It’s been a tough few weeks sermon-wise in our trek through Mark’s story of Jesus. Last week, Jesus was teaching on divorce. The week before, he was talking about being cast on the fires of Gehenna, also known as hell. The subject of this week’s text, though, could be harder, or easier. The subject being wealth, possessions. It could be harder or easier for us depending on how much we’ve got in terms of cash in the bank. Or stuff in our houses. If we have houses to begin with, of course.
This week Jesus and co. are out an about again, it says. Setting out on a journey. And just as they’re leaving, a man runs up to Jesus. He kneels before Jesus, indicating a posture of submission. This guy wants to follow Jesus, to join him and his merry band on their way.
“Good Teacher,” says the man, kneeling before Jesus. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now, when we hear this, we tend to hear, something like “what do I have to do to go to heaven?” How can I earn my spot when the roll gets called up yonder? But in the Bible eternal life is more complicated than simply the afterlife, what happens when we die. But here, eternal life means life in God’s kingdom. That time and that place where God reigns, and the world is finally set right—eternally. Forever. It was thought to be some time in the future only. But in Mark’s gospel Jesus says “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it like this:
“Because he, Jesus, is here, a whole new world opens up: the Age to Come is not now simply in the future [though it is that, too]. It is bursting into the present, like a chicken so keen to be born that it’s already sticking its beak through the shell ahead of the right time.”[i]
The kingdom of God has touched down in Jesus. The future has come close in him. So now that Jesus has shown up, this fullness of life, everlasting life can be experienced in the present moment, in the midst of the here-and-now, not just in the future. This is what this man has come looking to inherit, to receive. “That fullness of life stuff—how can I get some of that?”
In response, Jesus does what is expected of any Jewish teacher of his time. “You know the commandments,” he says, referring to the Ten Commandments God delivered to Moses in the Old Testament. “Don’t kill anybody, don’t cheat on your spouse. Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t defraud people out of money. Honor your father and mother.” It’s the usual list of way of life God has given to God’s people.
It’s a tall order. But not too tall for this guy. “Teacher,” he says to Jesus. “I’ve already kept these since I was a little boy.” This guys a good guy. A real spiritual athlete. Always does the right thing.
But there’s one thing he can’t do. “Jesus,” it says. “Jesus looked at him, and he loved him. You lack one thing,” he says. “But I’ve got something for the person who has everything. Go, sell everything you’ve got. Take that money, give it to the poor. When you do, you’ll be trading in all that physical treasure you’ve got for heavenly treasure, that eternal life you want so bad. Then, come follow me.”
And as soon as the man hears this, it says, he’s “shocked.” And, it says, he goes “away grieving, for he [had] many possessions.”
This is a good and righteous man. Wanting to follow Jesus. Willing to do anything to follow Jesus, to inherit eternal life. Everything except give away his possessions and his money. That’s his one bridge too far. “How difficult it is,” Jesus tells his disciples. “How difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It’s so impossible—it’d be easier to shove a camel through the eye of a needle than it would be for this guy to get his foot in God’s kingdom to receive eternal life.” This guy is so attached to his wealth and possessions that he can’t even bring himself to trade them in for the ultimate, priceless treasure. Ouch.
Now, my first inclination when I hear a text like this is to revert to my University Marxist days. I get a little sense of glee. And self-satisfaction. I look out at our world that is stricken with such poverty and need on one hand, and a small group of individuals who hold most of the world’s wealth on the other. And I take comfort in Jesus’ words of judgment on the rich. I feel like the early church Father Tertullian who suggested that it is right and good for the righteous saints in heaven to watch joyfully while the wicked are roasted over an eternal flame. Enjoy it while it lasts my wealthy friends! There’s a judgment-a-comin’!
But one thing struck me this time around is how Jesus comes to his diagnosis of this man’s problem. Remember how the man said he’s followed all the commandments? It says that Jesus “looked at him.” Jesus “looked at him,” it says, and he “loved him.”
Doesn’t sound much like love, does it? But in the gospel, Jesus sees people, Jesus knows them. He sees below the surface of their lives. The New Testament scholar Katherine Grieb puts it like this:
“The loving gaze of Jesus penetrates to the heart. Elsewhere in scripture he is described as the living and active Word of God whose gaze, like a scalpel, dissects bone from marrow, the one whose winnowing fork separates wheat from chaff. His love sees clearly and speaks truthfully… Today we might describe Jesus' word to the rich man as an intervention, love bold enough to step between an addict and his addiction: first things first; changing one thing changes everything.”[ii]
Jesus knows the things that, below the surface, gnaw at people’s souls, the things that enslave them. In this case, the man’s issue is wealth. Jesus sees him, he knows him. And then like at an intervention he gives the diagnosis for his-soul-sickness. Jesus prescribes giving away his possessions to heal him, a harsh, but effective medicine. Like “Buckley’s”—tastes awful but it works. Not to destroy him. But to save him from the power money and possessions have in his life. To set his soul in a splint, like a broken bone. To heal him, and to make him new.
“What you’re asking is impossible,” say his disciples. To which Jesus replies, “impossible for any human, for sure. But with God, all things are possible.”
So just when I was hoping for a little cauterizing fire and brimstone, here Jesus comes armed instead with a big syringe full of that amazing grace. One fill to the brim of divine healing power. If he’s able to have faith, to trust Jesus, grit his teeth, and roll up his sleeve. To just start giving what he has away.
It’s a hard diagnosis. And an even harsher medicine. But it’s the same one Jesus offers to us.
Because Jesus sees us, too. He sees inside of our souls. He sees past all of our surface issues to the core illnesses that plague us.
And the truth he sees is the same. We, too, are possessed by wealth. We live at a time where creation is being plundered and laid waste for the production of wealth and consumer goods. We live in the richest society in human history. I’m personally richer materially than this ancient guy in the Bible. And yet, despite the fact that we’re so rich, we’re just as scared of losing it. Our fear so often keeps us from opening our lives and our homes to those in need. Our careers drive our decision making, often sacrificing family and relationships for economic security. We’ve always got the time and money for a trip to Starbucks, and thousands of other things, but our commitment to generosity battles with the cable bill (or in our case Netflix) and more often than not loses out. Cars to maintain. Rent and mortgages to pay, addictions and habits to fuel. Kids to grow and commitments to keep. I mean, of course if we finally had enough we’d be happy, right? Even though none of it’s actually ever made us happier. Ironically, making money, having money, keeping money, and spending money costs us a lot.
Even when we don’t have any of it, it sets our agendas. And dictates our decisions. Money is very useful, good for many things. But money also has this kind of spiritual power. One that controls us. Not the other way around as we so often think.
It gets between us and following Jesus. It drives us to terror and anxiety. To do seems impossible. Jesus sees it all. He sees all of our reasons, mine and yours. He sees all our shortcomings. And he knows just how badly we’re caged in. How hard it is to do anything different. Even though it all stands in the way of receiving eternal life, and experiencing the kingdom of God.
He sees all of these, and yet, he also tells the truth. He sees us, and in love, he also tells us that if we’re willing to trust, he will lead us in a more excellent Way. Generosity is both an inoculation from the power that money has over our lives, and an injection of the power of eternal life. We may not be able to simply give everything we have away. We aren’t Jesus, after all. But we can set off in the right direction, on the right path, however. Because if this is Jesus’ intervention, an intervention is never the end. It’s always the beginning of a life-long journey, one that is taken one step at a time. One act of trust, one action of fearless giving at a time.
What’s your first step going to be?
Is it going to be an act of confession, of truth-telling? Seeing your own life truthfully, as Christ sees you, and acknowledging the power money has in your own life? Seriously, find someone you trust after worship and share your struggles with them. Unburden yourself.
Will it be a literal unburdening of stuff? Go through your house. Look at some of the useful things you’ve got but never use. Or don’t use much. Or don’t actually need. And don’t just dump it at Value Village. Sell the stuff. Give the money away. Unburden yourself.
Or will it be an act of generosity? Setting aside a percentage, a set amount of your income every week, every month, and simply giving it away for a kingdom purpose? This is a spiritual discipline followers of Jesus have undertaken, and their Jewish ancestors for thousands of years. Not to earn love from God, but to remember that all life is a gift from God. A gift that only retains its power when given away.
So, friends, let’s not despair today. Let’s not despair, and leave worship with our heads hung Charlie Brown-style. We know we can’t do it. We know we can’t do it all at one time. And we know we can’t do it on our own. It’s impossible. But remember, this is an intervention. It’s just the beginning. And Jesus comes with as many interventions as we need, over and over again, to set us free from everything that enslaves us. To heal what ails our souls.
And with the promise of grace, the promise of abundant, eternal life, the promise of the kingdom, together we can take the risk. Take that one trusting first step forward on the path Jesus has set for us.
It may seem impossible. Harder than shoving a camel through the eye of a needle. But as Jesus says, with God, all things are possible.
Even this kind of generosity is possible.
[i] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2001), 136.
[ii] A. Katherine Grieb, “Blogging Toward Sunday: Mark 10:17-31, Christian Century website, October 7, 2009. https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2009-10/still-blogging-toward-sunday.