Friday, May 04, 2012

Questions for going deeper with the Scriptures for Sunday, 
May 6th   Mark 10:17-31| Salvation as a Gift

We often look for answers, but maybe it’s our questions that most define and shape us as human beings. What defines us?  Is it our jobs?; zip code?; possessions?; faith?; class?; ethnicity?; choices?  Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Commitment is an act, not a word.”  In his existential viewpoint he echoes to a certain extent what Jesus is getting at in his encounter with the young rich ruler in today’s section of Mark.  Philosophy grew out of the essential human question as posed by the ancient Greek Socrates: What is a good life? How does one live one?  Can one even live a good life? Does the good we do come from a greater good?  Do we have to be religious, or spiritual, to have a good life? Do we need to be saved from something?  If so, what? It gets at the fundamental heart of Christian faith.

Theological Themes:
Theologically this text talks of faith and salvation as a gift.  Humanity can’t achieve or obtain it by its own means, efforts and work.  It’s the theological affirmation at the heart of the message of Jesus and the discovery that ignited the Protestant revolution of the Reformation in the hearts of Luther and Calvin. Sola fides.  Sola gratia. [Faith alone.  Grace alone.]  Jesus spells out what it means and how it looks to enter into the realm of God’s saving activity here on Earth.  Philosophically the text wrestles with the question of the meaning of life?  What is important?  What is eternal?  What is intrinsic to the human condition?  What defines a good life?  What can you take with you?  John Calvin, the greater shaper of Presbyterianism, or Reformed Theology summed it up like this: “Faith is never a human achievement, but it is always a human event, a human affirmation, a human act.  Faith is a gift [from God] that must always be humanly exercised.  As the bond by which we are bound to Christ faith is that ‘fellowship’ to which we must hold fast bravely with both hands.”

Textual Curiosities:
The text starts with flattery, a common custom in oriental cultures.  He doesn’t address Jesus as “rabbi” but as “good teacher.”  Why? To be kind?; to adhere to cultural customs?; to get something?; or was he speaking flattery in order to receive a flattering comment in return, perhaps about his own faith and religious devotion?  Jesus takes this initial flattery and deepens it into an existentially challenging conversation, which invites, challenges and points towards deeper faith, the deep meaning of life, and an occasion to deepen existential commitment to the God who Moses experienced as who was, and is and is to come” (Exodus 3:14-15).

Scholars point to the authenticity or historicity of this text in particular in the curious response of Jesus in verse 18 in which he claims to neither be good nor God.  It’s doubtful that in the voice of the early church would have uttered such a potentially incarnation-challenging statement.

Verse 21 is the only time in the body of the Gospels that we’re told that Jesus loved someone.  What is underneath this observational comment as he looks the young man in the eyes?  Is it compassion?; empathy?; understanding?; grace in seeing his limits?; hope for a new beginning?  The young man, who we’re told is rich by implication, wants to live a good life, to do good.  But he sees that as doing the Law, following the rules.  Jesus stretches the definitional boundaries of what it means to be good and the image of a good life.  It’s more than following the Law.  It’s more than being pious.  It’s about discipleship: a relationship; about obedience: actually doing, practicing, observing what God teaches about human relationships, justice, devotion, worship and solidarity; about going beyond to merely following the rules to knowing and living acting from that primary relationship with God as center of life and existence. It’s a recognizing that God is bigger than us. Knowing what a good life resembles isn’t enough. It must be lived.

The sayings of verses 23-24 are challenging: difficult to translate.  In its purest form Jesus is contrasting the largest animal and the smallest hole, that a Jew of his day and time would have known and imagined.  Salvation is unobtainable despite our best & purest efforts.

Peter is terrified, afraid that he’s made a bad choice, wanting reassurance that the sacrifices he’s made were worth it.  His reaction is ironic, a paradoxical comparison with that of the young rich man who can’t give up what he has to obtain of what he dreams, while Peter seemingly has received of what he’s dreamed but wonders if what he gave up was enough.

Questions for wondering and exploring:
• It’s easy to write off this encounter, for which of us is rich enough to be like the young man?  Or we say that only the hyper-rich can face such a faith challenge.  And yet we all walk in the tension of seeing faith as something we obtain through sacrifice and experiencing faith as a gift freely given through sacrifice.  The young ruler has much he can’t give up, not just possessions, but also social status & position, his familiar life, daily comforts and established identity.  How are you like the him? What’s too hard to give up?

• In terms of faith as a gift, we have to ask ourselves do we live faith as a gift we’ve received or do we seek to earn salvation: the gift of faith?  How do you struggle in the theological tension of faith versus works, or perceiving the love of God as something we must earn or deserve; or as something we merely have to receive or to which we must respond?  How does John Calvin’s definition of faith as a gift touch your and your life?

• How does this text seem to associate faith, grace and salvation?  What’s it mean for you?

• The theological notion of faith and grace as the free gift of God is at the heart of the Protestant vision of Christian faith.  How is this notion empty, void or meaning-less for our culture and society today?  How would you translate it in order for it to be understood?  How do you need to experience it in your own life in order to “get it” with your mind?

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