Mark 10:17-31 (NRSV)
The Rich Man
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?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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; Honour your father and mother.” ’20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’21Jesus, 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.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 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!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’ 28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29Jesus 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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last and the last will be first.’
The Rich Young Ruler is a difficult parable for Christians to deal with because it is so easy to think that it refers to someone else. But it has a message for us all. Charlie Moule points out that “… possessions can be a prison …’ Possessions - especially those we really like – can imprison people, and those of us who are Christians are not exempt. Most of us have experienced the frustration seeing the ding in our new car after arriving home after a supermarket trip!
The young man standing before Jesus, by all accounts, was a lovely, good, upright man who had always lived a good life. But he lacked the readiness to give up the security of his wealth for the sake of others. It is therefore possible that he lacked the warm-hearted concern for others that is central to being a Christian, because he always calculated what it would cost him.
We need to possess our possessions and not let them possess us. Many of you will remember that Christian best seller of the 1960s by Richard Foster entitled A Celebration of Discipline, this work being inspired by the writings of Dallas Willard. Both authors suggest that real freedom comes when we feel free to give things away. Richard Foster loved cycling but when he found that he was getting too attached to his bike or too concerned about it, he gave it away and set himself free.
What is the link between this and eternal life?
To begin with we need to ask: “What is ‘eternal life’?” I am sure most of us would agree that an element of this is a reference to life that never ends with our Lord; but that it also refers to something that we experience now. Christian Aid is right with its motto: “We believe in life before death.” ‘Eternal Life’ refers to ‘real’ life in the here and now as opposed to a mere existence. Charlie Moule suggested that we cannot have ‘real’ life without being prepared to lose life.
Jesus uses the proverb of a camel going through the eye of a needle to expand on his thoughts and suggests that it would be easier for this to happen than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God! This is because attachment to possessions will hold them back from experiencing real life – a foretaste of eternal life - now. This is a telling comment, because I believe it means that our attachment to things of this world can rob us of real blessing now. But the good news is that God can release us from this when we are reminded and have a glimpse of the real love of God. This was the experience of people like St Francis of Assisi who ‘… suddenly caught sight of the love of God …’ and as a result possessions, for him, became irrelevant. When I teach the Year 8 classes about the life and ministry of Mother Teresa, I always became aware of this yet again. When she died, all she had was two saris, a bucket (in which to wash the one she was not wearing) a pair of sandals and a cheap pen; but she was rich, because she had glimpsed the love of God in Christ.
Sometimes the rich need to keep their riches ‘… and bear the burden of using them wisely for the kingdom of God …’ but ‘burden’ is the right word for this is indeed what they can so easily become. What a powerful thought. We are so blessed by all the good things we have, but we must not ever let them possess us.
The young man had ‘… run up …’ to Jesus and was keen and enthusiastic – he also flattered Jesus by calling him ‘good’. Jesus needed to do a number of important things in the interests of this lovely young man: he needed to make sure that he was not taken away by the emotion of the moment and he needed to make sure that he focused on God and not Jesus the man.
People today also fall into the trap of thinking that being respectable is enough. I have often heard it said: “I am a good person [meaning respectable], so if there is a God, I will be okay!” The commandments Jesus tested the young man on, are all those that refer to not doing anything bad to anyone else. The man had never defrauded anyone, he had never stolen but neither had he ever been, nor could he make himself be positively and sacrificially generous. Being a Christian is not only about being respectable; it is about living for others. The young man could not do this!
I am wary of some evangelism that can focus on emotion, experience alone and personality; true evangelism includes the great cost of discipleship. Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. He was not angered by the young man’s response, he just felt deeply for him. He was probably also sad for him, knowing that he was going to miss out on so much.
The disciples were shocked and amazed and this is simply because what Jesus was saying went against everything that society held to be true at the time (and sometimes even in some Christian circles today). Barclay points out that they believed that if a person was prosperous, it meant that they were being blessed by God – ‘… prosperity was the sign of a good man …’ they did not see the danger of prosperity. He adds:
(i) Material possessions fix one’s life on the things of this world rather than on the things of God. “These are the things that make it difficult to die …”
(ii) Material things make us think of everything in terms of price. Living this way means that we lose sight of what really has value. The best things in life have no price and so money simply cannot buy – the most precious being our salvation.
Probably most importantly, the rich young man mistakenly thought he could earn his way into God’s favour. If salvation did depend on human effort, then it is impossible. But salvation is God’s gift – for all things are possible to God. The person who trusts in themselves and their possessions can never be saved.
We know that our salvation is a free gift that Jesus gives to all of us in declaring us right with God when we come to him in repentance and faith; but we as Methodist Christians have also always committed ourselves by seeking to become transformed by the love of God as the Spirit works in our lives. Denis Nineham in his commentary makes a number of comments that caused me to pause and think because they remain so pertinent in our time. He makes the obvious point that most Christians are never called upon to give up everything and that Jesus seldom required people to take his teaching literally. Most of us are allowed to keep our wealth, but we are reminded by this parable that our attitude needs to be a complete inner detachment from worldly things and a willingness to sacrifice our wealth if it were ever required, and that there are rewards for those who do make the sacrifices, the most significant being, in Nineham’s words ‘... the fellowship they found in Christian community more than compensated ...’ for what they had given up.
This to me should be at the heart of everything – the joy we experience when we meet together – the fellowship we share together. And here is the challenge. What is our fellowship like? I left the Anglican Church which worshipped in a sublimely beautiful Cathedral with robed choir, first class organ and fine music, but the atmosphere was dreadful. I have just returned from a Chaplain’s conference where a colleague told me of his wife, who is training to be a Local Preacher, attended her fist meeting only to be put off by the sniping and bad temperedness of the gathering.
People tend to think they will attract more people if they go to huge expense and change their buildings, and I do not think this passage has anything to say about sacrificial giving in order to pay for building projects, which are themselves worldly ‘things’ that we should not become too attached to.
I have often attended some of the plainest and simplest and modest places – like Charney Manor – a very simple Quaker meeting house – where I wanted to remain because I experienced the love of Christ in the fellowship of the people.
Does our fellowship match the words of Charles Wesley’s beautiful hymn:
And if our fellowship below
In Jesus be so sweet,
What height of rapture shall we know
When round His throne we meet!
In Jesus be so sweet,
What height of rapture shall we know
When round His throne we meet!