“A Hard Saying”

~ Mark 10:17-31/Amos 5:6-15 ~

Joe has prepared months for this moment. Vigorous workouts, extreme fasting – he is as svelte and trim as you can imagine. Now he’s all oiled up and ready to go. He takes a running start and leaps…. But, alas, it’s just not to be. There is just no way Joe the Camel can get through the eye of that needle. It is impossible. Yes, it’s that time again to consider the impossible – the camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle.

Back in my inner-city ministry days in the 80’s I subscribed to a magazine called The Other Sidedevoted to radical urban ministry. The editor, John Alexander, who so happened to live in a commune here in San Francisco with some of my inner-city ministry friends, would quite frequently write editorials about the dangers of wealth and God’s preferential regard for the poor. One such article was entitled: “The wicked rich, the righteous poor” in which he surveyed all the texts in the Bible about the rich and poor, like the text from Amos that Irene read. His conclusion was that the Bible, and Jesus in particular, always had really hard and negative things to say about being rich. Jesus’ hard sayings about wealth make us uncomfortable; they make us squirm.

This text from Mark’s gospel is one of the most well known and most difficult of all of Jesus’ sayings. “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” Jesus tells the man. “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,” he tells the disciples. No matter our status in life these are very uncomfortable words; they are hard words. Even if we consider ourselves not very wealthy, we know that compared to the rest of the world we are indeed very rich. Therefore, in some form or other, these hard words just might be aimed at us as well.

This story of the rich man centers on the question of eternal life. The rich man wants to know how to get it. The disciples want to know who can have it. And the good news that Jesus offers is this: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Actually, this is a healing story. As have many other Jesus-pursuers throughout the Gospel of Mark, the rich man runs up to Jesus and kneels. His running and kneeling shows that his request is both urgent and sincere. But, alas, he is the one person in the entire Gospel who rejects what Jesus offers him.

Mark says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is the only place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is described as loving someone. How poignant. Jesus really does want to heal this man but he also knows the stakes are high. So Jesus gives him the prescription: “You lack one thing; go (the word “go” is almost exclusively used in healing stories), sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

What is the healing that this man needs? What does he lack? What he lacks is that he does not lack. This man is possessed – not by demons but by his possessions. Jesus offers to free him of his possession, to cure him of his excess. But the rich man turns his back. He goes away quite sad because, as it says, “he had many possessions.” The George Watts painting, on your bulletin cover, says it all.

Why did Jesus make it so hard on him? Couldn’t he give the guy a break? Why not just half his possessions, like Zacchaeus had done? But Jesus says “all.” That is, indeed, hard. But as we look into the nature of this man’s wealth we can get an insight as to why it was so hard.

You see, the rich man was secure in his status of life. And it was because of his secure status that led him to ask the wrong question of Jesus: “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response was that there was nothing he or anyone else could do. So Jesus tells him to release his wealth and give it to the poor – perhaps to grow closer to the fragility of life, to take his own place among the poor.

The key to understanding Jesus’ prescription is in what he says prior, where Jesus calls into question the legitimacy of the rich man’s wealth. Whereas many might say that the rich man’s wealth was evidence of God’s blessing, Jesus thinks just the opposite.  Whereas the man asserts he is blameless in keeping the law, Jesus says, “I don’t think so.”

“You know the commandments,” he says. And then Jesus recites the second half of the Ten Commandments. But wait! He doesn’t list five commandments; he lists six. There’s an extra commandment thrown in and it certainly is not in the original ten. What is this extra, thrown-in commandment? “You shall not defraud.” Jesus, seemingly, makes up a commandment on the spot, including it with all the rest. What’s going on here? Ah, here is that little detail that changes everything. By including this commandment in the list Jesus is accusing the rich man of that very thing. Jesus is saying that by the mere existence of his wealth the rich man has committed fraud. He is not blameless. And here is why.

In ancient Palestine, most everyone believed that there was only so much to go around. Everything was in limited supply and was already distributed. Land is an example. There was only so much land, a finite amount. Land had to be divided and subdivided but never increased. So also were the goods of life. The pie could never grow larger. Hence, if someone garnered a larger piece that necessarily meant a smaller piece for someone else. An honorable man would only be interested in what was rightfully his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The common ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person. Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. An “honest rich man” was a first-century oxymoron. Being rich was synonymous with being greedy.

But this rich man is oblivious to all this. He is, if you will, full of himself. He believes he is blameless. But according to Jesus he is not “blameless” at all. As far as Jesus is concerned the man’s wealth has been gained by “defrauding” the poor. And Jesus calls him on it. Probably because the man’s identity was so entirely wrapped up in his possessions, the land he had probably inherited from his family, he could not imagine giving them up. The demand to sell his possessions was a demand to part with what was the dearest of all possible possessions, his family home and land. In the end he just could not do that and so he goes away grieving – grieving at the loss of eternal life. Too bad because Jesus really did love him.

Jesus turns to his disciples to drive the point home even further. How hard it is for a rich man to get into the kingdom. The disciples are perplexed. It really is hard, Jesus says. And then comes that famous saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for some who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples are astounded. There is no soft-pedaling Jesus’ words and they know it. There is no other way around this metaphor; no spinning this. Jesus says it is impossible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom. The disciples turn to each other, dismayed. If that’s the case who can be saved? I will get to Jesus’ answer presently but first this consideration.

Peter raises a legitimate question: What about us, Jesus? We’ve left everything and followed you. Without affirming or denying Peter’s claim, Jesus does offer a solemn “Amen.” But he goes on. It was extremely difficult for any person to leave their family of origin to join Jesus’ family. Much more difficult than we can probably imagine because family was so much an integral part of a person’s personal identity. So leaving house and fields, brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children was incredibly difficult. But Jesus says for those who do leave for his sake and the sake of the kingdom of God there is incredible reward in this present time and in the time to come. The life together in the family of Jesus, if you will, was a far greater reward then the rich man with all his vast lands could imagine. Class-consciousness and class-exploitation, characteristics endemic to being rich, have no place in this family. The assumed pride of wealth and pride of performance and privilege that characterize the rich, Mark asserts in his story, runs counter to the work of grace that characterizes the family of Jesus.

Now, you might be saying: “What about us?” Well, consider this: The social and economic realities of our time and place are not the same as in Jesus’ time. The phenomenon of the middle class was completely unknown to 1st century Palestine. There was only rich and poor. I believe Jesus did intend for his disciples to understand his words in the absolute sense they portray. They were intended to address the specific cultural and economic situation they were in. Hence, different economic systems means that Jesus proscription doesn’t necessarily apply literally to all situations for all time. However I believe we should always question those assumptions and address the economic inequities of our day. And as we observe Indigenous Peoples Day tomorrow and seriously confront the systemic racism of our American culture we are reminded that we aren’t ‘blameless’ either.

We should always be careful to look at how our possessions affect us spiritually and relationally. Possessions can impinge on relationships. If I approach you and you know that I am penniless, it will affect the way you deal with me. I might seem like a threat to you. My presence might call into question the justice of you having possessions when I don’t. What will you do about that? Will you justify the disparity in some way, or will you share what you have with me?

If I approach you and you know that I have more than you, you might feel challenged. You might be intimidated by the inherent power of my possessions. I may very well use that power to intimidate you. How does that affect the witness of God’s justice in this world?

What’s more, possessions can impinge on our relationship with God. When we have them, we presume God likes us. When we don’t, we presume God doesn’t like us. When we have them, we presume we don’t need God. When we don’t, we complain to God. Our possessions can both confirm and deny our dependence on God.

These are difficult considerations. And they all go back to the question originally asked by the rich man. What must we do to inherit eternal life? In one sense we must let go of all that we have and all that we do that gets in the way of seeing there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. But remember, Jesus has already told us that for us mortals it is impossible. Letting go of it all is beyond our capacity. And so the hardest news Jesus has is the best news we could get – our salvation is impossible except for God: “But not for God; for God all things are possible.” Now that’s a hard saying full of grace. Amen.

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