Sermon for Pentecost 18, Year B
Based on Mk. 10:17-27
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Wealth, as we learn today, is a very dangerous state of being. Steve Burt tells the following story:
The flames were growing higher, close to his feet, and the smoke was beginning to billow up from below. It was an odd position, to say the least, that Peter Bruckner found himself in now, clutching a hank of rope looped over the ceiling beam, the bag of gold coins almost exactly his own weight tied to the other end of the rope and bumping against him. By rights of salvage the coins were his and all he had to do was get them out of the inferno. But the problem now seemed to be getting himself out.
“Bruck, you can get out of this,” came the voice of his friend Jim from the scaffolding that hung from a roof joint. Jim was only seven or eight feet to his right. “Just get yourself swinging in my direction and let go of the rope. I’ll grab you when your feet hit this scaffolding—like trapeze artists. Come on, you can make it.”
“I can’t,” Bruckner yelled back to his friend. “I can’t let go of the gold.” “Forget the gold,” Jim yelled. “It’s you or the gold. You’ve got to make a choice pal.”
It would have seemed to an onlooker that the choice was obvious, but Peter Bruckner wasn’t thinking as clearly as he usually did. He didn’t seem to understand that his life was on the line. The flames licked at his boots.
“You don’t need that gold, Bruck,” his friend yelled. “You’ve got a wife, a family, a good job—a good life. What’ll you gain if you lose it all? Come on. Swing yourself this direction and let go of the rope. Let the gold go Bruck.”
“I know, Jim. You’re right, I do have a lot going for me. But if I just had a knife, then I could cut the gold from the rope, tie it to my belt, and swing over to you. Can you get me a knife, Jim?”
“Bruck, you’re thinking crazy. I don’t have a knife. I can’t get a knife. That fire’s about to barbecue you. Let go of the gold!” The flames leaped and licked at Peter Bruckner’s boot soles. He yanked his feet back quickly.
“Find a knife, Jim,” Bruckner yelled to his friend on the scaffolding. “Find a knife.”
“You can’t get a free hand to cut it anyway, Bruck,” his friend yelled back. “By the time I got back, it’d be too late. Please let it go. Your life depends on this. Let it go.”
“I can’t, Jim, I can’t,” Peter Bruckner said. He was in tears now, but neither his best friend’s arguments nor his own tears could sway him.
“You’ve got to decide, Bruck. I can’t stay any longer myself. The smoke is getting too thick.” Jim practically choked on his words—from the smoke and from the sad thought that he might have to leave his friend.
“I wish I could, Jim,” Peter Bruckner said. “I wish I could.” The air around him grew very bright with flames. There was nothing else to be said.1
Today, Jesus teaches us a very hard lesson. In our materialistic society, it is easy to fall into the trap and lure of loving money and possessions more than loving God. For many people in the Western world, all of their time and energy is focused on making more money and accumulating more possessions. I wonder what we would say or do if Jesus told us to: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me?” How many of us could do that? How many of us would be like Peter Bruckner or that rich young man?
One night in a segment shown on the TV news, a man, an East Indian by birth, and his wife were being interviewed. This man, whose name I cannot recall, was born into, and brought up in poverty in New Delhi. As a child he frequently slept on the streets and scrounged his food from garbage cans. He had the spirit, however, to want to make something of his life, and eventually he migrated to Canada and settled in the Vancouver area. From small beginnings in business he gradually built up a large real-estate operation and became a large property owner and a multi-millionaire.
The interview was held on the occasion of his and his wife’s announced decision to give away almost all their assets, putting them into a trust account to be used to help poor people in the Third World countries to improve their lot and get a start towards a more fulfilling life. He said that his past wealthy life-style began to give him little or no satisfaction and became a burden to them both. As his wife said: “We don’t need 4 or 5 cars, several residences, dozens of pairs of shoes, and so forth.” He said that they had come to learn that life’s spiritual values were far more important to them than the material ones they had been living by.2
Albert Schweitzer once said, “If there is something you own that you can’t give away, then you don’t own it, it owns you.” Some other wise person has said: “We collect things because our hearts are empty.” Maybe some of you, like me, have heard or read several stories about ordinary people who have won the lottery, become multi-millionaires over night, only to be worse off two or three years down the road than even prior to their big win.
Where does that leave us then? Does that mean we should interpret Jesus’ words literally? Should everyone become like Francis of Assisi and live a life of poverty? I don’t think so! Jesus, on other occasions, did not tell rich people to sell everything—for example, Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector gave half of his possessions to the poor and Jesus was satisfied with that. Jesus told this rich young man to sell everything because his wealth was his greatest stumbling block to God and eternal life.
The rich young man asked the right question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Yet, he somehow had the mixed-up notion that inheriting involved buying his way into heaven. Jesus makes it crystal-clear that inheriting eternal life is not keeping the commandments, (although he doesn’t instruct us to go out and delightfully break the commandments either!) is not having enough money to buy the right ticket. Rather, it is God’s GIFT. IF salvation depended upon us, then no one would be saved—we would all be camels unable to go through the eye of a needle! Thank God that eternal life depends on God!
May our wealth, our riches, our possessions not prevent us from inheriting God’s gift of eternal life. In receiving God’s generous gift of eternal life, may we, in response to God’s gift, give generously of our wealth, our riches, our possessions in the service of Christ and his church.