Tough Love

Mark 10:17-31

In 1962 while on a visit to America, Karl Barth, the famous Swiss theologian, was asked by a student if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a single sentence.  Barth replied, “Why yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

I realized the other day that I haven’t reminded people of this simple truth nearly enough in my years as a pastor.  Jesus loves you.  I hope you can hear it again—maybe hear it fresh as if for the first time:  Jesus loves you.  The Holy Spirit loves you.  God loves you.  Let that sit with you for a minute.  

The simple truth is that God’s love for you is the starting point for…everything.  Why are you here on earth having a life?  Because God loves you.  God worked through all of the history of the universe to make sure you would be here to be loved.  

That is such an extraordinary thing to think about.  Jesus loves me.  This I know. When you hold that thought in your mind and heart for even a five uninterrupted minutes of contemplation, it’s mind boggling.  

I think that a lot of us who have lived any time at all in the embrace of the Christian faith, and especially if we have lived in the bosom of the church—I think we’ve forgotten this.  Or maybe just taken it for granted.   But the plain truth is that being loved by God is a thing that should astonish us at least once a day.  Preferably when we first get up in the morning.

The thing that got me thinking about all this is that there is a moment in verse 21 of our gospel text for this week that catches me off guard every time I read it.  It’s only in Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the man “who had many possessions.”  For some reason Matthew and Luke don’t record this detail.  Here it is:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.  

I don’t know which is more odd: that Mark bothers to make note of this or that Matthew and Luke don’t.  

I’ll circle back to this in a minute.

This passage, Mark 10:17-31, is so rich with things that deserve our attention that we could look at this  together for weeks and still just be scratching the surface.  For instance, there’s the question Jesus asks the rich man right at the beginning of their conversation: “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  Why does he say that?  What are we supposed to make of that?

There’s the matter of eternal life…which is not the same thing as endless life.  Do you know the difference?  There’s a distinction there that is definitely worthy of more attention.

The rich man has asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  That’s a strange question.  An inheritance is something that’s left to you.  Given to you.  Passed down to you.  You don’t “do” anything to inherit things except maybe try not to get disinherited.  Even if you work very hard to be in the good graces of your benefactor, though, in the end it’s their decision that determines if you will or won’t inherit anything.

Jesus tells the man, “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.’”  Why does he add “you shall not defraud” to the list?  That’s not one of the Ten Commandments.  Matthew and Luke don’t include this, either.  So why does Jesus include this in his list of commandments here in Mark?   The word in Greek for defraud is apostereō.  It means “to cause someone to suffer loss through illicit means, to illegally deprive someone.”  In Deuteronomy 24 in the Greek version of the Old Testament, a form of  that word is used in the statute that prohibits withholding wages from the poor, the needy, and immigrants.  Is that why Jesus, in Mark, thinks that the rich man needs to be reminded of this statute?  Is there something we’re missing here? That would be worth some study. 

Finally, of course, there’s the issue that appears to be the whole point of this encounter.  “You lack one thing,” said Jesus. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

When the  rich man heard this, he was shocked.  And went away grieving.  For he had many possessions.

The rich man had asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  And Jesus, forthright as always, told him. Go sell your stuff.  Give the money away.  Then come and follow me on the Way to eternal life.

Eternal life flows from God as a gift of grace…but you can’t fully receive that gift if something is getting in the way between you and God.  The rich man didn’t realize it, but he had another god standing in his way—standing between him and the one true God—between him and life eternal.  

If Jesus had just told him that he was dangerously close to committing idolatry, he probably would have denied it.  He probably would have quite truthfully responded that he had never bowed down to an idol or visited the temple of another god.  But idolatry is rarely as simple as just worshipping graven images. 

If Jesus had just told him that there was another god standing between him and God, an idol who was strangling the flow of life from God so that the river of life had been reduced to a trickle, he probably wouldn’t have understood.  He probably would have pointed to his wealth and said, “But clearly God has been blessing me.”

“Show me what you trust, what your heart clings to, and I will show you your god,” said Martin Luther.  The rich man’s heart was clinging to his many possessions.  They were dragging him away from the thing he wanted and needed most.  They were throttling his spiritual growth.  So Jesus told him to just get rid of it all.  

But he couldn’t.  He just couldn’t imagine himself doing what Jesus prescribed for him.  Jesus might as well have asked him to jump over the moon.  Or try to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle.

So why did Jesus ask him to do the impossible—or at least something impossible for him?  I think the answer is in that odd line that only appears here in Mark:  

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.  

Jesus looked at him…and really saw him.  He saw what he wanted.  He saw what he needed.  He saw what was in the way.  Jesus saw him.  Everything about him.  

And he loved him. 

When you love someone, you’ll do anything you can to help them be healthy and whole.  Sometimes the things love demands of us are really difficult—like letting your kids make their own mistakes, for instance, because you know that’s how they’ll really learn.  Sometimes love makes you say hard things for the good of the beloved. Like telling an alcoholic that they flat out have to stop drinking before it kills them and your relationship, too. 

Jesus loved the rich man.  So he told him that if he really wanted eternal life—not just endless life, but eternal life, that bountiful, all-encompassing, loving life in the constant companionship of God—then he had to quit his addiction.  Cold turkey.  He had to get rid of his stuff.

And that brings us back around to where we started.  Jesus loves me. This I know.  Jesus love you.  This I know, too.  And that means that Jesus will do whatever it takes to help us be healthy and whole—which, by the way, is the original meaning of salvation—to be made healthy and whole and swimming in the eternal stream of God’s love.

So work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  And remember, if you feel Jesus is asking you to do the impossible for your own good, it’s because he loves you.  And with God, all things are possible.

2 thoughts on “Tough Love

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