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Being Read By The Word
Hebrews 4:12-16 ; Mark 10:17-31
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Our lessons in Mark 10 and Hebrews 4 remind me of what Woody Allen said. He said, "I once took a course in speed reading and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia." I like that tongue-in-cheek honesty. I think most of us, like Woody, like to cut to the chase and get quick bytes of information-even when it comes to reading our Bible. I think a lot of us could join Woody’s book club: "I read the Bible through-it’s about God!"

How do you read the Bible? Like a novel? Maybe you read the holy book like a newspaper-a kind of holy scampering over a passage for quick facts and trivia. You might even read the Bible like People Magazine-more of a leafing through from page to page for interesting pieces and tidbits while waiting to see the doctor.

Let me confess to you. I have read the Bible with Woody’s speed-reading approach more years than I care to admit. At one point in my life I was reading through the New Testament through every two weeks. I guess my objective was to get from the beginning of Matthew’s opening line, "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah," to Revelation’s final "Amen" in as quick order as possible. About all I could say about what I had read was "it’s about God."

In the gospel story today we encounter Jesus and a seeker; as the conversation unfolds, a life unravels, and I suspect it has all the world to do with how we "read" Scripture-or visa versa.

A man approaches Jesus with an important question. From the start you have to admire a guy like this. He’s the kind of guy that our seeker churches are spending megabucks on trying to get his attention. But this seeker is quite proactive. He doesn’t sit around like a couch potato waiting for someone to come knocking on his door to invite him to the annual harvest festival. And he’s not really a bad guy either. Doesn’t sit around looking at porno magazines, wasting time watching reruns. He’s not into gambling, drugs, loose women, or alcohol. According to Luke, the guy is a leader; we have no idea of his age, but Mark lets us know-eventually-that the guy’s loaded; he’s wealthy. As he’s done all his life, he doesn’t wait around for things to happen. He personally seeks out what this new religious leader is saying about eternal life.

So he approaches Jesus and asks, "Good Teacher, what do I have to do to gain eternal life?" Great question; the key components-"what," "I," and "must do," have brought him greatness, made him what he is.

The question has been repackaged, of course, but it’s still on the short list of our religious questions: What must we do to inherit eternal life? When it comes right down to it, what does God hold out to us as requirements that we ensure that we own eternal life? For some of us, eternal life begins in heaven when life ends down here. Shining halos, fluttering wings, and harp lessons. For others, eternal life is making life as eternal as we can -through Viagra, diet, health clubs, pension plans, and IRAs. Eternal life is not only something we look for after death, it is something that is now. So we come to Jesus and ask our question, "Good sir, what does one really have to do to ensure eternal life?"

"You know the textbook answer-keep the rules," Jesus says. "Don’t murder, or play loose, don’t steal or lie or cheat. Of course, you know that you must honor your parents-you know, the rules, just keep them."

A grin may have broken across the youth’s face at this piece of good news. Little does Jesus know who he’s dealing with here. Why this young man is Mr. Retreat Organizer. Leader of the annual church bazaar. Voted by his Sunday School class the most knowledgeable of the Bible. "All of these I’ve kept since I’ve been a kid."

Now, let me break in here to say that this is where the conversation should end. The story should have Jesus saying to the other disciples, "Hey, listen up, guys. I want you to welcome Bill here to our little group. Bill has kept all of God’s commandments-hear that, Peter-all of them. So he’s with us now."

The disciples are probably worried about how this new upstart will take their favorite topic-"who’s the greatest"-to new levels. But the story ends in one of those sad, unexpected twists.

Jesus looks the guy over. Not like a speed read of War and Peace, but more like reading the man one verb at a time. He reads the guy deeply enough for our narrator to add, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him . . ." Hard to love anyone at first read. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to love people we’ve worked alongside in the office all of our lives. Unless-we have taken time to know the person profoundly. Maybe Jesus had admiration for the zeal, the initiative, and drive that this youth offered. Jesus loved this seeker.

But there is more to that sentence-and that’s where the story shifts. "Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

How sad! The young man slowly drops his eyes from Jesus’ gaze, turns around and walks away from Jesus, maybe forever. Mark notes in the margin of this story a little piece of information that informs us as to why this great opportunity has come unraveled: "because he was very rich."

This encounter shook the disciples to the core. This prime candidate for ordained ministry got away! Do you think for one minute that mainline ministers would let this guy go? Not a chance. Why, in no time Bill would be choir director, assistant liturgist, head usher, CROP Walk coordinator, and liturgical dancer. He would be the next keynote speaker at Promise Keepers. We would probably push him in the direction of seminary and on to ordained ministry. The harsh texture of the story makes us scratch our head about the very ones we’re trying to land. Why in God’s Kingdom would Jesus let this one walk away?

I wonder if Mark is suggesting a quality about Jesus that is similar to reading a book? Robert Mulholland describes an approach to reading that embeds itself in our thinking from the first hour we begin to learn reading. He calls it informational reading. Reading Scripture for information is the way we can entrench our beliefs, solve our problems, and bring what we read under our control; such reading keeps us at a safe distance from the text. So being in complete control, we read the Bible to confirm our own views, needs, and desires. When information becomes the goal of Bible studies and research, we seldom experience transformation-just more information.

But Mulholland also describes a second way to approach reading- "formational" reading. When we seek to be shaped by Scripture, we must learn to read the Bible differently, he says. To be shaped by God’s Word, we are more interested in depth, than distance. Reading for formation suggests that Someone is on the other side of those words waiting. Watching. Inviting. Kierkegaard once said, "When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, ‘It is talking to me, and about me.’" That’s a useful way to describe formational reading-Someone chooses to speak to us through the medium of words and language.

It could be that the surprise of the story is that for the first time in his life a young seeker, instead of seeking the usual-some confirming information about keeping up the rules he’s always known, he is suddenly confronted by a Word that pierces deeply into his inner self and speaks a startling word that the young man had not expected to hear. Of course, the risk is also apparent. Once he hears such an astonishing, unexpected word, he has to choose. To be shaped by that word-to give up his wealth and follow Christ," or to hang his head in disappointment and go back seeking information minus formation.

Once we open our lives to God’s living Word, we will ourselves be read. We will be asked to live life differently, deeply.

Hear the Good News! Though God’s word sometimes cuts, strikes, and almost kills us with its truth, yet in that word, in encountering that face, in hearing that call, and despite the cost, we are shaped by the Word who is Christ, for the sake of the world. Amen.