October 14, 2012
Mark 10:17-31 (CEB)
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
10:19 You know the commandments: ‘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.'”
10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and 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.”
10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
10:25 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.”
10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, 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,
10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.
10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
In today’s Gospel passage, a man asks Jesus about the key to eternal life. The man is enthusiastic; the Bible describes him as running up and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet. He calls Jesus “good teacher,” and Jesus immediately corrects him.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks him. “Only God is good.”
Of course, we understand Jesus to be a part of the divine Trinity, “of one Being with the Father,” as it says in the Nicene Creed. But Jesus had not fully revealed that aspect yet, and perhaps Jesus sensed, and was trying to explore, that this man was fascinated by teachers.
That’s a situation that occurs a lot today, both inside and outside the church. I know many of us have authors and speakers and teachers that we admire, but some people seem to lose their perspective in this regard, and they put an inordinate, and unjustified, amount of faith in this or that colorful figure, whether it’s a televangelist, a self-help guru, or even a talk show host.
There’s a movie out right now, which I haven’t seen yet, called “The Master,” and it explores this relationship a little bit.
It’s a work of fiction, but one of its main characters, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is quite obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. The movie takes place in the 1950s, and its other main character, a somewhat emotionally-scarred veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in with this charismatic leader and the new religion he’s beginning to organize. The movie, from what I’ve read about it, looks at the nature of this master-disciple relationship.
Jesus is a true master, and while his disciples were still growing in their faith, the relationship was based on devotion and understanding. Jesus was willing to accept a new follower – Jesus is always ready to accept new followers – but first, he wanted to find out if that’s really what this man was looking for. Is he just caught up in the latest fad, or does he have a true desire to change, to follow God?
Jesus reminds the young man not to put his faith in human teachers but to focus on God. But then he gets back to the young man’s original question: what does he have to do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus reads off a list of commandments familiar to any Judaean, and to us today – don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie about your neighbor, don’t defraud anyone, and honor your parents. The man says that’s he’s done all of that, ever since he was a child.
So then Jesus probes a little deeper. He tells the man to sell everything he owns and give it away to the poor. The man had many possessions, and he wasn’t willing to do this, so he went away sadly.
Jesus then talks to his disciples about the danger of wealth.
Now, it’s interesting, when you get to looking at Bible passages, you find a number of different opinions and ideas about Bible times.
I recall hearing at a Bible study a while back that, in occupied Judaea of Jesus’ day, there were a limited number of ways of accumulating wealth, and so if you were wealthy there was a good chance that you’d obtained that wealth through unsavory means – by being a tax collector, for example, which involved not only collaborating with the hated Romans but also cheating your own people by overcharging them.
And yet, you read other sources, such as the great Bible commentator William Barclay, who say that in Jewish culture, wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. This was certainly the case back in the day of Job – if you were wealthy, it was seen as a sign that God had blessed you and prospered you, and if misfortune came upon you, it was seen as a sign of God’s punishment, which was the attitude taken by Job’s friends in their criticism of him.
In the economy of Judaean times, there were some classes of people, such as widows, who had almost no way to improve their own situations, and were almost totally dependent on the kindness of others. It was harder to improve the situation into which you were born than it is in the world with which we’re familiar. Our economy isn’t perfect, and there are some inequities that we continue to struggle with, but it’s possible for people to pick themselves up and become successful.
Jesus tells his disciples that wealth can be a hindrance to entering the kingdom of God. In fact, he says that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
The idea of a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle is a powerful image, and it seems to make a pretty bold statement. A lot of speakers have tried to soften the impact of the statement by saying that the metaphor actually referred to a very narrow gate into the city of Jerusalem, or a narrow mountain pass with which the disciplesmight have been familiar, either of which might have been nicknamed “the eye of the needle.” But I’ve found sources that claim there’s no historical evidence for either of those explanations.
In any case, Jesus is clearly saying that it is very difficult for those who are wealthy to enter the Kingdom. The disciples are perplexed by this. Isn’t wealth a good thing? I mean, if someone whom God has blessed with great wealth can’t find God, how are people who struggle going to believe?
James, in his letter in the New Testament, is harsh in his criticism of the church for favoring the rich over the poor. “But you have dishonored the poor,” he writes. “Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?”
I know people whom I would consider quite well-to-do whom I also think of as good Christians. They are generous, and they try to put the resources they’ve been given to good use. They see themselves as stewards of the blessings God has given them. But that’s a hard line to walk, as Jesus tells the disciples.
We, as Americans, like to think that our free enterprise system rewards those who provide value. If you make a better mousetrap, or if you find a way to sell the old mousetrap for a lower price, the world will beat a path to your door.
But, just as in Jesus’ day, you can also make money, at least for a while, by cheating people, or by catering to our baser instincts.
Even though we live in a different world from first century Judaea, we can’t just ignore everything the Bible says about wealth and poverty. Wealth is a difficult thing. It’s not for nothing that Paul, in his letter to Timothy, says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. The more you have, the more tempting it is to indulge yourself rather than seeing yourself as a steward of resources that ultimately belong to God.
James makes it clear that the way we treat other people is a good barometer of whether or not our faith is genuine.
The commandments that the young man told Jesus he followed were all familiar ones – but listen to them again: “don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie about your neighbor, don’t defraud anyone, and honor your parents.” All of those except the last one are worded negatively: Don’t do this, don’t do that. Even the last one, about honoring your parents, we tend to hear negatively – we hear it as “don’t dishonor your parents,” “don’t talk back to your parents,” or something like that.
Too many people know Christianity only as a religion of “no.” Christians are people who don’t drink or cuss or fool around or have any fun. And, frankly, “no” is appealing to a lot of people, both within Christianity and within other religions. “No” is safe. If your faith depends on what you don’t do, it’s easy to track your progress. It’s easy to pat yourself on the back for having avoided whatever it is you’ve pledged to avoid.
Psychology Today magazine reported earlier this year that 75 percent of vegetarians go back to eating meat. In some cases, they had problems like anemia, and a doctor advised them to change their diet. In other cases, it was just too tempting to see friends of family members eating that juicy steak or having bacon with breakfast.
I struggle with my weight, as you can tell, and one thing I’ve learned is that healthy eating is less about saying “no” to things than it is about trying to find a diet that you can say “yes” to over the long term. “No” works in the short term, but you can’t keep it up. You have to find a balance of diet and exercise and the ability to treat yourself occasionally, because that helps you turn “no” into “yes.”
What Jesus is asking the rich young man is, in some way, whether he’s willing to take up the word “yes.” Is he going to define his life by the things he doesn’t do, or is he going to step out in faith and define himself by the things he’s willing to do for God?
“Yes” can be a lot harder to base your life on. “No” is safe and secure. “Yes” is dangerous.
One real problem with wealth is that it provides a false sense of security. As Christians, our security is supposed to be in God. Jesus wants the rich young ruler to be a part of the “yes” of the Gospel, to use his wealth to help benefit those who were in terrible need in a day and age when there were few safety nets. But giving all his wealth away would leave the young man uncertain about his own future. He’d have to rely on God for his security.
God is calling on each of us to use the resources we have – whether that means money, or time, or talent – to advance his kingdom. Jesus wants us to be a part of the faith of “yes.” That doesn’t always mean selling everything or leaving your fishing nets behind on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But it means looking to Jesus for our security and direction. It means living selflessly, and taking bold steps to help other people.
Fortunately, the same God that calls us to the faith of “yes” is ready to enable that faith of “yes.” Even as he tells the disciples how hard it is for people distracted by wealth to enter the Kingdom, Jesus tells them something else: “For God all things are possible.” Jesus tells the disciples that those who leave behind their home, or their family, or their fields for his sake will be rewarded for it.
Are we ready to say “yes” to Jesus? Are we ready to define our lives – every aspect of our lives – by what we’re willing to do for God? Are we willing to go the extra mile to make a difference in the lives of those around us?
Mark specifically tells us that Jesus loved this young man. That goes without saying, I guess, but Mark points it out. Jesus loves us. Jesus wants us to live lives of “yes,” and with God, such lives are possible, whether we’re rich or poor, sick or healthy, alone or surrounded by friends. Jesus is waiting in love for us to commit. We can say “yes” or we can walk away in sadness.
The choice is up to us.