In the Philadelphia Museum..., Proper 23 (B) - 2000

October 15, 2000

In the Philadelphia Museum of Art there's a striking painting by Russian Marc Chagall. As Chagall's often complexly allergorical or symbolic paintings go, it's very simple. It has a large white figure of a man, several smaller white figures of houses and a church, and two words in Russian on a black background. The striking thing about the painting is that the man's head is on upside down. He seems to be floating above the houses in a large night sky, and even though his head is on upside down, he doesn't seem anxious or upset, just sort of matter-of-fact. The title of the painting and the meaning of the two Russian words is, "Oh, God."

Now, imagine what's going on with Jesus in today's Gospel. Think about how this Jesus constantly challenges his followers and pushes them to think "outside the box," and think about how we often react to these stories of Jesus. Can't we just picture ourselves and Jesus' followers as the man in the Chagall painting? Don't we often listen to these Gospel stories, and hear what Jesus is calling us to do with our lives, and don't we often say to ourselves, "Oh, God?"

Today's Gospel is certainly an "Oh, God" Gospel, because Jesus is turning his followers' lives upside down. He gets their attention by talking about something very precious: possessions. It's an uncomfortable Gospel at first glance. A man kneels before Jesus and asks how to inherit eternal life. He seems sincere, and when Jesus talks to him about keeping the Commandments, he says he has kept them since his youth. What more could Jesus want than a man who's kept all the Commandments? Evidently, Jesus wants more. He tells the man to sell his things, give the money to the poor, and then follow him. As sincere as he is, though, the man goes away sad, because he has a lot of stuff. It seems he can't give it up.

We feel for this man, but the story also makes us uncomfortable. We, too, want to be Jesus' followers, but look at the stuff we have--far more probably than this man could ever imagine--and, to be perfectly honest, how many of us could say we've kept all the Commandments since our youth? Like the disciples in verse 26, we may, at this point, be tempted to say, "Then who can be saved?" If we focus only on this part of the passage, the answer might be, "not many," but here's the turning point of this Gospel. If we find ourselves concentrating only on the discussion between the young man and Jesus, we need a wake-up call. We may be worrying only about our possessions and how we might hang on to them and still inherit eternal life. And remember, possessions are not only "things" but also our attitudes, our prejudices, our values. Looking only at this small part of the passage means we may be looking only inward and not out towards our community.

So we look at what comes before and after this section of chapter 10. What's happening in Mark's Gospel at this point is that Jesus has been going through Galilee teaching and healing, and in this section especially he's been using the innocence of children as a teaching tool. In chapter 9 he told his followers that whoever welcomes a child welcomes him. Later, he reaches out to the children people were bringing to him and rebuked the disciples who tried to stop them. He said, "Let the little children come to me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. . . . Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." Then at the end of chapter 10, Jesus says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Where do we fit into all this? Even Peter says, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." That's their turning point. That's where they start paying attention. Where's our turning point?

Our turning point can be in understanding truly the image of the man with many possessions. We need to remember that Jesus sometimes used difficult images. In chapter 9, remember, he said, "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off." Today he seems to be saying, "Get rid of everything you have or you're doomed." A literal reading of the Gospel would make us think so, but that's not how we need to read it. We look for deeper meaning, and here's where we find the core of Jesus' teaching.

Jesus is telling us that we need to find what it is in us that's a stumbling block--a detriment--to our living as children of God, and then do something about it. If we have many material possessions, we may need to see how we use them to help those less fortunate than ourselves. If we hold on to attitudes or prejudices that exclude others or are self-righteous, then we need to repent and change our ways. If we've become so wrapped up in our own wants that we're no longer careful of our world or its people, then we need to look again at our call to stewardship. We need to do this as individuals, and we need to do this as a faith community. It takes prayer, honesty, and a serious decision to want to live as a people of God.

If we're really serious about this re-examination--and we should be if we're going to call ourselves God's people--then we'll find it to be a challenge, but one that has the greatest of all rewards: the inheritance of God's kingdom. But it is a challenge. Jesus tells us all through Mark's Gospel that he came to serve, not to be served. For Jesus and so for us, ministry is to be a servant ministry. Our lives should be lives of service to each other, and many times that means going beyond ourselves, letting go of what we want in order to reach out to others. But it also means that when we're in need, others in the community will reach out to us. That's the wonderful thing about being part of a community. Everyone should be held in love by a community. No one should be left out.

So, if we take this "Oh, God" Gospel seriously, it just might really turn our lives upside down. Yes, Jesus is calling us to get rid of the stumbling-blocks in our lives. He lets us know that it's not easy to get rid of those stumbling-blocks, and that deciding to try sometimes leads to the Cross, but he also lets us know that if we do, he promises a reward many times greater than what we've been clinging to. We have a choice. We can walk away shocked and grieving like the man in today's Gospel, or we can get on with the work of really living as God's people. It's our choice.


Christopher Sikkema