October 14, 2018 – 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 10:17-31 – Jesus and the Rich Man
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Before we consider the passage in Mark, let me repeat the beginning of this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12): “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.” The “Word of God” here is not referring to the Holy Bible, the books of the Old and New Testaments that we sometimes call the “word of God.” The “Word of God” here refers to Jesus Christ. You’ll remember the beginning of the Gospel of John and its reference to God’s Son – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The “Word of God” here also refers to Christ’s teaching and speaking as a prophet of God. I mention this because in the encounter between Jesus and the rich man, the “Word of God” is indeed sharper than a two-edged sword, judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart with precision.
Jesus was starting on a journey and “a man ran up and knelt before him.” Immediately we have the impression that the man was very eager to speak with Jesus and that he approached him with humility. He wants to learn something very, very important from the “Good Teacher”: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
At this point Jesus the Good Teacher reviews with the man what he already knows about living a moral life, according to the six of the Ten Commandments that govern our relations with other people. You shall not murder, or commit adultery, or steal, or bear false witness. In this review it is interesting that Jesus substitutes “You shall not defraud” for “You shall not covet.” He substitutes an external behavior for an inner one. Finally, “honor your father and mother.” All of the commandments as Jesus has reviewed them are about how to behave, externally, toward other people.
The rich man says to Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” We don’t want to pass this over. Jesus loved the man. When the man told him that he had obeyed these commandments of God, Jesus must have recognized the basic goodness of his thoughts and the intentions of his heart. And we don’t want to discount the rich man’s “accomplishments” with regard to his behavior toward others. Who among us could say that we have always behaved well – with justice and good will and love and mercy – toward the other human beings we share life with?
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” With love for the man he said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus isn’t laying a heavy burden on the man. He is answering the man’s initial question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus is inviting him to do what he needs to do so that he can follow Jesus. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
But the man who had approached Jesus with such eagerness left Jesus shocked and with a heavy heart, “for he had many possessions.” This hadn’t been what the rich man expected at all. We need to remember that wealth was regarded at the time as a blessing from God, a sign of divine favor. Moses told the Hebrew people that if they obeyed God’s commandments, God would grant them prosperity. Rich people were expected to be generous to the poor, but they were not expected to give all their wealth to the poor.
Now Jesus, the Word of God, perceived that the rich man could not accept his invitation to follow him on the terms he offered. Jesus perceived the stumbling block in the rich man’s heart. Since he loved the man, we may imagine that Jesus was sorrowful when he said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
There are famous saints – St. Francis was one of them – who have heard this Gospel story and responded by doing just what Jesus had asked the rich man to do. Countless Christians whose names we don’t know have forsaken material wealth completely or lived together as the early Christians did, sharing what they had so that everyone had enough – all as part of following Jesus. Many, many Christians have embraced simple, non-materialistic lifestyles in order to be freer to follow Jesus and live into his teaching. Only God knows the astounding generosity of Christians, rich and poor and everywhere in between, who give what they have, sacrificially and joyfully, in obedience to God’s call.
This morning’s Gospel lesson is one of the clearest and most challenging passages we have about wealth and possessions and being a follower of Jesus. And so we may consider it as a foundation undergirding the question of what we, as Christians, do with our money and our possessions, of how we stand in relation both to Jesus and his call and in relation to the call or lure of things and the money we use to obtain things.
How many of us realize that our homes and lives are over-filled with things? How hard is it to let go of the things we have? How difficult is it to stop buying more things than we really need? How much of our time is spent taking care of things? How much do we worry about paying for our things? How much do we worry about what will happen to our things? How are our possessions keeping us from living the lives we want to live? Might it be that Jesus, who loves us, is calling us to free ourselves somehow from things that have no life so that we might have more abundant life in him?
Freedom and joy. That’s what great saints like St. Francis received in exchange for possessions. The offer is there for us, too. We can really do what Jesus asked the rich man to do. Not as extravagantly as St. Francis, but we can take steps in the same direction. We can give our things to someone who needs them or to be sold to benefit a charitable organization. We can sell our things and give the money to the poor. We can choose what we buy more carefully so that we will be able to share our money more generously. We can care less about things that have no life so that we can care more about God’s living creatures and about God, the source of all life.
Wealth and possessions are certainly not the only things that keep us from following Jesus. This may be a good time for us to take a look at our lives and our souls and ask ourselves what does keep us, here and now, from taking a bolder step to follow Jesus, to love Jesus, to obey Jesus. It may be something less concrete than wealth and possessions but every bit as real. Worry and anxiety? Fear? Bearing a grudge? Being overly concerned with ourselves? Guilt? Being too busy? Each of us can learn what our stumbling blocks are and prayerfully work to change.
But finally, we must remember what Jesus told his perplexed disciples when they asked him, “Then who can be saved?” “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” We cannot save ourselves. God is the author of our salvation, the One who can lead us to God’s kingdom no matter how we stumble. For us and for now, it is enough to keep loving, seeking, and following Jesus as best we can, with humble hearts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.