Sermon Audio and Sermon Background notes for Proper 23
The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Scriptures: Amos 5:6-7,10-15 · Psalm 90:12-17 · Hebrews 4:12-16 · Mark 10:17-31

The sermon begins at 5:20.

The text below consists of my sermon notes and some of the background research I did, but it is not itself a manuscript.

Sometimes our language can reveal more than we intend. Certain phrases carry more weight than we realize, more historical and intellectual freight. Unfolding it all can be an interesting exercise. And sometimes spoken phrases can catch us up short, like the written word that stands out strangely on page or screen even though it is spelled correctly, taunting us with its alien nature, its out of shape edges.

One such phrase that stands out for me is “What possessed you…” The first time I heard it used–or at least the first time I remember hearing it–was when I was in the third grade. My teacher had called me up to her desk during a quiet moment in class, when we were all working on something or other at our desks. She was looking down at a note, and then she looked at me over her glasses and said “What possessed you to throw a rock at the school bus?”

Now, as a matter of fact the afternoon before when I’d gotten off the Bus I had thrown a rock, but not at the School Bus precisely. I’d thrown it at my cousin who it happens was on the School Bus at the time. He had been irritating me the whole drive home and was at the moment the rock left my hand, leaned out one of the rear windows making a face or shouting some taunt. In one way, I knew very well why I had thrown the rock. I was angry and I’d had enough. Cousins that you grow up with, like other close friends and relatives, often know just the buttons to push, and this was an example. 

But in another sense, as soon as the rock left my hand, I’d wondered why I’d done it. The phrase “what possessed you…” was an appropriate one, though at the time I was confused by it. I remember being a little offended by the phrase, though I didn’t know why. Nothing, I thought, had made me, at least, nothing except my loving cousin.

But of course, something had possessed me. I acted without reflecting. I was impulsive. Anger had me in its grip. I gave myself over to my baser instincts and, well, my action was an indication that my faculties had indeed been possessed by them. I wasn’t in control.

The language of possession that holds on in such a seemingly innocuous phrase is intriguing. What do we really mean when we ask what possessed someone? Of course we can mean something rather mundane–what emotions drove them to act out of accord with rationality? But we can also mean something beyond the normal parameters of this world, something mysterious or even something founded on the evil powers of this world. The phrase can, in other words, be a sign that we are looking for some explanation where no reasonable explanation exists. 

And when no reasonable explanation exists, it can be a sign to look beyond what we normally think of as reason. Father Gabriele Amorth, late Vatican Exorcist (d. 2016) has written for example, that “one of the determining factors in the recognition of diabolic possession is the inefficacy of medicines while blessings prove very efficacious” (Amorth, An Exorcist Tells His Story).

Lest you think I’m going to slip into a reflection on the unseen powers of this world, and how our post-enlightenment rationality can coexist with a biblical view of the unknown–if indeed it can–that is another conversation. Instead, I want to emphasize that sometimes the things that possess us appear to be far more mundane, far more this-worldly than other worldly. Our gospel text this morning invites us to consider that our possessions may be the source of our possession. In other words, the things we own, the things we covet–they may control us; control our thinking, feeling, and acting in a manner as diabolical as any spirit of the air.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey he is respectfully approached by a young man who asks him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” Things get more complicated when the young man, who is quite wealthy, claims to have kept all these commandments from his youth. But it is possible that Jesus knows otherwise. Commentators debate whether the rich young man is depicted in a positive or negative light.  Sometimes it is suggested that the man’s wealth itself calls into question his claim to have kept all these commandments–and the pairing with Amos in the lectionary might lead us in that direction. But before we write the man’s claim off, I think we need more evidence than his wealth. Remember that when Jesus interacts with the wealthy, he doesn’t tend to condemn them for their wealth out of hand, but he does have a tendency to push against the possibility that any of their wealth may have been ill gotten, and to encourage their hospitality. Consider the case of Zacchaeus as an interesting parallel. Jesus sees Zacchaeus and invites himself to supper. Zacchaeus obliges and does not protest (though the crowds grumble, for he is known as a sinner because he is a Tax Collector). But Zacchaeus says something interesting:

Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:8-10).

Did you notice something about Jesus’ summary recitation of the commandments? It’s not point for point from Deuteronomy, instead, Jesus imports a command or interprets and expands the commands to include the statement “You shall not defraud.” It is possible that Jesus is gently challenging the Rich Young Man, knowing that his wealth may not have been accumulated by entirely just means. When the man says that he has kept all these commands from his youth, Jesus looks at him, and we’re told he loved him. 

One commentator makes a good argument for the intertextuality of portions of the Gospel of Mark and Malachi 3. Here intertextuality is defined as the “imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one.” In this sense then, this section of Mark may have portions of the book of the Prophet Malachi lying behind it. Specifically, Malachi 3:5 may be in view, and could bolster the view that the young man’s sin of defrauding others in order to gain wealth is in view:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

(Mal. 3:5)

And yet, it should encourage us that Jesus doesn’t chastise him, correct him, say “surely you could only say you’ve kept all of this if you’re deceiving yourself.” No. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Just as Jesus has looked at people and felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, here Jesus looks at this man and loves him, and gives him an opportunity to be a disciple. Come. Follow me. If we believe that he has defrauded others and is deceiving himself about his culpability, it is an opportunity for repentance and amendment of life. If we believe that he is being truthful and Jesus accepts his statement, then it is an opportunity to enter more deeply into discipleship. But it is more than the man can handle. Mark tells us that when “he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

In reflecting on this passage we should remember the context that we have talked about for several weeks in regard to this section of Mark. It’s all about right relationship. As my New Testament professor wrote about this section, it moves from sections dealing with right relationship to the vulnerable or powerless, represented by children, to our appropriate relationship to other disciples, particularly those who don’t follow our plan (we’re meant to realize that Jesus’ plan and our plan–particularly when it comes to others–may not be the same), our relationship to “little ones” (both literal children and believers in Jesus), to each other (have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another), relationships to wives who were the vulnerable partners in marriages of the period (and by extension, between spouses in general), to children again, and to possessions today.

“In all these passages the underlying emphasis, in vivid contrast to the disciples’ concern as to who shall be “greatest,” is on the strong yielding to the weak, the privileged transferring privilege to the underprivileged, the very wealthy foregoing the fruits of wealth for the sake of the gospel. It is striking that at the climax of this the disciples do seem, momentarily, to see the point. ‘Then who can be saved?’ they ask. The answer, Jesus tells them, lies not in their attempts at obedience, but in God for whom ‘all things are possible’ (10:26-27). Is it then the case that those who attempt obedience are wasting their time? By no means: they will receive their recompense–with suffering! (10:28-30). the summary of it all is, ‘Many that are last will be first, and the first last’; in the context, a splendid paradox, threatening to those who seek to claim to be ‘greatest,’ yet full of promise for those who seek (but do not claim to be very good at) obedience”

(Christopher Bryan, “A Preface to Mark” 102-103).

“As is made clear in the story of the rich young man, Mark is aware of the danger of those riches that make it ‘hard’ for us to enter the kingdom (10:17-22; compare 4:19); but even that sequence has some of its sting drawn. ‘Hard’ it may be for the rich to enter the kingdom, yet ‘all things are possible with God’ (10:23, 25, 27). Indeed, the conclusion to that particular conversation implies that willingness to abandon all for the sake of Jesus is not followed by a life without human ties, even ‘now in this time,’ but rather by its opposite (10:30). While it may be conceded that this passage in particular refers to the believer’s new ‘family’ in the Church (compare 3:31-35), still the followers of Jesus in Mark are made powerfully aware that ordinary human marriage remains a lifelong commitment, precious in God’s sight (10:1-12), and that children, the natural fruit of marriage, are not to be ‘hindered’ (10:14; probably a baptismal phrase: compare Acts 8:36, 10:47) in their relationship with Jesus.”

(Bryan, 157-158)

All of this raises the question: maybe these concerns aren’t so mundane. Maybe they are spiritual after all. Amorth’s definition, that possession is defined by something that won’t respond to medical treatment–to medicine–but will respond to blessing  reminds me of one of my favorite songs by the North Carolina band, the Avett Brothers. I’ve quoted the song before, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I reference it again. The Avett’s grandpa was a Methodist pastor, and sometimes they seem to be channeling a sort of Augustinian perspective, whether intentionally or not. In it they express the concern that “medicine” isn’t cutting it–what they need is a cure. What the Rich young man needs is a cure. What we need is a cure. Jesus offers it to us, if we’re willing to receive it.

I am sick with wanting
And it’s evil and it’s daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time, it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame

I need for something
Not let me break it down again
I need for something 
But not more medicine

I am sick with wanting 
And it’s evil how it’s got me
And everyday is worse than the one before
The more I have the more I think,
I’m almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more

I need for something
Now let me break it down again
I need for something
But not more medicine

Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I don’t wanna be
Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I know isn’t me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed

Temporary is my time
Ain’t nothin’ on this world that’s mine
Except the will I found to carry on
Free is not your right to choose
It’s answering what’s asked of you
To give the love you find until it’s gone.

The background information about Malachi in the Gospel of Mark was brought to light in the following Journal article: 

Hicks, Richard. 2013. “Markan Discipleship According to Malachi: The Significance of Μh̀ Αποστερήσης in the Stroy of the Rich Man (Mark 10:17-22).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (1): 179–99.