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. Its 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 Woodys book club:
"I read the Bible through-its 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 Woodys 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
Matthews opening line, "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,"
to Revelations final "Amen" in as quick order as possible. About all I
could say about what I had read was "its 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. Hes the kind of guy that our seeker churches are spending megabucks
on trying to get his attention. But this seeker is quite proactive. He doesnt sit
around like a couch potato waiting for someone to come knocking on his door to invite him
to the annual harvest festival. And hes not really a bad guy either. Doesnt
sit around looking at porno magazines, wasting time watching reruns. Hes 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 guys loaded; hes
wealthy. As hes done all his life, he doesnt 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 its 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. "Dont
murder, or play loose, dont 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 youths face at this piece of good news. Little
does Jesus know who hes 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 Ive kept since Ive been a
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 Gods
commandments-hear that, Peter-all of them. So hes with us now."
The disciples are probably worried about how this new upstart will take their favorite
topic-"whos 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, its sometimes hard to love people weve 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 thats 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,
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 were trying to land. Why in Gods Kingdom would Jesus let this one walk
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 Gods 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 Gods
Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, It is talking to me, and about me."
Thats 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 hes 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
Once we open our lives to Gods living Word, we will ourselves be read. We will be
asked to live life differently, deeply.
Hear the Good News! Though Gods 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.