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The Opposite of Rich

Scripture - Mark 10:17-31

God’s word is living & active, speaking to our world today. It speaks powerfully to our lives. Trust & listen, both to words of pain & need, as well as to words of mercy & grace.

Most of us know this story as the story of the rich young ruler, although Mark is the only gospel writer who suggests he is rich. Matthew is the only one who says he is young, & Luke is the only one who calls him a ruler. The fact that he shows up in all 3 of these gospels is a fairly good indication that his story is true, although most of us wish he had never shown up at all. Because of him, we have one of the hardest sayings in the entire Bible, & one that strikes fear in the hearts of would-be Christians everywhere: Go, sell what you own, & give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.

Mark does not say right off that the man is rich, but you can tell. Not because he has good manners, running up & kneeling at Jesus’ feet, or because he addresses Jesus so grandly once he is there – Good Teacher – but because of the question he asks. What must I do to obtain eternal life? It is a rich man’s question, posed by someone whose bills are paid, whose income is secure, & someone who is not preoccupied by lesser questions such as, “Where can I find a job?” or “How can I feed my family?” No, this man is free of those types of concerns. He does not have to spend his days trying to make ends meet in this life; he is free to pursue the good-life-to-come, secure in the knowledge that he is one of God’s chosen people.

Because that is one of the things wealth meant in his day. Not if it was gotten dishonestly, of course. If wealth was gotten by lies & meanness, then it was no better than poison for those who had it. But if it was gotten fairly, by honest means, then it was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. Bestowing wealth on people was one of the ways God freed them from the daily grind in order to serve the Lord. So, this man approaches Jesus with no shame about his great possessions. If anything, they are his credentials, the very things that give him the right to ask his question in the first place.

But Jesus is not impressed. Looking down at the man kneeling before him, he sees someone who is clearly above average & who works hard to stay that way, someone who wants to achieve as much in heaven as he has achieved on earth, & who will do whatever is required of him to add eternal life to the list of things that are his. Maybe the man hopes he will be asked to buy shoes for every man, woman & child in Palestine, or, better yet, to throw dustcovers over his furniture & put his golf clubs in storage while he accompanies Jesus on his travels.

He is an extraordinary man who wants an extraordinary assignment, but Jesus will not cooperate.

You know the commandments, Jesus says, & reels off half of them. Do not do this, & do not do that. Honor your father & mother. Any Jewish 1st grader could have recited the rest. It is the most ordinary answer imaginable, the ABCs of everyday life on earth. But since the man wants something he can do, then that is something for him to do, the same as for everyone else.

Teacher, I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy, the man says - & Jesus loves him, just like that, which is proof that the man did not say it pompously or impatiently. He said it, instead, like a confession: I have kept the Law all my life, which is how I know it is not enough. I have amassed great wealth, which is how I know that is not enough either. I am a rich man, rich in things, rich in respectability, rich in obedience to the Law. That is how I know none of those things is enough to give me the life I want. What must I do to obtain eternal life, the kind of life that lasts?

No wonder Jesus loves him. He is ripe. He is ready for God. He has come to the end of what he can do for himself. He has come to the end of what his church & his bloodline can do for him. All that is left for him to do is to kneel at the feet of a street preacher with eyes like stars & ask him what to do. So, Jesus looks at him, I mean really looks at him, & he loves what he sees: a true seeker, who had kept God’s word & his own, who had translated his beliefs into a life of genuine obedience to God. And who knows there is more, & who knows whom to ask about it.

But Jesus does more than look at the man. He also looks into him, deeply, like a doctor making a diagnosis. He looks inside of him to see what the matter is, where the problem is, & what is the right medicine to heal it up again. Jesus looks at him with as much compassion as he ever looked at anyone who was blind, deaf, or paralyzed – aching to make him whole. Then he chooses his healing words with care.

You are lacking one thing, Jesus says, & surely the man’s heart jumped for joy. At last! Someone who sees past what he has to what he lacks & who will help him find what he is missing. Whatever it is, he will do it. Whatever it costs, he will pay it. Whatever it requires of him, he will earn it. He will do anything to add the prize of eternal life to his treasury, only it turns out not to be a matter of addition but subtraction.

Go, sell what you own, & give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven, Jesus says tenderly, and come, follow me. It is a rich prescription for a rich man, designed to melt the lump in his throat & the knot in his stomach by dissolving the burden on his back, the hump that keeps banging into the doorway on the way to God. It is an invitation to become smaller & more agile in closing his accounts on earth & opening one in heaven so that his treasure is drawing interest inside that tiny gate instead of keeping him outside of it. It is a dare to him to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all the words that have described him up to now – wealthy, cultured, responsible, educated, powerful, & obedient – to trade them all in for one radically different word, which is free.

It seems to me that Christians mangle this story in at least 2 ways. (I know I have done it before!) First, by acting as if it were not about money, & second, by acting as if it were only about money. It is about money. As far as Jesus is concerned, money is like nuclear power. It may be able to do a lot of good in the world, but only within strongly built & carefully regulated ways. Most of us do not know how to manage it. We get contaminated by its power, & we contaminate others by wielding it carelessly ourselves – by wanting it too desperately or using it too manipulatively or believing it too fiercely or defending it too cruelly. Every now & then someone manages to use it well, but the odds of that happening are about as good as they are of squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle. The story of the rich young ruler is a story about money.

But it is not a story that is only about money, because if it were then we could all buy our ways into heaven by cashing in our chips right now & you know that is not so. None of us earns eternal life, no matter what we do. We can keep the commandments until we are blue in the face; we can sign our paychecks over to the church & rattle tin cups for our supper without earning a place at God’s banquet table. The kingdom of God is not for sale. The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their riches. The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift, to be given to whomever God chooses, for whatever reasons please God.

The catch is you have to be free to receive the gift. You cannot be otherwise engaged. You cannot be tied up right now, or too tied down to respond. You cannot accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it with. You cannot make room for it if all your rooms are already full. You cannot follow if you are not free to go.

If you ask me, that is why the rich young ruler went away saddened; he understood all at once that he was not free. His wealth was supposed to make him free but kneeling in front of Jesus he understood that it was not so.

Invited to follow, he went away saddened instead, for he had great possessions that he lugged behind him like a ball & chain. He is the only person in the entire gospel of Mark who walks away from an invitation to follow; he is the only wounded one who declines to be healed. Poverty scared him more than bondage. He could not believe that the opposite of rich might not be poor, but free.

Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!’ They were amazed at his words, positively astonished by them, Mark says. He was challenging the social order, turning it upside down. Those who rode through the gates of Jerusalem on golden litters would find their handlebars stuck on the gates of God’s kingdom. But so would everyone else who could not leave things behind.

I am not sure why the disciples were so amazed, frankly. Two of them had left their fishing nets behind, 2 more of them a fishing boat (not to mention their father). Another one left a lucrative career, pushing his chair away from his tax collector’s desk to follow the strange man with the burning eyes. All of them had walked away from something, but not because it was a prerequisite for becoming a disciple. It was more like a consequence, really. He called, they followed, & stuff got left behind. Not because it was bad, but because it was in the way. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. He called, & nothing else seemed all that important anymore. Jesus was so much more real to them than anything else in their lives that it was no big heroic thing to follow him. He set them free, that is all there is to it. It was not their achievement. It was a gift.

Oh, I know, I know. There are the children, the mortgage, the aging parents, the doctor’s bills, the economy, the pandemic, the future. I know. It is the same for me. There are days when threading a camel seems easier than following Jesus. So, who can be saved? And who is brave enough to be free? The question has not changed much, but neither has the answer: for us it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.

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