TEXTS: Hebrews 4:12-16 and Mark 10:17-31
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!” 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! 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.” (Mark 10:23-25)
The gospel lesson for Proper 23, Year B (Mark 10:17-31) is, surely, familiar to all of us as “the story of the Rich Young Ruler.” This may be due, in part, to the fact that it occurs in more than one gospel. In addition to Mark’s account, almost identical stories can be found in Matthew (19:16-30) and Luke (18:18-30).
It is familiarity with all three of these that makes us call it “the story of the Rich Young Ruler.” All the synoptics identify him as rich—or, at least, as “having many possessions.” But it is Matthew who describes him as young, and it is Luke who tells us he is a ruler. No matter what we call him, however, his story is compelling—and also unsettling. At least, it unsettles me.
This young man asks one of the best questions in the entire Bible. He also receives one of the most disturbing answers. The question is: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).
What must I do to inherit eternal life? After I depart this mortal coil—after my earthly life is over … if I should suddenly find myself in an elevator … when the doors open … will I see clouds … or a furnace room?
It’s a question most of us have asked, in some form or another. And here’s where the disturbing answer comes in, because Jesus says this: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor … then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
Now, in a moment, I’ll return to that disturbing answer—and the question which prompted it. But first, let’s think about the one who asks the question—and about the One who answers it. And let’s ask ourselves a question: which one are we most like?
First, let’s look at the Rich Young Ruler. He’s a bright guy—even though he asks a rather dumb question. I mean, what does anybody ever do to inherit anything? When somebody dies—if you’re mentioned in the will—something is given to you. To receive the inheritance, you have to do absolutely nothing, in most cases. Maybe sign some papers, but that’s about it.
But, the Rich Young Ruler is a smart guy. He’s also perceptive; he recognizes that Jesus is a “Good Teacher.” He has lots of other admirable qualities, too: He’s law-abiding; he keeps the Ten Commandments. He’s enthusiastic; he runs up to Jesus and throws himself at his feet. He’s got a winning personality; Jesus “loves him” right off the bat.
He is intelligent, perceptive, law-abiding, enthusiastic, and lovable. The Rich Young Ruler seems to have it all. What a catch! He should be on a reality TV show, like The Bachelor.
Not only that, but he’s really, really wealthy!
In the time of Christ, wealth bought privilege … which, I guess … it still does. In Jesus’ day, wealth was seen as a reward for faithfully obeying God’s commands. Which … actually … sounds a lot like the “Prosperity Gospel” of our day.
The Rich Young Ruler must have been the envy of his community, regarded as someone who obviously enjoyed God’s favour. Most likely, he was respected by the religious elite. Certainly, he would be an honoured guest in the right circles—always seated at the head of the table instead of the foot. His riches would have placed him at the top of society.
Now, let’s take a look at the “Good Teacher.” Jesus doesn’t own a lot of stuff. Just the clothes on his back and the sandals on his feet. And he isn’t really much of a ruler, either—at least, not by conventional standards. In fact, he describes himself not as a king, but as a servant: “I am among you as one who serves,” he says (Luke 22:27).
So, picture this scenario: Rich Young Ruler meets Poor Young Servant. With which one do we identify? Which of them is the most like me or you?
I have to confess, I recognize myself in the Rich Young Ruler—although, by our reckoning, I’m neither rich nor much of a “ruler.” Nor am I young anymore. Even so—with my comfortable home, my car, medical insurance, RRSP, pension plan and Canadian social safety net—I know that I’m much, much better off than most people on this planet. And like the Rich Young Ruler, I prefer fluffy clouds and a harp to a pitchfork and brimstone.
The Rich Young Ruler has a lot of the same values and same concerns that I have. And, truth to tell, I’m no more eager to let go of my privilege than he was. Thus, I recognize that Jesus’ answer to the Rich Young Ruler applies to me, also. I suspect it applies to most of you who are reading this, as well.
“Go, sell, give, come, follow,” Jesus says. Those are powerful verbs! And when I hear them, I squirm.
What was it the Letter to the Hebrews said about the Word of God?
It says: “… the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the [human] heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
What Jesus was saying to the Rich Young Ruler—and what he is now saying to you, and to me—is that conventional goodness and comfortable morality will not purchase a “ticket to heaven.” The Rich Young Ruler was a very nice guy—but he wasn’t that keen on personal sacrifice.
Jesus never watered down the cost of discipleship. To anyone who asked him, he explained that the way to peace and fulfillment—in this life and beyond—is not an easy, wide, comfortable highway.
No. The way of discipleship is a hard, narrow, rocky path. To travel upon it, you must be totally committed to the journey.
If you and I really want to get closer to God, we must be willing to give up the vain things we cling to. We have to re-prioritize our lives, and sort out what truly matters. In other words, we must learn to travel light.
The Rich Young Ruler was clinging to his money and his possessions. In fact, he was hanging on for dear life—or maybe even tighter! Ironically, his wealth may have become more important to him even than his own life.
The Rich Young Ruler reminds me of a woman I heard about once in a documentary film about Pompeii. Her remains were found preserved under the ashes of the city. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, she ran for the city gate. She actually might have escaped—except, she stopped short. She was found, centuries later, with her face looking back and her hand reaching for a bag of pearls that she had apparently dropped. Death caught her because she chose wealth over well-being.
Upon meeting the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus diagnosed his problem. And—concerned about his spiritual well-being—Jesus called for radical surgery: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
This was a call to the hard, narrow, rocky path of costly commitment. It was radical surgery, indeed. The Rich Young Ruler looked at the options, shook his head sadly, and walked away.
“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
You may be wondering: is that same radical surgery being recommended to us? Does that same disturbing answer apply to us?
I think the answer is both “yes” and “no.” In one sense, that was a particular prescription for a particular person. It was the Great Physician’s remedy for a very specific illness. But a good doctor does not prescribe the same treatment for every patient. Your case—and mine—will not be exactly the same.
Even so, you and I are not completely off the hook. The Rich Young Ruler had a priority problem. Somewhere along the way, he had come to value the things of this world more than he valued God. I have to wonder whether the same thing could be said of us.
Discipleship is about loving God more than anything else. Part of the cost of discipleship is about getting rid of the things we cling to for a false sense of security. For some of us, that may include our money.
But, discipleship is about giving up anything that would keep us from following Jesus. It could be a grudge we’re nursing, or a wrong we will not forgive. Or a sin we are too proud to confess. Or a bad habit. Or some relationship that we know is wrong for us, but which we just can’t seem to leave. Or even, perhaps, a church building we can’t afford to keep up any longer … but also can’t bear to let go of.
Hearing the cost of discipleship, the Rich Young Ruler walked away sadly. He kept his money, but he lost much, much more. He lost the opportunity to have a close, personal relationship with the greatest person ever to walk upon this earth. He lost out on being part of the greatest adventure of all time. He lost not just getting the answer to his question, but seeing it, as well. He could have seen Jesus raised from the dead. Who knows? Maybe, he even lost the opportunity to write a Gospel that we would be reading today.
He chose his comfortable, conventional life over the hardship of being a disciple. He loved money—and all that money can buy—more than he loved Christ.
He would not travel light. Can we, I wonder?
Rich Young Ruler meets Poor Young Servant. Which one are we attempting to follow?
For me, it’s a profoundly challenging question—because I know that part of middle-class, senior-aged me is like the Rich Young Ruler: clinging to vain and perishable things. At the same time, I know that is not the best part of me.
Having been touched and saved by God’s amazing grace, the best part of me wants to answer Jesus’ call to costly discipleship. The best part of me longs to cast off those things that hold me back from following him. The best part of me wants to get close to Jesus. The best part of me aspires to walk with him forever.
I want to see that better part of me grow. I want to follow Jesus—in this life and the next. I want to pay the cost to gain the pearl of great price. I want the Rich Young Ruler to fade away, and the Poor Young Servant to grow within me. I mean, it’s about time, isn’t it?
Today, Rich Young Ruler and Poor Young Servant meet—in you, and in me. Their paths go in opposite directions. And now, a question is being asked of us: which one will we dare to follow?