Nightmares of the Rich

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mark 10: 17-31

Stacey Elizabeth Simpson remembers the night she first read Mark’s account of Jesus and the rich man. She was seven, tucked comfortably into bed, quietly reading her Bible when she heard Jesus thunder: “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.” She slammed the bible shut and ran down the hallway to her sleeping mother’s bedside. “Mom!” she called, “Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!”

“We’re not rich,” said her mother, “Go back to bed.”

“But I knew better,” said the grown-up Stacey. “I knew I had all I needed plus plenty more…the little girl inside me knew that these words of Jesus were clear, and hard, and scary.”

Jesus was on the move, Mark tells us, when an unnamed man came to Jesus, knelt down and asked: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The disciples took notice of the man’s cultured bearing, the cut of his clothing, the nice sandals, his clear speech. He had manners too. “Good Teacher!” was a very rare greeting, thrown out to flatter Jesus, and perhaps to elicit a response. This young man with the polished shoes and fifty-dollar haircut was fishing for a compliment. Jesus returned no word of greeting at all.

There was tension in the air when Jesus responded “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” He continued, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother.’” You’ve been to Sunday School. Follow the ten commandments.

But wait, there’s something funny about Jesus’ list of commandments. “Don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t defraud”…don’t defraud? That’s not one of the ten commandments. Jesus substituted “do not defraud” (do not cheat someone for economic gain) for “do not covet.” I wonder if Jesus knew something about this guy that we don’t know?

Jesus’ words rolled off the man’s silk shirt like water off a duck’s back. “Teacher,” he said, “I’ve observed all these from my youth.” God’s commandments? Check. Even the one you misquoted. In Jewish wisdom tradition, it was said that only three men in history had kept the law in its entirety: Abraham, Moses, and Aaron. Standing before Jesus was a guy who thought he just might be the fourth.

For some reason, Jesus didn’t take him down a few notches. Instead, Mark tells us that Jesus looked at the man and “loved him.” This is the only instance that Mark describes Jesus “loving” someone. Jesus knew him… and he loved him. Did Jesus imagine the life they could have together? Did he picture the man taking his place beside his other disciples? Or did he simply love because God is love?

Jesus said to the man, “One thing you lack; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The man wanted to follow Jesus. Jesus loved him and stood ready to welcome him. But something stood in the way. Another love called out for his attention. The lure of possessions stopped him in his tracks. When the man heard Jesus’ words, he was struck, shocked, deflated… and in the end he sorrowfully walked away, “for he had great possessions.” This is the only account in Mark in which Jesus directly asked someone to follow him, only to have him walk away.

Do the words of Jesus frighten you, as they frightened young Stacey Elizabeth? They frighten me. I’m frightened by the story of this man who put so much trust in his salary, pension benefits, house, and toys that it became impossible for him to go with the Master. But I’ll tell you what frightens me more. The fact that there were some who did sacrifice all they had scares me to death.

Peter said, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you.” Zacchaeus gave away most of his loot out of sheer gladness that salvation had come to his house. The early followers of the Way claimed that nothing belonged to them, and sold what they had so that none would be in need. And what about the poor widow who put two thin coins into the temple offering box? Jesus praised her for putting in everything she had to live on. How could you be happy to see a widow living on a fixed income do something so reckless? Jesus must know something we don’t know—he must believe something we don’t believe. And that scares me.

In a Sunday School class we learned about Antony, one of the first desert hermits of the Church, who lived around 250-350CE. Antony was raised in Egypt with wealthy, believing parents. They died when Antony was just a teenager, leaving Antony and his sister all their possessions. Athanasius tells the story:

Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Savior; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If thou wouldst be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and come follow Me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.”

Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers–they were three hundred acres, productive and very fair –that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister’s sake.

The next time Antony entered the church assembly he heard the Lord say, “Don’t be anxious about tomorrow.” Antony could not even sit through the service, but went out and gave his last reserve to the poor.

The teacher who shared this story with us said, “Frankly, this story scares me to death.”

Someone in the class asked “Why? Why does it frighten you?”

“It frightens me,” she said, “because this man went to church and heard the very same verses that we heard this morning. He went and sold everything he had, and moved into a cave in the desert in order to seek the Lord. Today I heard the same verses and I’m going home after church for a nice bowl of soup and maybe a nap after lunch.”

Long ago, Jesus invited a young man to let it go, to lay down the things that claimed his soul. He could not do it, and sorrowfully walked away. He could not trade the wild, upside-down ride of being a disciple for the security his possessions offered. We read his story today and worry. How difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!

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