October 10 , 2021 – What Possesses You?
Rev. Amanda Highben
Text: Mark 10.17-31
Before last week, I hadn’t thought much about the man in Mark’s gospel who runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Of course, I’d read the story before and was familiar with it, but to me, the man was just an anonymous rich guy there to make the point that you can’t be wealthy and follow Jesus at the same time. I mean, there’s not much to him, and the only attention he really deserves from us is derision: he loves or needs his possessions more than he wants eternal life, so he walks away, never to be heard from again. Why give him another thought, really.
But as I spent more time with this man and Jesus and read (and reread) their encounter, I started noticing things that hadn’t caught my attention before. Details that transformed this generic rich man into a real flesh-and-blood human. And the more closely I paid attention, the more I empathized with him and realized he wasn’t that different from me. That his hopes and fears were not unlike my own. And I wonder if the same might be true for you too, for all of us in fact.
Because we all have something in our lives that feels impossible to release so that we might follow Jesus wherever he might go. We all have something that we believe defines who we are and gives us our value and worth. And were Jesus to tell us, as he told the man, to give up that one thing, then we too might go away in grief and shock. We too might find it impossible to believe that our worth is not wrapped-up in anything we can do or achieve or produce or attain. “Follow me,” Jesus says. “Follow me and have faith that you matter because you belong to me. You are worthy because I have redeemed you and called you by name. You are enough because you are mine.”
But the man in Mark’s gospel couldn’t or wouldn’t believe that in Christ he was enough. After Jesus says, “follow me,” but first “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” the man “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” It’s his grief and sorrow that get me, and what led me in the first place to recognize him as more than just some random rich man who doesn’t really want to follow Jesus and is perhaps there just to make a point about the downfall and sin of wealth. Because if he didn’t care, then Jesus’ instructions to give everything away wouldn’t have bothered him at all. He would have just laughed or rolled his eyes. But I think his desire to be faithful to God and to inherit eternal life is genuine. In all humility, he kneels before Jesus and calls him “Good Teacher.” What is more, he runs to Jesus because, like any earnest student, he’s eager to learn what more he can do, even though he’s already done so much. He has fulfilled all of God’s laws of love; he has loved his neighbor as he loves himself. “Teacher,” he says, “I have kept all these since my youth.”
Now, at this point many preachers would tell you to take the man’s words with a huge grain of salt (like, a hunk of salt). There’s no way he’s kept all the commandments. He’s either totally arrogant, utterly foolish, or he’s just flat-out lying. Regardless, we shouldn’t believe him. Except for one thing…Jesus believes him. Jesus, writes Mark, looks at the man and loves him. What is more, he is the only person in all of Mark’s gospel who is singled out as being loved by Jesus. Granted, Jesus’ love probably doesn’t prove the man’s perfect obedience to the Law. He is only human after all, prone to sin, just as we all are. But Jesus, who knows the depths of our hearts and minds, knows this man is open-hearted, faithful, eager to learn, and sincere in his desire to love God and his neighbor.
Nevertheless, says Christ, one thing you lack, just one thing. Which is ironic considering the man apparently has everything. He lacks for nothing…save for one thing. He lacks belonging. Granted, he is very good at doing; he has worked hard his entire life to keep the commandments. And he is very good at possessing; otherwise, he would not have so many things. But belonging to Jesus and finding his worth in relationship to Christ, instead of in his doing and possessing, seems impossible. Follow me, says Jesus, but instead he walks away, dejected and grieving for the eternal life that, unlike material things, he can’t grasp on his own.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? It’s a good question that this eager, sincere, high-achieving student asks of his professor in Mark’s gospel. (He’d fit right in at Duke, wouldn’t he?) But Jesus, like any good professor, flips the question on its head and calls his student into an entirely new way of thinking and being. Follow me, says Christ, follow me into the kingdom of God, where your worth is not measured according to your wealth or degree or career, according to the size of your home, the strength or beauty of your body, your intellect, your test scores, the national ranking of your school, how many friends or social media followers you have, your dazzling personality, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the size of your retirement account, the places you go on vacation. Jesus, looking at us, loves us and says, follow me to the place where such distinctions as “first” and “last” have lost all meaning because, in the kingdom of God, the children of God—forgiven, redeemed, called by name—stand shoulder-to-shoulder on equal ground.
What possesses you, dear ones? Where do you stake your identity and what gives you your sense of worth and value? What do you feel you must do or be in order to inherit eternal life or happiness or peace or success? Of course, for the man who kneels in all humility and sincerity before Jesus, it’s wealth. I once heard a preacher say that money had invaded the man like an occupying army. He was possessed by the desire to have possessions. For me, it’s perfectionism. When I was an English major in college, I had to write perfect essays. Writer’s block gave me panic attacks because my professors would tell me just to write first what came to mind and revise my drafts later, but I couldn’t do that because drafts, by definition, weren’t perfect. Year later when I became a mom, I thought—predictably—that I had to be the perfect mom, though I realize that’s far from unique to me. And I won’t even try to list all of the ways mothers are pressured to be perfect because that list (literally) has no end.
But what is it for you? What feels impossible for you to release because for so long now you’ve devoted yourself, your time, your energy, to it and you now believe it defines you, makes you worthy, makes you enough? What possesses you, as money possessed the man, and drives you to think you need it, although frankly the pursuit is exhausting and whatever it is, it never really satisfies and only leaves you wanting more?
Put it down, Jesus says. Open your clenched hands; let it go. It might feel impossible, but nothing is impossible for the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who is the creator of the ends of the universe. Even as he once looked at and loved the man, Jesus sees us too, in all of our striving and brokenness, and names us beloved because we are his. Follow me, he says. Follow me on the path of self-giving love that leads to the cross, to the empty tomb, and finally to the kingdom of God, where eternal life, and all of life for that matter, is grace, nothing but grace. Amen.