17 As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”
18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19 You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”
20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.
23 Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” 24 His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
26 They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”
28 Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”
29 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30 will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”
Believe it or not, I pick the Scripture texts from which I’ll preach several months in advance. In fact, I chose to preach on this text back on June 1st. So, I didn’t plan for this to be the consecration Sunday reading, but I guess it works. After all, Consecration Sunday is when we present our giving pledges for the coming year, and in this text, Jesus addresses something about faith and wealth and the values of God’s kingdom. But this isn’t an easy text to hear or to understand. So, let’s walk through it together.
When this exchange with the man takes place, Jesus had just blessed the children after scolding the disciples to let the little children come to him and explaining that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a little child will never enter it (c.f. Mark 10:15).
In Matthew’s version of this encounter, the man is described as “young” (19:22); in Luke’s Gospel he’s described as a “ruler” (18:18). So, in Christian tradition, this man is often called the rich young ruler. But, in Mark’s Gospel, he’s simply identified as a man with no other adjectives.
There’s no reason to doubt the man’s sincerity, as we often do when reading this story. When he approaches Jesus, he kneels. When he addresses Jesus, it’s with great respect. And when he questions Jesus, it seems—at least to me—that he genuinely wants to know the answer to a very serious concern.
But, as I said a moment ago, Jesus had just taught that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom—a better rendering of the Greek word is receive—whoever doesn’t receive God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it. It’s a lesson this man obviously didn’t hear because the man asks Jesus “What must I do to obtain eternal life” (Mark 10:17 CEB). Instead of receiving the kingdom in complete dependence, like a child, the man wanted to know what he could do.
It’s a mindset that’s typical of the privileged, in whatever capacity that we’re privileged. I think it’s important that we recognize our privilege over others: I’m white, I’m male, I’m ordained clergy, and there are certain amounts of privilege over others that go with each of those. Early in my marriage, when Joy would tell me about an issue she was having, I would try to solve it for her. Like an idiot, I would try to figure out what to do to fix her problem when all my wife wanted was for me to listen to her. Privileged people can have a mindset that we can do our way out of any problem. If the problem is obtaining eternal life, tell me what to do. I’ll put that on my list and check it off once it’s done.
Eternal life obtained. Check!
What’s more, the man wanted to know what he could do to inherit eternal life. While I like the Common English Bible, obtain probably isn’t the best translation here. The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. My grandmother had her twelve grandchildren in her will, so I received a small inheritance. I didn’t do anything to inherit it. It’s what Grandma wanted to give. An inheritance is usually something a person can only be given. There’s not much anyone can do to inherit something. Inheritances are received. So, the man’s question is a little odd even if it is sincere.
Jesus responded to the man’s question by referring to several of the Commandments: specifically, the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments (c.f. Exodus 20:12-16; Deuteronomy 5:16-20) along with a comment against fraud (c.f. Deuteronomy 24:14; Amos 8:5). These commandments remind us of the requirements of authentic and vibrant community life, and justice within our community. For authentic community to exist, we can’t kill each other, we can’t commit adultery with another person’s spouse, we can’t give false testimony to wrongfully convict our neighbors, we can’t defraud each other (the command against fraud in Deuteronomy 24 includes Israelites and immigrants), and we show honor to our parents by caring for them in their old age.
When the man responded that he had kept these things since he was a boy, Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. While we expect Jesus to love everyone, the statement by Mark suggests that Jesus honored the question and the questioner. This was a man who was trying to be faithful, who wanted to do what was right, and it seemed that Jesus saw that in him. But the requirements of discipleship can move us beyond the law. Jesus noted the one thing the man lacked, which was the utter trust in God he described earlier when teaching about how we must receive the kingdom of God like a child. It was this lack of trust that Jesus sought to bring to completion in the man’s faith.
Jesus said, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me” (Mark 10:21b CEB). Out of his love for this man, Jesus gave him something to do. And we’re told that the man was dismayed at Jesus’ words, and he went away sorrowful because he had many possessions.
Only now in the story do we find out that this man was wealthy. Like the majority of interpretations throughout Christian history, our interpretation of this man’s sorrow and dismay stems from an assumption that he went away in sorrow because he was unwilling do what Jesus told him to do. That’s how we often interpret these lessons.
I’d suggest that one judgment against us might be that we hear these lessons, we think: Well, that person should have done better, they should have obeyed Jesus. Then, we walk away without even attempting to obey the same command. I wonder if our assumptions about other people in these Biblical accounts is our unconscious attempt to comfort ourselves for failing—actually, for not even trying—to be faithful in the same ways as those we’re judging in the text.
The truth is that we don’t know if the man walked away sorrowful because he wouldn’t sell off his possessions and give the money to the poor. It’s entirely possible that the man walked away sorrowful because he intended to do exactly what Jesus told him to do: to sell his many possessions, to give to the poor, and to come back and follow Jesus. That kind of bold decision, that kind of radical action, that kind of leaping out into the deepest waters of faith would not be emotionless, would it? It’s difficult enough for many of us to throw away our junk, which is why we have mini-storage units all over the place. To sell our possessions would be a monumental relinquishment. It could be incredibly painful.
Jesus’ words and invitation to this man begs questions. What is the relationship between faith and possessions? Why would this man need to sell his possessions in order to follow Jesus?
I have heard Christian people say that they don’t think pastors should talk about money from the pulpit. I’ve heard that sentiment about political policy, too. Yet, the fact is that Jesus spoke about money and possessions more than any other topic except for the Kingdom of God. (In fact, many of his teachings about the Kingdom of God have to do with money and possessions). And, Jesus promised the disciples that they would stand before the political leaders of the world, (c.f. Matthew 10:18-28; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-19), just as the prophets stood before—and often against—the politicians of their day (c.f. 2 Samuel 12:1-12; 1 Kings 18).
If Jesus taught so much about money and possessions, we can be sure that our relationship with wealth is a deeply spiritual concern. In fact, it seems to be such a serious concern that nothing less than our salvation is at stake. Why was this man told to sell his possessions and give to the poor? My guess is that his many possessions were what kept him from relying on God and receiving the kingdom like a child. Remember, the man wanted to know what he could do to receive eternal life. Jesus told him that he needed to let go of the things that held his heart captive. Jesus told us in another place, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 CEB).
Where is our treasure? What do we value most? If we value God’s kingdom, eternal life, salvation—those words seem to be used interchangeably in Mark—then we’ll be able to let go of the things that can be a stumbling block to receiving it. Jesus told the rich man that, if he sold his possessions and gave the money to the poor, then he would have treasure in heaven because that’s where the man’s heart would be after such a bold act of faith. After that, the man was invited to become a disciple of Jesus: to follow him.
Even the disciples were startled and shocked when Jesus told them three times that it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom. In their world, the prevailing theology of the day said that the wealthy were wealthy because they were good people and God was blessing them. Their wealth was a spiritual blessing and proof that they were faithful. Or course, they knew of exceptions just as we do. The book of Job is, seemingly, one big exception. But, for Job, it all worked out in the end, so it’s really not much of an exception.
In many ways, the teachings of Jesus take the theological assumption that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, the good are rewarded with wealth and health, and the bad are punished with poverty and disease, and he turned it up-side-down. When everyone thought the wealthy were blessed, Jesus said, “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours” (Luke 6:20b CEB). Jesus preached a radical divine reversal of our human assumptions about who and what is valuable and important. Jesus said, “many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (Mark 10:31 CEB). And the stark-yet-exaggerated language Jesus uses ought to tell us that Jesus is serious about this stuff.
At the same time, Jesus reminds us that salvation isn’t ours to earn. There’s nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. The kingdom of God is a gift, and we must receive it like a child would receive a gift. Salvation is impossible for human beings, but all things are possible with God. Now, that does not mean that we get to ignore the demands of faithful discipleship because we can’t earn the kingdom no matter what we do. That’s like Paul arguing against the idea that, because grace is more powerful than sin, we should sin more so that we can get more grace (c.f. Romans 6:1). On the contrary, we are called to repent, to change our hearts and minds, to walk in newness of life, among other things.
The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to get rid of the things that hinder our full trust in God. For those of material means, wealth and possessions is almost always a hindrance. Does that mean we should sell everything we own and make ourselves poor? No. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. The disciples were fishermen, and they still fished throughout the Gospel stories so they obviously didn’t sell their boats. Peter had a house, and his mother-in-law lived there (c.f. Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30-31; Luke 4:38). The disciples didn’t impoverish themselves and their families. But they did give up what they needed to give up so they could be about the work of Jesus Christ and follow God’s teachings.
In a way, we can turn our stumbling blocks into blessings. At times, we all worry about money, and we usually take pride in our possessions. How easy is it for us to give our wealth away, and do we give as God requires of us? Ten percent is a lot. I know because my wife and I give 10.7% of my income to church, and we give more to support other ministries that we think are important. (I don’t say that to boast. I say that so that you know that your pastor practices what he preaches). I learned a long time ago that, if you can give wealth away, if you can give generously, then your treasure won’t be in your money and possessions. Your treasure will be in heaven.
It’s important that we consider where our treasure is. May God give us the grace we need to value most what is truly valuable.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
~Rev. Christopher Millay