03/01/20 “Encounters With Jesus: A Rich Man”

Mark 10:17-21

Pastor Carol is planning to start a Lenten sermon series which will coordinate with the Lenten studies we are having jointly with Hope UMC.  The series theme comes from Mark, Chapters 10-14, about the people Jesus met as he made his way to Jerusalem to his death and resurrection.  In the series image, we are walking along the road listening in as these encounters take place. Next week, Pastor Carol will speak on Blind Bartimaeus.  My take on this passage will be somewhat different than hers but if you go to the study, which I recommend, it is important to at least start thinking about the topic.

The man is identified as a rich man in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, or rich young ruler in Luke. The important part is his wealth.  We tend to think of rich people as being in situations that don’t apply to us, but let’s look closer.

As a rich man he had no worries about where his next meal was coming from. His clothing was adequate; his housing was assured. By his own witness, he had committed no obvious major transgression, which Jesus accepted as true. With Luke’s comment about being a ruler of some sort, it’s not much of a stretch to think that he was accepted in the community. So, if you can get past the term “rich man” for a moment, he’s like most of us, most of the time, with a steady job or steady pension, and reasonable expectations. We don’t need to be worried about food, clothing, or shelter.

As to keeping the commandments, while we aren’t under the law, we think we keep these as well. To the extent that the community thinks of us, we are probably well accepted. Ignoring nationality and gender differences, he could be our ancient counterpart. So, look at what we have in common

Yet even with no worldly worries, the man was drawn to Jesus because he needed something more. His was no trick “gotcha” question. Jesus did ask a counter question, but not the kind of question that was done to fend off trick “gotcha” questions. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We might rephrase this in our minds as “What must I do to be saved?” There is a big difference here: the young man was thinking it was all his effort, and we at least talk about a shared effort. This is the difference between law and grace.

So, Jesus asks the counter question: “Why call me good?” By even commenting on it, he declared himself to be the Messiah.

The back and forth shows that the man thought he was doing right but had some understanding that it was not enough, for something was lacking. The list of commandments Jesus cites varies a bit by gospel, but they are all on the human side of the law, which may be instructive. That is, they are laws that deal with person-to-person conduct.  The man was, in our terms, an upstanding member of the community. So, it comes as a shock to the rich man and the disciples that Jesus says “Sell all that you have and give it away,” and then follow him.

Now, it is a mistake to add this to the things all of us must do to be a Christian. Peter doesn’t ask for this at Pentecost; giving all is voluntary in the communal living described in Acts. And, Paul’s instructions to give money on a weekly basis contradicts this giving away everything, not to mention that some believers hosted worship in their homes. So, it is not a general prescription for everyone, but also not an exaggeration when Jesus say it to this man.

The rich man could not let go of his money (at least at that moment), however earnestly he had asked the question. If there is a human side to the law, there is also a God side. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said in Mark 12:29, “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” We see both sides of the law here—the God side, then the human side.

The money and what it brought were getting in the way. One can debate whether this is a distraction or a preoccupation, or if it rises to the level of idolatry.  It is most unlikely that this guy was an idolater in the sense that he bowed to a pile of gold coins.  He seemed to want God and money but, in following the spirit of law, this is wrong.  Since we are much like this man, this should make us nervous. We know money, job, security and many other things can end up being distractions or preoccupations. We need to ask ourselves the question: “Does this interfere with our walk with God?”

Jesus could have left it here as a judgement on the rich man and walk on, but he doesn’t. He is the Messiah; he is the judge, and it would be his right. But, the verse that says Jesus loved the man gives a hint that there is more.

The disciples ask about this, and Jesus answers. He says that the camel can get through the eye of the needle more easily. Now, I have heard back and forth on what the eye of a needle was, but the disciples make all that discussion unnecessary when they say, “Then who can be saved?” They implicitly answer their own question:  nobody, and Jesus does not correct them. Jesus says much the same thing with John the Baptist: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” The best that people can do is not enough.

Then Jesus says, “With God all things are possible.” This could come off as a flip comment. In context, this is a salvation issue, rather than some seemingly impossible and silly task like leaping tall buildings.  Following this context, in a few weeks, with God, Jesus was going to make entry into heaven possible by dying on the cross and in a few more weeks, the Holy Spirit would be there to urge people to faith. God made it possible.

This and other passages are making it clear that we can’t do it on our own. It is with God that our inheritance of eternal life is possible. This is what we should always remember even as we pursue holiness out of love for our Lord and Savior.  We should examine ourselves for distractions and preoccupations while availing ourselves of the grace that God made possible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The psalm we read as the Call to Worship sums up who is doing what in our relationship with the Trinity: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” God is doing the heavy lifting, we can do the light lifting by clearing out the things that get in the way.

~~ Ron Myers, Lay Leader