Shock Value

J. D. Ousley

Sermon—14Oct12

Mk. 10

“Shock Value”

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

 

These days, it takes a lot to shock people.

On television, violence is a common subject of local news shows and it’s a popular feature of network drama. Interview programs reveal the romantic secrets of celebrities, while reality shows allow non-celebrities their chances to describe their behavior after dark.

We don’t have to watch TV for long to think that we’ve seen everything! Nothing surprises us: Scenes displaying the cruel or the bizarre or the seductive mix with ads for cars and cereal—and bedtime comes, and we turn off the television and calmly go to bed!

But we can still be shocked. For example, we don’t like to think about losing our money!

We see an example of this particular trauma in the Second Lesson for today. The lesson begins with Jesus starting out on a journey. As he prepares to leave, a man runs up to him. The man kneels before him, out of respect for Christ’s wisdom as a religious teacher.

Then the man asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus reminds him of the sacred Hebrew law, and lists various commandments, such as the prohibition against murder. The man replies that he has kept all these commandments since he was a boy.

Then Jesus says, “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.”

Now this wasn’t the advice the man expected to get! The Scripture says that, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

This arresting story has sometimes been applied not just to the man who came up to Jesus, but to all rich people. Some Christians have believed that wealthy persons should therefore give away every bit of their wealth. Only then could they find eternal salvation in heaven.

St. Francis ofAssisi, whose love for animals we celebrated last Sunday, decided that God wanted him to get rid of the substantial riches he had received from his family. In a moment of inspiration, he gave away his possessions; he even stripped off the fine clothes he was wearing!

My own view though would be that the lesson has a more subtle message. And it’s a message that applies not only to people of faith who have a lot of money. On my understanding, Jesus isn’t just talking about wealth. And, therefore, Jesus isn’t here just talking to the rich.

Rather, Christ is addressing people whose passions in this life keep them from God’s Kingdom. Some people who aren’t financially well-off may still be so obsessed with money that they can think of nothing else. They will then have trouble considering higher matters; love of the possessions they don’t have will take precedence in their hearts over love of God and neighbor.

There are many ways we can be distracted. From what really matters. An ordinary person can be consumed with envy for the possessions of a neighbor. A person of moderate means can spend way too much time thinking of how to get more stuff.

And of course other cravings can get out of hand. People can be obsessed with their physical appearance: with how fit they are or what they wear. They can spend their free time chasing bigger muscles or the latest fashion.

Money, then, isn’t Christ’s main concern in this story. Rather, he is showing how hard it is to live as a spiritual person in a material world.

The man who approached Jesus thought that he needed purely religious advice. That is, he wanted to know how he could live forever. And he knew that he could only get that gift from God.

And yet, as it happens, Jesus offered him advice about his life in this world. Christ showed the man how devoted he was to his wealth. Even the promise of eternal life wasn’t enough to make him give it away!

But the key to the story is the man’s delusion that his riches made him the person he was. He has so identified himself with material things that he is unable to reach out and grasp the spiritual.

By comparison, St. Francis had it easy! Francis realized that his wealth blocked him from being the person he wanted to be. So he was able not only to cast off his fine clothing—but also to free himself from the demands of his father’s high position in society.

Again, the issue isn’t just the moral problems of wealth. Money can be a problem; we’ve all met people who are overly-impressed with their net worth.

But we’ve also known people who never remind us that they’re rich. These folks don’t need to flaunt their wealth because it isn’t central to who they are. For them, riches don’t pose a spiritual problem; they’re not a barrier to serving God’s kingdom.

Jesus is saying, then, that we should be wary of clinging to goals and ambitions that aren’t as important as we think they are. Happily, the story of the rich man also illustrates a way to discover our own misplaced priorities.

Imagine, for example, that circumstances forced you to pack up and move your residence to another city. Most of you live in theNew Yorkarea. And while you probably have complaints about living here—the traffic, the politicians, the noise, the prices—still, you may also take pride in being a New Yorker.

For you, your residence in the City may be a sign that you’re tough. Or it may suggest sophistication. Whatever it means to you, being a New Yorker has become

 

part of who you think you are.

Yet if you consider the prospect of eternal life and how you might get that- well, of course, you would give up this earthly Heaven for the real one! So, if you were called to serve a charity that provides relief to the poor in some foreign country, you would follow your calling, and eventually you’d adjust to life somewhere else.

Other changes in our identities would be more radical—and even far more difficult to accommodate. Aging, loss of job, ending of relationships—these changes really shock. They cut into our deepest sense of self. We’re just not the same afterwards.

The gospel reminds us, though, that in all these cases where our identity in the world is in question, we can turn to God. For God knows who we really are. AsSt. Paulsaid, we are “hidden with Christ in God,” We are hidden with Christ in God and this eternal identity can’t be taken away from us by the transient events of an unpredictable world.

Sometimes, like the rich man, we need to be jolted into this recognition. But we don’t always have to be shocked. For as Christ says in the cheery ending to what seems to be a gloomy story: “With God, all things are possible!”

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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