February 14, 2016
“Jesus and the Rich Man”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
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.”
To be honest, I have always struggled with this story. It talks about wealth and our spiritual lives and how one can affect the other. It feels like Jesus is asking every single one of us to sell everything we own and give the money away, or else we are not good followers of Jesus.
Reading this passage gives me the same uncomfortable feeling that the call stories of the disciples give me. Jesus says to them “Come after me” and they drop everything and leave job, home and families to follow an itinerant preacher, and what does it say about me that I have not done the same.
So our inclination is to cast this story of Jesus and the wealthy man in spiritual terms. It is not really about money, but about the things we hold onto that keep us from following Jesus with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This was the passage I preached my final sermon on, on the floor of Presbytery (which is a group of over 100 churches) to become one of your pastors. And this is how I came at it, using an image from Sesame Street.
There is a great musical number where Ernie wants to learn how to play the saxophone, but he won’t put his favorite ducky down.
So the point of the song is: “You have to put down the ducky if you want to play the saxophone.” Obviously, this was Jesus’ point too – that there are things that we have white-knuckled grips on, that we need to let go of to follow Christ.
And I’m sure we can all think of things in our lives that would fit in this category – self-reliance, insecurity, fear, worry, what people have told us about ourselves, failure, even money.
We are told that Jesus looks at the man with love and says, “There is something you lack . . .”
Karoline Lewis, one of my favorite contemporary commentators writes, “Lack takes on many forms in our life. This story asks us to ponder how we might complete the sentence, ‘I lack _________.’ There is one thing you lack.
And you need to figure that out.
But the issue of lack takes on a particular meaning in this story — it is that which prevents you from a full expression of faith.
What is the one thing that is at the core of who you are, what keeps you from being the follower, the disciple, the believer, the witness God wants and needs you to be?
This is a terribly hard question to answer, I know.
And so we ask it among the community of the faithful, hearing the truth from another so that perhaps we can then tell the truth to ourselves, with the sure hope that the places and spaces of lack might be filled once again.”
Not a bad thing at all to consider for the first Sunday in Lent – how would we complete the sentence, “I lack ______”?
But let’s go back and see what happens when we read this passage literally – it is still talking about wealth, but maybe not in the way we think.
A little background on where we are in Mark: Jesus is traveling around and large crowds have gathered to hear his teaching, and some Pharisees mix into the crowd and ask him a question, not because they are spiritual seekers, but because they want to get Jesus to say things that will get him in trouble.
We pick up the story as Jesus is setting out on another journey – so imagine Jesus with his traveling companions on a long, dusty road, and a man runs up and kneels before Jesus.
We know nothing about him whatsoever, only that by kneeling he has told us two things.
First, that he is showing respect, honor and humility – whatever he is asking, it is not a trick, but an honest request.
Second, every other time in Mark’s account of Jesus’s life every other person who kneels before Jesus is someone looking for healing. We’ve talked before about how brief and breathless Mark’s account is – every detail matters.
That this man kneels, tells us that he has dis-ease, he is aware that something about himself or his life is not right, and needs healing and repair.
The question he asks Jesus is “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Let’s unpack that question.
The question is individualistic, focusing on himself alone: “What must I do . . . ?”
The question shows that he knows that eternal life, salvation, is inherited – it something given and something received – you don’t earn inheritance, and someone has to die in order for someone else to inherit anything.
And yet, he asks what he has to do to get this inheritance.
So the question ultimately has to do with belonging – how do I become a part of the family? Am I loved enough to receive this inheritance?
We find out later that this man has many possessions and is wealthy – so we can imagine that he has come to a place where he has realized that what he really wants and needs, can’t be bought with the money he has. Perhaps this is the dis-ease that has brought him to kneel before Jesus, seeking answers.
Jesus answers him, quoting from the second half of the Ten Commandments, all those commandments that have to do with how we relate to one another: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal from others, don’t tell lies about other people, honor your parents.
And one additional command not found in the 10 commandments: Don’t defraud other people out of their possessions.
Some scholars wonder, could it be that Jesus knows that this is how man gained his many possessions, by fraud?
The man says he has kept all the commandments Jesus has just rattled off.
We get this sense that Jesus has trying to direct the man’s attention to his relationships.
The man runs up and says (my paraphrase), “How do I get into heaven?” and Jesus response is, “how have you treated the people around you?” The man seems to think he has done pretty well in this regard.
But Jesus pushes him farther (my paraphrase), “Sell what you have and give the money away to the poor, to people who desperately need it, and then you will own the treasure you have been seeking, the treasure of eternal life with God.”
The instruction again points the man back towards other people. It is not simply about wealth and owning too much, but about love of neighbor and generosity. And the man simply can’t go that far and leaves grieving.
The story doesn’t end here, otherwise we might think that our salvation lies in keeping the second part of the Ten Commandments and voluntary poverty.
Jesus makes it very clear after the disciples are in wonder at why this wealthy man, clearly blessed by God, will have such a hard time entering the kingdom of God – Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
So it turns out that there was nothing the man could do to enter God’s kingdom and gain eternal life . . . then what was that whole conversation between Jesus and the man about?
Following Jesus is not just about the final destination, but the here and now. Salvation has implications for our lives right now, so what could Jesus then be telling us about money?
I’m curious how many of you bought Powerball lottery tickets when the jackpot was over a billion dollars (raise your hands – there is no judgement here).
Michael Norton who is a social science researcher gave a TED talk on money and happiness several years ago and he begins with a 2011 CNN article about lottery winners and their happiness.
This article, and many others since, have pointed out that winning the lottery does not always make you as happy as you think it will. In fact the majority of lottery winners end up worse off, more unhappy, than they were before they won the lottery.
So Michael Norton says, “It turns out people think when they win the lottery their lives are going to be amazing. This article’s about how their lives get ruined.
So what happens when people win the lottery is, number one, they spend all the money and go into debt, and number two, all of their friends and everyone they’ve ever met find them and bug them for money. And it ruins their social relationships, in fact.
So they have more debt and worse friendships than they had before they won the lottery.
What was interesting about the article was people started commenting on the article. And instead of talking about how it had made them realize that money doesn’t lead to happiness, everyone instantly started saying, “You know what I would do if I won the lottery … ?” and fantasizing about what they’d do.
And here’s just two of the ones we saw that are just really interesting to think about. One person wrote in, “When I win, I’m going to buy my own little mountain and have a little house on top.”
And another person wrote, “I would fill a big bathtub with money and get in the tub while smoking a big fat cigar and sipping a glass of champagne.” This is even worse now: “Then I’d have a picture taken and dozens of glossies made. Anyone begging for money or trying to extort from me would receive a copy of the picture and nothing else.”
So all this got Michael Norton thinking that maybe there is a correlation between money and happiness, that it is not how much money you have but what you do with it.
So he and his colleagues ran a number of social experiments comparing the happiness levels of people who were “anti-social” in their spending and people who were “pro-social” in their spending.
So you give people money and tell them either to spend the money on themselves or to spend it on other people, or you take sales teams in a workplace and give them money to spend individually or on something for the whole group.
People who spent money on other people got happier.
People who spent money on themselves, nothing happened. It didn’t make them less happy, it just didn’t do much for them.
The sales teams that spent the money on the whole group, for example they bought a piñata that they all got to take whacks at, they vastly outsold the other sales teams.
They tried the same experiment with dodgeball teams (because they thought, if the theory doesn’t work for dodgeball, then it is a stupid theory) and the pro-social dodgeball teams had more wins at the end of the season.
Michael Norton is a professor at the Harvard Business School so his bent is towards how businesses and employees can function better, but I saw this talk and thought, Jesus was right all along:
Lives that are living out salvation are orientated towards other people, even when it comes to our money.
Jesus is very clear that we don’t earn salvation – we are saved by grace alone – we often have to remind ourselves of this – nothing you do can earn you God’s love, nothing you do can lose you God’s love.
But that is not the end of it, it is the start – God’s gift of salvation actually frees us to do something to love each other and care for the world and God’s people and live out the good news, and to be generous and give away some of our abundance, to orient our lives differently, to orient our lives towards other people.
So often we hear God speak to us personally through scripture, through God’s word in the Bible, and we think “that’s nice” but nothing changes, there is always time for our lives to look different later on. But the season of Lent reminds us that our need for change in our lives is urgent. I had this moment of realization at the end of this past week, as I was praying over the week, that time is precious and short.
On Ash Wednesday this past Wednesday we were reminded that we are dust and we will return to dust – this life is just a breath – there is no time to waste doing things that don’t matter, to waste time doing things that bring us dis-ease rather than life with God, and love and wholeness.
This week I watched my first baby sign his full name and get his first library card on the very same day I visited with a friend on the day of her passing away. This week we learned that a billion years ago two black holes collided and we are just hearing now the reverberations – and at least for me, that’s a statement on the immensity of time. We have just a moment to live out our salvation here and now, and do what matters, so let’s get to it. Amen.