Saturday, October 10, 2009

B, Pentecost 19 Proper 23 - Mark 10:17-31 "The Good Bloke Joke"

A funeral director and a pastor were standing back watching people come to the graveside to view their loved one's last resting place. The funeral director jokingly said to the minister, "I've only ever buried good blokes you know!" The minister laughed as the funeral director continued, "Yeah! I've never buried anyone who's been bad. They've all been good!" The funeral director smirked with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and added, "Surprising isn't it?" The pastor responded, "Yeah that's why we all end up in a box in a hole!"

The stark reality of a funeral often exposes a most foolish and cruel contradiction and absurdity. The person who's died is eulogised a good bloke or a wonderful woman. Sometimes to the point of everyone's embarrassment. It might even appear you've arrived at the wrong funeral.

We've all heard these things said! "Yes, he was such a good bloke! He did this, he did that, he was such a model for our community!" And all the while negative thoughts are spreading through the congregation. There's a pious perplexity welling up in those who knew him best. So as they keep up appearances they turn up their noses thinking, "If you really knew this bloke you wouldn't be saying he's all that good!"

But then there are some in the congregation hearing these words and wishing they too could be as good as the bloke who seems to be owed his eternal life through what he'd done during his days on earth. It seems a privilege for God and his entourage that this bloke would choose to enter heaven.

Some seek to place themselves with or above he whose past life is worshipped in a game of "one-up-men-ship". Or those who hear are troubled by this deceased mortal who's received immortality by being such a good bloke. They're crushed by their inability to be anywhere as good as the righteous good bloke now made immortal.

The reaction of the congregation is confused, as either of these things occur within the hearts of each hearer. Perhaps even a conglomerate of both confounds the congregants!

Self-righteous pride and then crushing bitter disappointment also stir a certain man who approaches Jesus to ask what would have to be the most foolish question one could ever ask, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17b)

First Jesus addresses the title the man uses of him, "Good teacher", to which Jesus replies, "Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone." (Mark 10:18)

Did this fellow realise this good teacher was God? No, certainly not! We know this because the young man goes on to show this good teacher how good he had been. Rather he calls him a good teacher in a deliberate attempt to woe Jesus into giving him the answer to his question of inheriting eternal life. An answer that had obviously escaped him even though he had done so much apparent "good"!

Jesus then rolls straight into the commandments, pointing the man to the law and what it requires of him. To which the man declares he had kept all these laws since he was a boy. And it's at this point we hear that Jesus looked at him and loved him. However, you and I would find it difficult to believe we were being loved if Jesus went on to say the same thing to us, as he says to the man…

"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." (Mark 10:21)

I wonder how "good" the man thought Jesus was after he heard what Jesus told him to do. This fellow had great wealth; he had done much good to get it; he was good at keeping the law. (Well, so he thought!) Here was a good bloke expecting good things to happen to him because he had done so much good.

But no! Jesus shows just how good he was by showing him his goodness misled him to believe in himself rather than the only person who is good — and that is God alone!

This fellow had born the load of doing so much good. He had carried much to benefit himself and he was a good bloke! Yet God revealed his goodness was not good enough, his labour had not been good enough to show him how to enter the kingdom of God. In fact, the benefits of his labour had become the load which was weighing him down. His self-sufficiency was his insufficiency. And so he went away crushed by his need to rid himself of his riches! His goodness was far short of the goodness expected by God.

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God." (Mark 10:24-27)

Jesus very deliberately turns his disciples to the image of a camel and the eye of a needle. A needle needs complete precision from the person inserting a thread. Anyone who has ever threaded a needle will know how difficult it can be. Now imagine passing a camel through the needle. Impossible! No wonder the disciples were amazed when Jesus said this.

We see camels as beasts of burden, dirty, smelly, ill-tempered, and noisy. In fact, they are the largest unclean animal living in the Middle East. Yes! They are unclean in themselves, but they are also unclean animals according to the ceremonial laws of the Jews, because they do not have a cloven hoof.

The word camel originates from a Hebrew word which literally means to benefit from one's labours. And the camel is a self-sufficient being in its environment, being able to drink large quantities of water to last it days and its hump allows it to store energy as fat to tide it through lean times. No wonder they were used by traders as caravans in the desert. Camels in their desert setting are a benefit to themselves and those who used them.

But even after all the benefits of a camel's being and carrying ability are put aside, it still would not fit through the eye of a needle. And so it's even more impossible for those who are rich to enter the kingdom of heaven through what they do. Rich being, those who are self-sufficient, those who have abilities and strengths to sustain one's self, those who can work for what they want, and those who can do all that's needed to be seen as good blokes or wonderful women.

We can return to the funeral director who's only ever buried good blokes. We can ask ourselves, "If the blokes were so good, why then did they die?" And, if the self-righteous man who approached Jesus was so good in what he had done, why was he still puzzled as to how to earn eternal life?

In these questions we see the impossibility of us being able to save ourselves from death and destruction. If it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle, and we know it's impossible, then how much greater is the impossibility for you and I who are rich in so many areas of our lives? Even the poorest person in our society carries the richness of life that hinders them from entering the kingdom of heaven by their own efforts.

But the impossibility we face is one that Jesus has overcome. Jesus is continually seeking entry in to each and every one of us. So as we hear the word of God, the Holy Spirit continually seeks to reunite and strengthen us in Christ. He reveals the weaknesses of our hearts and works to prune from us all the stuff that continually weighs us down and hinders us.

Perhaps one day at your funerals someone might not eulogise you but in the obituary say, "this bloke, this woman, wasn't a good person. In fact, she struggled with sin her whole life. Despite the good he did he never did enough to keep death at bay. But those who joke about the bloke in whom we trust — the joke is on them! For this Jesus bloke, he's a good bloke. So good he's God! So good he took the fall for those who've died trusting him.

This makes Good Friday and the day of our departure from this life, a very good day for us as we look forward in faith to the moment when we confidently approach the eternal throne of grace once and for all. At that time we know we will receive all the benefits of Jesus Christ who, like the camel, carried our load through the seemingly impossible eye of death and was raised to life for your eternal benefit and my eternal benefit too. Amen.