[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is Mark 10:17-31. You can read the text here.
“Money makes the world go round”.
“Money can’t buy happiness.”
“Money isn’t everything.”
“Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“You cannot serve both God and money.”
… and I could go on. We have a lot of sayings about money in the English language, don’t we? Only one of those I quoted is from the Bible, but in fact, the Bible contains over two thousand references to money and possessions. (By contrast, it only contains around five hundred references to prayer and a similar number of references to faith.)
Jesus tells thirty-eight parables in the gospels, and sixteen of them deal with how we handle money; in fact, according to the gospels, Jesus said far more about money than he did about heaven and hell combined.
Our gospel text today seems to be about money, but I hope to show you that it’s actually about something deeper than money – something of which money is only one example.
With that in mind, I’d like to simply walk us through the text and see what we can glean along the way, and then at the end we’ll try to pull out one or two conclusions.
Walking through the text
The first thing we’re told in this story is that Jesus is setting out “on the way”. This is a significant phrase. Earlier in Mark’s gospel, we’re told that John the Baptist was called to “prepare the way”; and later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early Christians will come to be known as those who follow “The Way”. So Mark’s use of this term seems to be an indication that the episode he’s about to recount has something to do with what it means to be a follower of Jesus – and that we, the reader, should listen up, because we might learn something that helps us in our following of Jesus.
So, Jesus is setting out on the way, and up comes a man. We’re not told anything else about him at this point, just that he comes up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, you might have noticed, as you read the gospels, that Jesus frequently doesn’t give straight answers to questions. He often seems to come at them from a tangent, or to make an initial response that appears, on the face of it, to have little to do with the question posed. And so it is here: instead of answering the man’s question, Jesus retorts, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
Mark offers us no explanation as to why Jesus picks up on this “Good teacher” comment, so we can only guess. Maybe he’s just trying to throw the man off balance a little bit, to put a dent in whatever self-assured certitude he’s bringing to his encounter with Jesus. Or perhaps Jesus see this man’s kneeling down and calling him “good teacher” as an attempt at flattery – a way to get on Jesus’ good side so Jesus will give a favourable answer to the man’s question. As I said, we can only guess.
Jesus goes on to answer the man’s question, and he does so by listing six commandments. There are a couple of interesting things about this.
The first is that five of the commandments Jesus lists are all from what’s known as the “second table” of the ten commandments; in other words, where the first five commandments are all about how people should relate to God, these second five are all to do with how we should interact with and behave towards other people.
And the second interesting thing is that one of the commands Jesus lists isn’t even in the ten commandments: “You shall not defraud”. Is this some kind of eleventh commandment Jesus is adding, just for the benefit of this man? And if so, why is he adding it?
Well, we’re going to learn very soon that this man was very rich. Now, these days, there’s a lot of talk about inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor. But in Jesus’ day, pretty much everyone was poor (crushingly poor by our standards), and only a very small elite were rich. This elite were mostly rich because they owned land, and they stayed rich by having people work the land for subsistence pay so they could continue to rake in a handsome profit. So I wonder, by slipping in this extra command, “You shall not defraud”, was Jesus hinting that this man had got wealthy and/or stayed wealthy through exploitation, profiteering, or generally walking all over those below him in the social hierarchy to get where he wanted to be?
In any event, the man replies that he’s kept all these commandments since he was a boy. Whether that’s true or not we don’t know, but it seems he at least sincerely believes he’s done his level best to be obedient to God’s law.
Next we’re told that “Jesus looked at him and loved him”. This is the only time in his Gospel that Mark tells us Jesus loved a specific individual. Whatever Jesus is about to say, we can be sure it’s coming from a place of loving concern.
Jesus tells the man he only lacks one thing: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Notice how specific Jesus is here: he doesn’t tell the man to just give money away indiscriminately; he tells him to give to the poor. Is Jesus suggesting that this rich man should make amends by restoring to the poor what he’s implicitly taken from them by living a life of luxury off the back of their labour? Do you remember Zacchaeus the tax collector, who had lived the high life for years by defrauding people? I wonder if this man is in a similar position.
Jesus also tells the man that once he’s sold everything he has and given to the poor, he should come and follow him. In other words, if this man wants to follow Jesus on “the way” – which we presume is the way to eternal life, since that’s what the man is asking about – there’s a price he must first be willing to pay.
Of course, the man is crestfallen because he has many possessions. And he goes away – which is really the opposite of following Jesus on the way.
To complete the story, Jesus famously says how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, to the great amazement of the disciples, who ask “Who then can be saved?” Why are they so amazed? Well, in ancient Judaism, wealth was commonly seen as a sign of God’s blessing. So if this man, an observant Jew who, in their eyes, was quite obviously blessed by God, couldn’t enter the kingdom, who on earth could? Jesus’ answer is that all things are possible with God, and that it’s those who, like the disciples, have given up even what little they had, that will inherit the kingdom.
Some commentators have suggested that this account is a kind of “enacted parable”: Jesus is using his encounter with this rich man as a teachable moment. So what can we conclude from it? Is the point that rich people can’t be saved? As I suggested earlier, I think the real takeaway is something deeper than that.
The man in this story comes to Jesus asking what he must to do inherit eternal life. He comes with the backing of all his status and possessions, and he’s able to confirm that, as far as obedience to the letter of the law is concerned, he’s ticked all the boxes. If anyone’s qualified to enter the kingdom of God, surely he is!
But ultimately this man goes away disappointed, because what he discovers is that the things on which he’s built his life, his reputation and his self-image become the very things that prevent him from entering the kingdom. His attachment to his possessions, and to the status and prestige that goes with being part of the wealthy elite, prevents him from following Jesus, and thus from having the eternal life he so desperately wants.
So the question for us is this: what are those things in our lives that we’ve allowed to become so essential to our security and identity that we can’t or won’t give them up? Maybe for some of us it is material wealth. But maybe it’s more than that: maybe our attachment to our possessions is really just a symptom of a deeper attachment to what we see as our rightful status, our reputation, our place in society. Does our position in the social pecking order ultimately matter more to us than being part of God’s kingdom? To put it another way, which matters most to us: maintaining a certain image and status in the world, or being agents of God’s kingdom?
Interestingly, in the verses that immediately precede today’s text, we read about people bringing children to Jesus. The disciples try to stop people bringing their children, and Jesus famously tells them off and says, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
We might ask what’s the difference between a little child and the rich man we’ve been thinking about today. Well, one obvious difference is that, unlike the rich man, a little child comes to Jesus with no wealth, no status, and no qualifications to rely on. And this was especially true in Jesus’ day, when children had no rights or social status whatsoever.
So, very simply, the question I want to leave you with is this: if you or I were the person in this story who came to Jesus and asked what we must do to gain eternal life, what would be thing (or things) he would lovingly tell us we need to let go of? May the Holy Spirit grant us the courage to ask that question, and even more so to listen for Jesus’ answer and act on it.