A scene from the 2004 movie Saved!
First Jesus starts talking about divorce, then, as a break, he goes after rich people.
Last week, because it was a children’s Sunday school Sunday, I did a sort of switcharoo on you all, snipping away the passage about divorce and leaving only the cute part about the children coming to Jesus. But for every preacher who wasn’t creating a worship service for children, it was a Sunday to talk about Jesus’ teaching on divorce. It’s a painful text for many, especially those who have personally experienced or been near to divorce themselves. The church has, for years, exiled divorced people from the communion table and told them all sorts of harmful things, wielding Mark 10 as a weapon and ignoring the wide variety of incredibly painful reasons that two people might get divorced. It turns out that life is messy, and rigid rules hurt people when they are wielded as weapons.
One of my favorite God-related scenes from any movie is from the 2004 movie Saved! One of the characters, Hilary Faye, is very Christian and very pious and very self-righteous and played by Mandy Moore. In the scene in question, Hilary Faye is attempting to stage an intervention with the main character, Mary, whom Hilary Faye believes is walking away from Jesus because Mary is no longer doing exactly what Hilary Faye herself wants. During the would-be intervention, Mary tries to literally walk away, but Hilary Faye won’t have it — she hurls her Bible at Mary, completely un-ironically screaming “I AM FILLED WITH CHRIST’S LOVE!” The Bible hits Mary in the back. Mary picks it up, turns around, and says one of the most theologically rich things I know of in any movie, complete with perfect pauses for emphasis.
“This is not a weapon — you idiot.”
Another phrase was often bandied about when I was in seminary: “Be a fool for Christ, not an idiot for Jesus.”
Stringent rules do tend to simplify our lives, but because life is not simple, wielding these rules as weapons quickly turns us into idiots for Jesus.
Strangely, though, we rarely use it as a weapon against rich people, presumably because the church has always wanted their money. You know, it’s been a bit of a rough week, I ran a half marathon yesterday, and I’m feeling a little blunt this morning.
Don’t worry: I don’t intend to be an idiot for Jesus and use the Bible as a weapon. However, not using the Bible as a weapon does require that we think about it, because well, the Bible does say what it says.
So what of it, then? Is it true that rich people can’t enter the kingdom of God? Is it true that divorced people commit adultery? And the most important question: is any of that even remotely the point Jesus is trying to make?
After his famous teaching on divorce, just as he’s getting started on a journey, a man runs up to Jesus just as he’s setting out. Ditching any preliminaries, the man hollers, “GOOD TEACHER! What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Can you imagine starting a conversation like that? Try it when you’re in the checkout line at the Big Y sometime. “How are you today?” “WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?!”
Then you’d know something about what it’s like to be a pastor on an airplane, I guess.
Anyway, Jesus gives this man some beef about calling him “good,” then he basically says, “You know the law.” And Jesus rattles off a few commandments. The man replies, “Yeah yeah yeah — I’ve kept all these since my youth.” We presumably have an observant man of faith on our hands.
Then Mark says that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Then Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Weird, isn’t it, how people who take the Bible literally seem to take everything literally except this part (and maybe some stuff about mixed fabrics and cheeseburgers)?
I’ve heard a thousand explanations about how Jesus “didn’t really mean” that we should sell all our stuff. But I’m here to consider one distinct possibility: maybe he did.
He said what he said, after all, and if he’s Jesus, isn’t his word law for Christians? Even those of us who aren’t rich have private property. I certainly haven’t sold everything I own, and I’m not planning on having a blowout tag sale for the poor at the parsonage any time soon.
But people are hungry not too far from here. The more global you get, the worse it gets: the person in this room with the least in capital still qualifies as fairly rich on a global scale. Unless somebody won the Powerball and didn’t tell me (I can’t blame you; I would’ve sent you two stewardship cards) none of us is crazy rich by American standards. Compare us to the world’s poorest, though, and we come out looking loaded.
As we say in the South whenever the pastor talks about money, the preacher has “stopped preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.”
The bare facts, though, are that Jesus said what he said: “sell all your possessions and give them to the poor.” Peter says a few verses later that the disciples gave up everything. In the early church, Acts tells us that the earliest Christians also took Jesus’ words more literally: Acts 2 and Acts 4 paint a picture of the Christian community that held all things in common, and gave to anyone who had need.
That’s what all takes to follow the law to the letter: sell all your possessions and feed some people. If everybody did that, we would have a more just world with a lot fewer hungry people. Just like the ideal for marriage is that it’s a covenant that lasts forever.
But then life happens, and life is messy a lot of it is out of our control. We humans, for reasons within and outside of our control, can’t ever quite seem to fully get it together in a way that works for everyone.
Nobody here is worthy. And that’s exactly Jesus’ point.
The whole thing, and the rich man’s piousness and vulnerability and sadness in walking away, and the image of the camel and the needle’s eye astounds the disciples so much that they ask him, exasperated: “Then who can be saved?!” They’re not even sure that they’re good in this scenario, and they have given up everything.
Jesus just replies, “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.”
The whole thing is about the crushing nature of the law. About how the point of having stringent rules is so that we can ourselves worthy. It gives us standards by which to measure ourselves in every way — sounds awesome, until we realize that life is messy, stuff happens that’s outside of our control, and strict standards are impossible for everyone to keep.
But for God, Jesus says, all things are possible.
Here’s a thing I say all the time: The Gospel isn’t a story about how we prove ourselves worthy. The Gospel is a story about God.
Peter’s exasperated, though, and still doesn’t get it: “We’ve left everything to follow you!”
It’s not about you, Peter. It’s about turning the world upside down.
Many who are last shall be first, and a lot of folks who are used to being first shall be last, and they’ll probably be pretty mad about it.
But either way, there’s plenty good room at the table.
Long ago, I heard someone say, “The Eucharist is the only altar call we need.”
This isn’t a story about us or our willingness to give up everything or how long our marriages last or anything we do. Because the law crushes everybody — rich, poor, married, divorced. If idealistic rules don’t get you on one thing, they get you on another. Possessions, money, marriage, divorce — it’s all complicated and messy. There is no reliable standard by which to measure humanity because one person’s frivolous, terrible decision is another person’s survival tactic. So it is with divorce. Abuse is real, and toxic relationships are real, and some people divorce so that they can survive and thrive. The real sin is pretending like we can be gatekeepers for God.
Life is messy. Thank God we don’t have to keep score, because we couldn’t if we tried.
Grace, that we meet at the altar in bread and wine. I once heard someone say that the Eucharist is the only altar call we need. I believe that.
In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans quotes Robert Fararr Capon, who writes, “Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”
Evans continues, “This is why I need the Eucharist.
I need the Eucharist because I need to begin each week with open hands.
I need the Eucharist because I need to practice letting go and letting in.
I need the Eucharist because I need to quit keeping score.
‘No one has been worthy to receive communion,’ writes Alexander Schemamann, ‘no one has been prepared for it. … Life comes again to us as a gift, a free and divine gift… everything is free, nothing is due and yet all is given.’”
She continues, “It’s a scary thing to open your hands. It’s a scary thing to receive, to say yes. I resist it every time. But somehow, whether it sneaks in through a piece of bread, a sip of wine, or a hatching bud, grace always, eventually gets through. And finally, at long last, I exhale my thanksgiving.” (1)
The Bible is not a weapon. It is also not simple; it can be confusing and burdensome.
But in the end, it is a story about God, not a book of stringent rules. We have enough rulebooks. The Bible holds an ancient story that tells us how easily we humans turn destructive and how messy life is, and proclaims something else: that grace always breaks in, somehow, right about the moment that we stop keeping score. It is not a weapon, and we need not be idiots for Jesus in trying to keep all its rules. The Bible comes to life at the table in bread and wine and words and grace, offered freely, thank God.
So let us begin our week, beloved, with open hands. Amen.
1. Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday (2015), 144-145.