Keawalaʻi Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Access Sunday & Disabilities Awareness Week
Sunday, October 14, 2012
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
“What must I do?”
The preface simply read: “A story for our time.” The year was 1998 and this is the story.
“The rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find the Southern fisherman lying lazily by his boat, smoking a pipe.
'Why aren’t you out fishing?’ said the industrialist.
‘Because I have caught enough fish for today” said the fisherman.
‘Why don’t you catch more than you need?’ said the industrialist.
‘What would I do with it?’ asked the fisherman.
‘You could earn more money,’ was the reply. ‘With that you could have a motor fixed to your boat. Then you could go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you could make enough money to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you could have enough money to own two boats . . . maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you could be a rich man like me?’
‘What would I do then?’ asked the fisherman.
‘Then you could sit down and enjoy life,’ said the industrialist.
‘What do you think I am doing right now?’ said the contented fisherman.” (Source from Asia unknown, in Celebrating One World: A Worship Resource Book on Social Justice, Linda Jones, Annabel Shilson-Thomas & Bernadette Farrell, Editors, Harper Collins, London, 1998, pages 94-95)
If the story is a story for our time, what would we say is its meaning for us today? Would we be critical of the rich industrialist in pursuit of making more and more money or would we belittle the fisherman for his lack of ambition for greater material gain? Would we argue that there is nothing wrong with making more money especially if it means more work and money for boat builders and net makers? Or would we assume the fisherman is lazy and therefore poor and for that reason he deserves to be poor?
Would we conclude that material prosperity was “a reward or byproduct of spiritual virtue? Things go well for the good, for men and women of good character, and poorly for the bad, for those who lack good character and self-discipline.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2009, pages 165-166)
It is easy to admire one person and not the other. It would seem that the story favors the poor fisherman over the rich industrialist. But I am not so sure that we come to that conclusion especially in light of our reading from The Gospel According to Mark this morning. (Mark 10:17-31) The text is full of tension, the kind of tension that may shed some light on this story for our time.
A man with many possessions runs up to Jesus one day. He doesn’t stand back to wait for an opportune moment to approach Jesus. He doesn’t walk up to Jesus cautiously. The Bible says he runs and once near Jesus he kneels before him in a moment of honest desperation wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life.
Jesus responds by reminding him that he knows the commandments. The man tells Jesus that he has kept them all not just in recent days or even the last few years, but since his youth. It is likely that the man thought he was out of the woods and headed for the gates of heaven and yet it is clear he is unsure.
The tension in the story increases. Jesus recognizes that the man has done well, but he gives him one more thing to do. Jesus tells him “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:22) It would seem that what Jesus is asking of him may be too much for him to bear.
We are never told if the man did as Jesus asked. All we know is that he was shocked and profoundly saddened and that he went away. We do not know if he was filled with sorrow because he was unwilling to sell all that he had, give his money to the poor and follow Jesus or if he went away saddened because he had, in fact, decided to sell all he had, give to the poor and follow Jesus.
Whatever decision the man may have made, one thing is clear. We know that Jesus loved him. That is the good news for today.
John Fenton, a theologian, makes the following observation about the
story. (We) “notice one thing about this rich man . . . he wants
to know what he should do. He has kept the commandments and Jesus
says he lacks one thing – ‘Sell what you have and give to the poor,’
and the man goes away sad. And it says there in Mark, ‘Jesus looked
at him and loved him.’”
“It is the only instance in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus loving somebody. He loves the person who can’t do it. This is . . . subversive and this is what is so good about Mark. We see the impossibility of the demand, ‘Destroy your life! That’s the only way to preserve it.’ And we know we can’t do it, but the man who couldn’t do it was the one that Jesus loved. Away success! Welcome failure! That is the good news.” (Resources for Preaching Worship: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry and Prayers, Year B, Ward & Wild, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2002, page 237)
That is good news for us who may look upon the poor fisherman with contempt. That is good news for us who may look upon the rich industrialist with disdain.
Therein lay the tension between the man with many possessions and Jesus; between the rich industrialist and the poor fisherman. We do not need to remind ourselves with numerous and various accounts in the Bible of Jesus’ compassion for the poor and for those on the margins of society. We know the stories.
What makes our reading from The Gospel According to Mark subversive is that Jesus does not condemn the rich man but neither does he let him off the hook. Yes, Jesus loves him. He has kept the commandments. But Jesus loves him because he knows how difficult it is for the rich man to give up his possessions. His words are sharp but they are spoken out of love because Jesus wants him to be free from relying on himself and his possessions and instead rely upon God.
Moshe Leib, a rabbi, has been quoted as saying: “How easy it is for a poor man to depend on God! What else has he to depend on? And how hard it is for a rich man to depend on God! All his possessions call out to him: ‘Depend on us!’” (Op)>
The same may be said for the rich industrialist and for the rich among us. Jesus likens the difficulty of entering the kingdom of God with a camel going through the eye of a needle. It is not easy for the rich man or the rich industrialist to break free of their attachments to their wealth and possessions.
But it is possible. Jesus said, “For mortals – like the rich man and the rich industrialist and for even ourselves - it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Whether rich or poor, Jesus reminds us : “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
If we are to inherit eternal life it will come – not from our reliance on our wealth or possessions – but from turning our attention to God and to our neighbor. It will come from our response to the one who invites us, “Come, follow me.”