I hate this passage! Sell all your possessions – is that what it takes to enter eternal life? I remember many years ago hearing Ronald Sider say, “What ninety-nine per cent of Western Christians need to hear ninety-nine per cent of the time is, ‘Sell all your possessions and give to the poor’.” And to read this only two weeks after we bought a new television! Surely that Sony has damned us to hell?
So what do I make of this story? What can I offer you before the flames start licking around my flesh?
I propose to think about it in the three phases of the story: firstly, considering Jesus and the man, secondly thinking about Jesus and the disciples, and thirdly Jesus’ reaction to what Peter says.
Firstly, Jesus and the man. Matthew calls him ‘young’ and Luke calls him a ‘ruler’; all we know from Mark is that he is rich. It would be easy for us to be cynical, especially since we know how the story ends. But he seems to have a genuine question, and Jesus treats him with dignity and respect. No – more than that – we read that Jesus ‘loved him’ (verse 21). That doesn’t suggest Jesus detected any hypocrisy. I think we must take the man’s enquiry as a sincere one.
Well, how many sincere enquirers would we turn away from the church today? Very few if any, I would suggest. Churches are often so desperate for new members that they will soften the entry requirements or rationalise what people say in order to get them in and swell the numbers.
Not Jesus. Far from lowering the bar, he raises the bar for the man. The man has kept this, that and every commandment, even one that isn’t in the Ten Commandments – ‘you shall not defraud’. Surely he has covered all the bases? What more could someone do? Isn’t he better than so many of the people who came to Jesus?
But even this man, with all his lofty moral conduct, still lacks one thing. It’s his attitude to his wealth. He needs to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor before following Jesus (verse 21).
He has kept that extra commandment, ‘You shall not defraud’, with its implication about defrauding the poor, because they are usually the silent victims of wealth accumulation. But while he hasn’t gone out of his way to make life worse for the poor, neither has he shown any real concern.
And it’s ironic to contrast him with those Jesus talked about in the preceding four verses in Mark. He spoke about little, vulnerable children, who in worldly terms owned nothing yet in his eyes lacked nothing for the kingdom of God. Here is a man who has everything the world can give and yet has nothing that the kingdom of God requires.
Why? Because the critical issue for him is one of trust and security. His money and property are what help him to sleep at night. For all Jesus’ words of warning about wealth, he didn’t completely reject all the rich people of his day. He benefitted from the largesse of some rich women who supported his ministry (Luke 8), and his body would be laid in the tomb of a wealthy man.
Furthermore, it’s illuminating that the man asks, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (verse 17). He doesn’t ask about the general conditions for everybody; his question is specific to his own situation. And Jesus picks on the way he trusts in his riches.
The question for people like us, then, is what our attitude to money and possessions is. Do they become the things we rely on? Is my security in the pension I will receive (even in economically uncertain times)? Is it the house we own? Are we free to give to the poor?
A minister I know told me earlier this year that he has thought for many years that the decline of the Methodist Church means it is futile for him to rely on that pension when he retires. So he plans to quit this country in a few years’ time and spend the rest of his ministry working as a Christian in Muslim lands, having the courage to find appropriate ways of sharing the love of Christ there. His security is not in money but in God.
And that is the question Jesus posed to the man: where was his security? It couldn’t be in his moral conduct, because everybody falls short somewhere. In his case, it was his finances and property. But the kingdom requires that we put our trust in God. So where is our security?
Which isn’t too far from the second conversation, the one between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus tells them it will be hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God, harder even than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle (verses 23-25). And they respond, “Then who can be saved?” (verse 26). It’s their ‘Doomed, doomed, we’re all doomed’ moment.
We’d like something to break the tension. Something to let us off the hook. Some little indication that Jesus is being mischievous or ironic. So people talk about the ‘eye of the needle’ as describing a gate into Jerusalem. However, there is no record of that until the ninth century AD. Is there any hope in this passage, or are we all doomed? Is God lighting the blue touch paper and retiring while we burn?
Thankfully, Jesus replies with the essence of the Gospel:
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Verse 27)
Discipleship is possible through God. Faith is possible with God. Obedience is possible with God. It is no use relying on our goodness, the Gospel only works because God makes the impossible possible. He makes it possible for selfish, self-centred other-forgetting people who are entirely bound up with themselves (get the message?) to be forgiven, put in the right with him through Christ – and transformed into entirely different people over a period of time, thanks to the Holy Spirit.
We need that sense of inadequacy and desperation that we can’t make it into the kingdom of God. But the story doesn’t stop there. God steps in with the Gospel. He does the impossible.
However, that Gospel does not stop with the forgiveness of sins, as some Christians would have us believe. That is central, but it is not the whole message. A Gospel which then requires us to follow Jesus, with all the challenges that involves, also does the impossible in turning us inside out.
Don’t get me wrong. To hear the Gospel proclaimed as the forgiveness of sins is wonderful. It is exactly what we need to hear. But when that is the limit of the message, it is in danger of becoming ‘cheap grace’. I can be forgiven and just wait for eternal life. In the meantime, I can live however I want.
But Jesus is not recruiting people by simply offering them a ticket to glory, he is calling them to enlist in the cause of God’s kingdom, which means following him. So as well as forgiveness there is transformation. God is making all things new, and he wants to include us in that.
So it may be hopeless for us, but there is always hope with God. He challenges us deeply about our security, but provides all we need in order to be different. We need not walk away, like the rich man did. We can instead walk with Jesus. Good news? I think so.
Which brings us to the third conversation, the one between Jesus and Peter. Because in the light of this, Peter issues a plea: “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (verse 28). In other words: we’ve done what you’ve asked us to do. We haven’t walked away, like the rich man. We’ve sized up the cost and paid it. we’ve made the sacrifices and are depending on God as we follow you, just as you’ve taught us. And it’s quite a sacrifice they’ve all made: home, family, business – all left behind. It’s rather like Peter is saying, “We’ve met the tough conditions you’ve laid down: what’s in it for us?”
And Jesus’ response is broadly to say, don’t just conceive of discipleship as being about what you’ve given up. Sure, there will be persecution, he says, but you will be amply rewarded in this life and in the life to come (verses 29-30). Your heavenly Father knows what you have given up, but there is more to discipleship than sacrifice. Certainly, it requires sacrifice, but God does not overlook that.
I wonder whether you ever feel like your efforts and sacrifices for Christ are not noticed? Do you sometimes wonder whether what you have done at great cost to yourself or your family was a waste of time and effort? Do you ever despair that you have sweated so much in following Jesus and yet you feel there is so little to show for it? Perhaps you feel like Joseph in the Old Testament, languishing in an Egyptian prison having accurately interpreted dreams, but forgotten by the man who was vindicated by what he said? In my experience, plenty of Christians feel like all they do has been forgotten by God.
If you are one of them, then Jesus says something to you that is similar to what he said to Peter. All that you put in for the kingdom will be rewarded, a hundredfold in this life and eternal life in the age to come.
Why can he say this? Ultimately, it’s because of the Resurrection. One of my favourite Bible verses – and also most challenging – comes at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection. His conclusion is nothing to do with sweetly waiting for the age to come, it’s this: ‘Nothing you do for the Lord is ever in vain.’
Now I frequently feel like what I am doing is in vain. I am seeing no fruit and precious little encouragement. I throw that text back at God sometimes when I’m exercising the spiritual gift of moaning!
Seriously – you might be shocked if you knew the number of ministers who at some point or another had seriously considered quitting the ministry. Put it alongside other Christians who find discouragement, apathy and hostility littered regularly across their way and it really isn’t surprising that many Christians do think their efforts are worthless.
But the text is true. The Resurrection is the promise that God will vindicate what is right, that truth and justice, beauty and love will prevail. It is what drives us on. It is what makes our efforts and sacrifices ‘worth it’.
And in the meantime, while God’s age to come clashes with the present evil age, there will still be some reward, even if it is mingled with suffering and opposition.
So in conclusion, I don’t know who you find yourself identifying with in this story. Sometimes I am with the rich man, struggling to find my security in God rather than in the material blessings of this world. I need to be reminded that in Christ God gives me true and lasting security, and everything else that seems so solid is a dead end. Sometimes when I think all is lost I am with the disciples, who need to know that God makes both the forgiveness of sins and the power to live a radical new life possible. And on other occasions, when I’m tempted to give up the effort needed to keep on keeping on, I’m with Peter, learning from Jesus that God has not forgotten me and will specifically remember what I have done for him and fulfil his purposes.
Who are you? What do you need to hear from God today?