Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Mark 10:17-31: The Rich Man
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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
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!’ 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! 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.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 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, 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
The Ten Commandments aren’t the only things God ever told humanity to do, but, often, when people try to remember what God has instructed humans to do, the first thing they think of is the Ten Commandments. I’ve read several scholars who group the commandments under two headings, the “this is how you love God” tablet, tablet 1, and the “this is how you love your neighbor” table, tablet 2. Loving your neighbor is also loving God, by the way. So, it’s not that the two are disconnected. But, some of the commandments direct people how to engage with God and some of them direct people how to engage with other people, as guided by God. These Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20, become the foundation of all of Jewish religious law. There are more than 600 other specific laws to designed to help people live out these first ten more fully.
Jesus had learned that the roots of his faith were found in love of God and love of neighbor. When he began to teach and heal people, it was an outgrowth of these loving roots. When someone, in this case, a wealthy man, asks how he can live out their shared faith more fully, Jesus is quick to point him back to their roots. Well, first he corrects him. The man calls Jesus “good” and Jesus claims that there is a kind of goodness that only belongs to God. Then, he asks him about the law, their roots. “You know the commandments,” he says and then, as Karl Jacobsen points out in a sermon on this text, he names all the second tablet, love your neighbor commandments. He names with the intention, it seems, to remind the man that God has already given him some directions. Has he followed them? The rich man says yes, since his youth.
In her commentary on this text, Sarah Henlicky Wilson points out that there is only one person, in the whole book of Mark, who is specifically and individually names as someone Jesus loved. It is this man. The Gospel puts it this way, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” For Jesus, loving someone means being willing to tell them to do a hard thing... maybe even the hardest thing. So, Jesus tells him the next thing he could do to more fully follow God’s directions. “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.” This is a hard ask, though he’s not the first person Jesus has asked to give up everything. Simon and Andrew dropped everything to follow Jesus when he said “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” James and John did, too. Levi, a tax collector and likely wealthy, left all he had, too. Twelve men left everything to become his disciples. Could this wealthy young man do the same?
No. He couldn’t. The story says that when he heard what Jesus told him, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” After he leaves, we never hear from the character again. To be loved by Jesus and never return... there is great sadness in that part of the story. Wilson, in her commentary, reminds us that Mark is a terse and often hard book. It’s the Gospel that doesn’t have any sighting of Jesus after the resurrection. It’s the Gospel where the first witnesses to the resurrection are so scared that they run off and don’t tell anybody. The disciples mess up All The Time. Dr. Wilson calls the Gospel of Mark “relentless.” Over and over again, people fall short of the measure of their faith. It can be tempting to do like the rich young man and walk away, aggrieved and sullen. That’s what how Luis Menéndez-Antuña translated the Greek word “stagnasas.” It’s translated as simply “grieving” in the version we heard today. Menéndez-Antuña other uses of this word show us that he was more than simply sad. His response to being asked to give up all of his things was grief and also bitterness.
In Jesus’ time, like in ours, too frequently, people equated material success with being blessed by God. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the disciples are shocked when Jesus says that it will be nearly impossible for a rich person to enter the kindom of Heaven. “Then who can be saved?” they ask among themselves. Think of all you’ve been asked to give up over the last year and a half? Might you have a measure of compassion for the rich man who aggrieved and sullen about a sacrifice he doesn’t want to have to make? Especially when he has been so devout for so long?
In his commentary on this text, Luis Menéndez-Antuña reminds us that this teaching, that having wealth is a barrier entering into the reign of God, is often considered one of Jesus’ most radical teachings. He also points out that the most common uses of the word radical in our everyday speech usually mean something impractical or extreme or uncompromising... words that all might be good descriptors of Jesus in Mark, by the way. But, the origin of the word “radical” might point us in a different direction. The word radical comes from the words radix and radicis. Menéndez-Antuña says that those words are used to refer “to the roots of a plant, a problem, the grounding assumptions of an argument.” Therefore, he suggests, when we consider this question of how we can give up what is important to us in order to follow Jesus, we are really considering what is root of our actions, that is what grounds our faith, and makes following Christ possible. Jesus says that God makes salvation possible. So, how might your faith in God help you redefine your sacrifice so that you do not become embittered by what you have lost, and instead, hopeful for what you might gain along the road with Jesus?
Jesus understood his faith to be rooted in love of God, the one who is called good, and in love of neighbor, who will be served if the rich no longer hoard their wealth. For him, wealth is not a sign of blessing. A willingness to sacrifice comfort is. A willingness to completely overhaul your life and orient yourself towards care for those most in need is. This is still a hard teaching, but, not an impossible one. Perhaps Mark, by reminding us that following Jesus is difficult, gives us some space to mess up as we try. We’re going to get sullen sometimes. We’re going to be fearful and aggrieved and embittered. But, for God all things are possible, even helping us live into a generosity that looks something more like what Jesus asked of the rich man. I pray that we have the faith to not walk away from difficult demands and the love to find a way to follow through.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karl Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/preaching-series-on-stewardship-generosity-week-2-of-3/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-6
Sarah Henlicky Wilson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-8
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.