Flip Wilson had a weekly TV comedy show back in the 70s, and one of his favorite characters to portray was Brother Leroy. In one skit, Brother Leroy was leading services one Sunday morning. It wasn’t going very well. People weren’t very responsive. It came time to receive the offering and so Brother Leroy passed the collection plates. They came back empty. So he passed them again. Same thing. Empty. Brother Leroy then went before the people and said, “Now, I know that you all want this church to progress. This church must progress.” No response from the congregation. Brother Leroy shouted a bit louder: “Now, before this church can progress it has to crawl, this church has got to crawl.” And the congregation started getting excited and they yelled back, “Make it crawl, Reverend. Make it crawl!” Brother Leroy continued, “After this church has crawled, it’s got to pick itself up and start to walk, this church has got to walk!” And the people yelled back at him, “Make it walk, Reverend. Make it walk!” “And after this church has walked, this church has got to get up and run, this church has got to run.” And the people were worked up into a terrible frenzy, and they hollered back: “Make it run, Reverend. Make it run!” And then Brother Leroy said, “Now, brothers and sisters, in order for this church to run, its gonna need money, its gonna take money for this church to run!” And the people yelled back, “Let it crawl, Reverend. Let it crawl!” (Wayne C. Dureck, PRCL, August 29, 2000)
Today is Stewardship Sunday, one of two Sundays out of the year that our Stewardship Committee asks me to preach on money. I hope you won’t be responding by saying, “Let it crawl, Reverend. Let it crawl!”
I have chosen this passage from Mark because it challenges every one of us about our relationship with our money. Most of us know this story as the story of the rich young ruler, although Mark is the only one who suggests he is rich, Matthew is the only one who says he is young, and Luke is the only one who calls him a ruler.
As Jesus is setting out on his journey to Jerusalem, an eager young man approaches him. This man seems to be an ideal candidate to be a disciple of Jesus. He kneels before Jesus and asks, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
His question shows his great respect for Jesus and his interest in matters eternal. His idea is that he can “inherit” eternal life. This word is well chosen because it reflects the Jewish tradition that eternal life was often seen as a given, as something one inherited by being born right. For the Jews, belonging to the people of God was a matter of race. For Jesus, belonging to the people of God was a matter of grace.
Instead of directly answering this man’s question, Jesus first focuses on that reference to “goodness.” He replies, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one—God.” Then Jesus listed some of the Ten Commandments. In fact, he lists numbers 6, 7, 8, 9 and 5. After the rather incomplete version of the commandments Jesus recites to this man, he swiftly insists, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.” (v. 20).
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “As a seminary student and single mom, I was finding it a challenge. What a true blessing your service has been for me this past year.”
Resources to inspire you — and your congregation!
Here was a man who had found the emptiness of success. He had the very things that most of us think will bring us happiness. Most of us yearn all our lives for the very things this man enjoyed.
First of all, he had a lot of money. That one suckers all of us. Our idle dreams of being rich and famous fuel the spate of lotteries springing up in almost every state of the union. We sit around trying to figure out how we would spend our millions if we could just win the lottery.
The same motivation drives up the ratings on television shows like “Survivor” where the winner becomes an instant celebrity and wins a million dollars. From obscurity to stardom and wealth in just 39 days.
But here is a man who had all that, and his life was still empty. How many times is that story repeated? We could point to countless individuals like Elvis Presley who had all the money imaginable, but he was miserable all the same.
This young man also knows success in religious circles. He proves that even obedience to the law leaves life empty and meaningless. He has kept all the commandments from his youth, but he still has not found eternal life.
Most of us think that wealth and obedience will bring us happiness because we don’t have either one. But here is a man with both, and he has found the emptiness of such efforts. He is still searching, so he comes to Jesus looking for answers and for real meaning in life.
That’s when Mark gives us a touching picture of Jesus who really understood this man. Mark likes to add comments about Jesus “seeing” or “looking,” and he often tells what Jesus was feeling at a certain time. Here he combines those by observing, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Jesus loves this young man because he can instantly tell he is serious about his quest. No wonder Jesus loves him. He is ripe. He is ready for God. He has come to the end of what he can do for himself, to the end of what money can do for him, and to the end of what the law can do for him. Jesus knew he would make an excellent disciple, but he lacked one thing.
While Jesus states that the man lacks “one thing,” he actually gives him two commands. First, he is to go, sell what he has and give it all to the poor. Second, he is to come and follow Jesus – a path that will lead him to the eternal life he seeks.
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s fine sermon on this text, she writes this wonderful paragraph:
“It is a rich prescription for a rich man, designed to melt the lump in his throat and the knot in his stomach by dissolving the burden on his back, the hump that keeps banging into the lintel on the doorway to God. It is an invitation to become smaller and more agile by closing his accounts on earth and opening one in heaven so that his treasure is drawing interest inside that tiny gate instead of keeping him outside of it. It is a dare to him to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all the words that have described him up to now – wealthy, committed, cultured, responsible, educated, powerful, obedient – to trade them all in on one radically different word, which is free” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p.121-126).
You see, the opposite of rich is not poor. The opposite of rich is free. He was not free to take the hand of Jesus because his hand was too full of his things and his love of things. He might as well have had a ball and chain around his leg. He was not free to follow Jesus.
In fact, the meaning of “rich” may have less to do with how much money one has as it does with what our attitude is about the money we have. Some people have a lot of money but they are not enslaved by it; others have very little but they cling to it with desperation.
I read in a book some time ago something about the art of trapping monkeys in India. One technique is to drill a hole in a coconut and place rice in the coconut. A monkey will come along and stick a paw into the coconut, grab a fistful of rice, and then be unable to pull its paw back from the coconut. He is trapped by his greed. All he would have to do is turn loose of the rice, his hand would be free, and he could draw it out. The problem is that he places greater value on the rice that he is holding than he does on his freedom (Raymond Bailey, “Do You Want To Be Healed,” Best Sermons 3, Harper & Row, p. 6).
At some point, all of us will let go of our things, but it may be too late when we do. When Jesus told the rich man to give away all he had, he was simply speeding up the process that each of us must go through in our lives. We have no choice but to give it all away. You will never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer.
A very wealthy man died in a small town. One friend wanted to know the gossip, so he asked his friend, “How much did he leave?” His friend wisely replied, “Haven’t you heard? He left it all!” And so will we!
Jesus knows that sooner or later everyone has to give it all away. We give it away before we can enter heaven. Jesus told this one to give it away so that he could have eternal life.
Some people have taken Jesus seriously in this challenge. Media mogul Bob Buford, who has invested his fortune in the founding of enormously influential Leadership Network, encapsulates his whole philosophy of giving with one line: “I want to bounce my last check.” Responding gleefully to Jesus’ reminder that we aren’t taking it with us so we’d better decide where it’s going, Buford believes that dying penniless is the point, not the problem. To Buford, who along with his other numerous gifts also matches the total contributions of his employees to local churches, “bouncing his last check” symbolizes that he has successfully passed along all the good gifts he has received from God (Homiletics, 10/9/94).
Before co-founding Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller was a successful businessman who followed his estranged wife Linda to New York to try to convince her to come back to him. She was not easily convinced that he could turn back from his headlong rush for material wealth. Millard recalls: “We were in a taxi right after Linda and I had a very tearful session. We’d gone to Radio City Music Hall and they showed the movie Never Too Late. It was about a woman’s getting pregnant after she thought it was too late. The message was that it’s never too late to change anything. I had a sensation of light in that taxi. It was not anything spooky. All I can say is it just came into my head: Give your money away, make yourself poor again and throw yourself on God’s mercy. I turned to Linda and said, ‘I believe that God just gave me the idea to give all our money away; give everything away.’
“She said, ‘I agree. Let’s do it.'”
Friends, family, even pastors tried to talk them out of it. “I told them no, if I think about it I won’t do it, because it’s not logical. But I believe that God is calling us to do this” (Michael G. Maudlin, “God’s Contractor,” Christianity Today, June 14, 1999, p. 46, quoted in Homiletics, 10/15/2000).
But in Mark’s story, we find a man who can’t bring himself to do it. He is no longer enthusiastic but “shocked.” This man is no longer eager; he is “sorrowful” or “grieving,” “for he was one who had many possessions.” He judges the cost of eternal life too high and sadly leaves.
Jesus doesn’t call everyone to give away all they have. He simply wants us to understand the danger of money. As far as Jesus is concerned, money is like nuclear power. It may be able to do a lot of good in the world, but only within strongly built and carefully regulated corridors. Most of us do not know how to handle it. We get contaminated by its power, and we contaminate others by wielding it carelessly ourselves.
Contrast the sadness of this rich man with the joy the disciples have in following Jesus. Look what they had left behind. Two of them had left their fishing nets behind, two more of them a fishing boat (not to mention their father). Another one left a lucrative career, pushing his chair away from his tax collector’s desk to follow the strange man with the burning eyes. All of them had walked away from something, but not because it was a prerequisite for becoming a disciple. It was more like a consequence, really. He called, they followed, and stuff got left behind. Not because it was bad, but because it was in the way. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. He called, and nothing else seemed all that important anymore (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life).
Jesus presents each of us with a simple question about what kind of person we want to be. Do we want to be like those monkeys in India losing their freedom with their fist firmly clinched on a handful of rice? Or do we want to be like the disciples whose priorities were so rearranged that their things just were not all that important anymore?
And when you hear the call to stewardship in our church, I hope you will say, “Let it run, Reverend. Let it run!”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2000, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.