We call him the rich, young ruler. But there is nothing in today’s reading from Mark 10 that says he was either a ruler or young. But he was rich. And what Jesus says to the rich guy about selling all he has and giving the money from the proceeds to the poor leaves many of us uncomfortable. And it has throughout the history of the Church. But remember, the rich guy started it. Why?
He was unhappy. He’s been living the good life. He seemingly had everything going for him in this world and the next. He not only was rich, but as far as being faithful in his devotion to God, he was at the top of the list.
He knew, though, that something was lacking. He was rich enough and spiritual enough to realize there had to be more to this life that he hadn’t found yet.
Jesus diagnosed the problem right away. He tells the rich guy, “You are so close to where you want to be. Here’s what you need to do. Sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and come follow me.”
Well, this rich guy was more than a bit taken aback. I don’t know what he was looking to hear from Jesus. But this wasn’t it. And he went away feeling worse than when he came. I’ve got a feeling that he knew that money had something to do with it, but he was hoping for a different answer.
If the rich guy went away sad, the disciples were pretty stunned themselves. The story says ‘they couldn’t believe what they were hearing’ from Jesus. He said that it was hard for rich people to understand what God’s Kingdom is about, more difficult, even, than a camel going through the eye of a needle.
The disciples didn’t know what to do with any of this. Like most of us, they held a pretty high opinion of what wealth can do for a person. In fact, it was probably the case they had some high hopes of what wealth could do for them.
I don’t think they begrudged this rich guy his wealth at all. He had managed to work the system to his advantage. Nobody questioned the system. The disciples were hoping that Jesus could start making the system work for them. What they didn’t understand was that Jesus had a new system in mind.
That rich guy understood we need a new system. He just couldn’t let loose of the old one, even though he knew he wasn’t finding the life he was looking for in it.
I think he was so stunned by Jesus’ suggestion that he sell all he had and give the money to the poor, he didn’t hear the next part, ‘Come follow me.’
This is where we start getting to the good news in this story. This story shocks us all. It calls into question all our assumptions about how money functions in this world, how it functions in our lives. Jesus, in inviting that rich guy to follow him, inviting all of us to follow him, is holding out something for us that no amount of money can buy. It’s priceless.
What that rich guy was missing, what the disciples were missing, what too many of us miss in the call to follow Jesus is that it is a call for new kinds of partnerships and relationships with God and each other to function in our lives. The most important thing in this world is not what money can do for us, but what relationships and community can do for us.
The disciples knew they had taken a pretty big gamble in following Jesus. Was there going to be a payout? Peter said “We left everything and followed you.” Jesus didn’t offer the promise of a big bank account or fine cars and homes. Here’s what he did promise.
“Mark my words, no one who sacrifices house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, land—whatever—because of me and the Message will lose out. They’ll get it all back, but multiplied many times in homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land—but also in troubles. And then the bonus of eternal life! This is once again the Great Reversal: Many who are first will end up last, and the last first.”
This great reversal calls us from ourselves to each other. That rich guy was being called to the poor, to be in partnership with them. He was also being called to the new community of faith that Jesus was building.
There were homes a plenty in that new community. There would be more tables to sit around, more people to love and love him than he ever imagined. In this new community Jesus was offering the rich guy, he would have the opportunity to take care of others and others would take care of him. And besides all of that, they would get to build God’s new world together. You can’t buy that no matter how freaking rich you are. All Jesus was saying is that if your money gets in the way of what you know you really need, get rid of it.
Jesus wasn’t just offering some ideal, that would never be obtainable. It happened. We read about it in that story of the end of the second chapter of Acts. The first followers of Jesus in the very first church they formed, sold their resources and pooled their money so nobody among them was poor any more. They took care of each other and were taken care of. They helped each other learn how to follow Jesus. They worshiped together. Every meal was a celebration, they lived together with great joy. They found what that rich guy had come looking for. But he had walked away from that opportunity, the wealth he could find in that first Christian community because his money clouded his vision for a new world.
The other night Mary and I had supper with Steve Broadwell. We got some sandwiches at Quiznos and found a bench outside the AAA to sit on. This was not what is commonly referred to as a fine dining experience. But, you know, we could not have had a better meal time in the fanciest restaurant you can think of. On that bench, with that sauce they put on the Quiznos sandwiches dripping on our laps, or mine anyway, was the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus made about the brothers and sisters and children that would be ours because we follow him.
That happens all the time. Downstairs in the Community Room. At the Quick and Delicious. In the Wilder Snack Bar. Around the tables in our homes. How much money would it take for you to be willing to give that up? What amount of money can replace the chance Jesus gives us to be a community of his followers.
And if this community doesn’t already do enough for us personally, it is here to do even more. Together we get to bear witness to Jesus. We get to build a new world with each other. We do mission and ministry with each other. We learn the ways of God with each other.
It’s there for us to grab hold of. It’s life. But what holds us back? It’s no secret that even in this community of faith we have differing levels of commitment. Different levels of commitment are fine if people are satisfied with that. What is sad is when people settle for less than what they are looking for.
And it’s surely no secret that people are staying away from church in droves. Whose fault is that? Some of it is ours. Heaven knows that we don’t always live up to the call Jesus has given us. There is plenty that is wrong with the church, plenty that hinders us from becoming a community of Jesus followers rather than create it.
But it’s not all us. People, like the rich guy, have to make their choices. And some people, like the rich guy, choose far less than what they know satisfies them. But God leaves the choices up to us, and still loves us, like Jesus loved that rich guy.
This is a hard story. But we need to get things in context. Jesus isn’t just saying get rid of your money, he’s also saying come follow me. Following him helps us to figure out this money thing. Jesus talked a lot about money and what we do with it. Use it to help others. Don’t grow overly enamored by its possibilities. Don’t do things for its benefit that you will regret.
We often present the idea of tithing as a spiritual discipline, as our responsibility as Christians. And it is. Making regular contributions to the church reminds us that what we have is a gift from God and gives us a better perspective on our money. But tithing also helps us build community, do ministry with each other, change the world. That’s putting money to good use.
So when we come across this passage, instead of getting all uptight about money, what we do with it and what it does with us, we need to remember the point is following Jesus into partnership with God, the poor, each other. It’s about building a new world, being a part of the Jesus community. This is a story that seems hard, but it holds out amazing possibilities for us. Are we going to let money stop us?