Rev. Michelle L. Wahila
Please read: Mark 10:17-31
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.’
In a series of “person-on-the-street,” interviews, people were asked, “What is the good life?” Surprisingly, many couldn’t answer the question. Those who could answer usually began with some variation of, “For me it’s…” and ended with a litany of good things, including family, health, wealth and youth. For one man it was simply the observance of the sacred three day weekend. For another the good life was encompassed in a new life stage through retirement and a walk in the park. Another said, “It’s happiness and success and maybe a little religious belief.”
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was the person-on-the street being asked the question. The text begins, “As he was setting out on a journey.” The context of this journey is ever closer to the cross, which is crucial to Mark’s gospel because as Jesus is called closer to the cross his followers (or the ones asking the questions) are called deeper into the choice of discipleship.
The “man” in this text is often referred to as the “rich young ruler,” details picked up by the other gospel accounts. Here, however, in Mark’s gospel, he is simply “one.” He is a certain person, or he is “anyone” who desires to follow and is seeking to know the good life. He does seem to earnestly desire an answer to his question! He runs to Jesus and falls down on his knees before him. His haste and his submission to Jesus on the spot, suggest that he is eager to become a disciple, and to find the answer to his question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
No one in Galilee and no one up to this point in Jesus’ public ministry has asked a question of this magnitude. Even Jesus’ own disciples have been unable to pose such an essential question. Jesus’ answer to this question had the potential to divulge the meaning of his entire ministry. Yet, he doesn’t answer the question directly. Jesus reframes the question.
From the beginning of the exchange between the “one” man and Jesus, we get the sense that Jesus is trying to tell him, “You don’t quite get it.” And it is in that ambiguous place where Jesus brings a new focus and framework to the conversation. The man, who has fallen down before Jesus so earnestly, addresses him, “Good Teacher…” But, “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’”
Jesus immediately switches the focus away from himself to God. Jesus wasn’t there to replace God. No, Jesus was there representing God and points to God’s commands, which the man already knew by heart. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart.”
Reference to God as the only one who is good recalls the law, which this man has been told to imprint upon his heart and write upon his door post – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
The real answer to this man’s question has something to do with obeying the letter of the law, and everything to do with the man’s relationship to God. So it makes perfect sense for Jesus to reframe the conversation. “Whoa, Jesus says, “God alone is the good one, not some rabbi you think is good. Look to God because in his goodness you’ll find the good life. You know this already.” Jesus’ response emphasizes God’s goodness and God’s commands. His answer indicates that even though this one man is eager, moral, and perhaps even sincere in his seeking, he lacks something.
The man had accumulated everything he could in seeking the good life – he had wealth, power and success, and even good moral standing. He had kept the law since his youth, but he didn’t “have it all.” Despite what he had accomplished and what he had done right, he had emptiness and doubt. Something was missing in this man’s life and he wanted to know whether he was good enough.
And so he brought his portfolio to Jesus. Stock portfolio including diversified and balanced trading – check. Employment records – check. Upstanding citizen award – check. Spiritual portfolio – Hmm, largely missing… The man’s problem was not his financial worth or lack of resources; yet, his portfolio wasn’t good enough. It was lacking.
Like this man we all lack. We may even sense that something is missing and we haven’t attainted the “good life.” What Jesus intended for this man is what is intended for all of us: the ability to move beyond an attempt to establish a good life through what we have or what we do, in order to receive the good life in God. For if we are like the man and seek the good life through the law we come to an impossible standard: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” If we depend upon ourselves for the good life, we may fill our lives with good things, but we will never achieve the richness of the good life on our own.
The impossible standard though, is not ours to keep. Paul says that “though Jesus Christ was rich, for our sakes he became poor.” Jesus lived in the incomprehensible glory, wealth, love and joy of God from all eternity, but left that wealth behind him. “And I’m going into a poverty deeper than anyone has ever known,” Jesus says. “I am giving it away. Why? For you Now, you give away everything to follow me… I won’t ask you to do anything I haven’t already done.”
Jesus asked the man to give up his earthly possessions to become his disciple and to receive the riches of the good life: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But the man didn’t do it; perhaps he couldn’t do it. Despite his sincere devotion and even his piety, he couldn’t lay down his earthly treasures for heavenly ones. In stark contrast to his earlier confidence, the text says that he went away “grieving.”
The man wasn’t sad. He wasn’t angry. He grieved. He suffered. Matthew’s gospel uses this same Greek word for grief. It is said, of Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus started to sweat blood as he grieved in great distress. In that moment, Jesus knew that he was going to turn in his whole portfolio; he was giving up everything he had. In the coming moments, Jesus was going to lose the joy and goodness of his life. He was going to lose his very identity. He was going to lose his Father.
It might be easy for Christian readers to think of the “one man” in this story as hypocritical since he brought his moral portfolio to Jesus and was so quick to acknowledge that he upheld the law. The Apostle Paul could have presented a similar moral portfolio, writing to the Philippians that “according to righteousness by law, I was blameless.” But readers shouldn’t be too quick in judgment. Jesus in some way identified with this man because he understood what it was to lose, or better, give up the core of his identity. He also understood the suffering associated with that loss and grief. If Jesus had compared his portfolio with that of the man’s he could have said, “I have the ultimate portfolio but have given away the ultimate wealth to get you. Now, you need to give away yours to get me.”
It’s not fair for readers or hearers to make the assumption that this man was a hypocrite because Mark’s gospel (so often sparse on details) goes to the trouble of saying that Jesus “looked at him” and “loved him.” The verb used for “look” is an intensified verb form: Jesus searched him, gazed at him intently to his core. A gesture given in love is never Jesus’ posture toward hypocrites. Maybe Jesus even grieved for this one man because he had turned away from him.
After all this, after the man departed, Jesus turned to his disciples, the ones who were there following and Jesus looked at them. The disciples were perplexed, confused. That Jesus would in any way view wealth as a hindrance to entering the kingdom of God was astonishing to the disciples. Peter’s response was quick to remind Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
Though the disciples themselves didn’t possess riches, they belonged to a culture in which those who possessed wealth were considered to be blessed by God. It astonished and confused the disciples to hear Jesus use an analogy of a camel going through the eye of a needle to illustrate the entrance of the rich into the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ fundamental challenge to the understanding of wealth as a “blessing” from God is reflected in Job’s story. Job was a good man, who had the “good life,” but who had all of his “blessings” taken away. Job had wealth, yes… but when his wealth was gone, he longed for God more than he longed for the earthly treasures he had lost. “If only I could go to his dwelling!” Job says, “My feet have closely followed his steps; I have kept to his way without turning aside. I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.”
After Jesus’ astonishing interpretation of what one’s entrance portfolio must look like in order to enter the Kingdom of God, it’s no wonder that the disciples sought some reassurance. If material blessings aren’t necessarily from God, if those who uphold the law cannot be saved, who can be saved; what about us? “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
The assurance that Jesus gives however, is the paradox of losing in order to keep: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” To gain a heavenly portfolio, we must relinquish dependence on our earthly portfolios, realizing that we can come to this place only because “for God all things are possible.” The irony of Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who couldn’t leave his earthly riches, was that Jesus was offering him exactly what he sought – the good life.
Come, follow me. I am going to Jerusalem, to the cross, to give my life for you... It is in accepting the generosity of the cross that we come to understand the riches of the truest good life. At the cross, “God has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.”
If we embrace the riches of this lavish grace, we might have the courage to put down our earthly portfolios, and instead share abundant portfolios of grace. We won’t be trying to figure out how much we have to give away; we’ll be trying to figure out how much we can give away. Our standard for generosity will become the cross. If the cross becomes our standard, we will be astounded at what we have to give of ourselves for the Kingdom. And it will be there, that we will find the grace to live the good life. Amen.