Trinity 19, Proper 23B
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I lie on – we are fortunate that our New Testament has not one, but four, gospels. John is the odd one out: quite different from the others, with different stories and teachings, a more reflective or philosophical approach to telling the good news of Jesus. But what about the other three: a much stronger family likeness, much greater similarity and yet some significant differences too. Why is this? The simple answer is that in the generation or two after the life of Jesus, the traditions were handed down in different ways among different churches, before they came into written form. It’s a luxury for us to have all three – they had to make do with just one. But the process was more complex than that; the similarity between the first three gospels is in places so close that the writers must have known each others’ work (which is why they’re called the synoptic gospels – which simply means that they follow each other). Who borrowed from whom, and which came first, has been debated by scholars for the last 200 years. But the important thing to recognise is that the gospel writers were not mere scribes; they were skilled editors, bringing something of themselves, and the special interests of their own churches, to the process.
The cycle of Sunday readings used by the Church of England, and many other churches, known as the Revised Common Lectionary, concentrates on each of the first three gospels in turn, with a year of Mark, a year of Luke and a year of Matthew (with John filling in as necessary) reading them as continuously as possible outside the major festival seasons. We’re coming towards the end of the year of Mark, and at Advent will be moving on to Luke.
So before we leave him, what is special about Mark? You probably know it’s the shortest gospel; in some ways the simplest, most direct. It doesn’t have the special concerns of Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, about righteousness and the law; nor does it have doctor Luke’s special concerns for the poor, the sick, and for the new place of women in the Christian community. Instead (as we heard at the end of today's gospel reading) Mark aims to offer encouragement to persecuted Christians, telling them to hold fast and endure, because he believed the time of final deliverance would soon come.
As a way of comparing Matthew, Mark and Luke, let’s take one verse from today’s gospel, the story of the rich young ruler which is found in all three but with a few small and significant differences. It’s the verse after Jesus has reminded the young man of the commandments – do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honour your father and mother (in other words, that part of the ten commandments which is about our duty to our neighbour, rather than to God). Oh, says the young man – perhaps rather smugly, with a note of wounded pride in his voice – I have kept all these commandments ever since I was young, I’ve been a good Jewish boy.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus replies if you wish to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give to the poor. In times past, those words if you wish to be perfect have been used in a disastrous way, as a way of setting up a double standard for the Christian life. The argument went like this: ordinary Christians are called to follow one standard, by keeping the evangelical counsels, the basic requirements of the law. Only those who are called to a higher way of life – in other words, clergy and members of religious orders, monks and nuns – are bound to a higher standard, the counsels of perfection (which came to mean the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). Two standards - first and second class Christians. Which is not at all what Jesus, or Matthew, meant. What he actually says is if you would reach the goal or mark – as with shooting an arrow (where a miss is as good as a mile) – if you want to be completely committed – which is not an option for some, but a challenge to all. This is Matthew working out his theme of righteousness – not abolishing the law, but taking it further, giving it a radical new twist. It is Jesus the new law-giver.
Luke is a bit closer to Mark. You still lack one thing, says Jesus – sell all you have and give to the poor. This is a very important teaching of Jesus for Luke, with his practical down-to-earth concern for the poor. The line which in Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes runs blessed are the poor in spirit [or blessed are those who know their need of God] is, in Luke, more direct: Blessed are the poor, for they shall see God. The poor are closer to Jesus, and there is always something more that the rich can do to help them, and in the process to come closer to Jesus themselves.
But notice a small but very significant extra word in Mark’s account. (Whether Mark added it, or the other two missed it out, I cannot say.) When the rich young man made his declaration to Jesus, told him what a decent fellow he was, very deserving of eternal life, Mark says that Jesus looking at him, loved him and said You lack one thing.... Jesus loved him. This gives the whole encounter an entirely new feel. It’s not Jesus laying down the law, setting a standard or an ideal (as for Matthew); nor yet Jesus the social teacher, arguing for a redistribution of wealth (as for Luke who went on to show in Acts how this principle was worked out in the early church). Both of these are important aspects of Jesus’ ministry. But Mark shows us the pastor whose every instinct was motivated by love; who saw into people’s hearts and perceived what they most wanted and needed. It was because he loved this young man, even if he was a self-righteous prig, that Jesus spoke the hard word to him, because that was what went to the heart of his problem, what was keeping him from God. He didn’t lecture him about abstract principles and ideals; he spoke to his particular situation. And he clearly hit the mark: for, as Mark point out in his direct, understated way, the young man went away shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions. Did he ever come back, and become a disciple?
What Jesus does with this man is an acted parable of today’s epistle, those challenging words from Hebrews: the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Like Solomon the wise, who with a word of wisdom was able to cut through all the protests and deceit of those who came to him for judgement; like Amos and all the prophets with their single-eyed determination to preach God’s justice (what does the Lord require of you? Only this: hate evil and do good) – Jesus takes us unerringly to the heart of the matter. And he can do this because he sympathises with our weaknesses, for in every respect he has been tested as we are, yet without sin. In a hymn based on these verses, Isaac Watts says:
With joy we meditate the grace of our High Priest above;
his heart is made of tenderness, and ever yearns with love.
Touched with a sympathy within, he knows our feeble frame.
He knows what sore temptations mean, for he has felt the same.
Jesus, looking at the young man, loved him and said, you lack one thing..... go and do it, then come, follow me.
Richard Young (Rector)