[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on October 21.]
I recently was told that in the Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--Jesus speaks about money in 288 verses. The number seemed a bit inflated to me because, often when Jesus tells a parable involving money--like the parable of the dishonest steward or the one about the unforgiving servant, He’s only using a story involving money to tell us about other things, like the importance of being wise in our dealings with others or the need to forgive others as God forgives us for Christ’s sake.
Even last week’s gospel lesson found Jesus speaking about money only as a way of warning us against letting anyone or anything get in the way of trusting Him alone as the way, and the truth, and the life.
But this week, Jesus takes the subject of money head-on, tackling it for what it can and is for many people in our world, the single-most death-dealing idol of all.
So, let’s take a look at today’s lesson, Mark 10:23-31. Verse 23: “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’”
The rich man who had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life had just walked away, saddened that Jesus told him to sell all that he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and then follow Jesus. It was a stunning moment. Here was Jesus, a powerless, penniless street preacher telling a man whose wealth meant that he was accustomed to getting his way that if he wanted eternal life, he would need to get rid of his favorite god and instead rely entirely on Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life.
The disciples must have viewed this encounter uncomprehendingly. Jesus looks at them and says, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” And then, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” The two statements differ. The first one says that it’s hard for the wealthy to get into the kingdom, to have eternal life. The second one tells us that it’s just hard for anyone to get into the kingdom.
“Wait a minute!” we might say. “I thought that we gained entrance into God’s kingdom as a free gift of undeserved grace (or charity) granted to those who turn from sin (or, repent) and trust, believe in Jesus. Can something be free and difficult at the same time?”
Of course it can be! The life of Christian discipleship is both free and difficult! The only way we can, day in and day out, take hold of the life and salvation that Jesus offers is to let go of our favorite personal insurance policies: the things we use to validate our worth, prove our significance, make us feel secure.
Our old selves, with their sinful obsessions, selfishness, and idols have to be crucified so that our new, eternal lives can happen. Truly, if we’re going to live with the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus, we must submit to the daily destruction of our safe, ego-centered worlds so that God the Holy Spirit can undertake the construction of our new, never-ending lives.
Jesus tells us elsewhere, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
The gift of new life from Jesus is free, but taking it can involve painful separation from the things, the ways of life we love, as the rich man with whom Jesus had just spoken learned.
A man once told me about an affair he’d had and the decision he and the woman with whom he’d had the relationship to end it. “We loved each other deeply,” he told me. “It wasn’t physical. She accepted my imperfections and affirmed my worth and potential.” The two of them ended things because they knew continuing would displease God and violate their marriage vows.
Leaving behind our favorite sins in order to grasp the gift of new life reserved for those who follow Jesus is hard. We can’t keep unrepentantly following our sins if we want to follow Jesus. The gift of life Jesus offers is worth any sacrifice, including the sacrifice of our sinful rebellions against God. “If anyone is in Christ,” the apostle Paul writes, “the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Jesus goes on in verse 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.”
I’m guessing that Jesus reverts to talking about money because He sees the disciples’ shock at his assertion that money has the potential to drag us into hell, away from God. Their shock is understandable: In first-century Judea, where Jesus lived, wealth was regarded as God’s affirmation of the rich person’s faith. Wealthy people were thought to be more righteous than poor people.
Such thinking didn’t end in the first century. A friend once told me about going to a couples’ Bible study, most of whose members took it as a given that people were only poor because they weren’t right with God. Yet Proverbs 28:6 tells us, “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse.”
Wealth in and of itself isn’t the problem, of course. It’s how we view it, whether it controls our decision making and priorities or not. Theologian Richard Foster says that money is a power; either we will control it or it will control us.
The apostle Paul doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil of course, but he does say that, “...the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10)
It is exactly against the grief of separation from God that Jesus warns us today. Jesus asks us to imagine a large camel threading the eye of a needle, then tells us that those who carry their wealth around as their security blanket, their god, cannot possibly make into the kingdom of God.
How important is money in our lives? One way to determine that is to see how generous we are, not just to the church and other not-for-profit entities, but in our everyday lives. Speaking personally, I pray to be more generous, less concerned with getting or keeping and more concerned with giving away.
Jesus says: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48) That applies to us all, whatever our incomes.
Verse 26: “The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’”
“If a rich man can’t be saved,” the disciples ask, “what hope is there for anyone to enter God’s kingdom?”
Life with God is only possible because of God’s grace given to us in Jesus. Wealth may allow us to get more medical care and buy better food before we all eventually die, Jesus is saying, but it’s impossible to buy life with God.
Yet God makes it possible for anyone to be saved from sin and death, saved for life in God’s kingdom: By entrusting our entire lives to Jesus the Christ.
As the Bible reminds us: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Verse 28: “Then Peter spoke up, ‘We have left everything to follow you!’”
Despite common folklore, Peter and the other fishermen were probably themselves wealthy people. Franchises to fish the waters of Galilee were rare and expensive in the first place and those who did have those franchises made lots of money. We know from the Gospel of John that two of the twelve, James and John, were part of a family fishing business that employed others. So, Peter’s question is more than a disinterested theological inquiry. He’s like the overachiever looking for extra credit. “We’re OK, right? We left everything behind to follow You, Jesus.”
Jesus doesn’t answer Peter’s question directly. Instead, Jesus points the disciples--including you and me--back to faith, back to turning away from the love of wealth that will keep us from claiming the gift of eternal life through Jesus.
Verse 29: “‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—[free and difficult] and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’”
The God we meet in Jesus, crucified for our sins, risen for our eternal salvation, offers infinitely more to those who worship Him and Him alone than all the wealth of this dying world possibly can.
It’s out of consideration for the overwhelming grace of God in Christ, offered to rich and poor alike, that Paul wrote to the first century church in Ephesus: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
The world may put those who dare to be Jesus’ disciples on its bottom rungs, but we know that in the upside-down kingdom of God, the “first will be last, and the last first.” If last place is where we can be with Christ, now and in eternity, that’s exactly where we should always want to be. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]