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The Sickest Man in the Bible

San Williams

October 14, 2012
Mark 10:17-27

10-14-2012 Sermon The New Testament is populated with all manner of sick folk. In the Gospel of Mark, for example, no sooner has Jesus chosen his disciples and begun his ministry than he confronts a man who is ailing from an unclean spirit.  Before the end of his first day on the job, he’s also healed Peter’s mother-in-law and countless other townspeople suffering from all manner of illness. As the Gospel story unfolds, person after person runs to meet Jesus and kneels before him to be healed—a leper, a paralyzed man, a man possessed with an unclean spirit, a woman with a hemorrhage, a Syrophenician woman whose child is sick—to name a few.  And every person who kneels before Jesus is healed and goes away rejoicing.  Every person, that is, except one.  Today we read about a man who runs to Jesus and kneels before him. He is the only person in the Gospel story who rejects the healing that Jesus offers.  He might just be the sickest man in the Bible.

I know that’s an odd thing to say.  The man in question doesn’t appear sick at all.  Unlike the others who come for healing, his skin is clear, his mind is sound, his physical health is robust. He’s rosy checked, well-fed and nicely dressed.  In nearly every respect, he’s the picture of health.

In fact, he’s the kind of man that people in that day would pass on the street and whisper, “There goes a man blessed by God.”  After all, in that day, as in ours, folks assumed that wealth was a sure sign of God’s approval, God’s blessing. “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,” declares the Psalmist, “who greatly delight in his commandments…Wealth and riches are in his house; and his righteousness endures for ever.” The man in our story possesses all the necessities of life and more. He looks for all the world like a man blessed by God.

And not only is he wealthy; he is also quite religious. In fact, his efforts in the area of religion are robust, almost heroic.  He’s kept the commandments from his youth.   He’s a practicing, faithful Jew.  Unlike some of the Pharisees that Jesus criticized for their hypocrisy, this man has integrity. He practices what he preaches.  He’s a good man, honorable and principled. Why then is he suffering?

To his credit, the man knows that something in his life is amiss.  Despite his wealth, he isn’t fulfilled.  Although he is physically healthy, he feels a disease within him. His house is full of possessions but his soul is empty. He’s an example of the kind of person we sang about in our opening hymn: “rich in things, but poor in soul.”  That’s why he runs to Jesus, kneels and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”

Jesus, the great physician of the soul, has no trouble making a diagnosis.  He sees right away that the man is possessed by his possessions.  He’s addicted to his wealth–clings to it, is anxious about losing it, and can’t get enough of it. The cure: “Go, sell you possessions, give your money to the poor and come follow me.”   The sad and ironic thing is that the man seems to know that his money and possessions can’t give him joy, peace or true contentment. Yet he can’t let go of them either.  Seeing the man walk away grieving, Jesus shakes his head saying, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”

Friends, if the acquisitive bug afflicted people in Jesus day, it has become epidemic in ours.  In his book Money and the Meaning of Life, Jacob Needlemann writes: “Living in an affluent society means not only that we have much material wealth, but that we want this wealth more than we want everything else.”

Of course, this acquisitive instinct is fueled by unrelenting advertizing trying to convince us to buy yet more stuff.  Last Wednesday, the clothing company Victoria Secret set up pink booths and games on the lot just to the north of the church.  Young folks flocked to the lot lining up to get coupons for whatever Victoria Secret wants young people to buy these days. Like the man in the story, we mostly know that our possessions will not satisfy the longing in our soul nor will money ever make us happy. Yet we continue to buy more than we need, and to want what we don’t yet have.

So what’s the solution?  Would Jesus give us the same prescription he gave the man in our story: Sell what you own, give your money to the poor and follow me?  If so, we too will go away this morning, if not grieving, at least feeling guilty.  But maybe a wealthectomy isn’t required of everyone. When we look at Jesus’ many encounters with people, it’s clear that he doesn’t’ have a one-prescription fits everybody approach.  Rather he offers a complex variety of instructions concerning possessions.  True, on several occasions Jesus instructed his disciples to leave everything behind and follow him—that is, to become radically poor. But in tension with the command of renunciation is the equally prominent command to practice hospitality and almsgiving. Obviously, we can’t practice hospitality if we have no house into which to welcome someone.  We can’t give generously to others if we have nothing to give.

My hunch is that Jesus wouldn’t order up a quick fix for us, but surely he would call on us to make  changes in our life-style so that by trusting in God day by day we can break the hold that money and possession have over us.  We can take steps now to buy only what we need rather than everything we want. We can consume less in order to give more.  If we’re not overly concerned with what we have, we’ll have more time and energy helping others get what they need.  By the way, it’s not entirely true to say that money can’t make us happy.  Research shows that money does have the power to make us happy, but only by giving it to others.

Here’s the thing. The problem is not wealth per se, but our attitude toward it. We make money and our material possessions into idols that we believe we can’t do without.  Such idolatry prevents us from experiencing God, who alone can give us the life our hearts desire.  As one preacher put it; “You cannot accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it with.  You cannot make room for it if your rooms are already full. You cannot follow if you are not free to go.”

Friends, our scripture this morning is a healing story. It’s a about a man Jesus loved and wanted to help.  He wanted to free the man from his selfish attachments in order that he could enter the abundant life of God’s kingdom. Sadly, he wasn’t able to let go of the hold his possessions had upon him and he walked away grieving.  To varying degrees we probably all share the man’s affliction.  But the good news is that we don’t have to share his fate. By trusting in God’s abundance more and more while clinging to possessions less and less we free ourselves to accept the eternal life Jesus came to give us.  Unlike he man who went away grieving, may we leave this encounter with Jesus today rejoicing as those who are forgiven, healed and made whole.