Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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The Rich Man: What Gets in the Way

    Series: Faces of Our Faith

    Category: Faith

    Speaker: The Rev. Beverly A. Bartlett

    Tags: actively seeking god, faith, faithless, knowing god

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    Today, we continue our fall Faces of Faith series with the story of the rich man from Mark. This man is often referred to as the rich young ruler—a synthesis of the ways in which he is described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels. Mark simply refers to him as “a man” who runs up to Jesus. We don’t know this man is wealthy until he turns away from Jesus later in the story. As I was reflecting on this passage, I found myself asking, “Hmmmm. Is this man a Face of Faith?” After all, he turns away, grieving, and does not follow Jesus, because he cannot do what Jesus asks of him. This story is one of the most challenging for us in the gospels, just as it was a most challenging teaching for Jesus’ disciples. Scholars over the years have done all sorts of interpretive gymnastics to try and make it less challenging. But, we need to be careful in doing that, that we do not soften Jesus’ words or teaching.

    Jesus and his disciples are on the road again and a man runs up and kneels before Jesus, asking “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ reply is mystifying. Instead of answering the question right away, he says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This seems to be some sort of challenge to the man. Perhaps Jesus is saying, “Are you trying to flatter me?” Or, is Jesus’ response an oblique claim to his divinity? Is he asking, “Do you call me ‘good’, because you understand that I am indeed God?”[i] Who knows what Jesus means? And I don’t say that flippantly. The scholars I’ve looked at can’t really answer what Jesus meant by that. But he does go on to answer the man’s question. “You know what you need to do—follow the commandments.” And he lists the more practical, human-related of the ten commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t defraud—he changes “don’t covet” to “don’t defraud”—and honor your father and mother.

    The man replies, “I’ve done all this from the time I was young.” And then, something remarkable happens. Jesus looks at him, intently looks at him, and loves him. Nowhere else in Mark’s gospel do we read that Jesus loves a particular individual.[ii] It’s almost as though Jesus knows this man is not going to be able to do what he asks even before he asks it. Perhaps he loves him for his earnestness, his desire to get it right. Perhaps his intent look and his love for this man are because he knows he will never get it right, but Jesus is going to put it out there anyway and invite him to discipleship. He says, “You lack one thing.” Just one thing. That should be easy, right? No. It is the hardest thing of all. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Trade your worldly wealth for eternal riches, then come, follow me.” Jesus is only asking for one thing. But that one thing is everything. The man’s face falls. Mark tells us he is shocked, and he turns away grieving, for he had many possessions.

    As the man walks away from Jesus, the only person in this gospel not to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him and become one of his disciples, Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples are perplexed. This is not their understanding. Their faith has always taught them that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing. Throughout the Old Testament scriptures, we read how God cares for the poor and hears the cries of those who are suffering, but there is also an understanding that if God’s people are faithful to God and righteous, they will prosper. And now, Jesus seems to be turning that on its head—as he does so many things. He sees their perplexed look and makes his point even more strongly, “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.” And here is where we see that commentators and scholars throughout the centuries have tried to soften Jesus’ words, because they, and we, are as challenged by them as his first disciples were.

    People have come up with different theories to say, “Surely, Jesus didn’t really mean that?” One theory is that there was a narrow gate in the city walls of Jerusalem called the eye of the needle, and camels had to have their loads taken off and then scramble through on their knees in order to get through that gate. It was hard, but it wasn’t impossible—they could do it. The problem is, there is no evidence that such a gate existed. That theory, and the mention of that gate, doesn’t appear until the 9th century. The other thing people have proposed is that the word here for “camel”, is really supposed to be a very similar word for “rope”. The early scribes just got it wrong. Jesus is really saying it is harder for a piece of rope to go through the eye of a needle. That makes more sense, right? Perhaps, but again, there isn’t any strong evidence to support this; the correct word does seem to be “camel”. And even if it was rope, it doesn’t really change the meaning—because it is impossible for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, too.[iii] One of the first rules of exegesis you learn in seminary is that the more difficult version of a passage is probably the most accurate. Because over the centuries scribes and translators responded as the disciples did, and as we do, and if a passage didn’t really make sense, or its message was very challenging, they would change it to what they thought it should be, to what was easier.

    But, I’m afraid that if we are faithful to this text, we are left with Jesus’ hard teaching. He uses hyperbole here, as he often does when he’s teaching. And it certainly gets the point across. If it’s as hard for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, then who can be saved, the disciples ask. And if Jesus really meant this, then I’m sure we are asking the same thing. Here we are on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—the wealthiest part of the Upper East Side. Many of us are wealthy, compared to many other people. And, even if we aren’t wealthy by New York standards, I think everyone in this room would be wealthy compared to the poorest of the poor in our world, who have no access to clean water, health care, adequate food, education or shelter. So, what hope do we have? That’s what the disciples are asking. Jesus looks at them, seeing right through to their hearts, just as she saw right through to that rich man’s heart, and he says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.” Whew. That lets us off the hook, right?

    We can’t get there ourselves, but nothing is impossible with God. There is hope in that. In fact, our only hope is in God’s ability to save us from ourselves, and in spite of ourselves. But if we think Jesus’s words here mean that Jesus doesn’t ask anything of us, then, again, we aren’t being faithful to this text, or to Jesus’ calling throughout the gospels for us to follow him and live transformed lives.

    So, what do we do with this text that makes us so uncomfortable? Does Jesus really mean for us to completely divest ourselves of all our wealth and possessions and follow him? In some cases, perhaps he does. Even though Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible”—something is expected of us. All things are possible, and yet—the rich man turned away grieving and did not follow Jesus or enter into God’s kingdom, at least not at that point. For that rich man, Jesus did mean for him to get rid of everything and follow him. Now, I know that none of us are likely to give away or sell everything we have for the sake of following Jesus. There are still, occasionally, people who do that.

    I just watched the video last night of Scott Harrison who started “charity: water” to bring clean drinking water to millions of people that do not have access to it. A decade or more ago, he left his high-rolling, hard-drinking and partying nightclub promoter lifestyle, sold everything, and went to work on a medical mission ship off the coast of Liberia. As he walked through Liberian villages he saw how so many people had nothing but dirty water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, and were getting sick and dying from water-borne diseases. He decided his life’s work would be to raise money to provide clean water. His life-style as a nightclub promoter had led him far from his childhood faith and values, and far from the realm of God. He realized this and did what the rich man in the story could not.

    But most of us are not going to do that. We are not in a position to leave everything behind and go volunteer across the globe. So, we still need to figure out what this means for us. There are some key differences in our time period and that of Jesus and his disciples. For one thing, they all expected that Jesus was going to return immediately—within their lifetime. The future meant something very different for them. It was the practice among Jesus’ community to leave everything to follow Jesus. Even the early church in Acts encouraged its members to sell everything and give the money to the common purse that would support all of them until Jesus returned. While we still pray for the fulfillment of the reign of God, it hasn’t happened yet. We do have to support ourselves, our families, our churches and schools and communities.

    So, let’s go ahead and take selling everything off the table. As attractive as leaving it all behind and moving to a quiet monastery might be at times, it’s just not going to happen for most of us. But, we are still left with Jesus’ hard teaching about how difficult it is for people with wealth to enter the kingdom. Jesus spends so much of his ministry talking about money, because money and possessions are probably the biggest things that get in our way of faithfully following him. Our wealth and possessions all too often possess us. They lay claim to us. Obtaining and preserving wealth becomes more important than anything else. We can see it very plainly on a societal level. We are willing to sacrifice almost everything for the sake of making more money: clean air, clean water, health care, providing livable wages, occupational safety, equal opportunities for everyone, and the future of the earth itself. When immediate financial gain is our priority, that gets in the way of following Jesus. Jesus may not ask us, like he asked the rich man, to get rid of everything and follow him. But, he does challenge us to look at the role of money and wealth and possessions in our lives.

    As we enter into stewardship season, this passage is very timely. What role does money and earning it, and growing it and keeping it play in our lives? What role does it play in our faith? We cannot divorce our faith from how we view and use our resources. How does wealth get in our way of following Jesus? I feel sure it does, probably for every one of us. How can we use our resources faithfully, so that they are, above all, serving God and God’s children? Will we turn sadly away, because our possessions mean more to us than following Christ? Or, will following Christ mean more than anything else? When being a disciple is our primary commitment, then our possessions and wealth will be at God’s service, and we will joyfully follow rather than turn away sadly, clinging to what we cannot bear to lose.

    At the beginning of this sermon, I wondered whether we could consider this rich man to be one of our Faces of Faith. I think the answer is “yes,” because we are all like him. We all come to God, seeking life. And Jesus looks intently at us, and loves us, and sees that one thing that is getting in the way of our following Jesus.  What is that one thing for you? Is it wealth and possessions? Is it worry? Is it extreme busyness? Is it fear? Insecurity? Anger or hurt you can’t let go of? We are all this rich man, because if it isn’t money, it is something else we are clinging to that keeps us from giving ourselves completely to following Jesus. Sometimes the faces of faith, our own among them, fail. The good news is that Jesus keeps looking right into our hearts, keeps loving us, and assures us that even though we fail, even though there is no hope that mortals can save themselves, all things are possible with God. Even the wealthy can enter God’s realm. Thanks be to God.



    [i] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina 2 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), p. 303.

    [ii] William C. Placher, Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 144.

    [iii] Placher, p. 146.