Mark 10:17–31 (NRSV)
The Rich Man
(Mt 19:16–30; Lk 18:18–30)
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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You 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; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, 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.” 22 When 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!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus 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.” 29 Jesus 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, 30 who 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
At times, while I read scripture, I can get caught in the action as if I am caught up in one of the latest novels. You know the type, the ones you just cannot seem to put down. As technology has advanced and I have begun to read eBooks, there is usually an option where you can add the audio version along with the book, so those novels that attract my attention I can listen too as well as read. I drive to work, and I listen, I drive home listening, I go to bed and I read. All conveniently synced together so I never lose my place. At times you might get so caught in the story you lose track of time and the imagery is just filling your mind as if you are right there in the action. I get a bit excited about books. In fact, my wife knows if she cannot think of anything to get as a gift, she can go to Barnes and Noble and pick up one of the nicely bound literary classics and I will be over joyed.
Words cleverly fitted together can transport us to different worlds, they can teach us quantum physics, they can unlock the secrets of the genetic code (or as some people have said the language of God). But most of all words wisely configured and delivered in speech or print can unlock the very kingdom of God. When we use language, we are attempting to convey a message, transferring from our mind to another knowledge of some sort. It can be a literal transfer of information as a textbook. Or it might be an abstract lesson we attempt to convey as a good novel tends to instill. The more we read and listen to the thoughts of others we place ourselves in the position of becoming wise.
There are lessons in almost any writing, some are a bit stretched but you can learn something from someone’s writing. You can learn the hopes, dreams, fears, and the longings of a generation from looking at the writings. I just finished Harper Lee’s books, To Kill a Mocking Bird and Go Set a Watchman. In those novels we get a glimpse at the fears and the struggles of our nation during one of the greatest trials of our history. We often say that we believe that all people are created equal but is this just a saying or a reality. And since it is the fall season and all the kids are getting ready for their evening of Trick or Treat. I decided I would consider the classic Frankenstein. It is not my typical choice of literature, but the true horror depicted within not just the monster created in the lab, but the horror is science pushing forward faster than reason. Interesting life lessons from fictional characters, people created in the minds of humans that in many ways speak the truths we find in the pages of scripture.
I probably see things in what I read that others might not. The words excite me, and I am moved to get involved in some way. That way is usually just sitting and contemplating what I have read but even then, it saturates my thoughts for a bit and if it is a lesson with merit I grow. I often scripture in a similar manner. I read with both a scientific mind as well as that of an artist. I read for knowledge and I read for the joy of reading.
Today we have one of those stories that lends itself to the imagination. Jesus is about to begin yet another journey through the countryside and a man eager to speak with the teacher comes running toward him. Can you see the scene in your mind’s eye? If it were me I am sure the disciples would be watching as I ran, probably laughing at my amazing form, and diverting their eyes when I trip over my feet. But this man is so eager to speak with Jesus that he was running to Jesus.
Running is not something that most people do out for the joy of it. For adults we run for a reason, children run to run, and science cannot figure it out, but for adults we run for a reason. And in most cases, we run in designated places. If someone is running outside a designated area where running is permitted, we begin to wonder what is wrong. In many ancient cultures it was undignified to run at all. But Mark tells us that this man ran to Jesus. We are also told that this man was a rich man. Which in a culture that honored wealth as favor from God, this man was most likely considered a pillar of the community. For this man to run toward Jesus would cause people to wonder.
When he approached Jesus, he fell and knelt before him. Often when I read this story I miss these little words like ran and knelt, but they are very important. To kneel is to show reverence. It is a sign to those around to watch, it’s a sign of humility and honor. People kneel before a monarch, they kneel when an injured player is on the field, we kneel when we pray. No matter what the media says to kneel is not a symbol of disrespect but one of great honor. This rich man runs to Jesus and kneels before him asking, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
When I read this passage, I often read it too quickly, I often do not allow time for the mind to process the scene before I move on to the next statement. I want us to take that time today. I want us to imagine the one person we have the greatest respect for. Imagine your favorite president, your favorite teacher, your parent or grandparent what ever person you have respect for. As you think of them I want you to consider why you respect them. Maybe it is their wealth, their history, maybe its because they can do that one thing you always dreamed about being able to do. Imagine them running by you. Running with a great purpose, running so hard that nothing around them matters. They are so focused in their flight that they do not see people jumping out of the way, they do not slow to allow their aides and entourage to keep up, they are running. And then they fall to their knees in front of someone. You process this image in your mind. What or who would be so important that Abraham Lincoln would run and kneel? Why would someone like Elon Musk fall at the feet of a poor traveling teacher from a rural community of an isolated territory of an empire? This story is much more important than we often give it credit for.
We are drawn to the scene because of who it is who was running. We jog to catch up and hear what is being said. And we listen earnestly. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Can you hear the passion in those words? These are not the words of the cynical scribes wishing to spin words to discredit those that threaten their power. These are not the haughty words of a scholar wishing to prove a point. These are the authentic words of one that strongly desires an answer.
This highly respectable man had just run out to meet the traveling teacher, giving no care to what others might think or say. He knelt before this teacher even though he was likely a man that was accustomed to have people kneel before him. And he asks with passion a question because he knows that he is missing something important.
Jesus answers this man. And he answers him in a way that we might find odd, but he speaks directly to the heart of this individual. He begins by saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” I have always found that statement odd. We do not talk like this in our culture, but we must remember that we do not live in the same culture that Jesus lived. Jesus lived among the people of Israel. This group’s very identity revolved around their religion and the practices of that religion. Every moment of every day was highlighted by some sacred symbolism. The clothing they wore was made according to the law and it had a fringe that reminded them that they were connected to God. They had around their shoulders or upon their head a prayer shawl, some even had attached to their forehead our bound to their wrists a tefillin or box that containing important scriptures. They ritually washed their bodies. They prepare their food in such a manner as to ensure that all the life’s blood is removed from the flesh of an animal. Their lives revolve around their religion to a degree that would make the most devout among us look nominal in comparison. This man runs to Jesus, a teacher that is often criticized for accepting sinners, and he calls him good. And Jesus responds to him, by saying why do you call me good only God is good.
This man saw something in Jesus that ignited a passion within his soul that he had not known before and he wanted more. That is why he ran and that is why Jesus responded the way he did. He is saying to him you know already that only God is good. And he continues, “You know the commandments…” The man replies that yes, he knows all this, and he has kept these since his youth. In the eyes of his community he is above reproach. Jesus looks at the man and loved him.
He looked at this man and he loved him. We often over look this statement too. The man ran, he knelt, and Jesus loved him. Jesus knows that this man is a decent individual. He knows that this man wants to honor God. He also knows that this man has a weakness. “You lack one thing,” Jesus says, “go sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me.”
We are told that the man was shocked and grieved by Jesus’s words. We are told that he went away grieving because he had many possessions. We have focused on the rich verses the poor, we focus on the ideal of charity and how Jesus loves those that give freely. We forget that Jesus loved this man. The man walked away grieving, but have you ever thought that maybe the first tear to fall was from the eyes of Jesus as he looked this man in the eye and revealed to him his one weakness.
He lacked only one thing Jesus said. We often place on this man’s head every vice and perception that we have for those who have great wealth, but Jesus said he only lacked one thing. His sin was not in how he gained his wealth, it was not even how he used his wealth. His sin was that his wealth is what defined his identity. He did not know how to function without his wealth. He did not know how to even continue his faith without his possessions because his life was built on what he could do with what he owned.
Jesus loved this man. This man loved God so much that he ran through town to kneel at Jesus’s feet. Yet this man, like so many decent men fell short because in their quest for honor they neglected the most important things. The most important thing to God is Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself. This first and greatest commandment is relational, it is mindfulness, and requires awareness of those around us. This man lacked one thing. This passionate, and probably religious man lacked one thing and that one thing is found in his question to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus illustrates this problem for us. He says, “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.”
I have heard many illustrations on this short parable. I have heard that it was a small doorway within a wall that merchants would have to pass through while their camels were on their knees. This is a great story but is pretty much just a story. Jesus spoke to people according to what they would know. He used everyday things like fields, seeds, sparrows, and grass to bring out his teachings because he spoke to people in language they would understand. He was not in a walled city, he was not in a community with a thriving import/export market. He was in rural Judea talking with common people. He spoke of an actual needle, and actual camels. I am not a tailor, but I have threaded a needle as I am sure many of you have had to do. To thread a needle, you need a steady hand and the thread must be straight and free of obstructions. You do not thread a needle with a ball of thread, but one singular end. This illustration tells us all how easy it is to miss the point. The one thing that rich man lacked is something we all struggle with. That singular purpose, without obstruction. Letting God be good without our help.
The man left in grief, all the while knowing that Jesus loved him and greatly desired for him to follow. Jesus was not being rude, he was not judging or belittling the man, but was being completely honest. Jesus loved this man but could not let him continue without the proper knowledge that only God is good. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But we are not despised wretches, but beloved. God so loved us fallen sinners that while we were still in our fallen and sinful state Christ died for us, he took our place and redeems our failings. Often, we only lack one thing, but even that one thing will keep us out of God’s kingdom. We lack mindfulness, awareness. The Apostle Paul wrote, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” This single mindfulness does not mean it is a sin to be wealthy, it simply means it is hard to selfless. It is hard to let go of yourself and follow. And it is harder the more respected and honored you are to follow. But Jesus also says, “For God all things are possible.”
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, let us focus on the love that Jesus had for the man in today’s scripture. Let us remember the grief both Jesus and the man had when the truth was revealed. And let us consider our lives? God loves each of his beloved sinners, He knew us while we were still being formed within our mother’s womb and wants us to follow him, but to do that we must be of a singular mind. Stretching all that we have out so that God can thread us into the kingdom with his loving and steady hand.