Mark 10:17-31, Hebrews 4:12-16
I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a part of the Bible that strikes home in an almost visceral way. When I read this, I know that God has found me out. He has uncovered a place of weakness and resistance in me. He has found a place where I’m too scared to obey the word of God.
For some people, passages like these are just proof that human beings can’t enter the kingdom this side of death. It’s evidence that as long as we live, we’re bound to remain captive to the power of sin and fear.
For others, this story simply can’t be taken at face value. Jesus couldn’t have meant that when he told the rich man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. There must be some other explanation, a mystery that we don’t quite understand.
Lots of attempts have been made to “spiritualize” this encounter between Jesus and the rich man. From the perspective of these spiritualizers, Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant that wealth is a bad thing, a stumbling block to the kingdom of God, in and of itself. Jesus must have been making a more subtle argument. It must be that attachment to wealth is the problem, not the simple act of having many possessions.
In this view, Jesus’ words aren’t universally applicable. They are relevant, certainly, to the particular rich man that Jesus encountered that day. That man clearly worshiped his possessions, and Jesus prescribed the right solution for him. But you and I aren’t supposed to divest ourselves of wealth and join the ranks of the impoverished millions. For those of us in this room, for those of us who are good, decent, responsible, and kind-hearted rich people, Jesus is merely pointing out that we should be in a state of mind where, if we were asked to give away our possessions in order to follow Jesus, we would.
In this view, discipleship to Jesus becomes less about concrete economic redistribution and more about a state of mind. Less about action, and more about theory. Less about the poor, and more about us and our right to own lots of stuff and feel secure in our wealth.
This is an attractive viewpoint. Nobody I know wants to give up the wealth they’ve accumulated. Whether we have a little or a lot, almost all of us are pretty attached to the possessions and comforts that we have. A view of Jesus that lets us keep these things is seductive. As Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
But if you look at the lifestyle of Jesus’ followers, and that of the early church, it seems pretty clear that a major, perhaps a defining aspect of the life of a disciple is a renunciation of personal wealth. Peter points out to Jesus: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” And Jesus immediately confirms that this kind of self-abandonment is what will make eternal, abundant, unlimited life possible. By giving up everything, on a concrete, literal, economic level, Jesus promises that we will discover a whole new reality where our needs will be met and our hearts will be filled with joy, even as we face hardship and persecution.
Looking a little further along in the story, in the Book of Acts we find that the post-Pentecost community took this bedrock gospel principle, revealed by Jesus, even further. The kingdom that Jesus’ closest disciples experienced as only a foretaste during his pre-resurrection ministry, was poured out in power and glory as thousands of people throughout the ancient world experienced new life as members of the body of Christ.
One of the first signs of this transformation is that the whole community abandons the formerly strict boundaries of private property and begins to live like a family. The common wealth is available to all who have need – especially the poor.
I know that my own natural instinct – and that of most of the modern-day church – is to marginalize this message. It’s more comfortable to think that the encounter between Jesus and the rich man is an anomaly, a side story that can be safely ignored while focusing on the more important and “realistic” teachings of Jesus.
But everything I read in Scripture points to the fact that this incident is far from being a marginal, anomalous message amidst more important and spiritually deep teaching. On the contrary, this message about true wealth and poverty lies at the heart of God’s message to us today. From Genesis to Revelation, God calls us to surrender our attempts to control life and guarantee our own prosperity and security. “The word of the cross is foolish to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
This calling to surrender, to renunciation, to the cross itself, is attended by both great struggle and breath-taking adventure. It is an invitation to feel things more deeply than we ever thought possible, to experience the joy of a life truly lived, and a community of brothers and sisters who know what real truth, power, and solidarity consist of. This is a call for the endurance of the saints: to live in the reality that God is truly in control, is providing for our needs, and will continue to walk with us, no matter what.
This word of God spoke to our ancestors in the desert of Sinai, appearing to them as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. This is the word that thwarted the murderous Egyptians, who had all the wealth, power, and security in the world, but who did not count on a God who sides with the lowly and poor. It is this God who provided manna in the wilderness so that everyone had enough to eat.
This is the word through which all things have been made, a world of abundance where there is enough for each of us to have what we need – a world in which we are free to abandon the cruel game of hoarding and accumulation, domination and submission.
This is the word that speaks to us in Jesus, when he addresses the rich man, calling him out from his fearful, clinging idolatry. It is this word that speaks to each of us today, as we sit here and listen to this story about a man who is terrified of losing everything:
“You are the man.”
In a sense, the spiritualizers are right. We can’t simply take the incident between Jesus and the rich man literally, as a prescription for each one of us today. This isn’t because Jesus’ teaching here is too hard, but rather because we have a tendency to make it too easy.
It’s not enough for us to engage in a one-time act of renunciation, a single-serving surrender to the will of God, no matter how courageous. Jesus wasn’t inviting the rich man to an act of philanthropy, after which he would be covered and could go on his way in confidence. Jesus wanted everything from this man – his whole life, all the way to the cross.
And the crazy truth is, even the cross isn’t enough. We can be a thousand times more hard-core than the rich man in this story. We can give away everything and run headlong into a whole host of crosses. But the kingdom of God doesn’t consist of personal piety and the acts of spiritual daredevils. As it says in 1 Timothy 1: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
We’ll never understand Jesus’ saying to the rich man if we forget about the ground and foundation of everything that Jesus did: Love. In probably his most famous passage, from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
In our story today, it says that Jesus, just before asking the rich man to give away everything and dare to live the life of a disciple, looked at the man and loved him. Jesus wasn’t trying to break this man. He wasn’t making an object lesson out of him. The rich man wasn’t a prop to demonstrate how evil and lost rich people are.
No. Jesus looked at him, and loved him.
This is a perspective that is so often lost when we begin thinking about the story of Jesus and the rich man. When we begin asking questions like, “Are all people required to give away their possessions, or was this just a command for one particular person?” we are missing the entire point of the story. Jesus is not giving a new spiritual legal code to be fastidiously observed and debated. The teachings of Jesus are not harsh set of rules that should inspire the eternal search for loopholes.
No. This is good news. In Jesus, we meet love incarnate, and love tells us to surrender everything, to give what we have to those who are most desperately in need, and to follow him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
We’ve made this story so much harder than it needs to be. It’s not a cliff to be jumped off of, or a mountain to climb. It’s not a debt to be forgiven, or a ritual obligation to be performed. When Jesus speaks to the rich man, it is a loving invitation to each and every one of us to discover a life of beauty and power, joy beyond all understanding. A life of houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields – all ours, along with the persecutions that a life of radical joy brings. And in the age to come, eternal life.
This teaching of Jesus is no less than an invitation to return to Eden. That’s been the purpose of God all along, ever since we chose to fall out of love with God and serve our own selfishness, God has stopped at nothing to bring us back home.
It says in Genesis that, when Adam and Eve left the garden, God placed, “a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.” Jesus is this flaming sword. He is the Word of God, living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword that human beings can forge. He is our one and only high priest, who has intervened in history and is showing us the way to reconciliation – with ourselves, with one another, with the creation, and with God.
When Jesus said these things to the rich man, the disciples were right to cry out in dismay: “Who then can be saved?” The challenging invitation that Jesus lays before us is one that feels almost impossible to accept. Yet, here we are. This teaching is central to Jesus’ message and ministry. Take it or leave it. If we want to follow him, we have no alternative but to face this sword head-on.
Because, looking at us, he loves us.
For us mortals, this teaching is impossible. But with God, all things are possible. It’s possible because God has not left us alone. He is redeeming us as part of a new community in Jesus. The rich man wasn’t asked to abandon his wealth and property in order to become an isolated, impoverished individual. Jesus invited him into a kingdom, a family, a body – a whole new social order of brothers, sisters, mothers, and children.
This is the other side of the flaming sword. The first side cuts away, demanding that we surrender everything that holds us back from giving ourselves completely to God. But there is another edge to this blade, one that restores, heals, and prospers us.
This happens through community. As adopted members of God’s family, we inherit everything. A whole new social, political, and economic reality awaits us on the other side of the flaming sword. Jesus came not to judge, but to save; not to destroy, but to give us abundant life.
This abundant life is one where we are not in control, but in which we can rely on God and one another for all our daily needs. It is a re-creation of the faith journey of Moses and the Hebrews out in the wilderness of Sinai, relying on God day by day: for food, water, shelter, and guidance. It is a life of joy and abundance, almost unimaginable to those who refuse Jesus’ invitation.
Do those of us gathered here today have the courage to come face to face with the word of God in Jesus? Will we accept his invitation and pass through the flaming sword?
What would it mean for us to become a surrendered, Spirit-filled community, whose only ruler is God?