Mark 10:17-31 – What’s the question? Phil Wall

So, I hope you’ve got the message by now that I’m hugely enjoying my time with you. From kids’ clubs to fly bys; music making to foot massaging; contemplative services to Scottish shindigs, I’ve felt welcomed, included and blessed. Even…possibly especially…when it’s come to the sermons I’ve written. Both here and at St Luke’s, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of wrestling with some shall we say ‘interesting’ passages; been wowed by the flashes of God’s extravagant grace I’ve glimpsed; and been encouraged by your feedback. In fact, it was after the last time I was preaching here that I felt especially affirmed and even, dare I say, proud?! As a number of you shared with me your appreciation of the sermon, I slapped my own back, polished my halo and began to mentally measure my head, just to ensure it would fit through the doors of the chapel on my exit. That afternoon, as I fanned out my perfect peacock plumage to the friend I was hosting, she quite rightly shot me down with the question, “So what did you bang on about today?” In a flash, I was brought back down to size, the halo fell eschew and I was reminded that, rather irritatingly, it’s not all about me!

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t offer feedback to those of us who dare to stand up here on a Sunday, of course. Encouragement, reflection, even critique – are all very much appreciated, not least as a marker that you don’t have a collective nap at this point in the service! Rather, for me, my friend’s disinterested question was a reminder that for many today, the idea of listening to a sermon is anathema. When I was teaching, for example, if I talked at the pupils for 15 minutes or so, I would have failed any lesson observation…and likely have had a riot on my hands…whilst even those of us now accustomed to the sermon will have sat through a fair few punishing preaches and might well be able to empathize with the English novelist Anthony Trollope who once said;

“There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.” Ouch!   He continues,  “No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips.”

Huh! Clearly Trollope didn’t have the delight of listening to a Stewart sermon! But if the age of the sermon is in jeopardy, where do we go from here? Well, I’ve found that Jesus is often a pretty good place to start!

This year, as a church, in your parable sermon series you have been reminded that Jesus wasn’t really one for verbose, didactic preaching. Instead, he taught, reflected, challenged, comforted, enraged and engaged his listeners in a very different style. One key tool was, of course, the parable: the sideways story that all people – whatever their age, theology or social status – could get involved with, could imaginatively play with and discuss over the fishing nets, the laundry, the fire long into the night. Another key tool of his was to ask a lot of questions. Just look at today’s gospel reading. There’s all sorts of interesting things being raised in this passage – the nature of our attitude to wealth; the tricky area of consequences and compensations in the kingdom; the inspiring idea that with God all things are possible – and I encourage you to reflect upon these in the coming week as there are some important things with which to wrestle there – but for this morning, I’d like us to focus in on Jesus’ question…

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks a man on his knees before Jesus.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus responds.

On first read we might think that Jesus is a little harsh in his response here – the poor fella was only asking a question – but usually when Jesus seems a little on the grumpy side, something deeper is at play and I think that’s probably the case here. So let’s start with the man’s opener: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now I have a lot of sympathy for the guy in asking this question because, as I shared with you last time I preached here, it was a question that I often asked myself as a younger man. And yet I think the question is the result of a worldview that is at odds with Jesus and the coming kingdom. Firstly, there’s the emphasis on the self. “What must I do so that I inherit eternal life’. Such an individualistic outlook is contrary to the vision of a kingdom of justice and joy in which communities are transformed; where people are called in from north, south, east and west; and where God will be all in all. For the man to reduce eternal life to something he can inherit by doing the right thing takes us dangerously back to the ‘it’s all about me’ theology where I can save myself by going through the saintly checklist of good works. Once again, this transactional view of our relationship with God is uncovered – one that suggests that if I’m good to God, God will be good to me and any semblance of  radical, reckless grace takes a backseat. It comes as little surprise that later in the passage we’re told that the young man who owns this theology is wealthy. His somewhat entitled outlook, and my outlook when I was younger for that matter, is not uncommon to those who are privileged and used to having everything, for eternal life becomes just another thing that you can acquire.

If we’re quiet, we can almost hear Jesus’ sigh before he responds to the man for he’s come across this outlook time and time again, most particularly from the religious elite, and he’s even been asked this exact question before [Luke 10:25] and both times, he responds with a question of his own. Here it’s the short – “Why do you call me good?”

A question answered by a question. This, of course, is nothing out of the ordinary in Jesus’ teaching ministry. In fact, in the four gospel accounts, Jesus is asked around 180 questions and of these, he really only answers 3 of them directly…he would have been a nightmare on ‘The Chase’! In return, Jesus asks over 300 questions of his own! The first words of Jesus that are recorded in a gospel are a question and according to Mark, the last words he spoke before he died formed a question. Flick to Luke or John and the first sentences that Jesus speaks after the resurrection are questions and read on into Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s conversion begins by Jesus appearing to him and…you guessed it…asking a question! This in itself must tell us something about what it means to be life-long apprentices of Jesus – about how we might learn and grow as followers of Jesus. Too often the Church can seem obsessed about arguing over the right answers when perhaps what we need to be doing is asking the right questions…and allowing ourselves to be questioned in return!

You see, in today’s passage, I don’t think Jesus was trying to trip up the young man by responding with a question…we’re later told that Jesus looked upon the man with great love. Instead then, I think Jesus might have been asking the question that the man needed to hear. Why do you call me good?

If the rich young man was, as I suggested, looking at the world and salvation through an individualistic, works-focused lens, then Jesus’ question brought this more into focus. Why do you call me good? What’s your system of deciding and declaring something to be good or bad? Who do you count as saint or sinner; right or wrong; worthy of inheriting eternal life or of missing out? Jesus seems to be latching on to the word good and shining a light on it for, once again, Jesus points us beyond the human propensity to divide the world in two and turn salvation into a neat little formula, and towards God’s goodness, God’s greatness, God’s grace‘with God all things are possible’. Just like his parables, Jesus’ questions brought with them challenge, an invitation to dialogue and an encouragement to view the world through fresh, transformed, kingdom-corrected eyes.

“Live the questions now,” the Czechoslovakian poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said. “Perhaps you will thereafter and gradually without realizing it, one day, live your way into the answer.”

Perhaps, I’m tempted to add, we might also live our way into deeper, more revealing, world-shaking questions.

So maybe Trollope had a point about us ministers and our preaching and maybe my friend’s indifferent question was exactly what I needed to hear that day. For there is a time for sophisticated sermons, radical rhetoric and puzzling parables but if we are to be imitators, followers and friends of the original Riddler, the question-master from Nazareth, then the questions – those which we ask and those that are asked of us – must also be a foundational part of our faith journey. No more ‘platitudes, truisms or untruisms’ then from this preacher this morning. Instead, an invitation to be still for a moment and to reflect –

What question do you have for God today…and what question might God have for you…?