a connection between riches and God’s favor.
I’ll never forget listening to the radio one day a few years back, and as I flipped through the various stations, stumbling across a Christian pastor saying these words: “if you walk uprightly, nothing is too good for you.” I hoped he’d quickly make it clear that he didn’t mean actual things, but spiritual gifts, or the gift of God’s grace, or whatever. But no, he went on to explain: “If you walk with God, nothing is too good for you. No amount of money. No make or model of car. No home, however big or extravagant it may be. If you walk with God, nothing is too good for you!” Seriously? So a Rolls Royce and a Jaguar, or three, and a few pieces of luxury waterfront property– that’s what God wants for us? While so many are suffering just around the corner? What would Jesus say?
But then again – since you may have noticed I’m now doing that distancing thing with that radio pastor – what selfish moves am I making myself, with my own resources?
Money can be seductive. I’m not immune to its appeal. I stand under these words too. But whatever the so-called “gospel of success” may be, I can assure you: any variation on “greed is good” is not the way thoughtful Christians or Jews are taught to read their Scriptures.
At any rate, this rich man runs to Jesus, eager to get it right in God’s eyes. “What do I have to do to enter the kingdom of heaven?” “Well, as a good, law-abiding man there’s really only one more thing you need to do.” “Sure thing, rabbi. What is it?” “Just put everything you own up for sale, empty out your bank account, and give it all away to the poor.” And the man went away, shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions.
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus continues. “It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Some argue the eye of the needle here is not a sewing needle, but rather a particular kind of gate in a city wall. That could be I suppose, but I still don’t see how it gets us off the hook – the eye of the needle must be far too small for a camel to pass through or Jesus’ analogy wouldn’t make any sense. And don’t think for a minute it won’t hurt a rich man to try to squeeze through with saddlebags full of cash.
Why this hard word to someone who was doing all right for himself? I wonder if this rich man was like the man of whom Benjamin Franklin writes – “He does not possess wealth. It possesses him.” Perhaps hard words needed to be said. Hard changes made in a lifestyle that had grown accustomed to all the privileges of money.
Now I’m sure in this room we represent a wide range of income levels, but certainly compared to much of the world, we’re pretty well off, if we have safe, warm places to live, and plenty of food to eat. If we’re honest with ourselves, many of us enjoy extra luxuries too. All of which got me thinking…
Other perspectives in this sermon series may have been a little harder for us to extrapolate. It may have taken some imagination for us to try to see Jesus through the eyes of his mother and siblings, for instance, or through the eyes of those first disciples, or through the eyes of a first century leper or prostitute. But seeing Jesus through the eyes of this particular man – imagining ourselves told to give up everything we own, and how we’d feel about that – that one can hit pretty close to home. At least for the comfortable camels among us, myself included.
Does this mean none of us can enter the kingdom of heaven? We’d do well to ask with the disciples, “then who can be saved?” “Ah, well for mortals it is impossible,” Jesus explains; “fortunately God’s up to the challenge.”
But just as he’d been doing in so many other encounters, with so many different kinds of people, here again Jesus was making clear: the kingdom of God isn’t like the kingdom into which he was born, or for that matter the one into which all of us were born, where powerful men like Herod and Pilate call the shots, and where securing huge amounts of money is thought to guarantee the best possible life.
Instead, in God’s kingdom, everything we’ve been taught about looking out for number one, and reaching out with both fists to claim anything we can get our hands on – all of it is turned completely on its head. To be truly great we are called to serve others, called to demonstrate extravagant generosity. In the kingdom of God, the poor should not only be kept in our sights, their needs should guide our spending.
We’ll sing in a minute about Jesus’ “Meekness and Majesty,” about our Creator God taking on human form. It’s telling what kind of human form he chose to take. Far from the sheltered world of a Herod or a Pilate, far from the halls of power, he spent the majority of his time with a bunch of hard-working fisherman - and with those whose company they were surprised he’d keep. Far from buying into any sort of upward mobility like the rich man in Mark 10, Jesus showed no inclination to accumulate material things at all.
But what sounded like good news to the poor and powerless didn’t necessarily come across as such great news for the rich and famous. You can see how questions of Jesus’ identity – who is this guy? - would be answered rather differently depending on where you stood when you met him. I suspect that remains the case.
After all, we don’t have to look far to find evidence of the fall of Christendom in the relatively affluent West. Articles a-plenty will be happy to fill you in just how fast mainline denominations have been losing members in the US and Europe. But it’s important to remember that’s only part of the story of the worldwide body of Christ today. It turns out the Church is actually growing tremendously right now in impoverished places around the globe.
Which perhaps just begs the question:
How does Jesus look through their eyes?
And through ours?
Poor Richard’s Almanack