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Mark 10:17-22 (New International Version)
The Rich Young Man
17As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. 19You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'[a]" 20"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." 21Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
9 LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Leo Tolstoy, in one of his later stories, tells the fable of a Russian peasant who has heard of a region where land is plentiful. For 1,000 rubles he can own all the land he can circumnavigate in one day. If he fails to return by sundown to the spot he began from, the money is forfeited. As the story unfolds, the buyer begins with high hopes, but also with just a little too much appetite for acquisition. Morning turns to afternoon and the sun begins to sink in the western sky. The man rushes to meet the deadline, and in order to travel faster begins to discard any belonging that might slow him down—his coat, his boots and his cap. He reaches his destination but the effort has been too much for him. He collapses and dies. Tolstoy concludes: “In the end, six feet, from head to heels, is all he needed.”
There’s something to lift your spirits, eh? You’ve had a long week at work or you’ve had a series of doctor’s appointments or stress in the family has ramped up to a level you didn’t think was possible, and when you come to church the preacher tells you it’s all going to come down to you in a box in six feet of real estate. You could have stayed home and read the paper if you wanted that sort of edge taken off your smile.
But stay with me, the news is not going to be all bad. For again God prohibits something not because he wants to confine us and limit our freedom but because God desires real life for us. Not a life defined by the pursuit of things but a life defined by the one who pursues us in order to love us and give us that which is truly needed.
9 I WANT MORE
Some of us will wonder if this commandment is truly needed. I have already been forbidden to take my neighbour’s wife—that’s adultery. And it’s hands off his donkey too—that stealing. In the last of God’s Ultimate Top 10 it is not an action that is
being prohibited but an attitude. Let’s look at this very carefully. I will use the example of the fountain pen.
I have had a long-standing love affair with the fountain pen. As much as I love doing my work on a computer, every now and again I get a twinge of nostalgia about the days when every sermon or article began with a blank piece of paper and one of my fountain pens. Every now and again I will go into one of those stores that sells the expensive pens and just admire how pretty they are. (Yes, I am well aware how weird this is, but it is basically harmless.) However within this little quirk of mine is an insight into the trap of coveting.
Let me explain. Here is the oldest fountain pen I currently own. When my brother, Fred, was married to his wife, Trish, in 1994, I conducted the service and was the master of ceremonies. They gave me this pen, inscribed Rev. & M.C. and the date. It’s a Sheaffer, a good pen.
The second oldest pen that I own was a gift from one of the members of the Whitby Baptist Church. During the 10 months I was interim pastor of that congregation I met this man, whose hobby was constructing pens from their constituent parts. I must have, at some point, said something about my love of fountain pens, and when my time at the church was finished he gave me this gift. It also is a good pen.
The most recent pen is this one, bought at a stationary store on Rue St. Jean in Quebec City. Do you see what’s going on in deep recesses of the soul of your pastor? I had one fountain pen to use at home. I had a second pen to use at the office. I don’t actually write very much; most of my work is done on a keyboard. Why did I need a third pen? I didn’t. I coveted a third pen and I would gladly buy a fourth. On our last day in Bolivia in 2008 we went shopping. I passed a store that sold pens. I could have bought a beautiful fountain pen for about one-quarter of the price I would have paid in North America. I’m still mentally kicking myself for resisting the temptation. Because, you see, the one that I could have is always going to be better than the one or two or three that I’ve got. That’s coveting!
I recently read a story about a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, New York, where the guest list included authors Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Vonnegut says to Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his best-selling novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have … enough” (Bogle, John C., Enough., 1). The reason God tells you at the end of his Ultimate Top 10 to turn away from coveting is simple: this is not the healthy desire for a satisfying career, or for meaningful relationships or for a life that matters. Coveting of that which you do not have can never be satisfied. It is a wound that cannot be healed. It is a demon that will drag you further and further into hell.
9 WHAT ARE WE CHASING?
But I promised some good news. Let’s get to that. Fred Craddock, one of my favourite preachers tells the story of meeting a greyhound, whom his niece had taken into her home after its racing days were over. Fred struck up a conversation with the dog.
“Are you still racing?”
“Well, what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?”
“No, I still had some race in me.”
“Well, what then? Did you not win?”
“I won over a million dollars for my owner.”
“Well, what was it? Bad treatment?”
“Oh, no,” the dog said. “They treated us royally while we were racing.”
“Did you get crippled?”
“Then why?” I pressed. “Why?”
The dog answered, “I quit.”
“Yes,” he said. “I quit.”
“Why did you quit?”
“I just quit because after all that running and running and running, I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t even real.”
Friends this is a matter of our hearts. This is a matter of our relationship to God. You may
remember a few weeks ago I spoke about the traditional Jewish understanding of the commandments being given to God’s people on two tablets, five on one, five on the other, with a link between one and six, two and seven, and so on. There is also an understanding that the tenth commandment brings us back around to the first. The person who covets is confessing to a lack of trust in God.
Psalm 119, the longest of the psalms, is a poem about the beauty and wisdom of Torah, of God’s law. Throughout this series we have used verses from the psalm as our call to worship. In verse 36 the poet asks this of God: Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the apostle says there are all sorts of sinful actions and attitudes that have crept into the church because of people who mistakingly imagined that godliness is a means of gain (6:5). Then Paul goes on. Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it (6:6, 7).
Let me suggest then some ways in which we can gain that godliness combined with contentment and defeat that demon called coveting. First, meditate on the two truths that Paul tells, that to think godliness is a means of gain is to bring nothing but sorrow to the family of God, and that just as we came into the world with nothing so we will leave the world in the same way. You may have heard the story about the fellow who was desperate to take some of his wealth to the afterlife. He arranged for the purchase of the sturdiest casket money could buy and converted his cash into gold bricks. His lawyer was instructed to make sure the gold was hidden in the bottom of the casket. When he arrived in heaven, no one could quite figure out why he had bothered bringing his own paving stones because the streets there were already finished.
Am I really suggesting that we think about our own deaths? Yes. Is that part of the good news I promised? Yes! I say that because to think about the end of this life is not to contemplate the end of me, but rather to focus on my hope as a
Christian, hope for life in unbroken fellowship with God.
The second suggestion involves waste management—wasting money and wasting time. What I mean by this is simple. Give away money and give away time without any calculation. For example, when I see a person who is homeless asking for spare change, I almost immediately begin to calculate what it is this money could be used for. Perhaps he is going to buy a bottle of cheap wine with it. And that calculation means I keep my money in my pocket. If someone is on the street asking for money, here’s one thing I can be sure of 99.8% of the time—he or she needs the money.
Give away time. I think one of the reasons why many churches see fewer people on Sundays is that more and more worship is regarded as a waste of time. Do more of it. St. Augustine urged us to be greedy for eternal life. “Do you covet endless money? Then desire eternal, endless life. Do you hope for possessions unlimited? Seek eternal life” (quoted in The Ten Commandments for Jews, Christians and Others, 210, 211). Develop a greedy love of prayer.
Frederick Buechner once observed: “There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up.” In our text today, the man was chasing stuff that wasn’t real. That’s what he should have been grieving over.