We are never done with the stories of the Gospels. We don’t outgrow them. They’re not something to be mastered, completed: “Oh, I’ve heard that one.” “Oh, that one’s about this or that”.
When we reduce the stories of the Gospels to themes and morals, we strip the Gospel of its power. The stories of the Gospels are the stories by which we meet God, revealed in Christ. These stories show us the truth about humanity—they’re mirrors for our own souls, hearts, and minds.
We need to know these stories inside and out; detail by detail. We need to think about these characters as the real people they were because the stories of the Gospels are the blueprint for our own interactions with God.
So that is how I want to approach today’s Gospel reading. First, a little context. In the Gospel of Mark so far, a lot has happened: Mark opens his story, his account of the life of Christ, with these words: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus begins proclaiming the Good News of God with these words: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the Good News.”
From there, it’s non-stop action: Jesus calls disciples, teaches about the Kingdom of God, cast out demons, heals the sick. They travel and teach and heal and deliver and challenge corrupt religious authorities and Jesus continues to speak about himself as the Son of Man, a title from the prophet Daniel: The One to whom God has given everlasting Dominion and Glory and Kingship.
And Jesus keeps going: healing, forgiving sins, calling more disciples, scandalizing religious leaders, sharing his life and love with sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, people from other ethnicities and cultures, women! Everyone is welcomed into the forgiveness and life of Christ. People are raised from the dead. Wild sea storms are calmed with a word. 5K+ people and then 4k+ people are fed by a miracle, and not only fed but cared for.
That is the broad context of this story. These are the things people have been seeing and hearing and are talking about all over the country.
So now to the story at hand. Jesus is still traveling and teaching and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. He’s about to leave one town to head to another, and this Rich Man stops him.
This Man has the insight and humility to bring to Jesus one of the most serious questions of his life: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do to share in the life of the Kingdom of God? I want to live in the Kingdom of God—what do I need to do?
Jesus gives this man a chance to look in a mirror. He says, “You know the commandments…” And anyone hearing Jesus would know that he means the Ten Commandments and they would notice that he’s skipping a handful. The commandments included are all those having to do with relationships with others. The commandments left out are all those having to do with a relationship with God, and notably, one sin, coveting—the desire to possess.
Any person living in Israel would pick up on these omissions—Jesus skips the FIRST FOUR commandments. It’s like if I listed off local universities and skipped Susquehanna. And Bucknell. And Penn State. It’s just glaring—everyone here would notice. But it’s not a mistake, I think it’s a clue. The Rich Man certainly notices—because, again, everyone would—but he chooses not to engage with it. He just says, yes, I’ve kept them all.
Jesus looks at this man and loves him. He picks up his own clue and makes this man an incredible offer: What must you do to share in the life of the Kingdom of God? You lack one thing—one hole to fill. The relationship with God. Sell what you own—release all you have desired to possess—and give the money to the poor; you’ll receive treasure in heaven. And then come follow me.
Jesus isn’t asking for the moral perfection of this man before he can come to follow Jesus. No—Jesus looks at him and loves him right then when he’s kind of lying about his life, trying to pad his moral résumé. Jesus doesn’t lecture him or even say, “aha! But what about the other commandments?!” Jesus loves him and says, “You can have life in the Kingdom of God, but you have to be willing to empty out your filler—the things you’ve done to fill the lack on your own. Then come with me—I will make it possible. I will meet the need.”
We all have things we prefer to God. Things we’ve used to fill the lack in our souls. For this man, it was his possessions. I won’t speculate as to what anyone else’s things are. But we’ve got them. Mine is often controlled. But Jesus makes it so simple for him—not easy, but simple—so clear and concrete: this is your filler. Take it out and come with me so you can have the life of the Kingdom of God. It isn’t so the man can earn his spot with Jesus, it’s so he can have room in his life for Jesus.
We know what Jesus is inviting this man in to and so does every other reader of the Gospel of Mark—so does this man because word about Jesus has spread and spread and spread: Jesus is offering the chance to be with the living God! To participate in miracles, to see the power of God every day; the chance to have Jesus explain to you exactly what he means when he speaks in parables or challenges the Pharisees and Scribes. The chance to have a friendship with Jesus, quiet moments resting along the way. But it comes at a cost, or at least it feels costly to us: it isn’t good enough to be a good person. If there isn’t a relationship with God, then you lack one thing.
Jesus makes this man offer beyond value. But the story takes a tragic turn: When this man hears Jesus’ invitation, he makes the wrong calculation. Scripture says “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.” Weighing life in the Kingdom of God, a treasure in heaven, and being in a truly close relationship with Jesus against keeping what he has, he chooses to keep what he has.
Truly tragic. One hasty miscalculation and fullness of life slips through his fingers.
What’s interesting, is that Jesus’ apostles and disciples are ALSO shocked by what they hear. They’ve been with Jesus for quite a while now, but this is an uncomfortable interaction for them to witness and the implications of what Jesus says is difficult to digest—they’re perplexed and astounded the text says. But they have a different response. When the rich man is shocked, he just leaves, upset. When Peter and the others are shocked, they ask questions: ”Then who can be saved?!” They stay engaged with Jesus—that’s a big difference that makes all the difference.
Peter blurts out, perhaps looking for some reassurance or affirmation, “We have left everything to follow you!”
And again, just like with the Rich Man, Jesus responds with something odd: “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—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Another thing to wrestle with, contemplate, to try to parse out and piece together. Something like Following Jesus will involve loss and it will be worth it. But also not as simple as that.
Most of what Jesus says takes some work to understand. Jesus speaks in such a way that each interaction is a door to keep the interaction going. Something that gives you the chance to step a little closer and say, “What? How can that be? I don’t think I understand.”
I think that’s the challenge of this passage and the piece I want to leave you with. I don’t think the end-all-be-all of the story is the hazards of wealth. I think the thing to pay attention to and contemplate is the juxtaposition of Jesus’ invitations and our possible responses. The Rich Man is shocked by Jesus and walks away, grieving. Peter and the others are shocked by Jesus and stay, questioning.
We each have filler to clear out—that’s a life-long task to undertake with Jesus. We each have challenges that confound us; invitations that ask a great deal of us. If we’re looking closely at God, there are things about God that confuse and unsettle us. No one is saying that life in the Kingdom of God is a cakewalk. But it is knowing and being known by God. It’s living with the freedom and security of knowing that Jesus looks at us and loves us. It’s learning we can trust Him. The life of the Kingdom of God that Jesus was offering then is what He’s offering now. It’s worth letting go of what we have to have Jesus. When we encounter the challenges and questions of that, I hope we’ll respond as Peter does. And may God bless us in it.