The Rich Man and Jesus
None of us want to admit it when we hear this passage, but we are all this rich man. Perhaps I should sugar-coat this and say that “most” of us are this rich man, but I’m fairly certain that it is every one of us. Compared to biblical times, we are rolling in wealth. We have modern amenities and luxuries available to us at all levels of income which makes looking at this passage particularly difficult. Writing this man and his experiences off can sometimes come across as self-serving since we are so like him. The rich man is not exactly arrogant, but in his honesty and eagerness to do and be right, he comes across as a little self-righteous. Let me explain … maybe you have had a similar experience as I did when I was younger … I would go to church and as we read the Prayer of Confession together, I would mentally check off each one. “Nope, didn’t do that, no not that either.” And I would think to myself, “I must be doing OK this week. God must be happy now.” As I matured in my faith, I have found that I am more than able to fill a short pause with my short-comings and failings that I would like God’s pardon and help with addressing. But, sometimes I still find myself checking off that internal list of good person qualities and feeling like God would be pretty proud of me.
I think that’s where this passage gets very interesting for us. Because God is proud of this man, and we hear the beautiful line of scripture that says “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said …” The rich man does not come to Jesus in an attempt to trick him or make him look bad in the public arena. This man runs to Jesus out of a sincere desire to gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps it is a little bragging on his part to say that he has fulfilled all the commandments, but he is also being honest. He has paid attention and is really trying to please God. We could call this man a “seeker.” In fact, many of us who grew up in the church even could be called seekers. There is some part of all of us that recognizes there is more to life, and more to this world than what we can see or experience with our physical senses. And there is more to pleasing God that just obeying the commandments set before us in the Bible.
Jesus’ Response is Unique as Well
“Looking at him, Jesus loved him.” Jesus could see everything there was to see about this man, and he loved him. He saw his sincerity, his genuine desire to please, and his willingness to seek out what was required of him.
So, Jesus does not hold back in his truth-telling. In a gentle tone, knowing that this would be difficult to accept, Jesus tells the man to sell all that he has. He quietly calls the man to task for his selfishness. The rich man asked “What must I do?” First, he assumes that he can work for salvation and earn his way into heaven. Second, he is concerned only about his own personal salvation. These two assumptions make up the foundation of why Jesus might tell us to get rid of everything that binds us to this world.
- Assuming that he can earn his way into heaven parallels a person’s thinking that their hard work and virtue has been rewarded with prosperity, money, and security. It is very easy for us to assume that those who work hard and are good people deserve to have good things happen to them. We would also like to assume that bad people get what they deserve in the end … but this isn’t always the case. There are people who work themselves to the bone but cannot get ahead, and there are people who exploit others and pay no attention to the consequences of their actions and live peacefully for years. The kingdom of heaven does not operate under the same rules of this world, and the commodity of wealth is a hindrance (not a help) in getting closer to the heart of God.
- Being concerned only with his own salvation, Jesus tells the rich man to not only care for the widows, the orphans, the oppressed; Jesus tells this man to, essentially, become the “least of these.” One of the blessings of being on the ‘outside’ of society is finding a perspective that you cannot get while you are part of the successful, comfortable elite. When you have nothing, it is very easy to understand the need and also the comfort of relying on God to see you through each day. The responsibility of taking care of everything and doing everything for yourself is lifted from your shoulders as you realize that God is your only hope.
The danger or weight of wealth is that it is something that holds us back from God’s kingdom. The distinct image of a camel trying to pass through the eye of the needle makes it easy to remember that “you can’t take it with you.” How does wealth get in the way of our faith journey?
- Wealth tricks us into thinking that we are capable of gaining wealth and prosperity on our own. It belittles our dependence on God and tells us that we don’t need someone else telling us what to do and how to do it.
- Wealth possesses us. When Joe and I first moved in, we both remarked on how much we enjoyed not having a TV on constantly in the house. Now that we have our cable and internet hooked up, it is once more a battle to keep ourselves from mindlessly watching TV. Our possession now dictates our time and how it is spent. It possesses us.
Surrendering everything to God helps us to remember our dependence on God. It also helps us to be free from the world’s measures of success.
I would like to be able to stop here and say “don’t let the world own you or dictate who you are, resist its power, rely on God.” and call it a sermon. But Jesus did not tell this man just to rethink how he viewed his money or how he used his money. Jesus told the rich man to get rid of his wealth for differing and complex reasons — reasons that we may never fully understand.
What does this mean practically? Are we supposed to give up wealth?
- Clearly, we live in the world. We can’t not live in the world, and we are therefore subject to the world’s laws. But perhaps we do need to be very aware of our attitudes surrounding our money. I have heard many stories about families just starting out who were unable to pay all their bills or meet all their needs who decided to tithe 10% and found that they were suddenly able to pay bills and meet needs. Ralph Milton, in his blog for this week, talked about how he and his wife decided to do this 51 years ago when they first got married. He says, “We lived well below the poverty line. It was then that we realized that tithing in this way was a special gift. It became for us an act of worship … It became an act of defiance … we defy the power that money has over us by giving the first part to God. And somehow that loosens up the rest of the budget and makes it much easier to live with a sense of God’s participation in the decisions around money.” (From Ralph Milton’s RUMORS, a free Internet ‘e-zine’ for Christians with a sense of humor: http://ralphmiltonsrumors.blogspot.com/2009/10/preaching-materials-for-october-11-2009.html.)
- I do not use this story to tell you that you should tithe, but to help us to find a perspective on money in our lives and in our church.
Ultimate questions deserve big answers
Fred Craddock writes, “The man asked a big question and he got a big answer; small answers to ultimate questions are insulting.” This is a big topic, and it touches a strong chord within all of us. The rich man went away from Jesus grieving, because he had many wonderful possessions.
But maybe, in time, the rich man had some time to think about what Jesus said. And as he sat in his house surrounded by his lovely things, he started to feel that same empty feeling that led him to Jesus in the first place. Maybe he started to give his things away, and maybe he decided to take his wealth and develop a way to help the “least of these” in his community, and as he did so, maybe the man found that he was the same as these “least” people. He had the same aching need for something meaningful, fulfilling, and saving. And maybe he found that something among the “least” as he suddenly realized that his salvation was tied up in theirs, and that in losing everything, he had gained something more precious than anything he had ever earned — he found hope, grace, love, community.
Jesus push to surrender all worldly possessions has implications for the rich man’s faith walk, but it also has implications for what we call kingdom ethics. How does the way we live proclaim the presence of Christ’s kingdom here and now? I would never have put this all together in this way, until I took a class called environmental ethics this last spring. I try not to do harm, I obey God’s commandments, I’m a good person. But even in doing all of that, I may be unconsciously, unwillingly, participating in the downfall of someone else’s life. How many of us know who made our clothes and if they were paid fairly for their work? Do we know where our food that we bought in the store was made? Even after my class, I am sad to say, I do not. I still operate under the assumption that more is better, sometimes. And it’s safe to say, that is likely the case with most of us here. Just being a good person is not enough sometimes.
“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one” (John Lennon)
So, go ahead. Put all of your eggs in one basket – God’s basket. There is no need to diversify your investments in God; you have no need for a ‘fall back plan.’ All you need is courage, which as Raymond Lindquist says, is the power to let go of the familiar. Let go of your need to control the outcome; let go of your anxieties about what might or might not happen. Rest in the assurance of God’s love and providence. Be ready to accept the surprising blessings of God’s love in our lives.
Maybe if you and I can manage to make this leap together, maybe if we decide to find that hope and grace and love together, we may also find God’s peace in community. May it be so.
Let us pray, God, you call us to difficult tasks. You know us and you love us. Help us to hear your truth; help us to follow your teachings (especially the hard ones) and help us to become the “least of these” so that we may truly rest in your arms and depend on your love and guidance in our lives. Amen.