Wednesday of 21st Week after Pentecost

Gary Pence

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

October 15, 1997


Mark 10:17-31

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?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 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." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

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!" 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! 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." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." 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, 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."


I have a dream this morning. I have a dream that one of you will one day graduate from seminary. And after graduating from seminary you will receive a call, a call to Redmond, Washington. It could be to either one of two ELCA congregations there, either Sammamish Hills or Faith, each with about 1000 members. To make life easy, let's say you get a call to be pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Redmond, Washington, and you are ordained and settle in as the pastor there. A large congregation, quite an unusual call for a graduate right out of seminary. But I have a dream that one of you will get that call.

And my dream is that the chosen one of you will settle into your home in Redmond and begin your work at Faith Lutheran Church, when one day a youngish looking man that you think you vaguely recognize comes into your office. He greets you with an air of modesty and yet a kind of quiet self-assurance and says, "Hi, I'm Bill Gates."

Of course you knew that Microsoft Corporation headquarters were located in Redmond. In fact, you have been surprised at how many Microsoft programmers, writers, and editors are members of your congregation. But though I might have had the dream, you never would have dreamed that the chairman of Microsoft, one of the richest men in the world, someone worth I guess 5 or 6 billion dollars, someone just putting the finishing touches on his home worth something like $50 million, that Bill Gates would ever be standing in your offices as I imagine him to be that day.

And Bill Gates says to you. "You know, I've made a lot of money at Microsoft. The work has been exciting and still isn't done. So many challenges, so many frontiers, so many possibilities. It's been rewarding in more than financial ways. I have everything I could want from life today. But, frankly, pastor, I want more. Can you tell me what I need to do to receive eternal life?

This scene begins to seem familiar to you. It feels like déjà vu. You know you have read it somewhere, maybe seen it in a movie. And after you stop salivating at the prospect that one of the richest persons in the world might just consider joining your church, you remember this text from St. Mark's gospel. You had heard it as if for the first time today in the PLTS chapel.

Now let me ask you. What would be your answer to Bill Gates? Perhaps as you search for an answer you will ask as many do: "What would Jesus do in this situation?" And remembering this Gospel text read and expounded this day in the PLTS chapel, perhaps you would begin by recalling to Bill the Ten Commandments. And what if you did and Bill responded, "But, Pastor, I have kept them all from the time I was a little boy." Would you then, like Jesus, look at him with love and add, "Bill, you lack just one thing. Sell all your stock in Microsoft Corporation and your multimillion dollar homestead, your cars, your planes, everything. Give half the money to Faith Lutheran Church and half to PLTS. Then you will have a huge securities account waiting for you in heaven. And meanwhile come join our evangelism committee.

Is that what you would say to him?

Or let's say you were to exercise less hermeneutical freedom and followed the text more literally, Would you suggest to Bill that he sell all his holdings, all his possessions, and give the money to the poor? And turn his life over to Jesus?

Is that what you would say to him?

And what would be the result if he were to comply? I suppose we would hope for a huge cornucopia of food and shelter suddenly made available for the hungry and the homeless and a new St. Francis, a new Brother William, to be commemorated on the liturgical calendar. On the other hand, should Bill Gates try precipitously to unload $5 or $6 billion worth of Microsoft stock , what we might get instead would be a panic in the stock market, a cataclysm in the world economies, a world-wide depression, untold millions out of work, hungry, and homeless. I do not exaggerate.

So maybe literal is not so helpful in this situation.

Besides that you will have had all manner of courses on Lutheranism and Lutheran teachings about the Gospel from President Lull and Professors Stortz, Strohl, Peters, and even some of the rest of us, and you will recall that the answer to the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life" is not either obey the commandments or sell all your possessions and give them to the poor. At seminary we learn to rephrase such questions. We learn to say, "You know, Bill, eternal life is not about doing anything. Eternal life is a gift. It's a way of describing a trusting, peaceful open relationship with God, with other humans, and with the world. Eternal life is something that happens now, and why should it ever have an ending?"

Jesus' answer--"Obey the 10 commandments. Sell everything. Give the proceeds to the poor. Follow me."--is simple to understand, but difficult to do. The Lutheran answer would be easy to do if only we could understand it.

But I want to propose this morning that Jesus was an anonymous Lutheran, a closet Lutheran, and in his own paradoxical way was providing this wealthy suppliant a Lutheran answer.

First, you recall the man addressed Jesus as "good teacher, " but Jesus wouldn't accept the term. "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." Very Lutheran! No human being can claim supremacy over others. We are all in the same boat. The whole creation is in the same boat. God alone is the totally other to whom we can attribute absolute values like "good" "wise" "gracious". The rest of us are limited, finite, relative, ambiguous, not wholly to be trusted, to be respected, but certainly not to be revered or worshipped. Nothing human is absolute, Jesus seems to be saying. Nothing human is to be ranked with God. Very Lutheran!

Then he recites the Ten Commandments. Very Lutheran! That's what Luther did at the beginning of both his Small and his Large Catechisms. So Jesus conducts a little catechesis here, or a little catechetical test. Next would have come the Apostle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer except they hadn't been written yet. So he tests how this inquirer responds to the suggestion that he follow traditional piety, conventional wisdom, good old common works righteousness about the route to heaven or whether he, like Luther, is able to reach behind the surface of these commandments to their deeper intent, something about respecting, loving, trusting God above all else.

But this catechumen doesn't know deep. His easy, immediate response is that he's never violated any of the commandments even from childhood. What a good boy! He's kind of like Peter who during the debriefing of this incident later blurts out, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." The text says Jesus looked at this inquirer I guess the way he would have looked at Peter and loved him. How could you not love an eager and naïve young innocent like that? Anyway, Jesus did. He didn't get angry at him, berate him, passive-aggressively ridicule him, indignantly dismiss him. In this Jesus is different from both Amos and the author of Hebrews. Jesus looked at him and loved him.

And he made a suggestion out of his love for this let us assume honest inquirer. He said something simple and obvious, "Sell everything. Give it all away to people who need it. Heaven will be taken care of so you won't have to think about it anymore. And come along with me."

The thing was that Jesus seemed to love wealthy people. He always was getting free meals in their homes. And then he would tell them to let it all go and come along with him, and they couldn't do it. And Jesus' response was not so much anger as sadness. "How hard it is for wealthy people to join the movement! How absorbed they are in their commitments, how devoted to their achievements, how obsessed with their next deal, next assignment, next test, next paper, how caught in themselves! I love them and I want them around, and I know they want to join me, and they can't make the break." And one has the sense that Jesus was grieving for this well meaning inquirer who could not give up his attachments in order to share in the one who offered life in all its fullness.

So Jesus' very Lutheran lament is not that this person could not do enough in order to inherit eternal life. This inquirer wanted to know what to do and could not let go of doing, trading, bargaining, and stashing away his goods in order to just be in the presence of God.

When you get that call to Redmond, what will you say to Bill Gates? I guess the better question is, Today how will we--as Lutherans--respond to Jesus? How far are we able to let go of everything else enough just to be with our good God?

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.