What I wouldn't Do for a Million Bucks
A wealthy woman had given much money to charities. One day she decided to see how her money was being put to use. She visited a hospital and saw how Native Americans were receiving care. She stopped at an orphanage where homeless waifs were provided food and shelter. She even went to a leper colony. There she saw a woman lovingly caring for a man with putrefying ulcerations all over his body. She said, more to herself than to anyone else, O my, I wouldn't do that for a million dollars.' The woman helping the man replied, Neither would I'" (Gockel, Give Your Life a Lift).Our text is the second of 3 Passion predictions in Mark. And it's about the sanctification without which Hebrews 4 says "no one will see the Lord." Or more memorably it's about what I wouldn't do for a million bucks. Or more accurately it's about not confusing justification and sanctification.
Our text starts with something many are familiar with: being afraid of Bible class. The original 12 disciples were. Jesus is giving a Bible class only for them on what will happen to Him. He will be betrayed that means someone close to Him will hand Him over. When we hear of a betrayal we don't think of an enemy doing that but a friend. In Jesus' case as David foretold a 1000 years before it will be an old familiar friend. The men He is handed over to will kill Him, and He will rise 3 days later. In this Passion prediction, Jesus emphasizes that He will actually be killed. He says literally. "They will kill Him, and after having been killed He will after 3 days rise."
What was the disciple's reaction to this Bible class? They were un-perceiving; they were un-understanding; or even they were un-considering. This word is agnoeo. When Jesus says in Luke to consider the lilies, He says katanoeo them. They didn't give as much consideration to the Gospel as they did to lilies of the field! Don't you do that? I do. I think time and again of Jesus telling me to consider the lilies, stop and smell the roses, no need to be in a hurry to get things done. But His betrayal? His being savagely killed? Okay maybe, maybe, on Good Friday I will contemplate that, consider that. And His being raised on the third day, I will focus on that on Easter. But that's about it. And that's not the worst of it, either.
Not only were the disciples, the apostles, the 12 un-considering, un-perceiving, and un-understanding, but "they were afraid to ask Jesus." In the upcoming newsletter you'll read this. Conservative Christian writer Matt Walsh blames churches leaders, and I accept the blame, for not teaching pointedly enough. But he goes on to blame individual Christians saying, "'They don't know what their religion teaches because they're too lazy to investigate their own belief system. Not just lazy, but cowardly. They create their own religion because they're afraid to confront the truth and to submit themselves to a law outside themselves'" (Te Deum, 20-5, 2). Whether too lazy, too uncaring, or too afraid to consider the depths of the Gospel, the end result is the same. You go wrong with justification, you screw up sanctification.
But sanctification is our handle, our approach to this text and every other that says something about what we must, should, ought to do. We think we get that, understand this, can do it. We think we understand what being great is. We're like the rich woman in the story. She thought she knew exactly what the Christian life was: giving money. Then she saw what it really was, and knew she wouldn't do that for a million bucks. And neither would the person who was sanctified. But that radical truth comes from justification not sanctification. It doesn't come from where you're trying to grab hold of this text.
After the Bible class on who Jesus is and what He came to do, after the Gospel you don't understand and are afraid to study more, you can grab hold of how to really be great. All you have to do is "be the very last and the servant of all." Easy-peasy. That car that wants to run up the shoulder to cut in front of me? Fine. I can do that. At the butcher counter, so what if 76 goes before my 72? I can do this. I get it. Others are to be ahead of me. That guy gets the close up parking spot not me. Have 20 items at the 15 item check out? Please go ahead of me. Where I'm at is the rich woman having given beau coupe bucks to charity but being brought to a screeching halt by the woman she's probably paying for washing the moldering flesh of a leper. No, she can't, she won't, do that not for a million bucks.
The rotting flesh of the leper is the child of our text. You don't get any points for receiving a little child. Why do you think being a mother is one of the few jobs still preceded with "just"? Why do you think childcare workers are among the lowest paid in society? Why do you think you can murder kids in the womb? Who do you think the 21st century equivalents of slaves in the antebellum South or Jews in Hitler's Germany are? Unborn children. An adult you let go first, an adult you serve is going to give you recognition, credit, just as the hospital, orphanage, and leper colony credited that rich lady. But the child you receive is like the ulcerous leper all he can give you is sticky hands, slobber, and sickness.
I wouldn't do that for million bucks, and that's what Jesus says too. It's not going through the motions of welcoming little children. It's welcoming them, receiving them in His name. In the name of the Son of Man who He began the Bible class telling them would be betrayed, be killed, and after being good and dead raised. How is it that we think, okay I think, I can live the Christian life apart from Him, the Christ? How is it that I who have no good thing dwelling within me think I have the resources to go out and be a little Christ to others? How is it I think that this heart which is "deceitful above all things and beyond cure" can love my neighbor as myself?
Google "The heart is deceitful above all things". The first page is all about a 2004 movie with that title. Not till the second page do you find the source of the phrase: Jeremiah 17:9 And I think all I need to do is come here and hear from some dude in a pulpit that I should put others first and welcome children, and my deceitful heart which God says is beyond cure will go home and do it? There's no way you get from the rich lady to the caregiving lady that doesn't go through Jesus. There's no way you realize what you wouldn't do for a million bucks apart from the justification that only comes to sinners from God for Jesus' sake.
I'm sure some of you thought earlier: I can receive little children. Enlightenment philosophers did that in the 18th century. Children were the ideal. They were examples of the noble savage. You still see vestiges of this in Disney movies where the kid always know better than the adult, is more openminded, and generous. It is possible to do the works of the law, to live the sanctified life in your own strength. That's why Jesus throws a wrench in it by saying receiving a little child must be on the basis of His name. This is John 15 where Jesus says, "Apart from Me you can do nothing." This is Isaiah 64; all our righteous acts, all our good deeds, all our very best needs, from welcoming little children to letting people cut in line, are filthy, repulsive rags. This is 1 Corinthians 1: Jesus is not only God's wisdom to us, not only our righteousness and redemption, but our sanctification.
While we're wallowing in the "how to" of this text, how to put others first, how to receive children, Jesus is doubling down on who He is. While we're focusing on what we think we can understand Christian living Jesus is dragging us back to justification, to our being saved. He says, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children upon the basis of My name, receives Me (and hear this in bold font because that's how Jesus says it), and whoever receives Me (another bold) receives not Me (bold), but contrary to all your thinking receives the One who sent Me (no bold)."
We're always doing what the disciples, the apostles, did right up until the upper room. Jesus says there, "Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in Me." Philip replied that if Jesus just showed them the Father that would be enough. And surely with great sadness Jesus answered, "Don't you know Me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen Me (another bold) has seen the Father." We're always doing what the disciples did: looking past Jesus to the real God. Dismissing the Jesus who lived the perfect life God's laws demands of us and focusing on the God who gives those Laws either trying to find loop holes or thinking doing our best is good enough. We look past the Jesus who bears the sins of the world, was betrayed by a friend, and brutally executed. And we focus instead on what God may or may not be thinking. We look past the Jesus who tells us what He came to do about the guilt that burdens our heart and pinches our back and think the answer to our guilt is in doing something for God: the One who is a consuming fire and dwells in light unapproachable. We look right past God pointing us in Romans 4 to Jesus who was betrayed because of our sins and raised to prove we are justified in God's sight.
God in our flesh and blood changes everything. Who He is and what He did is where we start, is the emphasis of our life, for apart from this we are the walking dead. But we always want to climb over the things of Jesus here and now, His Baptism, His Absolution, His Meal, to get to heaven where we can think big thoughts, do big things. We look past the Word He told us to study, to eat, to be consumed by to what we think the invisible God might be doing, thinking, or saying to us. We focus on what we would do for a million bucks not realizing God in Christ can bring forth from us things we would never do for a million bucks. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20180923); Mark 9: 30-37