“An Idolatry of Works and Wealth, and the One Thing Lacking” (Mark 10:17-22)

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 14, 2018

“An Idolatry of Works and Wealth, and the One Thing Lacking” (Mark 10:17-22)

In today’s Gospel we meet a man who ran up to Jesus with great eagerness. At the end, though, he went away with great sadness. What happened in between? Our text today is the story of what this man had and what he didn’t have. What he had was an idol. Actually, it was a twofold idolatry. And what he didn’t have was one essential thing. So now let’s find out what his idolatry was and what the one thing he lacked was. And as we do, we may just recognize ourselves in this story and, by God’s grace, go away today not sorrowful but joyful. And so our theme this morning: “An Idolatry of Works and Wealth, and the One Thing Lacking.”

Our text begins: “As Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” What do we learn about this fellow right off the bat? First of all, he shows a strong religious interest. He runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. He addresses Jesus with a title of respect, “Good Teacher.” He was looking to Jesus for insight and wisdom. He asks a very important question, about how to obtain eternal life. So at first glance, this man shows an eagerness worth emulating.

But as we look closer, we see some problems surfacing, a wrong understanding. The man addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” true enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The man recognized Jesus as the latest religious teacher who might have some new and interesting insights. But did his expectation go beyond that? Would he see in Jesus more than that? Or did he regard Jesus as just another rabbi, even if a good one?

Many people in our culture today are willing to acknowledge Jesus as a “good teacher.” Heck, even the Muslims do that much! How often do you hear people give faint praise to Jesus as a “good teacher” and a “fine example,” even though they show a shallow understanding of what it was he taught. No, to call Jesus merely a “good teacher” is not good enough.

And the way this man then phrases his question about eternal life likewise betrays a wrong understanding: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice how the man’s question focuses on what he himself must do. By “what must I do to inherit eternal life” he really means “what must I do to merit eternal life.” The man is looking to his own works to earn his way into heaven. And that is the natural opinion of all people. They–we–think that by our own goodness and good works, at least our relative goodness compared to others, we can work our way into heaven. But that is a dead end, trying to merit eternal life by our works.

The very fact that this man comes running and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life–that shows he must have felt some uncertainty, some lack in himself, that he had not yet done enough. He felt there was something missing, something just not right. And that is where you will always end up if you look to your own works for salvation. For you will never do enough. If you are certain you have done enough, then you are only deceiving yourself. So the fact that this man senses something is wrong, something is missing–that’s a good sign. But the fact he thinks he can remedy that by doing more–whatever that more is–that is his wrong premise.

So now Jesus has to redirect the man’s wrong thinking. He wants to lead him to see that salvation by works isn’t going to work, that he will have to look elsewhere to find his salvation. He begins by telling the man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Jesus wants the man to think about the word “good” he used. The man approached Jesus as just another good teacher, who might have some good advice on how to achieve salvation by works. But Jesus wants to dispel that notion. He wants to lift the man’s sights to look to God alone as the source of eternal good, to God as the bestower of salvation. And if the man will continue in that direction, he will come to see Jesus as more than just another teacher but rather as the unique, God-sent bringer of salvation–indeed, as God himself come in the flesh.

Now if this man is looking for works to do to earn his salvation, he need not look to any super-secret formula that only the latest teacher has. No, if you’re going to go down that road, salvation by works of the Law, you need only look to the Ten Commandments. Jesus starts listing some of them: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” Notice that Jesus only mentions commandments in what we call the Second Table of the Law, the ones that deal with how we treat our neighbor. Those are the commandments that we may think we can get a handle on, that we think are a little easier to keep.

The man answers without batting an eye: “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” Here we see the man’s wrong understanding of the Law. He thinks he has kept those commandments, kept them perfectly, his whole life long. “No, Jesus, I was looking for something new and different. The Ten Commandments? I’ve already got those down pretty well.” But the truth is, he hadn’t. None of us has.

On the surface, it may be possible, perhaps even likely, that this man had done a pretty good job of keeping the commandments in their outward sense. He probably had never murdered anyone, physically. He may have never cheated on his wife. He probably had never robbed a bank. Really, this guy may have led a very respectable moral life, by human standards.

Maybe you have, too. But is that what you’re banking on to get you into heaven? I’ve got news for you: It won’t work. The Ten Commandments go far deeper than just an outward surface observance that any old scribe or Pharisee could muster. The righteousness that God demands is a perfect righteousness, extending to every aspect of thought, word, and deed–the bad things we don’t do, think, or say, and the good things we ought to do, think, and say. It shows, or does not show, in whether we love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Fail in this perfect righteousness at any point, and the divine Law you were relying on for your salvation will turn around and be the prosecuting attorney against you in the court of heaven on the Day of Judgment.

The Law always accuses. It cannot save you. Jesus wants this man to recognize that. He’s getting at the first part of the man’s idolatry. It is an idolatry of works. The idolatry of works is the false belief that we can earn our salvation by our own goodness, that we can merit our way into heaven. Luther said, “If we esteem them too highly, good works can become the greatest idolatry.” It is making yourself into your own god, your own savior. And you and I can’t do that. Neither can the man in this story.

Jesus exposes and strips away the man’s idolatry, but he is doing so not because he wants to humiliate him or condemn him. No, Jesus does his diagnostic work on us precisely because he loves us. He wants us to recognize our false gods, so that we will leave those idols behind and turn to God and find our salvation in Christ. That’s why Jesus does this. He loves us! Just as he loved the man in our story. “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” our text says.

Now Jesus will complete his diagnosis of this man’s idolatry. The first thing he exposed was the man’s idolatry of works. Now he pinpoints the second part of the man’s false worship, when he tells him: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

The man had a twofold idolatry. The first part was his idolatry of works. The second was his idolatry of wealth. He loved money. He was devoted to his possessions. That was his god, the thing he looked to for his good. It had become an idol for him. Jesus pinpoints this precise thing, for this particular man, because it was his god. Mammon, the love of money, is a very common idol, one of the most common in the world. But our particular idols, our false gods, can come in other forms as well: power, prestige, pride, position, pleasure, and a passel of other “greatest goods” we worship most diligently. All these idols need to be cast down from their thrones. That is repentance. It is a gift of God. Jesus is seeking this man’s repentance. And he is seeking ours, as well, whether that means selling all your possessions literally or, at the very minimum, dethroning them from your worship.

“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Is that it, Jesus? Take a vow of poverty and run off to join a monastery, and then we get to go to heaven? No, that would just be another form of works-righteousness, salvation by what we do. No, Jesus gives this man this particular instruction because it was his false god. And it was keeping him from discovering where true treasure could be found–namely, in Jesus himself, who was standing right there talking to him. The Savior was looking right at him and loving him and calling him to repentance and faith. Notice what Jesus says along with the “sell your possessions” stuff. He adds–and this is really the key to the whole thing–Jesus adds these most crucial words, “and come, follow me.”

“Come, follow me.” Yes, this is where you will find your true treasure–in Christ. All the treasure of heaven, eternal life and all the riches that go with it–all this Christ gives us when he calls us to follow him. Jesus won those riches for us when he lived and died and rose again. His righteousness is perfect, lacking nothing. Jesus kept the commandments as they ought to be kept, the only one who ever has. And because he is the Son of God, his righteousness is sufficient to cover all our sins. His holy precious blood, shed for you on the cross, redeemed you from death and hell and gained for you eternal life. Jesus purchased your salvation, and he gives it to you as a free gift. Your works won’t do it. His works will. Your wealth will not last. Moth and rust and thief and death will come and take it all away. But the riches Christ gives, the treasure he bestows–this is eternal, and it will never pass away.

That was the one thing the man in our story lacked–he was not following Jesus in repentance and faith. Those were the two sides of the one coin: repenting of his idolatry and following Christ in faith. So it is for us. Leave your idols behind. Follow Jesus in faith. “Come, follow me,” Jesus says to us today. Jesus is looking right at you and loving you when he calls you to turn from your idols and to follow him. Your idolatry of works, your idolatry of wealth–leave those false gods behind and come, follow Jesus, the one and only Savior.

When he heard Jesus’ words, the man in our story was “disheartened,” it says. And “he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” In reality, his great possessions had him. They had control of him. But today, by God’s grace, Jesus’ words are penetrating your soul, calling you to repentance and faith. The Holy Spirit is doing his gracious work in your heart. And because God is doing his work in you, today you will go away from here not sad but joyful, because you know you have even greater possessions. You have eternal life. You have the riches of your incredible inheritance in Christ. You have treasure in heaven, where your risen Lord is and where you will be also, with him and with all his saints in bliss and joy forever.

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Published in: on October 13, 2018 at 8:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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