I preached this sermon several weeks ago, immediately before Stewardship Sunday, when the congregation is invited to consider what their contributions – both money and time – will be for the next year. It was unplanned, but the lectionary serves up fastballs on occasion, and you gotta keep your eye on the ball.
Today’s text is so rich and complicated – and difficult – that most preachers over the centuries have tried to wriggle out of taking it at face value. Jesus is teaching against wealth in straightforward, difficult ways – difficult, that is, for those of us who have some amount of wealth. Nobody who owns their own car or house or business or pantry full of food wants to hear that following Jesus requires “selling everything we own and giving it to the poor.”
But Jesus does not relent, even after he tells the rich man to do this. Everybody standing around who hears Jesus’ instruction is rattled, so Jesus keeps going: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
And again, when Jesus’ own disciples clap back at him, reminding him that THEY have already left everything to follow him, Jesus responds by saying “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now – houses and brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields – and eternal life in the age to come.”
Then he sums it all up by saying “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
For entertainment’s sake, here are a few ways that preachers through the ages have tried to wriggle out of this instruction to the rich young man that Jesus – and Mark, in his telling of the story – are very careful not to let us wriggle out of:
Some preachers say that the instruction to “sell all you have and give it to the poor” was only SPECIFIC to this PARTICULAR rich man – not something meant to be taken at face value for anyone who wants to follow Jesus.
But Jesus literally says, right there in the text, that it’s harder for ANY rich person to follow him than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle!
Well, said some preachers, you see, some historians think that there possibly maybe might have been this one gate into the city of Jerusalem where the traders and travelers entered. This particular gate was very, very, very narrow and kind of short, to boot. So when the rich merchants tried to enter the city, they had to remember to first stop and unpack all their goods and jewels and merchandise from off of their camels so that the camel would fit through the door. Jesus didn’t really mean that rich people can’t get into heaven, they say, he was just using that narrow gate as a metaphor….like, maybe you should set your riches down for a little bit in order to get through the door…but you’ll get them back! Don’t worry!
But Jesus is pretty clear: it’s not just holding riches more lightly, it’s about leaving them entirely. “Whoever has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news” will receive a hundredfold back.
In fact, Jesus says, y’all have this whole idea about wealth and virtue mixed up. In God’s reign, it’s the first who end up at the back of the line and the last who get first dibs. The poorest of the poor are God’s own beloved, first in line for entry into the new kingdom. And the ones we think are farthest ahead here in our earthly virtue/worth calculators, well, they’ve got a hefty surprise in store if they think that’s how God’s accounting works.
It’s impossible to wriggle out of what Jesus is teaching in this passage. Mark meets each caveat with a doubling-down of Jesus’ insistence. And this teaching against personal wealth is shot through the entirety of the New Testament. This isn’t – by far – the only time Jesus or the early Christians taught and lived in ways that refused individual wealth. We learn in Acts that the first Jesus followers lived in an economy of sharing, where they pooled all their resources and shared with whoever had need. When Ananais and Sapphira tried to secretly keep some of their personal wealth to themselves and then lied about it to the church, they get struck down dead on the spot.
So, it’s probably worth reading this particular passage – which includes the story of the only person in Mark’s Gospel to refuse Jesus’ invitation to follow him – a bit more closely. How are we like this rich man? How are we like the crowd, confused and awed at Jesus’ insistence? How are we like Peter, upset because we’ve already given up so much to follow Jesus? How can we follow this teaching in the midst of a society built on unjust economic practices and assumptions?
Let’s start at the beginning. Jesus is “on the way.” In Mark’s story-telling, that means that we are supposed to register that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, yes, but also toward the cross. He is on the way – and we know what lies at the end of that journey.
And, on the way, a man runs up and falls at Jesus’ feet. Both Matthew and Luke tell this story in their gospels, but they attach some identifying adjectives to the guy – a “rich young ruler” or a “young man.” But here in Mark, he’s just a guy. We don’t know anything about him. But he runs up to Jesus, can’t get to him fast enough, and falls at his feet. Clearly, he knows who this is. Clearly, he already worships Jesus. He is eager, excited, begging Jesus to tell him how to live.
“Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus, who is rarely distracted from what people are really saying and what people are really asking for, replies:
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
Jesus heard in this guy’s question an assumption. He heard the assumption that DOING something, BEING GOOD, checking off all the appropriate boxes and working one’s way into God’s favor is the way to inherit eternal life. Jesus heard whispers of the Protestant work ethic, a works justification theology, a sinister confidence in human ability & achievement.
“No one is good but God alone,” he says, reminding the guy from the very start that eternal life is not earned or achieved or locked in by anything that humans can do.
Then he goes on: “you know the commandments, right? You know what it is you’re supposed to DO: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
And the guy, who is desperate for some direction says, “yes, of course, I learned those when I was a kid and I’ve kept them all my life!”
And Jesus, Mark tells us, looked at him and loved him.
Let’s just stop there: Jesus looked at him and loved him.
There are ways to tell this story that make rich people into evil, unlovable, beyond-hope pariahs. Plenty of preachers tell the story that way. It’s tempting. But that’s not how Jesus works. He looked at this man and LOVED him. He heard the man’s struggle, and his deep desire, and witnessed his devotion and his faithfulness and his curiosity. Jesus knew all about him. He looked at him, and he loved him.
And then 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.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “go burn up all your fields and barns and possessions in a big bonfire so they don’t tempt you or anyone else.” He doesn’t say “drop out of the economy and let whatever happens to your riches happen.” He asks the man to take responsibility for his wealth, to do the work of divesting himself from its hold, to take on the labor of selling it himself. He instructs the rich man in a practice of wealth re-distribution. He asks him to figure out who the poor people are in his neighborhood and give them cash gained from sale of his own property. Jesus is not anti-money, necessarily, or entirely anti-possession. But he knows that the inequity of the economic system means that some people have far, far too much while others have far, far too little. Jesus asks this one rich man to be accountable for his excess and do his part to balance the scales.
But when the man heard this instruction, he was “shocked” and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
We never hear anything else about the rich man. We have no idea what he did, whether he gave up on his dream of following Jesus and let his possessions rule him, or whether the next day or week or year or decade he came to his senses and did what Jesus asked of him. But we know that here, in this moment, Jesus’ request feels too much. He is shocked, grieving, bitter, angry, unable to comply joyfully.
And everyone else standing around seems to be equally shocked. Wealth was a sure sign of virtue and worthiness then, just like it is now, and the crowds couldn’t believe that Jesus would turn away such a rich man: wouldn’t his wealth be a huge boon to the organization? Couldn’t all those riches REALLY facilitate a HUGE expansion, scaling up, multiplying the reach of Jesus’ own ministry? Why in the WORLD would Jesus say something so upsetting and off-putting to such a fantastic potential donor?!
So Jesus tells them that rich people have a really hard time following him. And they are GREATLY ASTOUNDED, and ask, “well, then who CAN be saved?” And Jesus says “for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Even camels going through eyes of needles. Even filthy rich people discovering an ability to sell it all and give the money to the poor in order to follow Jesus.
Many who are first, after all, will be last in God’s economy. And the last WILL be first.
Jesus is both gracious and demanding. He is clear that it’s very hard for people of means to follow him. And he is also clear that God does completely unexpected things, even when we think those things are impossible. He makes no bones about this rich man needed to sell all he has and give it to the poor in order to join in the work of God’s reign, but he is equally clear that this man is seen, known, and beloved.
Money is hard to talk about openly and honestly. Jesus offers us a way in: with both grace and clarity, always remembering that with God, all things are possible. I am so curious what you make of this story and these teachings, and I invite your reflections and responses.