By Jared A. Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 10:46–52 (NRSV)
The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus
(Mt 20:29–34; Lk 18:35–43)
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
This week I had many things on my mind. I am sure many of you did as well. But in truth Saturday was one of the days that was filled with the greatest amount of contemplation. Yesterday was a busy day, it was a day filled with achievement, sadness, and fun. We will begin with fun because that is the easiest. It is hockey season and if you know me and my family you understand. You all are staying up all night watching an 18-inning baseball game and we are making sure we are wearing jackets, so we can sit in a building filled with ice.
The second achievement. Yesterday Albert and I had a test at our martial arts school, and both of us passed. But that is not at all what got me thinking. Many of the students I interact with at the school have grown in many ways while they have attended. Each is there for a different reason and each one is impressive. Many people believe that all martial arts are for is to teach kids to fight and yes that is part of it. But there is much more to it, it also teaches them not to fight, confidence, discipline, and respect. Some of the students began much like I was when I was younger, they would hardly use their voice. Some had anger issues, and many have trouble paying attention and staying on task. We have attended classes for less than a year and I can honestly say that everyone has improved immensely in every area and more. Many of them you would not believe were once quiet and others you would not believe lacked discipline.
The third thing that faced yesterday was sadness. After our martial arts testing right after I had this great sense of pride in the people around me, I take out my phone and read the news. Only to find that someone went into a place of worship with the intent of creating a state of terror. For a person that values and respects human life it saddens me. For a person that attends a class where I learn the skills to fight with the express purpose of learning better ways to control my body, so I will not cause undue harm, it saddens me. I am a person that values life to such a degree even when I am out hunting if I cannot find a bird that I have shot I will stop because life is important even the life of a bird, if that life that was taken is lost without fulfilling the purpose I do not need to take more. It saddens me because life is sacred. All life has the signature of God written within it, and that is most signature and image of God is most fully seen in the lives of humanity. Every person walking the face of this earth bears the image of God and just that one thing gives each one value. My heart is sad because someone went into a place of worship, a place of sanctuary, a place where the value of life should be honored, and they instead dehumanized and disrespected the God I love. Why is the question I asked, and the answer takes the heart that breaks and rips the wound even deeper.
I see joy, achievement and pain in a single day. But I am not without hope.
Today we walk again with Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, it is difficult to keep track of time because Mark seems to rarely rest. Mark has one event after another. He depicts Jesus and his followers moving over land and sea almost nonstop going from one side to the other. East to west, north to south and in this frenzy, Jesus only sleeps once, and that was during a storm. My son James and I are currently reading through a bible reading plan that encourages only reading one chapter then discussing what is read each day. It began in Mark, and both of us have made comments to the point how can you adequately discuss each chapter in one day when there is so much packed into it. Today is no different Mark sets the scene once again on a road going from one place to another. But in Mark’s fast paced action-packed Gospel we do get glimpses of some very important things.
In a few words Mark will say that Jesus healed a deaf man with impaired speech, and if we stop and think about this we would be able to understand that this miracle that Jesus performed on this man are huge. To have impaired speech would mean that the lack of hearing was something that happened early in life while the language skills were developing. For Jesus to grant a man the ability to hear and then to speak means that Jesus not only healed the man but also rewired the man’s brain to be able to process what is being said. And not only was did he rewire the brain networks, but he installed a speech and vocabulary update that allowed the man to have conversations to the extent that people would never know that there was a previous disability.
Today we see this again. Jesus is walking out of Jericho followed by his disciples and a large crowd. On the road out of Jericho, a blind man was sitting along the side of the road. We are told this man’s name along with the name of his father. It is a man by the name of Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus.
This trip, according to Mark, is the last trip Jesus takes before his passion. He is walking from Jericho and he is going to Jerusalem for the event we know today as Palm Sunday. And this final trip is not one that is without risk. The road between Jericho and Jerusalem was not exactly an interstate highway. It is a narrow path in the mountains. In many places the pathway is barely wide enough for a single person to walk. Not to mention this pathway was filled with bandits. There is a reason the parable Jesus taught about the good Samaritan was so powerful, it was because the people of the day could relate. It was not unlikely that a lone traveler would be robbed, beaten, and left for dead along this path. And when Jesus said that people walked along the other side it does not mean that they just crossed the street, it means that they literally climbed off the path to avoid getting close. Jesus and the disciples were taking this road, followed by a large crowd. The entire path was filled, and as they walk they pass by Bartimaeus.
As we encounter names of people in the Gospels there are often reasons for it. The most common reason is because they are people known within the given community that first received the text. Another reason for the name is because it can tell a story. We know one of the disciples as Peter, but this was not his given name, that was Simon. Jesus gave Simon the name Peter for a reason. Peter means rock, and he gave that name to Peter because it was descriptive of his character. Peter would become the rock of faith in the early church, tradition even names him as being the first pope of Rome. We also know Levi the tax collector who also is known as Matthew, another name from which a story can be told. Levi was the name of the tribe of Israel who did not inherit land, but whose inheritance was the priesthood of God. Yet this man who was named after the priests was a tax collector of Rome, the pagan overlords of Israel. His names tell a story of apostacy and greed, as well as redemption. Names are often mentioned because of the story they tell. So, I investigated the name mentioned here, Bartimaeus.
This name literally means the Son of Timaeus in Aramaic. But the name Timaeus when written in Greek has a similar sound as another name we know as Timothy. The issue is that the two languages are not the same. The sounds that make one word mean something different. If we were to look up Timaeus in a Greek dictionary we would find that the name means highly favored, which is a great name. This is where we must be careful when we study. Bartimaeus is not a Greek name, but Aramaic. The fact that the son has an Aramaic name means we cannot use the Greek definition, but the Aramaic. Timaeus in Aramaic means unclean.
This gives us an interesting picture of what is happening in this story. This blind man is not found in the city, but outside it along the road. He is a beggar attempting to make a living outside the city, this is not exactly an ideal place. Especially when the road he is one is dangerous. And we are given the impression that Bartimaeus does not really know what is going on around him. Remember this is a narrow mountain path, often only wide enough for a single person to walk along it. Jesus is walking along this path and we are told that when Bartimaeus heard it was Jesus, he began to cry out to him. Notice the word used was heard, past tense. Jesus had already walked past the man. Bartimaeus is afraid he had lost his chance and begin to scream out have mercy on me, Son of David!
Jesus had already walked past this man along the narrow pathway, and the crowd is going by the man now as he begins to shout. These people sternly order this man to be quiet. They tell him to shut up. Why would people following Jesus do such a thing? Remember his name, remember where he is. He is outside the city, he is outside the community, his name means son of the unclean. This man by the understanding of the time was cursed. He was blind which they believed was a sign of sin. He was the son of a person named unclean. This man was hopeless, this man was despised by all who knew of him and he was not worth the time of anyone especially a respected rabbi. The visualization of this as it unfolds is profound. He is sitting along the road and he hears a multitude pass, he asks what is going on out of curiosity and possibly fear because it is not exactly the time for the Passover pilgrimage. Someone tells him to be quiet and not to bother Jesus. He hears the name and he begins to recall the stories he had heard, because even the outcasts of society have the pleasure of hearing gossip at times. He knows that Jesus can heal so he cries out to him. And the crowd becomes irritated with him. They see Jesus as their future king, the king that will restore Israel to the glorious era of David, he cannot associate with the likes of this man. A man of no worth, a man cursed by God, a man proven to be a sinner by his disability. Yet the man will not be silenced.
Jesus stops and looks that the man and the crowd and tells them to call Bartimaeus to him. The crowd looks at Bartimaeus in barely veiled displeasure and they say, “take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Imagine the frustration they must feel that Jesus their king is taking the time to associate with the unclean. But the man jumps up and quickly goes to Jesus. We are told that he leaves his cloak behind him, which tells us that he does not even care that his only possession is now lost to him since he cannot see to get it back. He springs up and goes to Jesus. A blind man springing into a crowd…imagine that if you will. You know someone got their toes step one, someone might possibly have gotten knocked over, yet he goes. He bounces off the people as he makes his way to Jesus. And Jesus speaks to him.
Jesus speaks to him; he does not speak of him, or around him, he does not speak to others about him while he is sitting in his presence. Jesus speaks to him and asks this man what he can do for him. And Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”
These are culturally loaded words, because in their culture disability is caused by God as a punishment for sin. This man indicates that he was once able to see and now cannot, in his mind he deserves everything he has endured. He brought this curse upon himself, yet he has hope of redemption. “My teacher,” he says, “let me see again.” What a beautiful statement of humility and confession. This man knows that he is not able to redeem himself for he is a cursed man, the son of an unclean father. He is an outcast with no hope outside of Jesus. But he knows the names of Jesus’ disciples, he knows the stories that former lepers, deaf, lame and mute men have told him as they travel by on the Jericho road. He hopes that one day this teacher that speaks the words of grace and truth will one day pass by and let him see again. He has a hope that the teacher will see beyond the sin to the heart of the man he desires to be. He has hope that he will one day be restored.
This man’s faith brought him healing through Jesus. And the curse he was once known by was cast away Jesus saw him not as the son of the unclean, but as the highly favored. He was once Bartimaeus, but he is now valued.
My heart aches today because we live in a world that does not value life. We see people created in the image of God not as the sons and daughters of great value, but as the sons and daughters of the unclean. My heart aches but like this man I spring to the teacher and am seen by him, my lord and God and he asks what can I do for you. I am seen, and He knows my name and I like Bartimaeus say my teacher, let me see again. I cry let us see again. Let us see each person for who they truly are beloved creatures loved by God, who bear the vary image of our creator. Let us spring forward leaving our cloaks behind, leaving our carefully crafted masks of falsehood and let us repent and see again.
Willow Creek Friends
October 21, 2018
Mark 10:35–45 (NRSV)
The Request of James and John
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Humility is something that our culture lacks. It is something that is common among cultures that have a strong sense of individualism. I am not saying that this is a completely bad thing. In fact, it is often a good quality. But where it becomes a problem is when people are dishonest about themselves. We do not know what true humility is. Often, we think of humble people as being self, but in actuality humility is being honest about oneself.
While I was in management one of the most annoying things to do was interview people for the positions that I had to offer. It is not because I dislike people, but because people just could not speak honestly about themselves. My management experience was somewhat specialized, so it was difficult to find the right people. Everyone thought they could work in retail security. The fact is that very few people have the skills. It requires the ability to blend in, meaning you must look average, of course there are exceptions to this but the store I was in was one that required physical surveillance on the floor with everyone else. You would have to watch people without looking like you were watching people. Another thing is you had to have an ability to read people. Body language is the primary form of communication among humans, if you do not believe me try having a conversation while remaining completely still. Most of us cannot speak without shrugging our shoulders, skewing our faces, or moving our hands. It is nearly impossible to use body language. Our body language can even translate over the phone. People know by how you speak if your face has a smile or a frown. The third thing that I have found that people needed in retail security was the ability to control extreme emotional fluctuations. While you are in pursuit your body is on edge, your senses are being pushed and you are coiled tight like a spring. Then when you approach the shoplifter you must release all that tension and enter de-escalation mode, because you must do your best to keep the one you accuse calm enough to not cause harm. The fluctuation between the highs and lows are not something that many people can handle yet everyone I would interview made the claims that they could. I interviewed several great people, many of which I would have loved to have working in the store I was at, just not in the position I was trying to fill. It was not that they did not have skills it was that they were ignorant of the skills they needed in relation to the skills they possessed. I spent most of my two years in management trying to replace or find people to fill positions.
Our culture says we can do anything, but reality would reveal that often we cannot. It is not that we do not have the opportunity, but we may not have the temperament, or we may not have the skills. The problem is we do not always know this, and our ignorance can lead us into trials. There is also the other side of the equation, there are people that do have skills but often do not have the confidence to take the risk. Both situations lack humility because both are dishonest to ourselves.
The reason I bring this up is because today we find a couple of disciples that desire a position among the disciples, they want to be at the right- and left-hand side of Jesus when he comes into the kingdom. I want us to stop and think about this for a moment. James and John were risk takers, if they were among us today most likely we would like them. They had opinions, ambitions, and the gumption to move things forward. They were the sons of Zebedee, and if we were to investigate the recorded family history, we would find that Zebedee was not only a fisherman but the head of a fishing enterprise. He had boats, he had employees, he was an entrepreneur before humanity really knew what that meant. And his sons were very similar to him. When they got an idea, they went after it whole heartedly. When Jesus called them to follow they did not think twice, they dropped what they were doing and left the family business to the hired hands. We know a little bit more about these two brothers, they were also known as the sons of thunder. Have you ever considered what it would take to be known by that name? Maybe they had a short temper. Maybe they informed everyone around them of their opinion about everything. Maybe simply had a loud voice. We are not told exactly why they had this name, but it was important enough that Mark mentioned that Jesus called them this. I would venture to say it was probably a bit of all our imaginations. They were probably loud, opiniated, and forward people. And I say this because they had no problem asking Jesus to give them whatever they asked.
Think about this whole scene for a moment. A couple of weeks ago we discussed a very similar situation. The disciples were walking with Jesus from one place to another, He had just told them what would happen to him, and the disciples did not understand. Instead of asking for clarification they began to argue among themselves about which of them would be greatest. Jesus seemed a bit annoyed that they were arguing and when they stopped he gathered everyone together and said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” He then brought a child before them and said, “whoever receives such a child in my name receives me.” Then because this teaching was uncomfortable John said, “there was this guy casting out demons in your name and we stopped him because he was not one of us.” And Jesus replied, “Do not stop him…for one who is not against us is for us.”
The disciples did not really understand what Jesus was saying. They had in their mind the way things were supposed to be and Jesus was trying to so them reality. Just shortly after this, the disciples tried to keep the children from coming to Jesus. And when this happened we get a glimpse of Jesus becoming upset with his disciples’ behavior, Mark 10:14 says that Jesus was indignant.
Then last week we considered the discussion between Jesus and the rich man. The one thing this man lacked was that his identity was misplaced. Again, we come back to humility. He thought of himself as greater than he was, even his question revealed that, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The disciples were astounded at this conversation because this great man in their eyes was lacking, and if he could not get into the kingdom who could?
After all of this we come to today’s passage. After hearing all these teachings of becoming a servant of all, welcoming the children, selling all we have to give to the poor. After all this, James and John decide to come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” I think this might give us a glimpse as to where the name came from. They are bold like a clap of thunder. I like James and John, but I think they might have been the cause of many of the arguments among the disciples.
Jesus’s answer is surprising. I must admit that I am not like Jesus in many ways. If James and John asked this of me I probably would have become indignant again. I would have raised my voice and asked if they had listened to a single word I spoke. After all the things that had happened they are still stuck on this idea of who is the greatest. And they want Jesus to admit that they are. But Jesus is not like me. Jesus instead says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
I want us to stop right here for a moment and consider what Jesus is speaking about. We have symbolic language: a cup and baptism. Usually when we see these things they are about the religious rites. The cup is the representative of the blood Jesus would soon spill on the cross, while baptism would be that ritual of cleansing. But this is one of those instances where Jesus speaks beyond those symbols and directs us to the reality. The cup and baptism are more than rituals in this case they have nothing to do with rituals, what Jesus is referring to is the life and trials that he will face. He is asking them if they will be willing to suffer like he will suffer. He is asking them if they will be immersed and saturated in the ministry and lifestyle that he has been saturated in. Jesus is not talking about ceremony, but life and the Brothers of thunder boldly say that they are able to drink and plunge.
Imagine Jesus’s face when they respond. He has already said that they do not know what they ask. You can almost read between the lines, you can almost see the smirk on Jesus’s face as he responds to them. You can almost see the raised eyebrows, the shrugging of the shoulders and every other form of body language, because he is aware, yet they are ignorant. They do not know what they ask. They are asking upon themselves to be immersed in the same trials that Jesus would face. They are asking to be beaten and tortured in similar ways as Jesus would face. Jesus had already told them what he was about to face, the told them straight up that he would be crucified. He told them that the kingdom that they are thinking of is not going to be a reality, but something beyond their human understanding. Yet in their ignorance they say, “yep we got this. You just say we are the greatest among them all and we will do whatever you ask.”
Jesus responds to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” But would they suffer and be immersed in this life? Tradition states, James the son of Zebedee, was the first apostle to be martyred. He was seen by the political powers as being one of the leaders among the disciples so in their quest to stop the conversions to this new expression of faith they struck down one son of thunder with a sword. They killed James because the growth of the movement was immense. Thousands were added daily scripture tells us. For this to happen the disciples, which included James and John, would have been so immersed in the work of the kingdom that they could do nothing else. We are told this in the Book of Acts. They were so immersed they had to appoint decans to assist in the ministry, because it was beyond their ability to oversee.
That is what we know about James. History and tradition also say a great deal about John. John is accredited with writing five books within the New Testament: The Gospel of John, the epistles of first, second and third John, as well as Revelation. John is the only apostle believed to have lived to and die of old age, but this does not mean he did not drink of the cup of Jesus. It is believed that John under the persecution of Rome was banished to an island. The reason that he was sent to the island, according to tradition, is because he did not die when the emperor attempted to have him executed by boiling him in oil. Tradition states that he was unharmed and continued to preach the gospel as he entered the boiling oil.
To face persecution and death for your faith is to be baptized in that faith. To suffer is to drink of the cup of Jesus. James and John may not have known what they asked, they may have been ignorant of the reality of the kingdom, but they boldly lived it out when they were given the opportunity. These sons of thunder became the voices of compassion and love to encourage the infant church for centuries.
They boldly asked in ignorance. This is what struck me as I studied this week. I considered how often I have thrown humility aside and boldly proclaimed my prominence among men only to have my ignorance shine brightly. We often do not know what we ask. But will we drink the cup? Will we be baptized with the baptism that Jesus is baptized with? Are we willing to become the last and the servant of all with the hopes of encouraging just one child to grab hold life in the Kingdom of God? Are we willing to boldly proclaim our faith and sell all we have to give to the poor with absolutely no guarantee that any of our efforts will provide any tangible return? Will we face the trials and be so immersed in the gospel of Christ that even boiling oil could not stop our proclamation?
We ask many things of our Lord. We ask for healing but are we willing to live the life required of us if that healing is provided and are willing to drink of that cup if it is not? We ask for success, but are we willing to grab hold of success in the economy of God even if it spells failure in the economies of men? We ask for wisdom, but are we willing to walk according to the leading the spirit provides through its holy wisdom? We often ask in ignorance only to find that the answers to our prayers are right here already. We already have everything we need to do everything God is asking us to do, but we keep asking out of ignorance because we are unwilling to accept the reality that we are the hands and the feet of Christ. We each are the ones that Christ is calling to serve out in our community. Are we willing to drink the cup?
Mark 10:17–31 (NRSV)
The Rich Man
(Mt 19:16–30; Lk 18:18–30)
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 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 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.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
At times, while I read scripture, I can get caught in the action as if I am caught up in one of the latest novels. You know the type, the ones you just cannot seem to put down. As technology has advanced and I have begun to read eBooks, there is usually an option where you can add the audio version along with the book, so those novels that attract my attention I can listen too as well as read. I drive to work, and I listen, I drive home listening, I go to bed and I read. All conveniently synced together so I never lose my place. At times you might get so caught in the story you lose track of time and the imagery is just filling your mind as if you are right there in the action. I get a bit excited about books. In fact, my wife knows if she cannot think of anything to get as a gift, she can go to Barnes and Noble and pick up one of the nicely bound literary classics and I will be over joyed.
Words cleverly fitted together can transport us to different worlds, they can teach us quantum physics, they can unlock the secrets of the genetic code (or as some people have said the language of God). But most of all words wisely configured and delivered in speech or print can unlock the very kingdom of God. When we use language, we are attempting to convey a message, transferring from our mind to another knowledge of some sort. It can be a literal transfer of information as a textbook. Or it might be an abstract lesson we attempt to convey as a good novel tends to instill. The more we read and listen to the thoughts of others we place ourselves in the position of becoming wise.
There are lessons in almost any writing, some are a bit stretched but you can learn something from someone’s writing. You can learn the hopes, dreams, fears, and the longings of a generation from looking at the writings. I just finished Harper Lee’s books, To Kill a Mocking Bird and Go Set a Watchman. In those novels we get a glimpse at the fears and the struggles of our nation during one of the greatest trials of our history. We often say that we believe that all people are created equal but is this just a saying or a reality. And since it is the fall season and all the kids are getting ready for their evening of Trick or Treat. I decided I would consider the classic Frankenstein. It is not my typical choice of literature, but the true horror depicted within not just the monster created in the lab, but the horror is science pushing forward faster than reason. Interesting life lessons from fictional characters, people created in the minds of humans that in many ways speak the truths we find in the pages of scripture.
I probably see things in what I read that others might not. The words excite me, and I am moved to get involved in some way. That way is usually just sitting and contemplating what I have read but even then, it saturates my thoughts for a bit and if it is a lesson with merit I grow. I often scripture in a similar manner. I read with both a scientific mind as well as that of an artist. I read for knowledge and I read for the joy of reading.
Today we have one of those stories that lends itself to the imagination. Jesus is about to begin yet another journey through the countryside and a man eager to speak with the teacher comes running toward him. Can you see the scene in your mind’s eye? If it were me I am sure the disciples would be watching as I ran, probably laughing at my amazing form, and diverting their eyes when I trip over my feet. But this man is so eager to speak with Jesus that he was running to Jesus.
Running is not something that most people do out for the joy of it. For adults we run for a reason, children run to run, and science cannot figure it out, but for adults we run for a reason. And in most cases, we run in designated places. If someone is running outside a designated area where running is permitted, we begin to wonder what is wrong. In many ancient cultures it was undignified to run at all. But Mark tells us that this man ran to Jesus. We are also told that this man was a rich man. Which in a culture that honored wealth as favor from God, this man was most likely considered a pillar of the community. For this man to run toward Jesus would cause people to wonder.
When he approached Jesus, he fell and knelt before him. Often when I read this story I miss these little words like ran and knelt, but they are very important. To kneel is to show reverence. It is a sign to those around to watch, it’s a sign of humility and honor. People kneel before a monarch, they kneel when an injured player is on the field, we kneel when we pray. No matter what the media says to kneel is not a symbol of disrespect but one of great honor. This rich man runs to Jesus and kneels before him asking, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
When I read this passage, I often read it too quickly, I often do not allow time for the mind to process the scene before I move on to the next statement. I want us to take that time today. I want us to imagine the one person we have the greatest respect for. Imagine your favorite president, your favorite teacher, your parent or grandparent what ever person you have respect for. As you think of them I want you to consider why you respect them. Maybe it is their wealth, their history, maybe its because they can do that one thing you always dreamed about being able to do. Imagine them running by you. Running with a great purpose, running so hard that nothing around them matters. They are so focused in their flight that they do not see people jumping out of the way, they do not slow to allow their aides and entourage to keep up, they are running. And then they fall to their knees in front of someone. You process this image in your mind. What or who would be so important that Abraham Lincoln would run and kneel? Why would someone like Elon Musk fall at the feet of a poor traveling teacher from a rural community of an isolated territory of an empire? This story is much more important than we often give it credit for.
We are drawn to the scene because of who it is who was running. We jog to catch up and hear what is being said. And we listen earnestly. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Can you hear the passion in those words? These are not the words of the cynical scribes wishing to spin words to discredit those that threaten their power. These are not the haughty words of a scholar wishing to prove a point. These are the authentic words of one that strongly desires an answer.
This highly respectable man had just run out to meet the traveling teacher, giving no care to what others might think or say. He knelt before this teacher even though he was likely a man that was accustomed to have people kneel before him. And he asks with passion a question because he knows that he is missing something important.
Jesus answers this man. And he answers him in a way that we might find odd, but he speaks directly to the heart of this individual. He begins by saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” I have always found that statement odd. We do not talk like this in our culture, but we must remember that we do not live in the same culture that Jesus lived. Jesus lived among the people of Israel. This group’s very identity revolved around their religion and the practices of that religion. Every moment of every day was highlighted by some sacred symbolism. The clothing they wore was made according to the law and it had a fringe that reminded them that they were connected to God. They had around their shoulders or upon their head a prayer shawl, some even had attached to their forehead our bound to their wrists a tefillin or box that containing important scriptures. They ritually washed their bodies. They prepare their food in such a manner as to ensure that all the life’s blood is removed from the flesh of an animal. Their lives revolve around their religion to a degree that would make the most devout among us look nominal in comparison. This man runs to Jesus, a teacher that is often criticized for accepting sinners, and he calls him good. And Jesus responds to him, by saying why do you call me good only God is good.
This man saw something in Jesus that ignited a passion within his soul that he had not known before and he wanted more. That is why he ran and that is why Jesus responded the way he did. He is saying to him you know already that only God is good. And he continues, “You know the commandments…” The man replies that yes, he knows all this, and he has kept these since his youth. In the eyes of his community he is above reproach. Jesus looks at the man and loved him.
He looked at this man and he loved him. We often over look this statement too. The man ran, he knelt, and Jesus loved him. Jesus knows that this man is a decent individual. He knows that this man wants to honor God. He also knows that this man has a weakness. “You lack one thing,” Jesus says, “go sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me.”
We are told that the man was shocked and grieved by Jesus’s words. We are told that he went away grieving because he had many possessions. We have focused on the rich verses the poor, we focus on the ideal of charity and how Jesus loves those that give freely. We forget that Jesus loved this man. The man walked away grieving, but have you ever thought that maybe the first tear to fall was from the eyes of Jesus as he looked this man in the eye and revealed to him his one weakness.
He lacked only one thing Jesus said. We often place on this man’s head every vice and perception that we have for those who have great wealth, but Jesus said he only lacked one thing. His sin was not in how he gained his wealth, it was not even how he used his wealth. His sin was that his wealth is what defined his identity. He did not know how to function without his wealth. He did not know how to even continue his faith without his possessions because his life was built on what he could do with what he owned.
Jesus loved this man. This man loved God so much that he ran through town to kneel at Jesus’s feet. Yet this man, like so many decent men fell short because in their quest for honor they neglected the most important things. The most important thing to God is Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself. This first and greatest commandment is relational, it is mindfulness, and requires awareness of those around us. This man lacked one thing. This passionate, and probably religious man lacked one thing and that one thing is found in his question to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus illustrates this problem for us. He says, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
I have heard many illustrations on this short parable. I have heard that it was a small doorway within a wall that merchants would have to pass through while their camels were on their knees. This is a great story but is pretty much just a story. Jesus spoke to people according to what they would know. He used everyday things like fields, seeds, sparrows, and grass to bring out his teachings because he spoke to people in language they would understand. He was not in a walled city, he was not in a community with a thriving import/export market. He was in rural Judea talking with common people. He spoke of an actual needle, and actual camels. I am not a tailor, but I have threaded a needle as I am sure many of you have had to do. To thread a needle, you need a steady hand and the thread must be straight and free of obstructions. You do not thread a needle with a ball of thread, but one singular end. This illustration tells us all how easy it is to miss the point. The one thing that rich man lacked is something we all struggle with. That singular purpose, without obstruction. Letting God be good without our help.
The man left in grief, all the while knowing that Jesus loved him and greatly desired for him to follow. Jesus was not being rude, he was not judging or belittling the man, but was being completely honest. Jesus loved this man but could not let him continue without the proper knowledge that only God is good. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But we are not despised wretches, but beloved. God so loved us fallen sinners that while we were still in our fallen and sinful state Christ died for us, he took our place and redeems our failings. Often, we only lack one thing, but even that one thing will keep us out of God’s kingdom. We lack mindfulness, awareness. The Apostle Paul wrote, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” This single mindfulness does not mean it is a sin to be wealthy, it simply means it is hard to selfless. It is hard to let go of yourself and follow. And it is harder the more respected and honored you are to follow. But Jesus also says, “For God all things are possible.”
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, let us focus on the love that Jesus had for the man in today’s scripture. Let us remember the grief both Jesus and the man had when the truth was revealed. And let us consider our lives? God loves each of his beloved sinners, He knew us while we were still being formed within our mother’s womb and wants us to follow him, but to do that we must be of a singular mind. Stretching all that we have out so that God can thread us into the kingdom with his loving and steady hand.