Though the text alerts us to a natural transition in verse 17, stating that Jesus set out on a journey, I see verses 13-16 as a really helpful opening to this week’s encounter and suggest you include them. (See the Textual Point below for some of the reasons.)
By all accounts, the rich man’s searching seems to be in earnest (unlike the testing that the Pharisees were doing last week). We might even get the sense that he knows something is missing. In his interchange with Jesus, he talks about how he has kept the commandments since his youth. The word we translate as “kept” can also mean “guarded” and it carries an emphasis on the kind of observance he has kept: faithful and careful, to the letter of the law.
Jesus’ reactions also leads us to look favourably on the man’s question. Instead of unearthing a hidden motive, Jesus considers him carefully, looking at him with love, and identifies for him (and us) the challenge of going past the letter of the law to its spirit. Jesus sees in this man what is true for so many of us: we lack the willingness to lay our lives on the altar as living sacrifices to God (Rom 12.1-2).
Jesus offers this man a call to discipleship, inviting the man to give up all that makes up his identity and status in the world and to follow him, the Christ. But when the man heard this, he was not only shocked, he was distressed—grieved even—to consider that his eternal life meant giving up his earthly one made up of all of his possessions.
The man was not alone in his shock and grief. By this time in the religious tradition (and I use that word on purpose), the idea that wealth was proof of covenant blessing was rather solidified in the people’s minds. God means for me to have this wealth… my stuff is proof of God’s love… my richness is a sign of God’s approval… Beware, we easily fall into this trap still today. Consider the disciples’ question, where they basically say, “If a rich person isn’t saved, who can be?” Their dismay is loaded with their assumption that to be rich equals to be in God’s favour, which in turn signifies that they are set for eternity.
People who have stuff, have the resources to be in charge of themselves and their destiny. That’s the main difference between the rich man and the children that Jesus told his disciples to welcome and become more like. You’ll recall how I’ve pointed out that children had no status and were completely dependent on someone else for their well-being, protection, and well, everything really. Nothing that they had was actually theirs; someone else was literally in charge of them.
So to enter the Kingdom of God and to truly become a disciple of Jesus is to let Christ be in charge, allowing him to tell you what to do with your time, talents, and treasures, obeying both the letter and the spirit of his commands, becoming a living sacrifice and taking up one’s cross and following him.
Graham Kendrick’s song, “Knowing You” opens with the lines: “All I once held dear, built my life upon / All this world reveres, and wars to own / All I once thought gain I have counted loss / Spent and worthless now, compared to this…” This could have been the song of the rich man. Instead, even though he wanted heavenly treasure, he couldn’t bear the thought of giving up his earthly ones. Without detaching, dis-possessing himself of all that his wealth had come to mean to (and for) him, he couldn’t entrust himself to God.
Do you remember a few sections ago (Mark 9.42-50) when Jesus told us to cut out anything that causes us to stumble in our pursuit of him? This is a prime example of that text in action. Jesus saw and understood that the rich man’s “many possessions” were the cause of his inability to come into communion with God; so Jesus tells him to cut them out of his life and that he would learn that a treasure great enough awaited him. This is not the news the man wanted to hear and he walks away, saddened that he can’t “have it all.” In time, he will find that he actually has nothing at all.
After the rich man leaves, it isn’t difficult to imagine Jesus’ loving gaze turning towards his disciples. They too have fallen to the trap of the worldly status game. Jesus has to repeat and intensify the meaning of the point he just made to the rich man: those who are too tied to their earthly wealth will struggle to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is so hard for that to happen that it’s more likely that a camel will magically thread itself through the eye of a needle! In other words, if your god is your stuff and your status, then you have kept yourself outside of God’s Kingdom. This is when the disciples realize the implications of the tradition they have accepted, and how Jesus turns human expectations about success and status on their head.
Realizing that they have kind of been doing the right thing (even if they had the wrong idea!) Peter chimes in, “Look! We left everything to follow you!” By the Spirit’s grace-filled work, the disciples did give up a semblance of autonomy, and submitted themselves to Jesus to be taught and ordered around as disciples following their rabbi. Jesus was the one that gave them their purpose, directives, and modelled to them how they were supposed to conduct themselves. He was their “adult”— and notice how Jesus even refers to them as children!
It is worth taking a moment to recognize that it is possible to have wealth and be dis-possessed of it. To have the ability to hold all things loosely and to see them not only as God’s blessing to you, or as what God has entrusted to you to steward, but that they are connected to the Kingdom of God—and not just as a marker of in or out, blessed or cursed. James Bryan Smith has this term, “Kingdom economics” which he uses to refer to the way that God intends the needs of his people to be met: through one another, like the New Testament biblical model proves. Not only in the book of Acts, but throughout the epistles we see how God’s people are committed to sharing what they have as though it belonged to everyone, including those in faraway places. It is proof that the integrated life of discipleship sees Christ as Lord of all things. (See the Illustration Ideas below for more thoughts on this.)
The phrase “Kingdom of God” makes a sort of sandwich of interpretation for us. We see Jesus repeatedly refer to the “Kingdom of God” in verses 13-16 regarding being like children (which is why I suggested you read them again this week), and again in verses 23-25. The bread of the sandwich is made up by this repetition (teaching about entering and belonging to the Kingdom of God). The meat of the sandwich, then, is the encounter between the rich man and Jesus, where the meaning of the bread is on full display in a real-life, live situation. It is difficult for someone with a lot of earthly security and prosperity to take on the posture of a child—the posture of a someone who’s life, well-being, and prospects are handed over to be controlled by another—but that is what the life of discipleship is and how the Kingdom of God works.
Perhaps you thought of St. Francis of Assisi and his dedication to turn over everything he had to God’s control. Francis had a lot in common with the rich man in our story, but he responded differently to God’s invitation to give away his wealth (an act his dad was not happy about). One story particularly highlights his obedience: Francis gave away his cloak quite regularly and he was finally ordered by a superior to stop. Coming upon a man who needed a cloak soon after, Francis said to him, “I cannot give you this cloak, but perhaps if you took it from me…”
Francis’ example seems a bit far away for us today. Or at least, that’s the excuse we are apt to use when we think of making similar (extreme!) sacrifices. Though the significant call is present in our text, here is perhaps a couple of “softer” examples of the way to commit one’s life, skills, wealth, and resources to God’s purposes.
Since we don’t have Jesus in the flesh to tell us what to do with our lives, it’s perhaps a good practice for us to become communities for discernment, including personal discernment. Marva Dawn was a scholar and theologian who passed away earlier this year (2021). I recall her once sharing about how she gathered a community of people to help her make decisions. Her decision to put the “yes” or “no” of her life’s work to others exemplified her understanding that we are not our own, our ministries are not our ministries, our resources and skills are not ours alone. Through this group, Dawn submitted herself and her life to obedience to God.
I also remember hearing Parker Palmer share about his experience with the Quaker practice of group discernment for personal issues. One member brings their need to a small, committed, trusted community, a Clearness Committee. (Clearness Committees gather around a person exploring a possible leading from God in order to help them gain clarity. Quakers have been doing this since the 1660s…) Participants simply ask questions of the person with the situation for discernment, helping them reach their own decision.
Alongside a group process like this, spiritual direction is a way of personally committing to a posture of searching and seeking after the will of God with every part of our lives. I know that it has been monumental in helping me go through the process of letting go of certain goals, possessions, even relationships, in obedience to Christ.
What if these sorts of practices became a more common among us?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 10, 2021
Mark 10:17-31 Commentary