Texts Hebrews 4:12-16 and Mark 10:17-31
Let’s go trap a monkey! What? You’ve never trapped a monkey? Why, it is the easiest thing in the world to do. You only need four things. The first three are pretty easy to come by in these parts: A long, narrow necked bottle, a rope, and a tasty nut. The last one takes a little bit of travel to get to: a good monkey tree. Here is how it works, in the evening, go to your monkey tree, tie the bottle to the tree, and drop the nut in. That’s all. Go home, have your dinner and go to bed. It doesn’t sound like much of a trap, but it works great for catching monkeys. See, when the monkey comes down from his tree and sees and smells that wonderful nut, he will reach in through the narrow neck of the bottle and grab the nut. His open hand fits just fine through the narrow opening, but when he holds the nut, his hand won’t come back out. And he will keep trying to pull the nut out all night, exhausting himself, never giving up. At any time the monkey could let go and be freed, but lucky for us, he won’t let go. When you get up in the morning, enjoy your breakfast and then go up to the monkey tree. There you will find your monkey, exhausted and trapped.
Trapped. In many of the gospel stories, people who confront Jesus try to test him and trap him in either this issue or that. And this rich, young ruler that runs up to Jesus is trying to trap him as well. He wanted to justify the way he lived and hoped he could trap Jesus into giving him the secret of eternal life. Though never named, we have come to call him the Rich Young Ruler, because of how he is described in the similar stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As we go along, I want you to listen and remember what he is asking for: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “You know the commandments,” Jesus responds. Don’t murder, Ok with that. Don’t commit adultery, never have. Don’t steal, all I have is my own. And on down the list. “Jesus, I’ve done all these thing since I was a child! Am I good to go? Is eternal life mine?”
Jesus looked at him and with love says, “I know what you lack. Give all that you have away to those who need it, and come follow me.” What did Jesus say? Give away everything? Let go of all my stuff and money? I can’t do that! And he went away sad.
Now recall what this man was asking of Jesus as Jesus responds and watches this man walk away. “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.” This man was looking for the key to eternal life, but what Jesus was offering was the Kingdom of God. Aren’t eternal life and the Kingdom of God the same thing? No. This man was looking for a guarantee for the life to come, the life that exists at the point of death. In a way, he was saying, “I’ve got this life figured out. Now I want to assure I will be blessed in the next life as I am in this one.” But what Jesus offers him affects this life and the next. Remember when Jesus shows up on the scene in Mark and says, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand! It is near! It is with you!”
And Rich Young Ruler’s possessions were affecting how he was experiencing God’s Kingdom. Remember that wealth and possessions in and of themselves are not sinful. It is “this” that is sinful (make the monkey fist). It is when we grab for more and more no matter the cost and we can’t let go. And this is what our culture tells us to do and hang on to it all. Get the bigger house, buy the newer car, go out and get the newest gadget. Keep up with the Jones! Build your kingdom! We believe that our security and our faith are built on what we have or even on what we want to get. They trap us. It’s interesting when Jesus lists the commands to this man, he doesn’t say, “don’t have any other gods before you.” He was using his riches and possessions to build his kingdom, and that makes them his god, his idol, and his possessions had come to possess him.
So, what’s it look like to let everything go and follow Jesus? For some, the radicalness of what Jesus is saying literally means get rid of it all. But even that can go to an unhealthy extreme. We have a friend in Alaska who shared the story of how he responded to this passage. After reading this text, he parked his car along the road north of Anchorage. In the car was all of his worldly possessions. He placed the keys on the dash so anyone could take whatever they wanted. And he walked away from it all, a freed man and true disciple of Jesus. He walked up the road, in Alaska, in January, naked. Did I say it was January in Alaska and he was naked? When they pulled him frozen and half dead out of the ditch, he had a new revelation. God had also given him a brain, and God expected him to use it.
So, it must look different than that, to let go of all you have and follow Jesus. When Jesus says that it will be hard for this man to enter the Kingdom of God because of his wealth and possessions, the disciples were amazed and confused at his words, because they had been told their whole lives that having wealth and possessions was a blessing from God. And I think that can be true. But it depends on how we see these possessions. This man was using his possessions to build his kingdom instead of seeing them as a gift from God to build God’s kingdom. All his possessions were a gift from God to be used to glorify God. When we realize this, we neither have the right to grab, hold, or possess possessions. They are not ours. These gifts from God that could be used to grow this man’s discipleship had become his greatest hindrance to discipleship. He has to let them go.
William Willamon shares the story of a time he was studying this passage with a group of college students. In the middle of the discussion, one of them asked, “Did Jesus know this guy?” “Why do you ask?” “Because Jesus seems to have lots of faith in him. He demands something risky, radical of him. I wonder if Jesus knew this man had a gift for risky, radical response. In my experience, a professor only demands the best from students that the professor thinks are the smartest, best students. I wonder what there was about this man that made Jesus have so much faith he could really be a disciple.” Willamon had always seen this man’s wealth as a weakness to being a disciple, but this student had seen it as the rich man’s greatest strength.
Jesus knows us, too. For many of us, especially in North America, it is our possessions that we are holding on tight to, building up our little kingdoms. And Jesus also has a lot of faith in us, too. Working in and through us, he can help us let it go. For some of us, it may mean literally getting rid of a lot of baggage that keeps us from Kingdom living. It can be scary and even look kind of bleak, because it doesn’t seem like the safe thing to do. And this is where we encounter the good news. By letting go, we get more. First and foremost, with all the stuff out of the way, we get Jesus. He can take us by the hand and lead us down the road of discipleship that affects how we live here and now and in the life to come.
But Jesus promises more than just himself. He promises a “hundredfold” in this life. The list includes lands and new families, even amid persecutions. These joys and gifts reflect the experience of the early church, with its new sense of community and new family relationships. Hospitality, care for the poor and mutual love were hallmarks of the early church. These are far deeper joys than any great amount of possessions can assure. And these are the things we can experience, too. When you share a meal, that table is no longer your table. It becomes God our Father’s table and those who gather around it are his children, your brothers and sisters whether they be friends, family, or even strangers. They become your family. When you mow your grass with your lawn mower, you are just cleaning up your kingdom, so it looks like all the other kingdoms on the block. But when you realize that lawn mower has God’s name on it and you use it to mow the shut-in’s yard down the street, God’s Kingdom shines forth greater than all the green grass and flowers from corner to corner.
Trapped. The monkey who held onto that nut could have at anytime let go and been free and lived. Jesus knew this rich man and his heart and what he needed to let go of to live and become his disciple. Jesus knows your heart and what you are hanging on to as well. He says, “Let go! Break free! Follow me! I love you!” And when you let go, you will find he is waiting there to take you by the hand and lead you into kingdom living. Let go and live. Amen.