Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me
The country music comedy show "Hee Haw" had a regular bit where four guys sang, "Gloom, despair, and agony on me, deep dark depression excessive misery. If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have to luck at all; gloom, despair and agony on me." Then one of them would tell a funny hard-luck story. Our text tells of gloom, despair, and agony, and all three are needed on me and you if we're going to be saved.
We find gloom in the man who ran up. We have to go to Matthew and Luke in addition to Mark to get the whole story about him. Matthew tells us he was young. Luke tells us he was a ruler, and Mark tells us he was rich. Let's add "confused" based on what Mark tells us.
This rich, young ruler runs up to Jesus and kneels before someone he considers to be just a teacher. He doesn't believe Jesus is God but does believe He's good enough to know what to do to go to heaven. Yes, although the rich, young ruler says heaven is an inheritance, he believes you have to do something to get it.
Now if anyone wants to be saved by the law Jesus lets them. The rich, young ruler assumes that going to heaven is a matter of doing the right thing. He doesn't know what that is but he's confident, as only youth can be, that he can do it. So Jesus recites the Second Table of the law with some notable differences. He goes 5, 6, 7, 8, but then either "defraud" sums up the 9th and 10th commandments or with the word "defraud" Jesus is poking the sore part of this man's heart. Jesus definitely is doing that by putting the 4th Commandment last for emphasis.
But the law bounces off the man. He replies to Jesus' preaching of the law: "All these I have kept since I was a boy." If you want to be saved by the law, Jesus lets you. So Jesus goes from the Second Table to the First. "Go sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me." Isn't that what the First Commandment demands? God must be first in your heart. No person, no possession, no thing can be number one. Since the rich, young ruler believed he had kept the Second Table of the law, Jesus puts him under the First.
Our insert translates, "At this the man's face fell." The Greek is more graphic: "And after becoming gloomy on the basis of this word, he departed being in pain." This gloom is necessary. If you can hear the preaching of the law as the rich, young ruler did with the confident assertion that you have done it all, then the law is not done with you. You've got to get to the point where the law is too much to bear; it demands too much from you. The man's problem was not that the law left him gloomy, sad, or in pain. No, his problem was that he left Jesus.
The rich, young ruler left Jesus for the same reason people stay away from church or Bible class. It's a downer to them. It leaves them feeling gloomy. You saw how that man came to Jesus upbeat, eager, confident, gladly. But Jesus kept piling up God's law until it broke that man's self-confidence. Until it showed him he didn't have what it takes to keep God's law. He wasn't as religious, faithful, spiritual, or knowledgeable as he thought he was. So he went away gloomily from the Jesus who showed him that, but gloom isn't enough. If you stop there, you will go away from Jesus like the rich, young ruler. You need not only gloom but despair and as we will see agony too.
The man left in gloom; the disciples stay and get to despair. After the rich, young ruler left, Jesus said to His disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" The word rich here means "propertied." This wasn't the disciples. They weren't of the propertied class of people, but they were literally awestruck to hear that it was hard for that group to go to heaven. They assumed what most do. That outward wealth is a sure indication that you have God's approval; God is on your side; God is blessing you. If He's prospered you in this life, how can it be hard to enter the next?
Now Jesus does to the disciples what He did to the rich, young ruler who took the first salvo of the law with ease. The disciples you might say took their first salvo of the law with gloom but not despair, so Jesus fires again. "How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." "Rich" here is not the same word as before. Here it's literally "things." Jesus says it's easier for a camel to thread a needle than anyone with things to go to heaven. Wait a minute. I have things. Don't you have things? Who doesn't have things? So who can go to heaven?
The disciples heard this the same way, and they were even more amazed. They were literally exceedingly struck in their head and said to each other, not to Jesus, "Who then can be saved?" The moment we realize that salvation is impossible for us we are in despair. Salvation isn't hard for us, difficult for us, it's as impossible for us as it is for camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This despair is what Luther called "delicious" if it crumbles us at the feet of Jesus.
Gloom leads away from Jesus because He's a downer; He's depressing; He's distressing. I was doing just fine till He preached all that law to me. But if the law despairs us to the point of death; to the point where we confess there is nothing about us, in us, or that can come from us that can save us, we're in a despair that is delicious because we're despairing of me, myself, and I. This is where our liturgy starts every Sunday. We confess to be "poor, miserable sinners;" we're not saying we're miserable as in sad but that out plight is hopeless, helpless. We're saying there is nothing about us that is not sinful; we're despairing of saving ourselves and that is delicious.
We have gloom, but we've stayed for the despair. Now for the agony, but don't think the agony is yours. It's Jesus', but let's start with His look of love. Twice our text says Jesus "looked.": once at the rich, young ruler when he took the first salvo of the law so easily and once at the disciples when they despaired of saving themselves. This is the word for look used of Jesus looking at Peter in the courtyard. That look led Peter to remember Jesus' words about how he would deny Him and his going out to weep in repentance. It has been called a loving, winning, compassionate look.
This is how Jesus looked at the rich young man whom He knew He would have to hit with another salvo of the law. This is how Jesus looked at the disciples despairing of being saved. And this is how Jesus looks at you. It's not in His heart to harm you. The preaching of the law is His alien work, His foreign work. He only brings you to despair so that you might despair of self not of Him, not of His promises, not of Him saving you.
As Jesus points out in the beginning, only God is good. There is no goodness in this fallen world apart from God. But in Jesus, in the Person and Work of God the Son, the Triune God shares His goodness with His fallen world, and it was agony for Him to do so. Don't think that it was a piece of cake for Jesus to keep the law in your place because He was also true God. No, since He had to keep the law in place of human beings, He had to do so as a true Man. All those commandments the rich, young ruler thought he kept but didn't, Jesus did. All those commandments that caused him only gloom Jesus kept gladly.
As often as the Devil, others, or your own conscience accuse you of not keeping God's laws, you must admit they are right. You are a sinner you have never, will never, can never keep the laws of God perfectly. But Jesus did in your place. Although it cost Him the agony of being tempted by the Devil and taunted by men, He kept every one of them.
But look at the mountain of debt I've accumulated by a lifetime of sinning. There is nothing but gloom and despair if I look at this mountain through the law. The law says I am accountable for every word I've ever spoken, every thought I've ever had; every deed I've ever done. With what can I pay this off? Not all my things could pay this debt. Being sorry doesn't pay it either. My blood, sweat, and tears only rack up more debt because they too are dirty, fallen even before they fall into the dirt.
The blood, sweat, and tears of Jesus are good. They are holy. His agony in the garden where He sweat blood while crying to God for help was paying down that mountain of debt a world had accumulated. Jesus was in such agony there because He was carrying the world's sins. On the cross, Jesus' agony intensified as He descended ever deeper into the eternal agony we deserve. His agony satisfied God's wrath against the whole world of sinners. His agony paid off the mountain of debt, so we can pray with confidence, "Forgive us our debts." Don't ever despair of His agony being able to save you from your sins.
Scripture doesn't tell us what happened to this rich, young ruler. Because the Gospel of Mark is the only one that tells us Jesus loved him and tells of a young man running away naked from Gethsemane, people speculate that Mark himself was the rich, young ruler, so he did eventually come back to Jesus. But we don't know. We only know we don't want to leave things where the rich, young ruler did in this text. I don't want to leave with only gloom. I want gloom, despair, and agony on me. I want the gloom of the law to lead me all the way to the delicious despair that can only find relief in the agony Jesus went through to save me. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (20121021); Mark 10: 17-27