Mark 10: 17-22
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 12th October 2003
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Man, this guy was having a bad day. He probably woke up feeling pretty good about himself. He probably heard that Jesus would be walking through his village and this was his chance to meet the great rabbi who had been stirring things up. As Jesus approaches, he runs up to him with high expectations. He’s about to meet Jesus, this holy man who has demonstrated his wisdom and preached God’s hope for the world. He runs and then kneels before him, eager to grow in his understanding of things holy or religious, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This was the high point of his day. From here it all goes downhill. He runs up all excited, eager to meet Jesus, eager to grow in his knowledge of divine things. He’s searching after eternal life? Right? Good motives. Then it’s as if he’s smacked upside the head and he staggers away from this encounter in a daze, baffled and very sad – we might say infinitely sad.
Then, not missing the teaching moment of this encounter, Jesus turns to his disciples to reinforce his point. They don’t like what they hear either. Peter is quick to protest, “Look, Jesus, we have left everything and followed you.” What they don’t like to hear – and what we don’t like to hear – is that it’s not easy to be a follower of Jesus.
I want us to hear this: It’s hard, difficult, to enter the kingdom of God. This is the honest truth – the rich man didn’t want to hear it, the disciples didn’t want to hear it, we don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to hear. But this is the plain truth. It’s extremely difficult. In fact, it’s impossible for us mortals. What we’re really looking for cannot be found within ourselves and it cannot be achieved by exerting our wills. The obstacles are insurmountable – but not for God, in whom all things are possible. Jesus’ ministry tried to help us see the obstacles that stand in the way of kingdom living and then helped us remove them. But even when Jesus shows us the obstacles that stand in the way of our entering the kingdom, we still have a choice: the freedom to either remove them or choose to continue to live outside the walls of God’s kingdom.
Let me say a few words about what we mean by “kingdom,” because we cannot understand this text and cannot grasp Jesus’ message without looking at this idea. We should remember that reference to the “kingdom” or in Greek the “realm of God,” was never understood as a synonym for only heaven. The kingdom is not “up there” where we go if we follow the Law. The kingdom is God’s realm, the domain, the region, the gracious space in this world where God’s way of forgiveness, love, and mercy are the norm and not the exception. Jesus spent his entire ministry preaching, proclaiming, and teaching about this realm and calling women and men to follow him into it. It means to live life here and now defined by God’s way, God’s vision of what human life is supposed to be like, God’s vision for community, God’s vision for nations, God’s vision for the world. That’s what we’re praying for in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” Here. Now. So that it might be on earth as it already is in heaven. The preaching of the kingdom is the most central and critical message of Jesus’ ministry. And it’s extremely difficult for us to get our minds wrapped around what Jesus is saying unless we open our minds to it. It’s extremely difficult for the disciples to understand what he’s talking about. “Look, Jesus, we have left everything and followed you,” and you’re telling us we still don’t understand what it means to be saved? They don’t get it. That’s why he uses parables and miracles and teachable moments like this when a very wealthy man comes searching for religious truth and leaves grieving.
When we’re dealing with Jesus we have to be open to a complete undoing and reversal of what we assumed to be the truth. If we’re not startled – like this man, “shocked” – by what Jesus says, then we haven’t heard it yet. If they don’t shock you, then you haven’t heard them. That’s why Jesus says elsewhere, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me,” because offense is one of the first things that come to mind when we listen to the things that Jesus says. It’s summed up at the end of this section, “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Who isn’t shocked by this? We expect the first to be the first, the best and the last to be the last, the worst. But in the kingdom it’s the other way around; everything is reversed. Those who are so self-assured thinking they understand the way of God and think they understand the religious life are really very far from the kingdom. And those whom the religious authorities considered to be far outside the kingdom – the leper, the tax collector, diseased women, even children – are given a special place, according to Jesus. One of the major themes in Mark’s gospel, in fact, he intentionally crafts the story of Jesus in this way, is that those on the inside discover they are on the outside; those on the outside discover that they’re on the inside.
And this is the case in this story of the rich man, which follows after Jesus’ statement about children. In Jesus’ time, the wealthy had a privileged position in society because their wealth made it easier for them to perform the religious duties they thought was pleasing to God. I’m sure this rich man woke up feeling pretty good about himself, believing that he was living a good life, following all the rules, living up to the commandments, trying to follow God. He probably thought he was on the “inside.” But by the end of this exchange with Jesus he’s suffering from existential shock, thrown into a personal conflict of immense proportions, the foundations of his life crumbling all around him, his understanding of the religious life, shattered – a life in ruins.
Let’s look at this man. He goes to Jesus seeking eternal life – that is, the life of God. He goes searching for a better way of living. We can at least give him credit for this. But his motives are not pure. Jesus says to him, “You know the commandments. . . .” Follow the Law. Then Jesus lists a few, just in case he forgot them: “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.” “Teacher, “I have kept all these since my youth.”
Did you catch it? I wonder if the rich man caught it? There’s something strange about this list. “You shall not defraud.” Which commandment is this? Jesus makes it up. Why did Mark include this commandment in the list? We know that Luke’s gospel and Matthew’s were written with a full knowledge of Mark’s account. Luke and Matthew must have been puzzled by Mark’s story (especially Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience), and so they omit this commandment in their account. Why did Mark include this, “You shall not defraud”?
Jesus knows this mans heart. He was not good. There is no doubt this man was very wealthy. But that’s not why he isn’t good. Jesus knows how he got his wealth. He defrauded the poor. Biblical scholar, Ched Myers, says point blank, “As far as Mark is concerned, the man’s wealth has been gained by ‘defrauding’ the poor – he was not ‘blameless’ at all – for which he must make restitution.” And so he has not lived by the spirit of the Law. Jesus knows full well who he is and what he has done and will not be taken by his empty flattery, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What does he know about identifying goodness?
Okay – now are you ready for some grace? “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.’” Jesus looked at him – pierced his being with his eyes and saw into his heart of hearts. And then Jesus loved him. Do you know that this is the only time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus is said to have “loved” someone?
It is out of Jesus’ infinite love for this terribly misguided man that Jesus says to him – go, sell, give. It is out of his infinite love for this man that Jesus shows him that he really lacks something very crucial. He might have lots of money and financial security. He might have all the treasures of this world, but he is really very poor when it comes to kingdom currency. In fact, he’s dirt poor with regards to the kingdom. That’s because his heart is empty. What he lacks within is a burning desire for the kingdom; what he lacks is a burning desire for God and God’s vision for the world! Eternal life cannot be one more thing for him to buy, to have, to grasp, to “own.” He got it all wrong.
You see, eternal life is the bonus we receive when we live life seeking the kingdom of God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we seek after what God wants with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, with every once of life within us, then we will find ourselves on the inside of the kingdom, we find ourselves in eternal life, in God’s life. That’s where I want to be. I don’t care out irrational, radical, counter-cultural, counter-intuitive all of this might sound. That’s where I want to be.
Some commentators and casual readers have taken this text to mean that the wealthy and rich can never enter the kingdom of God. Some have said that only the poor truly understand God and that’s why they are favored by God (and a case could be made for that in scripture). Others believe that what Jesus said to this rich man is what Jesus says to everyone – that we must sell what we own and give the money to the poor. And because all of us, I presume, haven’t done this (and probably won’t), there’s a part of us that leaves feeling sad and grieving. We start to feel guilty for our wealth and feeling terrible insecure as Christians, failures. These are false readings of the text.
Instead, we must remember, first, that Jesus’ injunction is given out of infinite love for this man – because he’s all messed up. What sounds like bad news is really the best news he ever heard. And note, there is no judgment here. There’s no condemnation. Jesus is trying to help him see the obstacles in his life that prevent him from entering the kingdom. He doesn’t see the mess he’s in. It’s not his wealth that obscures his vision; it’s his desire for wealth. His treasure is wealth – even at the expense of defrauding the poor. His desires are corrupt, as is the case with so many who desire after wealth. That’s why it’s so difficult for the rich to enter God’s life. But the life of God cannot be purchased. He goes away shocked and grieving, because his desire for wealth was greater than his desire for God. We will always go away from Jesus shocked and grieved when our desire for wealth is great than our desire for God.
We must know that wealth is not inherently bad. It depends upon how we gain it and how we use it. That’s what matters. In fact, when wealth is used for the sake of the kingdom, when we take our wealth and invest in God’s work a lot of good is done in the church and the world. Just think about what can be accomplished? Then we are using our wealth appropriately. This is why our relationship with money is always a spiritual matter. There’s no telling what God can accomplish through us when we take our wealth and invest it in kingdom goals. There’s no telling what can be accomplished when we desire to invest in the kingdom’s goals. Then we are putting our money to good use, with the best possible rate of return.
Let us set our minds on what we think God desires. What does God desire from you? What does God desire of your family? What does God desire of this church? Let us pursue that vision with all our hearts, minds, souls, strength and our dollars – and then see what happens. We just might find the greatest treasure of our hearts.
 Günther Bornkamn, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Franse McLuskey with James M. Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 64ff.
 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), pp. 271ff.
 : http://home.earthlink.net/~paulnue/index.html. Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary: Understanding the Bible Anew Through the Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard. Exegesis of Mark 10: 17-31.